Why do people paint their neck with powder, and what is the origin of that ritual, are questions that provoked the curiosity of artist Marlon Griffith for many years. His curiosity was deepened by derogatory comments like, ‘Yuh look like fish about to fry,’ that are commonly slung at people sporting a powdered neck. “How does this simple thing get people riled up?” wonders Griffith. “When I asked people why do they wear powder, most say they grew up doing it to keep cool. And how do they feel when people make comments, a lot don’t care, some feel really hurt.”
In 2009, Griffith, an illustrator from Belmont who lives in Nagoya, Japan, constructed a photographic project around powdered necks, titled The Powder Box Schoolgirl Series. He cast girls in school uniforms and incorporated iconic logos into his narrative on branding Black bodies. “Coming from a Carnival background I thought it would be interesting to use it as a kind of intervention to comment on things that are happening around us, and to empower the person that is wearing the powder.”
“It was key to pick specific schools where the powder neck girls are. I attended Tranquility [Government Secondary],” says Griffith, 35, “which is one of those schools. Around the corner was St. Joseph’s Convent, you wouldn’t find a girl in St. Joseph’s with powder around their neck. It comes from your background, class, the kind of people you interact
with. Most people, when they see it, get disgusted by it. For me, doing that part with the schoolgirls brought up a bigger dialogue with the branding. Branding plays a very big part of urban culture here. Everybody wants to look like the rapper on TV. Having the student wear [a logo] image says a lot about where a young [person’s] head is at, and the kind of interactions they have with people. It says a lot about the education system and how students and educators perceive each other, and the kind of relationships they have.”
Griffith’s Powder Box project first received attention for an exhibit at Real Art Ways. “Right after that [curators] started picking up this image, it was everywhere, except in Trinidad,” notes Griffith. “It was being published and written about, I won a Guggenheim, still, nothing here.”
Last July, Griffith’s images finally surfaced in Trinidad, on a radio station’s Facebook page. They were posted without credit and out of context with the caption: “Nex level Powderneck … would you wear it?” The most vile comment Griffith noticed on that thread read: ‘These young women look like prostitutes, only prostitutes wear powder around their neck like that.’ Griffith is intrigued by “how we look at one another in this space; there is a lot of work to be done.” He hopes his series helps the process of elevating awareness of how we interact.
In the three years since Griffith migrated, he was awarded a two-year John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and a Commonwealth Connections arts residency. He has taken a wife, Akiko, has a son, Sora (10-monhts old), learned to write and speak Japanese, mounted installations in Japan, and adjusted to a diet of fish, brown rice, vegetables and tofu. “Regular exercise, no KFC, no heavy starches. There is KFC there, but it’s not that
popular. KFC is big at Christmastime in Japan.” “I am very happy. I’m not a starving artist in Japan.”
In the travel narrative The Middle Passage by V.S. Naipaul, the author is on board the Spanish immigrant ship Francisco Bobadilla bound for Trinidad. Griffith returns to Belmont to expand his Powder Series with the installation project The Ballad of Francisco Bobadilla, which references Naipaul’s narrative on relationships in uncomfortable space. The installation is mounted from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, 2012 at the Granderson Lab in Belmont.
“I am using galvanize to keep a connection to all that galvanize you see when you look out the windows. In the installation you have different point of views,” explains Griffith, “in the middle of the installation there’s a projection. I wanted to simulate the idea of walking down a street or a lane. Belmont has many tight lanes. There’s a voyeuristic quality moving around these spaces. Depending on where you live, if you open your window you might be looking into someone’s bedroom. Many streets run into somebody’s house or a dead end. Very much like the installation, you walk into a dead end.”
A projection of a girl applying powder takes viewers into personal space and provides a link to Griffith’s Powder Box Series. “I see it as a performance,” he adds. “With this [Bobadilla project] I decided to focus on the relationships of people within a particular community … navigating trying to be comfortable in an uncomfortable environment.”
“Since I’ve been back I’ve found the environment to be much more uncomfortable. There are more police patrols in Belmont. Yesterday a woman’s throat was slit around the corner. A lot of personal spaces that I am familiar with no longer exist. The dynamics of Port-of-Spain have changed, so have the people in response to those changes.”
The Bobadilla project is a collaboration with Alice Yard. Griffith didn’t appoint a wordy artist statement to the work because, “Not everybody is going to be convinced by what you say. People have to experience before they can make their own assessment. I may have my ideas about it, what’s interesting about artwork in general is, art is something that evolves over time. As the artist you have an idea of what this thing is and what it should do, but then people make it more than what you thought it was or could be.”
© SEAN DRAKES
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