Caribbean Popular, Caribbean Contemporary: Current Artistic Practices of Trinidad and TobagoTuesday, February 18, 2020
Despite limited support for the arts from both the public and private spheres, artists from Trinidad and Tobago hold today a very privileged position for creating and showcasing their work. This holds especially true if we consider their rich cultural heritage, intellectual traditions, and, as remarked by art historians Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson, their links and itinerancy within and beyond circum-Caribbean and circum-Atlantic economies and networks. Major living Trinidadian artists such as Cristopher Cozier and Marlon Griffith, for instance, have exhibited in canonic international art shows and spaces, such as the Sharjah Biennial (2019) and the Tate Modern (2014), respectively. Thus, far from isolated, these artists are inheritors of an intricate palimpsest of cultures, which ultimately makes their work reflective of a long-standing, and ongoing, process of creolization that incorporates influences from Africa, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. Their connections to a globalized world start at home, in the cadence of their language and various accents; a convoluted pre- and post-independence history from British rule in the early 1960s; and a consciousness of their current position as makers whose work indicate narratives and processes alternative to, although in conversation with, the Euro-American artistic canon.
Particularly unique to this complex social configuration from Trinidad has been, as it is popularly known, the greatness of its carnival or masquerade (mas’) tradition, an annual celebration with an overarching presence and influence in the everyday life of Trinidadians—artists included. The career of Trinidadian mas’ designer prodigy Peter Minshall, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, is one of the most prominent examples of the features that characterize the carnivalesque, such as the exaltation of cultural hybridization and the temporary suspension of social hierarchies. However, many contemporary Trinidadian artists take the mutability and irreverence inherent to the carnivalesque, as well as its associated supernatural, folkloric, and spiritual elements, as a springboard, not an end goal, for their creative outlet. Instead of ascribing to essentializing tropes of a regional, national, or cultural cut—a far too common maladie of the art history and criticism of the region, which notably includes futile discussions on the insular or continental boundaries of a “Caribbean identity”—these creators connect with broader and more complex investigations into existential, political, or stylistic concerns in a vast array of mediums. By virtue of a 2019 summer residency with Alice Yard, an experimental arts space and community center in Port of Spain, and the hospitability of its directors Christopher Cozier, Nicholas Laughlin, and Sean Leonard, I was able to meet the multimedia artist A k u z u r u (b. 1966, Port of Spain), whose work I find exemplary of these dynamics.
With a career spanning over thirty years in fashion design, textile work, and performance art, it is surprising—or perhaps not at all—that the work of A k u z u r u has not garnered enough attention in the art historical accounts of the Caribbean region or, in more general terms, performance art. Deeply informed by a series of cultural references, her present-day “ak-tions,” or public interventions showcasing processional and ritualistic forms of a personal tint, signal a lifetime of constant relocations as well as cultural adaptations and negotiations. This can be traced back to her professional education and training with a BA in Fashion Design at the Intercontinental University in London, United Kingdom, where she lived from 1986 through 1991, as well as her MA in Textile Design at the Ahmadu Bello University, in Zaria, Nigeria, where she lived from 1992 through 1999. During this time, A k u z u r u’s interests developed to include a combination of intricate garments, sound pieces, fluxus-reminiscent poetry, large-scale installation art, and environmental interventions, inspired by the rise of Punk, iconoclastic, and African liberation figures, such as Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, and Fela Kuti, among others. Her involvement with the Notting Hill Carnival, the Brazilian Samba Fest in London, and the London International Festival of Theatre were also significant in shaping and tuning her skills in designing, costume-making, and performing, whilst reaffirming her own personal affinities with mas’ practices from Trinidad. Altogether, these influences imbued her work with a pressing need to explore performative actions that would attempt to go “beyond the body,” while blurring the lines between mediums. By stressing different possible configurations of the corporeal, A k u z u r u’s interests grew towards a quest for perfecting the human body or, in other words, the recognition of humans as divine figures, or superhumans, by means of concealment and hyperbole.
Two of A k u z u r u’s pieces from the last fifteen years illustrate the synthesis of this multifaceted process: “Earthology India” (2008), a series of environmental interventions funded by the Commonwealth Foundation in various locations in India, and “TranceMuTation SongMINE” (2018), a performative and ritualistic action presented for the “Echoes of Shamanism” show at Zone2Source’s Glazen Huis in Amsterdam’s Amstelpark. For the former, the artist traveled to different locations, particularly the areas surrounding Delhi and the district of Bangalore, to intervene indoor and outdoor spaces. In the piece “Act 1 –Delhi,” for instance, the artist hung on a tall silk-cotton tree two monumental white fabric sculptures made from volumes resembling mammaries .
Additionally, in “Act 3 –Big Banyan Trees,” A k u z u r u partnered up with two female sex workers to perform inside the iconic South Asian trees as they were covered with red and white fabrics and tied with thick ropes.
Of particular interest is the fact that in these open air interventions and collaborative pieces, their central theme dealt with the notions of healing and self-awareness as they relate to ideas of femininity, fertility, and womanhood. These references become more poignant if we consider them as embodied experiences linked to personal trauma or to their historical associations to the natural environment.
