Artist Peter Sheppard earns honor for magical,
imaginative compositions of Trinidad’s splendor
The Northern Range is sumptuous and nurturing as she cradles the western corner of the capital city. The rainy season shaped the Range into a palette of greens that is dusted with gold leaf by the afternoon sun. This isn’t a description of an imagined composition painted by Peter Sheppard—who’s known for condensing majestic scenes into miniature art—this is the view from his cozy patio perched on Fort George in Trinidad.
The eldest of three, Sheppard was born to be a painter. His parents, Stephen and Margaret, painted and encouraged their children to paint. “I remember Christmas and birthday gifts were usually three small canvases and a pack of paints.” He would cut the 5”x7” gift canvasses in half. Sheppard often toured Trinidad’s mountainous and coastal terrains. “My dad used to drive me around on the weekends, not just to Maracas, but long drives across Trinidad,” recounts Sheppard. The natural splendor of Trinidad he encounters is weaved into enchanting eco scenes that exist only in his mind. “The quaintness of this land appeals to me.”
In Form 4 he studied technical drawing. “I was doing building drawing rather than mechanical drawing; I was attracted to perspective, and box houses were one thing I used in my perspective practice.” Those simple houses helped him develop a comprehension of perspective and sense of depth, and they became as commonplace as rivers and bamboo in a Sheppard miniature. His paintings of box houses dressed in bright hues appealed to tourists. Seventeen-years-old at the time, Sheppard found a niche. Soon his 3”x4” paintings were fetching $35 at the Art Buyer’s Fair with the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago.
In the Caribbean market, the value of fine art is influenced by exhibition sales, gallery curator’s appraisal, demand from collectors, and illustrious affiliations. Sheppard, 46, is yet to mount a solo exhibit beyond Trinidad’s shores, but last May he attained an honor that is a game changer. The Hilliard Society of Miniaturists in Wells, Somerset, is a 31-year-old fraternity of artists who paint miniatures; the society was founded by Sue Burton. Though Sheppard has been painting for 30 years, he says, “I discovered in the last 5 years, that miniatures are my signature.”
On his first attempt to get into Hilliard’s juried show, Sheppard’s work was rejected because the surface of his paintings was a distraction. “I paint on canvas paper and the pores of the canvas were a distraction for them,” explains Sheppard, “remember, they scrutinize miniatures under a magnifying glass.” The second year he submitted a monochromatic quartet from his “Blue” show—all four sold. “That was something that stood out,” says Sheppard. “It’s West Indian-themed but the way it was presented was contemporary—the work used cobalt blue paint.” In 2013 his submission was mounted on masonite board, a surface as smooth as a kitchen countertop. He lathered them in gold then applied his landscapes. As Sheppard describes: “I was painting with a smile on my face. I enjoyed painting the details with the gold luster underneath it, it’s really rich [work]. I sent them to London with such good energy.” Then he got a phone call with an unofficial announcement, that he is being awarded the Sue Burton Memorial Award for Best in Show. Jackpot! Sheppard’s third try, beat 80 competitors and earned him £1000 and coveted recognition.
What’s next? Possibly a show at the TT High Commission in London, and a collaboration that pairs his passion for food and lush landscapes with his fine art. “I love the miniatures, because it’s how I interpret nature, everything is delicate and precise and neat. When I get into a painting I go into a trance, it puts me at peace. The handling of the painting is very delicate, time consuming and very controlled. All the things I’m telling you are the complete opposite of my personality type.”
Isaiah Boodhoo and Carlisle Chang are artists Sheppard admires, but he credits the late Wayne Berkeley, who designed theatrical sets and costumes, with inspiring his technique. “You look at my paintings and there’s a backdrop, then wings coming in on the left and right,” describes Sheppard. “It’s always like I make paintings into a 3D stage set. I paint the background first and I start bringing the work forward.”
His largest work measured 2 meters x 5 meters and took six weeks to complete. “I just felt like pushing the edges of the canvas out. [Sometimes] I feel I want to express [nature] bigger. Everything is still meticulously placed in those big paintings, and I am still using a 000 brush.” It’s a painstaking process. Sheppard chuckles as he repeats a comment often heard: “Dat is mad people work.” But to his collectors, Peter Sheppard is madly in love with creating miniatures that reflect his fascination with “all things to do with the Northern Range.”
© SEAN DRAKES
[ 404.654.0859 | SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]
Gerard Gaskin explains how ethics, rejection and transsexuals,
influenced his 20-year photo essay about intuitive performance artists
Three months before Gerard Gaskin’s first photography book rolls off the press, we linked up via Skype to touch base amidst the flurry of activity around his monumental moment. He was in Syracuse, New York, his new home. I was at a juice bar in North Miami. In the twenty years we’ve known each other, we’re more familiar with chatting long distance than in person. Before the book launches I wanted to tour his mental journal for insights to his process while developing his documentary project into the book, Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene (Duke University Press; U$45).
A book symbolizes the pinnacle of a photographer’s career. Gaskin, originally from Trinidad and a graduate of Hunter College in New York, has been devoted to honing his craft and shaping his legacy. He won a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, and his work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York. He began documenting the House Ballroom scene in 1993, it’s now a book because he won the 2012 Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize.
