Art > The Art of Trinidad & Tobago

Introduction to the Art of Trinidad and Tobago

Written by Geoffrey MacLean

Pre-Colombian Art

The Erin Ritual Bottle with its red designs on a white background, painted negatively is an excellent example of Pre-Columbian art from Trinidad and Tobago. This bottle links the Erin settlement in South Oropouche, Trinidad, to the settlement of Los Barrancos of the Lower Orinico, Venezuela. (See Strabon-Caraibes, Trinidad and Tobago – Pre Columbian).

Erin Ritual Bottle | A.D. 350-650

Nineteenth Century

Richard (Hicks) Bridgens (b.1785 d. 1846) was a sculptor, designer and architect, he attempted to set up an architectural practice in Birmingham in 1819 which he closed in 1825 when he moved to Trinidad where his wife had inherited a sugar plantation.

In 1836 he printed West India Scenery, with Illustrations of Negro Character, the process of making sugar, etc. from sketches taken during a voyage to, and residence of seven years in, the Island of Trinidad. Bridgens’ work is an early record of life in Trinidad.

Bridgens became the Superintendent of Public Works in Port of Spain and was responsible for the design of the first Government Offices on the site now occupied by the Red House. He died in Trinidad in 1846.

Michel-Jean Cazabon (b.1813 d.1888) was the son of Martiniquan parents who settled in Trinidad in the late eighteenth century and were part of the Free Coloured/Free Black society of the Naparimas around San Fernando. Cazabon was educated first in England and then in Paris where he studied art.

According to family legend Cazabon was a student of Delaroche (b.1797 d.1856). More precisely we know that he was a student of Michel-Martin Drolling (b.1789 d.1851), Jean-Antoine-Theodore Gudin (b.1802 d.1880) and Antoine Leon Morel-Fatio (b.1810 d.1871). Gudin was a marine painter and it is likely that Cazabon learnt printing from Morel-Fatio.

A student in Paris from the late 1830’s to about 1850, Cazabon followed closely the philosophy of the French Landscape Movement.

Dry River, Belmont | M.J. Cazabon (c.1870)

On his return to Trinidad he transposed his European techniques and philosophy into unique views of Trinidad. Without Cazabon’s images, we would have little idea how Trinidad looked in the 18th century. In addition to his landscape watercolours he executed portraits of the plantocracy and the various facets of Trinidad’s social life. He published two sets of lithographs of Trinidad (Views of Trinidad, 1851 and Album of Trinidad, 1857), and contributed, with the photographer Hartmann, to two others, Album Martiniquaise in1860 and Views of Demerara, 1860.

The only “self-portrait” that we have of Cazabon is one of him with a hunting party led by Lord Harris, painting the view from Mount Tamana.

Detail of lithograph “View from Mount Tamana”. 1851 | Michel-Jean Cazabon

Cazabon’s students included James Lushington Wildeman, Secretary and cousin to Lord Harris (b.1810 d.1872), Governor of Trinidad from 1845 to 1854 and one of Cazabon’s greatest patrons, Margaret Mann (b.1827 d…..) – the wife of a military officer attached to Lord Harris and the German-Trinidadian Vincent Leon Wehekind. It is sometimes extremely difficult to tell their paintings from those of Cazabon’s. Letters from Margaret Mann refer to Cazabon, whom she thought arrogant and self-opinioned, as lending her “copies” of his paintings.

Naparima Hill from Corynth Estate 1852 | James Lushington Wildeman

Theodora Walter (b.1869 d.1959), daughter of a Trinidadian mother and grand-daughter of the English watercolourist, Theodore Walter (b.1832 d.1914), was a skilled botanical painter. She produced several studies of the Trinidadian landscape, of which Nudes at Macqueripe Bay is possibly the best known. Walter joined the Theosophical Society and developed a close friendship with Rudolph Steiner. Under the influence of the Theosophists, Walter developed a highly original style of painting which can be described as an early branch of Expressionism, produced in an attempt to depict their spiritual values.

Nudes on Macqueripe Bay (c.1900) | Theodora Walter

Early Twentieth Century

Anglophone West Indian nationalism which began to be politically vocal with the labour riots of the 1930’s, was matched by similar activities in the arts. The growing movement away from a European philosophy was formalised with the emergence in 1929 of a group called The Society of Trinidad Independents. The Independents gathered in private homes, painted and discussed the arts and developed their ideas.