In “TranceMuTation SongMINE,” the artist sought to open a healing chamber of a personal and collective nature in an altar-like space surrounded by paper sculptures through a series of self-denominated “sound-drawings.” These intermedial actions spoke of a personal journey of spiritual awakening, and included tapping half-filled glass bottles with a knife; drawing on the ground with clay; interacting with a clay bust of the artist’s mother; and making howling sounds with her voice and sharp sounds with bamboo rods.
For A k u z u r u, these actions intended to cast a sacred space that would generate in her viewers, as they had done in herself, a sense of “self-surrendering and self-revelation,” or a state of complete individual awareness of being. The sartorial selection for this piece featured a garment with a large white headdress, which recalled and exaggerated Yoruba geles or head pieces, while referencing the Yoruba Orisha Ori, who is known as the representation of human intuition and destiny in this Western African religion. In addition to these elements and a series of ceremonial movements, the artist attempted to position herself as a shamanic intermediary, that is, a bridge between this reality and the worlds beyond. Under this role, A k u z u r u made a series of processional interventions in the greenery surrounding the exhibition venue, seeking to connect with the four primordial elements—air, earth, fire, and water—and interact with nature in a way that would “underline the fundamental matriarchal code of communication of the Universe”.
In doing so, “TranceMuTation SongMINE” is as personal as it is an open-ended offering to both the viewer and her belief in forces beyond human reach.
While themes related to afro-Caribbean spiritualities, the carnival, and even the lingering effects of slave trade could certainly be read in A k u z u r u’s work, it would be reductive to analyze her work solely through the lens of identity politics. In both series presented here, A k u z u r u makes a claim for an impending social change by tackling issues as diverse as environmental sustainability, personal inner growth, and collective healing practices. In that sense, her claims attempt to be universal and avoid being overdetermined by space and time, which, in practical terms, is translated in explorations between intermediality (i.e. sound, drawing, performance) and the interplay of different identities (i.e. woman, healer, Trinidadian). By virtue of her itinerant life story and multiple artistic interests, A k u z u r u’s shamanistic and creative work appeals simultaneously to the indeterminacy of meaning, and, because of its relational character, to an engagement with individual practices of self-examination and self-correction. This work, then, holds the potential to change our relationship to the natural environment and our conception of the sacred. Therefore, the fluidity of A k u z u r u’s proposal ultimately seeks to question binary and exclusionary ontologies (immanence versus transcendence, human world versus natural world, oneself versus the other), which persistently operate in both the personal and collective levels of human consciousness.
 “Circum-Caribbean” and “circum-Atlantic” are terms that reference the historical links between Caribbean constituencies with economic and cultural dynamics in the United States as well as with locales across the Atlantic, such as Europe and Western Africa. Their use is also informed by Joseph Roach’s seminal book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance from 1996. See Claire Tancons, “Farewell, Farewell: Carnival, Performance and Exhibition in the Circum-Atlantic Economy of the Flesh,” in En Mas’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean, eds. Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson (New York: NY, Independent Curators International (ICI); New Orleans, LA: Contemporary Arts Center, 2015), 16; Krista Thompson, “’Our Good Democracy’: The Social and Political Practice of Carnival and Junkanoo Aesthetics,” in En Mas’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean, eds. Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson (New York: NY, Independent Curators International (ICI); New Orleans, LA: Contemporary Arts Center, 2015), 31.
 For the case of Cozier see http://sharjahart.org/sharjah-art-foundation/people/cozier-christopher and for the case of Griffith see https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/bmw-tate-live-2014-performance-events/bmw-tate-live-hill-down-hall-indoor
 See the Caribbean Beat Magazine’s feature on Peter Minshall from 2006 for a carefully selected slideshow of his work as well as a series of articles discussing his historical relevance, creative process, influences, and persona. https://www.caribbean-beat.com/issue-79/masman-peter-minshall#axzz67oxwobTk
 Born Joan Harriett Weeks, A k u z u r u adopted her current name in 1991 as homage to the Igbo people of Nigeria. In the Igbo language or Ibo, aku zuru means “enough wealth and abundance to share around.”
 To my knowledge, A k u z u r u’s work is only briefly mentioned in compilation books, exhibition projects or commissioned pieces that, while useful for diffusion purposes and a reference framework, do not critically approach or historically locate her pieces.
 Interview with the artist, November 21st, 2019.
 “TranceMuTation SongMINE” was presented as the third movement of the artist’s “Trance/Trans/Tranz” series. The two previous movements included “Trance-Portal //\\The Ascent,” which was presented at the 2nd iteration of the Biennale d'Art Contemporain de la Martinique (BIAC) in 2007, and “Trance- Formation: Doucement......de L'Eau Por L'ORI,” which was presented at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) in 2014. See https://www.pamm.org/calendar/2014/03/performance-akuzuru-ak-t-2-knowing#.V1GNw4l7_9w.facebook and http://zone2source.net/en/5591-2/. “Echoes of Shamanism” was curated by the collective Performance Art Event (P A E), which is composed by Nina Boas, Kamila Wolszczak, and ieke Trinks). The show included performance artists such as Irina Birger, Jasper Griepink, Kleoni Manoussakis, and Dimple B Shah. For a short clip showing excerpts from the performances see https://vimeo.com/291090449/4b8f2d6793
 Interview with the artist, November 21st, 2019.