We’re both at that station in life where paying forward our knowledge is a priority. In that spirit, Gaskin, 45, shares insights from his experience creating this work to serve aspiring documentary photographers in and beyond the Caribbean.
First, here’s an indoctrination to the culture Gaskin embraced to record ‘Legendary’: The House Ballroom scene dates to the 1970s and was born in Harlem, New York. The vogue dance style branded by this subculture, started as the Pop Dip and Spin performed by gay inmates at Rikers Island. Today, House Balls are where gay black and Latino city kids, who are often high school educated intuitive artists, stage theatrical battles in the wee hours of the morning to earn street creds for having an incomparable avante garde aesthetic.
House Balls borrow the choreographed storytelling of Broadway to present the gratuitous exhibitionism of Miami Beach and the narcissism of Paris Couture Week, in order to elicit the spirited frenzy of Rio Carnival. House Balls start at midnight and require seven hours to allow contenders from various Houses in four categories: Butch Queens, Femme Queens, Butches and Women, to work the judges for the coveted ‘10’ scorecards. There aren’t any deep-pocket sponsors of the arts invested in validating the dramatic portrayals and dance battles that unfold on makeshift runways as performance art. Yet, House Balls have spread across the U.S. like kudzu and have over 30,000 followers. Gaskin has photographed Balls in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Here are his shoot notes, each packed with a useful take-away:
Follow as Inspiration Shifts: “I would hang out on 42nd Street (in NYC), near a peep show on 8th Avenue; it’s a place where the ‘girls’ of the Ball scene worked. The Ballroom project started with me wanting to do portraits of femme queens (transsexuals). At that point the hottest photographer in the US was Annie Leibowitz, she was doing amazing Amex ads and work for Vanity Fair. I wanted to do Vanity Fair portraits of femme queens—very stylized. It wasn’t supposed to be very documentary driven.”
Establish Mental Focus: “I always think that access was the thing every photographer tries to get.” (It took Gaskin six years to attain full access in this community.) “Going to the Balls, I try not to think about too much. When I started photographing the Balls all I did was shoot as much as I can. When I started laying out pictures, I started to figure out what I don’t have. That became a routine. What iconic image do I want to create. Then I would get one, but if I didn’t like it. I would go back and ask where do I need to be to make the image better. Those were things I thought about before I got to a Ball. I like to get to the Ball early, when the doors open I want to be there. Sometimes I just photograph trophies on the stage or [folks] getting ready. Being there for the duration was what I was there to do.”
Define Your Motivation: “The thing that drove me to the Ballroom scene is my exploration around sexuality. I have a cousin who was born on the same day, he lives in Toronto and he came out. He was shunned by my family. It’s interesting how my family dealt with sexuality. My family is a really religious catholic family. Homosexuality is a really strange thing. In turn, I wanted to deal with that idea. That was the beginning of me seeking out the project.”
Rejection Isn’t Defeat: “There are 30,000 ‘kids’ in this scene, one ‘kid’ saying no doesn’t cancel a project. I just turn my camera away, and walk away. I have photographs of people who allowed me to take their picture, but when the book was coming around and I was [seeking] permission to use their picture in the book—they flatly told me no! Balls are still a scene where people are afraid to be seen. Though many are much more comfortable with having their picture taken [than ten years ago].”
Identify Ethical Boundaries: “The idea of the photo essay has changed because of how scripted reality TV is, it’s more structured to tell a point. [Editors] are not interested in allowing people to do what they want to do. When clients call me, a magazine is not going to send you to shoot somebody for two weeks. They have structured ideas that they ultimately want from that person. [They might] say, we want them getting ready in the morning, so we literally stage that idea. Or they want them interacting with children, we stage that idea, too. If someone is putting on makeup and they’re done and ready to go, but I wanted that image, I ask them to re-do it. They don’t need to take off their makeup and put it back on. But I want them to act like they’re putting on makeup again. In the ’90s I wouldn’t do that.”
Learn Guerrilla Marketing: “When I started shopping this book I had a box of photographs, an artist statement, a book proposal answering certain questions: who’s going to buy the book, who’s my target audience. People would say, we’re interested but what does it look like. Around 2006, I made the dummy, [it] was 6” x 8” with 50 pages. Almost everything in the dummy is in the final book. You need to create a dummy digitally. Publishers want you to have an audience, they want pre-sale. You have to have a timeline and raise money yourself. It’s easier to do guerrilla marketing yourself than to have some marketing firm think they know your audience. I was about to launch a video [to post on] Kickstarter. They told me not to launch between Christmas and February because no one gives money then. I was waiting to launch my Kickstarter project, and Duke called and said I won.”
Photography courtesy Gerard Gaskin.
Powder and Personal Space
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
[ 404.654.0859 | email@example.com ]
Minshall Exhibits Early Works
Patience and persistence are paying off for art gallery owner Yasmin Hadeed. “Year after year, for about five years, I asked Ashraph, let’s do a show with Minshall,” recaps Hadeed. “This year, I spoke to Ashraph everyday for like a month—I’m obsessed.” Hadeed, 41, owner of Y Art Gallery, and Richard Ashraph Ramsaran, 46, artist and owner of The Frame Shop, finally got the timing right. When Ashraph approached Peter MInshall around the Independence holiday with a proposal for a show, Minshall was receptive.
