See it! Visual Culture in Action (2012)
Panel 1, June 18, 2012, 11:30 am-1:00 pm
Moderator: Wendy Pedersen (University of New Mexico)
Presenters: Pablo Delano (Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut); Jolie Rajah and Georgia Alexander (The University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago); Gabrielle M. Toth (Chicago State University)
Rapporteur: Ellen Jaramillo (Yale University)
Imaging Trinidad: Art, Activism, Archive / Pablo Delano (Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut)
Delano began in saying that he has spent a large amount of time in Trinidad over the last fifteen years. In 2008 he published “In Trinidad: Photographs by Pablo Delano”, a book of black and white photographs that tries to capture the essence of a uniquely intercultural society at work, worship and at play. He displayed photos from the book throughout his talk, wherein he explored some of the issues around being a practicing artist/documentarian.
Trinidad struck a chord with him from the time of his first visit in 1997. The drumming he heard during Carnival in Port-of-Spain was essentially the bomba drumming done by Afro-descendants in Delano’s native Puerto Rico. He thought: how is it that Puerto Rico has sent a delegation of bomba drummers to Trinidad and Tobago? Well, he said, they hadn’t; this was bomba drumming from where it originated, in Africa. He felt because of his Caribbean upbringing that he had an inherent understanding of Trinidad, but at the same time also felt as though he were in a foreign place because of the East Indian presence, which is not found in Puerto Rico or in other parts of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Delano stated that we’re all products of this colonization which began with Columbus, but has taken varying forms throughout the Caribbean. For example, he was very taken with the huge influx of sailors in Trinidad during World War II, and the incidence of "Sailor Mas" during Carnival. He calls Trinidad a country of tremendous visual contrasts that demonstrates a high level of “convivencia”, a word that he feels doesn’t translate well from Spanish: “It’s a kind of balance where people have found a way to live with each other. Convivencia allows for disputes and feuds but there is nevertheless a kind of coexistence. Coming from my background in Puerto Rico, where everything artistic is politicized, I was very taken with the way Trinidad has identified the arts as a way to build a post-colonial identity. All artists, especially documentary practitioners, have something of the archivist in them. When your subjects bring out family photos, what do you do with them?” Delano’s response was to photograph the photographs, and return the originals to the family, but he thinks that the idea of setting up a databank of photographs that people have kept in their families could prove to be an extraordinary resource, an incredible treasure trove of vernacular photography. He’d like to delve further into the relationship between archivist and arts practitioner, because one thing that is most obvious when one does this kind of work is that one inevitably documents things which will change, because the subjects die. In looking back over the last fifteen years of photographs that he’s taken in Trinidad, he thinks some may not be his best work from an artistic standpoint, but the photos memorialize people who have made huge contributions to this culture and to this island. He thought he’d use this opportunity to throw out these questions about what the relationships are between practicing artists who are compelled to document the images they see around them, and archives. Where will all these images end up? He doesn’t know what to do with all the photographs he’s taken, or with the old postcards he’s bought on E-bay, some of which are quite unique. Delano is still dealing with the archives of his parents, who were artists in Puerto Rico. He concluded with the hope that practicing artists and archivists find more common ground and ways to work together to make sure that these kinds of materials are not lost.
The Writing is on the Wall: Graffiti as Social Commentary in Trinidad and Tobago / Jolie Rajah and Georgia Alexander (University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago)
Rajah began by saying that as soon as they heard the theme for this conference, graffiti immediately came to mind. They recalled a lot of graffiti in the urban areas of Trinidad and Tobago, especially in Woodbrook and Port-of-Spain, and saw graffiti every day on the UWI, Saint Augustine campus. She noted a lack of academic research in this area and they thought that they could contribute to this body of knowledge. By way of introduction for those who don’t know much about graffiti, they provided a few definitions. One identifies graffiti as intrusive, emblematic and opportunistic, a form of popular protest, a people’s art. The second identifies graffiti as a form of communication that is both personal and free. It offers intriguing insights into people and the society to which they belong. Graffiti has a rich and ancient history, dating back to prehistoric man, and ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome [displayed slides up through 1960’s and 1970’s wall tagging]. The 1980’s marked the worldwide spread of graffiti. Hip Hop identified with the art form, and mass media played a role in spreading it from New York around the world, including Trinidad. There are two types of graffiti: the public and the private. The focus of their presentation was on public graffiti, and Rajah pointed out that in Trinidad and Tobago, graffiti is illegal.