Amy Leong Pang (b.1908 d.1989) was one of the founding members and under her guidance, the artists grouped themselves into an informal alliance which can be said to have become the first School of Trinidadian painting. Included in this group was Hugh Stollmeyer (b.1813 d.1981), to whom Leong Pang was particularly close.

The Independents also published their own paper, The Beacon, intended for the enlightenment of the conservative attitudes born of strong religious and colonial heritage. Their ideas were considered outrageous and immoral – their exhibitions of nudes were considered to be highly improper – and the group survived only until 1938. But the influences of this small but courageous group were far reaching. The individual nature of Trinidad and Tobago’s contemporary art is ascribed to these roots.

Mid Twentieth Century

In the 1940’s, it can be said that intellectual independence came of age and, as reflected in the arts, there was great freedom of expression. Art began to mirror Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural and ethnic diversity. In addition the new consciousness of a rich pre-Columbian heritage was added to an already cosmopolitan mix. The work of Boscoe Holder (b.1921 d.2007), Sybil Atteck (b.1911 d.1975) and M.P. Alladin (b.1919 d.1970) are rich in this respect, with their African, Chinese and Indian influences.

In the early 1940’s Holder visited Martinique. He was profoundly impressed by the sophisticated beauty of the black and creole women in their madras head-ties and their delicate lace-trimmed blouses and multi-coloured kerchiefs, traditional dress forms that no longer existed in Trinidad and Tobago. Until his death in 2007, Holder used the images of the black and creole Martiniquaise in his paintings.

Stick Fight (c.1945) | M.P. Alladin

Sybil Atteck started her artistic career in the early 1930’s, making scientific drawings and watercolour renderings of insect life and flora for the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture. In 1938 she attended the Regent Street Polytechnic in London, where she studied fine art for a year and later visited Italy. Returning to Trinidad she became active in the promotion of the arts, assisting in the formation of the Trinidad Art Society. In 1946 Atteck visited Peru where she studied Inca pottery and in 1948 studied under the German Expressionist painter, Max Beckmann, at St. Louis University, Missouri, in the United States. Atteck’s return to Trinidad and Tobago in the latter part of 1948 heralded a new movement in art.

In 1955, Atteck’s Still Life with Fruit was accepted for the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy in London.

Still Life with Fruit 1955 | Sybil Atteck

In the early years, the annual exhibitions were generally a source of controversy, the first exhibition in 1944 being described by one critic, Edgar Mittleholzer, as disappointingly dull; and by Albert Gomes, as an event in Colony’s history … One of the best presented to the Trinidad public during the period dating from the Society of Trinidad Independents .... This was the beginning of a dialogue that has lasted until the present time, as to whether art from Trinidad and Tobago should strictly reflect its culture or whether it should be universal in its expression. After the 1947 exhibition these differences were articulated by two opposing views. Mittleholzer wrote: I am never tired of reiterating that West Indians should remember that they are first of all citizens of the world, and only secondly West Indians. But, Alfred Mendes retaliated: I contend that the spirit and scene of our island can produce a style of expression that future critics and art lovers will recognize as typically West Indian. Mr. Mendes’s harsh criticism of Sybil Atteck’s work after her 1948 exhibition, for its non-Trinidadian influences, is said to be the reason that she afterward only showed her work in group exhibitions.

Paramin Hills (c.1945) | Nancy Richards

Membership to the Trinidad Art Society was up until the late 1950’s was considered to be exclusive, due in part to the support and patronage of those who represented the Colonial Administration. In 1960, however, after the Backyard Exhibition in Argyll Lane, in Lower Laventille, showing the work of Ken Morris, Leo Glasgow, Pat Chu Foon and the sculptors Samuel Raphael and Babba Holder, membership became more open. Supported by Sir Hugh Wooding and Drs. Ralph and Wilma Hoyte among others, members of this group were accepted into the Trinidad Art society and were able to establish acceptance for the intuitive artist.

Mask | Ken Morris | Mixed Materials

This later included the work of Leo Basso (b.1901 d.1982). Although self-taught, Basso was strongly influenced by his mentor, the neo-impressionist painter, Pierre Lelong, then living in Trinidad and who once described Basso as the only artist in Trinidad with a sense of colour.