But when they finally got the greenlight, they would have only three weeks to explore the treasure trove at the Callaloo Company warehouse, survey works in Minshall’s studio, research, edit, sequence the show and produce a catalog. “It was never about doing a Carnival show,” affirms Hadeed, “it was just about doing a show by him.” The show they’ve choreographed offers viewers an abridged chronological journey of the artist’s career, but bypasses his impressive imprint on the Olympic Games.
“There are about 45 pieces for this show,” estimates Hadeed. “I have always been interested in seeing the works of Minshall, and have more or less always kept abreast of what he has done. It was not necessary for me to preview the work to determine which to choose, since, in my opinion, they are all breathtaking. However, due to the time frame and scale of what we wanted to achieve we decided on this amount.” Hadeed anticipates “an overwhelming response to this show.” “This is a pivotal moment for an art collector, gallery owner or someone who appreciates the arts generally. We are showing another side of Minshall. It is important for us to give our appreciation to him for his contribution to the art community as a whole, not just as a mas man.”
Minshall Miscellany loosely traces the career of a versatile artist who earned an Emmy Award for his designs. The exhibit is intimate and has an ebb and flow that befits a designer of drama and queens. The show includes paintings for commissioned works and the mas band Tantana. FIve decadent renditions of elegant and intricate designs for Jaycees Carnival Queen contestants open the show. They date from the 1970s, and are set beside illustrations of stage designs Minshall executed during his years in London, which preceded his involvement in the Jaycees pageant.
Like many artists, Minshall believes comprehension of design principles is transferable to other creative disciplines. “Because you didn’t really have any understanding of what art was,“ reflects Minshall, in the second person, on his youth, “everything was everything. Hollywood, Esther Williams, Ziegfeld Follies, The King and I, and art exhibitions were all one and the same. You had absolutely no sense of discrimination. So there was this Jaycees Carnival Queen, there were costumes for it and dresses, and you were hardly 16 or 17 and you had a bash. And you did it in the style of the time. And it was like designing the colours for jockeys who rode horses at races. The Jaycees Carnival Queen was like a horse race. It didn’t matter that most of the horses were fillies and white. The whole of the country bet on them as if it were a horse race. The evening gowns had to have a theatrical, dramatic edge. These weren’t gowns that young ladies would wear to a cocktail party. These were gowns on a very large stage, so they had to have evening gown fashion-theater about them.”
“I do feel anxious,” admits Hadeed, who has been a gallery owner for 20 years, and has exhibited most of Trinidad’s prominent visual artists. “It has been an amazing opportunity to showcase Minshall at my gallery.” “Angel Astronaut stands out to me, it represents a complete embodiment of what he is about.” The most challenging aspect of the edit process for Ashraph and Hadeed was reducing how many of Minshall’s ‘heads’ are included. That outlined profile of a bald man’s head set in a circle is synonymous with Peter Minshall. It seems he has produced hundreds of works, each unique, around that head which he found in a photograph on the cover of a 1966 Carnival supplement.
“Everybody thinks it is me. No it’s not me,” declares Minshall, 71. “I was so fascinated by this head. I don’t know who he is, but it connected with me in a visceral way. He became my ‘everyman’ and I call him The Coloured Man. My first exhibition of paintings, many years ago, ran by that title, The Coloured Man. He reappears in this exhibition. That is why the exhibition is called Minshall Miscellany. I have returned to him many times during my life and he has not in any way lost his potency. And it’s amazing that people absolutely think it’s me. It’s some person who I don’t know who is my ‘everyman’, and ‘everywoman’. The face so lends itself, chameleon-like, to become whoever or whatever. He becomes a macaw, he becomes Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, just give him the right accoutrements and he plays his mas perfectly.”
The work that ends the show’s sequence is a self-portrait. Minshall reserves the backstory to the piece. “People are going to go into the gallery and see the work, I don’t want to destroy the magic of the work,” explains Minshall. “The name of it is Face-off: The Artist Sober and The Artist Drunk. That says it, doesn’t it? I am there contemplating myself.”
“Please look at the exhibition and when you look at it understand how complex each and every one of us as human beings are, from the beauty queen to the two gentlemen sitting on bar stools contemplating one another—one sober, one drunk.” “I have to thank Ashraph and Yasmin for bending my arm,” adds Minshall. “My one contribution to the exhibition that makes me sit pretty and happy is the unpretentious title that I gave it, Minshall Miscellany.”
Exhibit runs Oct. 21 – Nov. 5, 2012 @ Y Art Gallery, 26 Taylor Street, Woodbrook.