Graffiti has a language of its own. "Tagger" is the person doing the graffiti. "Bomb" is the act of going out and doing graffiti. "Tag" is your name or nom-de-plume, written up on a wall (and may identify your work). A "throw-up" is a piece on a wall in which someone puts their tag or a few letters, in some colors or in an outline, to show that they were there, to take up space to grab attention. There is a lot of literature about graffiti, particularly in North America and Europe. Some of it focuses on whether graffiti is art, vandalism, or visual pollution. Rajah spoke of graffiti as communication, and of its role in the culture, saying: “We are all actively involved in the communication process, whether we are sender, receiver, the source, or the destination, or bring something to bear when we look at or construct a message. Graffiti represents a communicated opportunity, and reveals something about the society in which the artist lives.”
Alexander went on to profile some graffiti found in Trinidad, some of which no longer exists. They secured the
permission of someone who has photographed graffiti throughout Trinidad to display these works. Some of the tags (or names) of local graffiti artists give food for thought (Ghost, Craze, Louse, etc.) and she showed numerous examples of spray-painted and some of pasted and of stenciled graffiti. One that particularly impressed the audience was of the early construction of the National Academy of the Performing Arts where our host reception will take place. There had been controversy in the local media on the government’s decision to award the construction contract to a non-Trinbagonian company. The slide showed the security wall surrounding the construction site on which was stenciled the words: Made in China.
Alexander showed a video on the work of the artist Mamph, wondering what roles librarians could play in capturing and preserving these kinds of works. Little has been documented so far. One is the Urban Heartbeat project, encountering art in public spaces. One event took place in Queen’s Park, Trinidad. Another site that nicely displays Trinidad graffiti art, but in talking with the site owner, she mentioned that he is thinking of taking it down due to there being little traffic on the site. Another interesting site is Alice Yard, an artistic space in Woodbrook that is used for various types of artists to display their work. She noted that perhaps one way libraries can help to preserve this transient art is to adopt sites like these.
Rajah and Alexander created an on-going, open-ended questionnaire using Google.docs, which is a work-in-progress. They posted on social media, sent mass emails, nagged, harassed, and begged local artists to respond. (Because of the nature of graffiti and its illegality in Trinidad and Tobago, many prefer to remain anonymous). They learned that many refer to themselves with terms like bomber, paster, etc., based upon the media that they employ. They asked what materials they used, at what times of day (generally early hours) and where they prefer to do graffiti. Respondents said that their themes are mostly taken from their own creativity and from social, political and environmental issues. They noted that through their work as artists, because they consider themselves artists, or social activists in some cases, they hope to change people’s interpretation and understanding of graffiti. They also hope to provoke thought and to make art more accessible to the public, who in some cases would never visit an art museum or gallery, or to get the public to pay attention to certain social or political issues. This is their way of raising awareness. The majority of respondents thought that there should be designated legitimate spaces where graffiti art could be legally displayed, and that it should be captured for future appreciation, examination and study.
Art, the Americas, Abstracting and Archiving: Documents of 20th Century Latin American and Latino Art: A Digital Archive and Publications Project / Gabrielle M. Toth (Chicago State University)
Toth began by saying that she has the good fortune to serve as a research assistant for this project. She provides indexing and abstracting of documents pertaining to Latin American and Latino art, specifically governing the U.S. Midwest. As an example she showed a slide of a letter of thanks for a presentation on “Posada: Printmaker to the Mexican People,” an exhibition held at the Art Institute of Chicago in the spring of 1944. This was the first major showing of Posada’s work in the U.S. [José Guadalupe Posada, 1852-1913]. The project digitized a gorgeous catalog of the exhibition, and a corrido she found that was written in honor of this event, and which refers to Chicago’s gangster heritage: “Corrido of the Coming of Don José Guadalupe Posada to the Famous North American City of Chicago,” which includes a verse that reads: “In the book by these two professors it tells how Don Lupe hated crime. Had he come here in our 1920’s, he’d have had a magnificent time.”