Still Life with Fruit (c.1950) | Leo Basso

The contribution of Carlisle Chang (b.1921 d.2001) to art in Trinidad and Tobago began in 1954 after he completed studies in ceramics and painting in England and Italy. As a student his influences were mainly from the European abstract expressionist painters of the day, in particular his tutors Keith Ford and Hans Tisler and the artist and stage set designer, John Piper.

Feeding Chickens (c.1955) | Carlisle Chang

Chang’s style of painting introduced a finer finish than Atteck’s robust style. His clear colours and application of paint to canvas with almost invisible brush-strokes contrasted with Atteck’s bold and heavily textured finishes. Chang initially adopted the popular geometric style of the Atteck school, but later developed an independent, non-objective style, combining his European training, early East Indian influences and Chinese instincts.

Associated with the Trinidad Art Society was the Pointe-a-Pierre Arts and Crafts Society which flourished in the 1950’s with the energetic support of both Bro. Fergus Griffin (b.1916 d.19..) of Presentation College and the English teacher/artist Leslie Melton (b.1933). Members included Jesse Packer (b.1878 d.1968) and Gerald Daly (b.1909 d.1988), Knolly Greenidge (b.1937 d.1998). Bro. Fergus Griffin was also a member of the Art Society and a critic at their exhibitions.

Era Of Political Independence

Carlisle Chang’s Inherent Nobility of Man, designed for Trinidad’s new Piarco International Airport in 1962, his mural Conquerabia for the new Port of Spain City Hall and Cosmic Event for the facade for the new Textel building in Port of Spain, established him as Trinidad and Tobago’s leading national artist of the time. The later destruction of Inherent Nobility of Man to make way for the extension of the Airport buildings in 1977, coincided with the end of Chang’s painting career.

The Inherent Nobility of Man | 1962 | Carlisle Chang

Ou (Edwin) Hing Wan (b.1932 d.1976) was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair from the age of 19. Yet, with only the partial use of his right hand he was able to produce some of Trinidad and Tobago’s finest watercolours. Hing Wan, encouraged by Sybil Atteck and Noel Vaucrosson (b.1935 d.1996), first exhibited at the Trinidad Art Society’s exhibition of 1951. In 1975 he mounted his only one man exhibition at the National Museum and Art Gallery.

River Scene | 1975 | Edwin “Ou” Hing Wan | Watercolour

Membership to the Trinidad Art Society, up until the late 1950’s, had been considered to be exclusive, due in part to the support and patronage of those who represented the colonial administration. In 1960 however, after the Backyard Exhibition in Argyll Lane in Lower Laventille, showing the work of, among others, Pat Chu Foon.

The introduction of monumental sculpture into mainstream art in Trinidad and Tobago was the work of Pat Chu Foon. He executed several public sculptures, among them Gandhi in Kew Place (1969); Spirit of Hope (1971); Tribute to the Steelband Movement in Tamarind Square, Port of Spain (1972) and Mother and Child at the Mount Hope Hospital (1980).

The 1960’s continued to show the influences of Europe through the work of Isaiah James Boodhoo (b.1932 d.2004) and Ralph Baney (b.1929).

Although the Trinidad Art Society had conducted courses in sculpture in the 1950’s by Sybil Atteck and Carl Broodhagen of Barbados, the medium does not appear to have appealed to many artists. Joan St. Louis, Pat Chu Foon and later Ralph Baney, were perhaps the exceptions. Ralph Baney and his wife Vera exhibited their work in Trinidad on a regular basis between 1966 and 1971. Pursuing sculpture and ceramics, the Baneys pioneered the use of local materials for clay and glazes.

By 1968 Boodhoo felt that his art had become too predictable and he left for the United States where he was exposed to the contemporary art scene of America: the action painters and abstract expressionists, Willem De Kooning (b.1904 d.1997) and Richard Diebenkorn (b.1922 d.1993). This was the time of Richard Nixon’s campaign for the Presidency, of the disillusionment over the war in Vietnam and the student protests. Boodhoo brought the idea of social and political commentary with him when he returned to Trinidad and Tobago, later expressed in his commentaries on the Black Power Revolution of 1970.

 

Hosay | (c.1965) | James Isaiah Boodhoo

The late 1960’s witnessed a period of relative indifference in the arts. However, following the Black Power disturbances of 1970, a new beginning emerged, symbolized in the work of Boodhoo.

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