© SEAN DRAKES
[ 404.654.0859 | firstname.lastname@example.org ]
Sculpted for Eternity
Nijel Binns Sculpted Creative Encounters with
Jackie Chan, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder
She’s the only cornrow-wearing Black woman in the world who stands 16-feet-tall and embodies aesthetic attributes of Asian, African, Native American and European people. She’s part mythical goddess, part urban princess whose presence in the south-central district of Watts was intended as a symbol to urge community healing after the infamous Los Angeles riots of 1992. Every enduring gesture of The Mother of Humanity™, as she’s called by her creator Nijel Binns, offers thoughtful symbolism: She holds “a feather of peace found not only in Native American culture but it was used by the Egyptian goddess Maat,” shared Binns, “her left breast is concealed while the other is exposed, not for pornographic nature […] in the Amazon women warriors used bow and arrows and amputated their left breast to make it easier to draw their bow—the breast is symbolic of the source of mineral resources for all humanity, and her form is modeled on the continent of Africa that is sublimely established in her shape.” This graceful two-ton monument, valued at U$200,000, would be followed by six reproductions to be placed in Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India and Spain if this portrait sculptor’s vision is ever realized.
For Binns, The Mother of Humanity™ is a testimony that the art of figurative sculpting isn’t confined to creating portrayals of living or deceased heroes. Binns, a native of Battersea, England, spent four years in Mandeville, Jamaica before migrating to Newark, New Jersey in 1963. “My first exposure to sculpting was at St Benedict’s Preparatory [in 1971], I fashioned a hand flashing a peace sign that I finished in antique gold.” Being highlighted for his talent in a Newark newspaper inspired Binns to explore his artistic ability. But his first professional sculpture wasn’t executed until 1990.
“I’m an anomaly in many ways: I’m self-taught as a sculptor and as a writer,” shared Binns, who tutored himself in ancient Egyptian history, Greek sculpture and the Renaissance period. “I did one semester at Montclair State College in New Jersey, I learned to draw lines and squiggly circles and felt that was not for me.” Binns traded college for four years in the U.S. Air Force, with the intent of entering the film industry. “I became a stuntman in Jackie Chan’s first American film The Big Brawl. Being a stuntman and fight coordinator was his priority until he decided to create a 3/4 life-size bust of Michael Jackson.
“It was clay with a ceramic gold finish,” he recalls, “I gave it as a gift to Joseph Jackson [Michael’s dad].” A photo of that statue and a thank you note from Joseph Jackson that read: “In acknowledgement of the gold statue of Michael that you sculpted for my family, I express sincerest appreciation. Your work is a pleasure to own. I find the statue is beautifully detailed and well crafted. It captures the likeness of Michael very well.” That note was in Binns’ folio during a chance meeting in 1990 with Stan Hilas of The Fitzgerald Hartley Company, who was searching for a sculptor to create a bronze figure of Michael Jackson.
That note and photograph, coupled with being prepared for the opportunity, secured the commission to create the Artist of the Decade Award that was presented to Michael Jackson by CBS/Epic executives Tommy Motolla and Dave Glew. That year, Binns was retained by Motown to create the Maasai Princess, a 18K gold-plated bronze statue valued at $75,000, that was presented to Stevie Wonder on the occasion of his 40th birthday. Among Binns’ other illustrious commissions is a bronze bust of John W. Mack, former president of the LA Urban League, and the first bronze monument of actress Shirley Temple for a daycare center that bears her name at Fox Studios in Century City, California.
From a piece of clay to a silicon mold to a wax form for a ceramic shell in which molten metal is poured, the process of crafting a bronze bust can consume four months and requires painstaking attention to details. Binns scours photographs of his subjects taken from all angles in search of the expression that “captures the soul of the person.” He passes on his ‘love of beauty’ through sculpting classes at his Los Angeles studio.
In spite of his impressive commissions, the creative life for Binns is peppered with struggle and angst. “I manufacture for eternity,” he said, “most people don’t see the value in that. I usually have to initiate projects for people to say, ‘Oh, yeah I need that.’ If there’s a Nate Holden Performing Arts Center there should be a statue of Nate Holden not just a name on a building.” One can say the same for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial site. Songwriter and music producer Joshua Thompson of Tallest Tree Music attests, “[Nijel’s] a living master who has trained with masters, he’s nearing his peak and is someone the world ought to notice. When you see how people react [with amazement] to the accuracy of his work that impact is what art is supposed to do.”
[ 404.654.0859 | SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]
Abroneka is aiming to become R&B royalty
Unknown girl group Abroneka wants to become a household name, but they won’t sing soca. They have been writing, rehearsing, and perfecting their harmonizing skills for over seven years, now, they’re being shopped to US record labels and are banking on becoming Trinidad’s first R&B export.
The kids-from-the tough-inner-city-with dreams-of-stardom storyline is a familiar script. The reason Abroneka’s first chapter is worth your attention is largely due to the credibility of the accomplished team that grooms their sultry vocals, arranges their music, and polishes their tracks. Champion Sound Studios has mastered Road March and Soca Monarch-winning tracks for Machel Montano, Iwer George, Fay-Ann Lyons, JW & Blaze, and Shurwayne Winchester, while patiently preparing to introduce Abroneka to the North American market.