The documents in this archive cover high art, low art, formal art, activist art, and everything in between, across the Americas. In January 2012, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, in collaboration with its research institute, the International Center for Arts of the Americas (ICAA), launched the book series “Documents of 20th Century Latin American and Latino Art."
The Museum of Fine Arts and the ICAA have devoted ten years and approximately $50,000,000 to the recovery and publication of primary source materials related to 20th century Latin American and Latino art. The launch in January is the first phase of the archive which will ultimately feature more than 10,000 primary source materials hunted down by hundreds of researchers in 16 cities throughout the Western Hemisphere. There are currently about 200,000 documents from Argentina, Mexico and the American Midwest. All of the documents should be available by 2015 and the website will continue to develop over time. It will continue in perpetuity, making it an indispensable archive of Latin American and Latino art. Along with the online archive, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Yale University Press will co-publish a series of thirteen books, called: Critical Documents of 20th Century Latin American and Latino Art. Some of the documents in this archive will be translated into English and organized by theme, so that the documents will be accessible to the non-Spanish speaking generalist (think: the undergraduate student at many of our institutions) as well as the higher-level researcher. The books and the archive will refer to each other, so that a researcher can see something in the book and then go to the archive to find the full document in its original language. Toth played a video in which the founder and director talks about the project. In the spirit of social justice, this archive in many instances brings to light artists or regions which were neglected in the past. In addition, the project seeks to remind everyone that Latin American and Latino art are not merely derivative or flow from European art but they bring great contributions and encapsulate some of these major art movements in and of themselves.
The project had a three-pronged approach. The first phase was a recovery process where various researchers looked for missing or unknown documents. Once the documents were found, assistants indexed and abstracted the articles or documents, which were turned into local units and were later sent to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The Museum sought permissions and had the documents digitized, and had the information put into the database. Toth demonstrated the database and pulled up an article she had worked on, by Victor Sorell, who taught at Chicago State University for over 40 years and has recently retired. It shows the citation information, and a brief synopsis of the article. Sorell is one of the editors of the book series and was overwhelmed by the amount of material he found. Toth became involved when Sorell heard her speak on Chicago’s Latino community (incidentally it was a paper she had given at a previous SALALM conference). He said who better to index and abstract these articles than a librarian familiar with Midwest Latino communities? She was grateful to be of assistance and was able to learn a lot about art. As a librarian, she expected there to be some kind of thesaurus or some guidelines as to how to handle these documents. There being none, she was given free reign to index every word that she thought important. Toth said that she didn’t know much about art, so she assumed that every word could be important. For example, our previous presenters talked about the materials artists used, both paint and spray paint. Toth said she would have agonized: are they the same, are they different, so she would have indexed them both. As a Chicagoan she would recognize local names, like Mayor Daley. Neither the first nor the second Mayor Daley was at all artistic, but they were mentioned and scholars at some point might find this kind of information useful, so she put that down. Another thing was that Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and of neighborhoods within neighborhoods, whose names may change over time. For example, she ran across mention of “La Villita” a neighborhood which is currently primarily a Mexican neighborhood. It was once known as “Little Village” and earlier as “South Lawndale.” Which name should be noted? She put them all down. She wanted to make sure that whoever wants to access this will be able to find the information.
Toth said it was interesting to see how the work that she did later appeared in the database. She showed examples of the forms she filled out about each document, which helped to populate the database. They show the numerous descriptors that she assigned, and a brief abstract (they were told to be brief). She then showed the resulting database entry where many of the descriptors had been stripped, and the abstract has been expanded by someone more knowledgeable about art, who had added a lot of specific commentary which helps put the artist’s work into a broader context. Again, a social justice aspect of this is recovering and publicizing the fact that there are Latino artists in Chicago, and in Gary, Indiana, and in other tiny little hamlets all over the Midwest. The project gave voice to a lot of artists, collectives and groups active in the Chicago area in the 1970’s. Toth ended by urging all to have a look at this database, pointing out that it’s very easy to search, and it’s all free.
T.K. Sangwand (University of Texas at Austin): I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the demographics of the graffiti artists and if you were able to distinguish any sort of stylistics in the social theme patterns among the different demographic groups.
