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 ]
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 ]