METRO went in studio with Crissy Abigail Fraser, 23, Rhonda Bobb, 26, and Kandis Dyer, 28, before they set off on their version of an Olympic quest to earn platinum and popularity. A chance meeting in 2005 on the set of Synergy Friday Night Live brought the trio together. After each girl displayed her vocal chops, Rhonda secretly noted who she would team up with to form a group. “Then I took a breath and popped the question: Allyuh want to start a group?!” Junior Lewis coached and produced them, then brought Abroneka to Martin Raymond at Champion Sound Studios. Abigail says Albert Bushe, their former vocal trainer, called their sound “soca pop, a mixture of R&B, soca and dance music.” That was 7 years ago. Today, the tracks they have shipped to US record labels are strictly in the R&B and dance genres.
What will distinguish Abroneka from EnVogue, Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child is yet to be determined. At the moment it’s not lyrical content. Abigail, Rhonda and Kandis summarize that though their ballads are sung with vibrancy, they tend to write about “heartbreak, a first time crush, and bad experiences.” But for good measure, they paired an uplifting message with an upbeat tempo for a track titled “Dancefloor Ain’t Gonna Be Lonely”.
Abigail and Kandis hail from the Beetham, and Rhonda is from Maraval. By day they’re retail sales clerks. But when dusk descends they’re in the studio breathing life into their lyrics. They’re disciplined and determined to realize a musician’s ultimate dream. “We all come from a musical family, it’s in our blood,” shares Rhonda. “The area where I grew up is a bit hostile,” explains Abigail, “there is a lot of heartbreak, a lot of poverty, a lot of negativity that could make you either go negative or positive. I take [all that] and use it as a positive and write a way that people can get out of it.”
Their singles “Close Your Eyes” and “I Like It with the Lights On” are destined to attract contracts and airtime in America’s key urban markets. To get Abroneka in the mood to convert lyrics into groovy tracks simply requires a beat. “When we hear a beat we flow with it,” shares Abigail. When arranger Gregg Assing played a beat for the girls, they instinctively felt it was “sexy, nice” and directed them to close your eyes. “We started harmonizing, once you have the feeling the words flow,” adds Rhonda.
When they attain success they have another mission: “My community made me grow up to be a very headstrong young lady,” admits Abigail. “I want to give back educationally.” To become recording champions representing T&T, Abroneka dismisses the “comfort zone” mindset they say Trinis enjoy, and embraces the Jamaican hunger to win. “They [Jamaicans] push harder, they really fight for what they believe in, what they want they really go for it,” asserts Abigail. “There is talent here, not just soca and wining. They can write, produce, sing any kind of music…they have the talent, they just don’t have the hunger the Jamaicans do.” Yet, Abroneka will fly the Trinbagonian flag when they mount that Grammy Awards podium.
© SEAN DRAKES
[ 404.654.0859 | SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]
The Polished Canvas
Shalini is one of the luckiest underexposed artists I have met. She has a work studio larger than the average one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, and it’s set on sprawling acreage behind her family’s house in the Central plains on the island of Trinidad. The spicy, curry aroma that greets us on this Friday afternoon, signals the savory feast her housekeeper has prepared for grateful guests.
Few know that Shalini Seereram, 36, is relentless about being recognized as an original. To safeguard that objective she fervently budgets how much art by other artists she consumes. “I don’t mingle much with similar artists. I would go to [their] show, but I’d rather get to know the people rather than the art. I don’t really like to hobnob at certain shows. I would go the day [after opening night]. I don’t want their style to entirely influence me,” she reasons.
The subjects in the paintings she dreams up to illustrate magazine editorials and to realize her imagination, bear three trademarks: intense colors, bold, crisp lines, and yoga-like contortions. Shalini considers herself “mostly self-taught,” though she studied jewelry design with precious metals and graphic design at John Donaldson Technical Institute in Port of Spain. She explored “everything from sketching to photography” during her enrollment. “I got exposed to so much that it was overwhelming.” She adds, “The commercial art program encouraged me to be adventurous. I was influenced by Christopher Cozier; he was my tutor for two years at John D.” Shalini was 20 when she graduated to pursue a career. “I had this passion for art without [a] specific direction. I just knew art would be a part of my life.”
Studying jewelry design grew from wanting to create three-dimensional work, but she was unwilling to subject her creativity to the compromise that comes with making bangles and chains based on someone else’s vision. “[The] perception [that] we are still people who are toting water all over the place, living in old chattel houses, hanging up washed clothes while looking at barren cane fields … I am not into that (she smirks). We are more than that.” You won’t find humble wooden homes and sun-kissed clotheslines in a Shalini original. “I am not going to sell myself that short.”
Two years ago Shalini noticed her work started to reflect her East Indian heritage. “My subjects are not entirely distinguished as Indian or African, at first. I started to paint people not regarding ethnicity as much All of a sudden the fine detailing that I like started to creep out of me; and I [became] more exposed to fabrics and colors of the Indian culture,” She explains. “That’s where I am in 2007 with my process.”
Among Shalini’s 19 exhibitions, her 2006 “Rite of Passage” show that was installed in Trinidad then Washington, D.C. is a stand-out because with that collection she “explored a sensual side of Indian culture.” That show also offered her the most memorable exhibition experience: “A guy came up to me and told me he sold his Jackie Hinkson to buy my piece [for about U$1,500].” Shalini admires Gustav Klimt‘s use of gold in his work, and Modigliani; she discovered both artists after receiving compliments that likened her style to those icons. She also admires how Carlisle Harris uses color and Glasgow’s application technique. Shalini defends her approach to abstract painting as original, and questions why she should “feel proud” that her work invokes Matisse or Picasso for some.