Rajah: What I have noticed is that it’s generally thought that graffiti is a young person’s thing. Of the ten graffiti artists we’ve interviewed so far, out of the eighteen that we know exist, five of them were over 26. What we didn’t mention in the presentation is that there are crews, loosely-based groups, many of whom are all under 26. They tend to be taggers, the most basic style. As they hone their art, they deal with more themes. Mamph, for example, is in his forties.
T.K. Sangwand (University of Texas at Austin): What is the gender ratio?
Rajah: I had thought it was only men and was surprised to find that two of our respondents were women, and there is another we haven’t met yet, who we suspect is a woman. Georgia asked me to mention the artist “Rap 868.” “868” is the area code for all of Trinidad and Tobago. One of the artists we spoke with said that using this as a tag is neutral: it doesn’t identify, race, gender, color, class, etc.
Jeff Staiger (U. Oregon): You mentioned providing legitimate spaces for the graffiti; could you elaborate? My initial reaction was that transgression is of the essence and once you provide sanctioned spaces, you’ve neutralized it or contained it. How do the artists feel?
Alexander: They said that there’s definitely a need for space for young people to express themselves. One respondent said that you can provide space, but someone may push the envelope and cause trouble for everyone else. People may still seek to go outside of those spaces to get the thrill factor.
Toth: I have a question: In Chicago graffiti is a problem, but we also have murals. Some of what you’ve shown appears muralistic. Chicago spends a lot of money quickly painting over graffiti, because they see graffiti as the first step in horrific crime coming into a neighborhood. How is balance achieved between the artist and the state?
Alexander: Graffiti is a form of protest. To legitimize it allows the protest, but at the same time there’s that
adrenaline rush of doing something risky, the thrill of being caught, etc. There’ll always be that aspect because some of it is considered vandalism. Art is open to interpretation: who’s looking and what do you perceive it to be, so that is a message in itself.
Rajah: There isn’t a clear-cut answer; that’s a chance we take, but by putting up a space for it, it sends the message that we embrace graffiti as a form of art.
Barbara Robinson (University of Southern California): In Los Angeles we’ve had a large mural movement. Graffiti taggers have actually destroyed a lot of the murals, requiring them to be painted over because they were so defaced. The images you’ve shown seem to me to be more like murals, not at all what we’re used to seeing in L.A., which seems to be put up to merely show that they’ve been there. The beautiful murals that were there for 20 years are now gone.
Alexander: That’s happened in Trinidad, too. There’s the deviant aspect - the gang-related, focused more in certain more dangerous areas. But sometimes it’s a dialogue between artists. You don’t know the identity of who has left something and the only way you can comment is by writing on that piece.
Robinson: After they got rid of the murals that had been defaced, they created a hanging that shows the previous mural, but it’s not affixed to the wall. They’re attached temporarily so if someone destroys the hanging it can be removed.
Alexander: These people are obviously venting, so maybe there should be designated space for graffiti.
Delano: It’s not easy to draw a line between the so-called “good” graffiti and the so-called “bad” graffiti. Even the so-called “good” graffiti comes from a history of transgression. For example, in Hartford, Connecticut, there is an old art-deco building called the Beacon Lighting Company and this building was plagued by graffiti. Finally the management decided to reach out to the taggers and commission them to do a mural. They ended up with a beautiful mural, with the name of the company. Where you place that is kind of complicated. Another example is Barcelona, a city filled with spectacular graffiti that overall respects the stone. The graffiti is on the steel gates and stops at the ancient stone walls. It’s a delicate balance. Sometimes when taggers hit established graffiti, they don’t think that they are defacing it; they think they’re adding or becoming part of it.
Toth: In Chicago, the murals were threatened by urban renewal. This speaks to quality art versus non-quality. If part of the project is to have the community involved, it means that all sectors should be involved.
Rachel [Dean?] (NALIS, National Library and Information System Authority, T&T): Just a statement in regards to graffiti: one of the artists you mentioned, Clinton, is exhibiting and selling his graffiti.
Rajah: Some of the artists are becoming quite sought-after and have been asked to do things like sneakers, air-brushing them graffiti-style, etc.
Alexander: Graffiti is becoming quite commercial here and is showing a positive social message.