Ashraph, a fellow artist, Renelle, Shalini’s confidante, and I browse unframed early works as Shalini opens shutters as gentle rains drift from Chandernagore Village. Some of her 12 adopted dogs stretch near the door. She says they each strolled onto her yard, one after another. And claimed a piece of her warm heart. A work-in-progress awaits on a tabletop easel near dozens of bottles of vivid nail lacquer. Larger works hang near a shiny, black boxing bag.
Shalini believes she has crossed the starting line during the 15 years she’s been in the marketplace, yet she is restrained. “I could be holding myself back not knowing the next step.” She wants to be a serious player in the fine art world, but is yet to refine and train her strategy on a prize. “I get up in the morning and I sketch. If I leave home I carry a sketchbook; I sketch, I sketch, I sketch.” Few sketches reach completion without delay or the catalyst of an exhibition deadline. Ashraph confronts her anguish: “You need to step out of your comfort zone.” “I don’t know how to,” retorts Shalini.
The creative chi that fuels Shalini’s work usually emerges in the dark, lonely night. She is eccentric, modest, and Hindu. “I pray for the higher power…the electricity going through our body, and peace and sustenance,” she offers. “There are others who do deity celebrations. I don’t, though I would reference the stories and background that deities represent.” That odd boxing bag is another agent in Shalini’s cleansing and spiritual regimen.
“My dad used to get into fights with me,” she recounts. “We always butt heads and I would get angry and hit a wall, which is not good for somebody who should insure their hands instead of damage them.” She found the bag in a mall two years ago and also gets a good cardio workout with it.
Shalini envisions exhibiting across the Caribbean region and beyond, but what her work evolves into and how that work translates are the first evaluations she’ll need. She notices, “People see my pieces being broken down into stained glass.” Her urge to explore her creative potential and find durable canvasses for her nail polish paintings, led her to toy with glass panes then old chattel windows. She found a good fit for what she calls “fusion pieces.” “I started using $3 nail polish because it was more affordable than paying $46 for a tube of acrylic.” When working on paper she employs oil and iridescent acrylics, and reserves nail polish for accent areas to satisfy any concern about durability.
Shalini trusts her go-with-the-flow spirit will continue to serve her imagination and career as it did one slow afternoon: “I was [a graphic artist] at McCann-Erickson Advertising. One day, I went downstairs to a drugstore and noticed the beautiful colors of nail polish. I bought some polish and started to [paint with] it on matte board. One polish led to two; before the end of the week I bought 15 colors,” recalls Shalini. During a later purchase the sales clerk asked: “I am noticing that you come in every day, buy two or three bottles of polish, and you don’t have any on your nails?” Shalini replied, “Yeah, because I have them on my toes.”
© SEAN DRAKES
[ 404.654.0859 | email@example.com ]
In the Mas Camp with K2K
Trinidad Carnival attracts thousands of spectators and has offered inspiration to creative teams at Disney and Cirque du Soleil. This year, a couture-centric masquerade band presentation by a pair of newcomers sparked hopeful dialogue around the return of innovation to the festival. Before unleashing their inaugural band onto the streets of Port of Spain, bandleader Karen Norman, one-half of the K2K Alliance creative force, shares a few insights.
WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST FEAR AT THE START OF THE BAND DESIGN PROCESS, WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST FEAR NOW, THREE WEEKS BEFORE SHOWTIME?
One of the most compelling parts of the design process is stretching our imagination to create a palatable and exciting concept. Putting pen to paper was the easiest part of the journey. Exposing the mas and the story to the public was the hard part and one of our greatest fears. Such thoughts like: ‘Would the concept of fusing mas with fashion be accepted? Would the onlooker appreciate the story?’ were some of the concerns we shared. One of the greatest challenges we face today is getting the mas community to sign up for change. Even though change is one of the things that is constant, it is not always the easiest thing to accept nor, is it the easiest thing to sign up for. Thus, even three weeks before showtime we are asking those masqueraders who have put away their “mas-shoes” since the dilution of [Wayne] Berkeley and [Peter] Minshall to pick-up their dancing shoes and to revel with K2K.
I was once told that all experiences whether good or bad, leads us to this point in time; to this moment; to the present. Thus, while we would not like to relive any of the challenges that have presented itself over the past 5 years, we would not change anything.
WHAT DOES THIS BAND HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH, OR WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU LIKE MOST TO RECEIVE FROM YOUR ENDEAVOR?
The band hopes to return mas to traditional splendor. We would like to take our brand to the international runway – open both national and international fashion shows. We would like to showcase our designs in musicals on Broadway and even in concerts. Maybe one day, when you see Machel [Montano] in concert you will see his team dressed by K2K. On the international arena, maybe one day we will be the opener for Lady Gaga. The possibilities are endless. Minshall showed the world who was Minshall through exposing his talents on several Olympic platforms, we hope to be those Trinidadian twins / women who expose Trinidad mas design to a new arena.
HOW WAS THE BAND’S NARRATIVE BORN?
In 2012 “water” is used as a metaphor to describe the psychological journey of man. Life is not just dependent on water, but life is water. The same way the oceans and seas yield and change, man, too, must adapt as the social and political environment changes. The same way that water has different temperaments similarly, man is not always even-keeled (e.g., sometimes water is rough and choppy). Similarly, sometimes we are driven to anger. Interestingly, while the storyline for “The Waters – Seas of Consciousness”, starts with River Jordan (Birth)–which means when man comes into the world, he is naive. He is unaware of the social environment and even the political landscape. On a more personal level, the storyline, our story for 2012 started at the Dead Sea (Ruin). Ruin is a state-of-mind and can be defined as “the deepest darkest place that man knows”. And for Kathy and I, ruin was real; it was lonely and dark. The last two years in New York City has been extremely challenging professionally and emotionally. In 2010 we each felt like we hit rock bottom. Creating the band was therapeutic. It was our redemption. It helped us to re-assess who we each were. It also made us realize that while we are shattered, we are not unrepairable. The band is our re-discovery; our re-invention of self, which is coined as The Saraswati River.
WHAT TRADITIONS(S) IN CARNIVAL DOES YOUR BAND REFERENCE OR USE AS A GUIDELINE/FOUNDATION?
We look toward the great masters such as Minshall and Berkeley for a constant reminder, that you are never too old to dream, and mas design is built by exploring your imagination and not being afraid to dream.
WILL POLITICS OR CURRENT AFFAIRS EVER FUEL YOUR BAND’S NARRATIVE?
Over the next three years the storyline does not reflect the political environment. In terms of storytelling we hope to constantly bring a relatable, yet interesting storyline to the table.
WHICH ELEMENTS OF YOUR BAND ARE MANUFACTURED IN T&T, AND HOW MANY ELEMENTS WERE MANUFACTURED IN CHINA?
Much of the costumes are being produced locally. The goal is to encourage greater use of our locals and employ the talents on the island.
UPON FIRST SIGHT OF YOUR MAS, IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE THE HIGH-FASHION POINT OF VIEW IN YOUR DESIGNS. WILL THIS APPROACH BE A STAPLE OR WILL THAT SENSIBILITY SHIFT?
Mas, like art, is contemporary. It should reflect the time. With that said, the goal of our brand is to keep the designs forward-thinking, fashion-forward and chic. The fashion arena is not static. It is constantly evolving and similarly, our brand will morph / evolve as we grow in the arts.
Band presentation: The Waters – Seas of Consciousness
Bandleaders: Kathy & Karen Norman (K2K Alliance & Partners)
Band size: Medium with 8 sections | Membership: U$416 – U$900
Mas camp: 51 Cornelio St., Woodbrook, PoS | 868-767-9655
© SEAN DRAKES
[ 404.654.0859 | SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]
Inside the Fine Art Game
The market for fine art by African-Americans reached an exciting and pivotal moment in February 2007. Swann Auction Galleries in New York City, noted for vintage photographs, prints and drawings, hosted the first sale by a major auction house devoted exclusively to African-American fine art. Auction sales exceeded Swann’s predictions raking in $2.7 million, seventeen sales records were set, and participation was the largest seen by the auction house, with over 200 attendees. African-American fine art is being included in major museum exhibitions, documented and discussed, and has emerged as the most actively collected art in the marketplace. Wangechi Mutu, 39, maintains a waiting list of pre-screened buyers for her next works, and recently sold out before opening night. Investing in fine art is an enriching pursuit, this primer can help demystify the valuation process, develop your approach to collecting, and dispel the perception that collecting fine art is for the wealthy.
Growing awareness grows demand. “Black art speaks to the black experience and that is what sets it apart,” explains Eric Hanks, art instructor and owner of M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica, California. “The work has to have meaning that doesn’t have to be that deep. “Bearden [for instance] references his childhood in Pittsburgh and his grandparents who are black.” According to Hanks, 53, “the early part of the 20th century and the latter part of the 19th century are the eras collectors and museums clamor for” because there is no more of it being made and those works fill historic and aesthetic gaps in American art collections.
“Contemporary art today is about investigation, not accepting boundaries,” says Nigel Freeman, 39, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department. “Emma Thomas was the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Whitney Museum. She was [a retired teacher] in her 60s when she achieved great fame,” he says. “I had a 5”x8” paper piece that sold for $16,000, her large canvases command six figures. “Recently there has been growing awareness through touring museum shows; museums are active in elevating and acquiring works,” shares Freeman.”
Art in black and white. The Swann sale ignites a new dialogue that explores the implication that these artists’ works cannot stand on the same merit as their European counterparts. “[Auctions] put [the work] into the marketplace,” says Franklin Sirmans, curator at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, “but [the work] can’t be limited to only showing in a racial construct. What’s the point?! I don’t think any of those artists created the work for it to only be valued next to other black artists.” “Swann has taken a very bold and significant step that other auction houses have not,” opines appraiser and art adviser Halima Taha author of Collecting African American Fine Art: Works on Paper and Canvas (Verve Editions; $50.00).
“Sotheby’s and Christies would traditionally include African-American artists, but sporadically. Not annually, not the same artist. So there would be sporadic values. Sales were lower than what the work was actually selling for, in that case auctions were doing a disservice.” Taha, 46, asserts, “It is extremely important that these artists be included in auctions because the auction is the international marketplace, it’s not a black marketplace, not a white marketplace, not an American marketplace, it’s international.”
Gallery owner Bill Hodges highlights another conundrum when he said a Norman Lewis abstract he has priced at $135,000 would sell for $10 million if it were by Jackson Pollock. While demand for African American fine art grows, prices are yet to catch an uptick momentum.
The off-the-record whisper from art aficionados is that an African-American artist with white representation stands to attain greater access and exposure, and command higher prices and fatter paychecks as a result. But Hanks insists, “talent, connections, luck, perseverance and a thick skin” are what artists need to be able to seize the coveted attention of the Whitney, MoMa and Guggenheim.
Fine art game. To seize an edge, seasoned collectors train an eye on portals for emerging talents such as the Kenkeleba Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Arts in New York City, The Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta, The Southside Community Art Center in Chicago, as well as incubators such as the artist-in-residence program at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Understanding how an emerging artist is transformed to a celebrated voice may influence your approach to buying work by an aspiring talent. “It’s the collective activity of the artist, the dealers, the collectors, the curators, the critics and the auction houses. Their interaction with one another enables them to become the cultural and economic arbiters of taste, together that is what propels an artist into the marketplace,” explains Taha. “One by itself isn’t going to work. You need dealers to contact the critics and to have relationships with auction houses and major collectors. That’s the real art game. [There are] a lot of incredibly talented [artists] but they’re not interacting with curators who are part of that collective activity.” Collector Brenda Taggart Thompson remarks, “People miss [out on] some important art because [those works] are not supported by the game.”
History affects value. A well-rounded collection gives a sense of the various approaches to a particular style. “Provenance (history of ownership) supports and can increase the value of a piece,” offers Hanks, an art adviser for distinguished actors, doctors and athletes, this document establishes authenticity and identifies previous owners, “if they are famous it will positively impact the value.” Recently Eldzier Cortor’s Portrait of a Woman, once owned by author Ralph Ellison, fetched $110,000 at auction, it was estimated to sell for $30,000.
“When provenance doesn’t pan out and the work seems suspicious it makes the piece seem stolen or fabricated,” shares Hanks. Appraisers gather provenance but are not obligated to authenticate art. They are expected to check the Art Loss Registry and the FBI’s registry of stolen works. “The burden of duty is much greater on the person authenticating the piece than the appraiser.”
Get the right appraisal. Yolanda and Greg Head of Stone Mountain, Georgia, have been collecting African-American abstraction since 1999, “I have my collection insured,” offers Greg, 49. “I look at the value over time [by] looking at auctions and auction records. He also attends the art mart at The Fine Art Fair of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta to see what sold. “It gives me a sense of how my art has escalated; every three to four years I have it appraised.” Collectors must be clear about their use for an appraisal and disclose that to the appraiser, offers Taha. Appraisals can be for insurance against loss, inventory or tax benefit when donating art to museums. Researching the comparable economic analysis is the same for all appraisals, but the approach to mathematical calculations vary, hence, specifying intended use is essential. An appraiser’s fee schedule ranges $150—$500 per hour depending on their expertise and resources.
Collectors on collecting. Enthusiasts say ‘buy what you love’ because there is no fault-proof formula for what to buy and when to sell. Yet most everyone has a faithful strategy for collecting:
Former NBA player Elliot Perry, 38, of Memphis, Tennessee invested 11 years to grow his collection by contemporary and master artists, he investigates a dealer’s reputation and cultivates a relationship with dealers intent on “helping build a collection not just move inventory.” A good dealer “should have a feel for what you like.” Another attractive quality is “when a dealer is willing to lose a deal [by advising] you to go elsewhere because another gallery has a better quality piece.”
“There is a misnomer [that] collectors are plunking down thousands of dollars all at once,” shares Head, “galleries understand they have to ‘work with you,’ the code phrase for payment plan.” Head reads periodicals like Art in America and the International Review of African-American Art, and suggests shows like Art Basel, Art Off the Main, and Art Chicago to keep abreast of trends.
Brenda Taggart Thompson and husband Larry, of Greenwich, Connecticut, have collected since 1977. “Books help refine your eye to see beauty in lots of places,” says Brenda, “not just where some gallery has decided it is.” Thompson’s reference library contains African American Art and Artists by Samella Lewis (University of California Press; $70.00), St. James Guide to Black Artists by Schomburg Center for Research, Afro-American Artists: A Bio-bibliographical Directory by Theresa Cederholm, Two Centuries of Black American Art by David C. Driskell, and history books on American art and photography.
Knowing the history adds value to works and allows collectors to have cross-references when they work with art dealers. “Attending lectures, going to museums, listening to curators talk about how [shows] are put together,” says Thompson, “are instrumental to a collector’s growth.” Hanks adds, “look at art wherever it may be, your understanding will improve and your collection will reflect it.”
© SEAN DRAKES
Previously published, edited version in Black Enterprise.
[ 404.654.0859 | SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]