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Discomfort zone

By Nicholas Laughlin

First published in Modern Painters, June 2006

Uncomfortable, Richard Fung’s documentary about the Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier, opens with its subject in his studio, examining a tall stool like the ones he sat on at school thirty years ago. “This is what I know, this is what I understand, and in a lot of my work I try to deal with that . . . how to contend with the very thing that was once uncomfortable and now means something familiar . . . I have weird obsessions with these things.”

A sequence of shots shows a selection of “these things”: a megaphone, a crutch, a small wrought iron table of a type popular in 1960s Trinidad. These are all objects converted into ironic symbols in Cozier’s multimedia work, aimed at finding a vocabulary to describe the experience of living in a small post-colonial Caribbean island that has never fit the white-sand-and-palm-trees stereotype; as Cozier puts it later in the documentary, “a world with two coups, murders, kidnappings, wrought iron, queen shows.”

Fung helpfully provides titles with crime statistics and information about Trinidad and Tobago’s beauty queens. Another title baldly summarises the country’s art scene: “Only a handful of Trinidadians work in contemporary art.” Of this handful, Cozier has become a sort of representative figure — prolific, provocative, articulate, struggling to find an audience at home even as his work travels further abroad.

At Cozier’s house, surrounded by the detritus of his young family, we’re discussing the documentary — specifically, its title. “There’s an element of discomfort in that,” Cozier says, only half punning. Partly because in Trinidad the word “comfortable” suggests financial success. Born in 1959, Cozier left Trinidad in 1983 for art school in the US. At the end of 1988, he and his wife Irénée Shaw — also an artist — returned to Trinidad with their first child. The country’s economy was in tatters and the coalition government was falling apart. “People seemed to look to art for some kind of new thought,” Cozier remembers, “And were extremely curious about what younger people had to say.”

Trinidadian art since the 1950s had been dominated by an “Independence generation” (Trinidad and Tobago became an independent state in 1962) of men and women who believed their duty was scripting a cultural narrative to support the assertion of nationhood. Part of that aspiration was an engagement with Modernism. Painting was the preferred form, and they dealt in images intended to define an affirming version of “Caribbeanness”: tropical landscapes, references to ancestral cultures, elements of the “folk.” But by the end of the 60s, Independence euphoria had succumbed to the realities of a society still hung up on the anxieties and prejudices of colonialism. The leading artists of the time retreated into guardianship of their legacies — “a kind of ‘estate police’ work,” Cozier puts it.

Twenty years later, the time seemed ripe to challenge the status quo. Young artists returned from studying abroad, flushed with the confidence of ambition, and set about producing work that asked awkward questions. Cozier himself made pioneering performance and installation works which he showed alongside his drawings. They created small sensations, and the art establishment reacted swiftly. A prominent artist known for his watercolour landscapes left a note pinned to the wall at one of Cozier’s shows: “SOME DIRECT ADVICE . . . you will never be a fine artist. Stick to graphics.” Nonetheless, that show opened the door to Cozier’s participation in the 1994 Havana Biennal.

Support came from one Port of Spain gallery, and a German couple living in Trinidad bought work by young artists and helped produce a catalogue for Cozier, Shaw, and two others, Steve Ouditt and Edward Bowen (in consequence, these four came to be seen as a “group,” despite obvious differences in ideas and methods). And Cozier began to look outside the island for an audience. By the late 1990s, Trinidad and Tobago’s economy was booming again — the country has substantial oil and natural gas deposits — and local collectors abandoned their flirtation with the contemporary, snapping up realist paintings of “fish, trees, bird, boat, house, and landscape,” as Cozier says in Uncomfortable, as he flees an onslaught of such objects in a Port of Spain gallery.

His work, he began to feel, was strangely “invisible,” so alien to local audiences’ notions of themselves and their world that it did not register, couldn’t be seen. And by now, he was showing more often abroad than at home. The title of a 1998 show in Port of Spain, Migrate or Medal/Meddle, seemed to summarise his options. Except showing abroad raised a fresh dilemma. “At home, I have one kind of conversation, because everybody here is relatively within a similar narrative,” Cozier says in Uncomfortable’s closing scene. “Abroad, there are other kinds of dynamics . . . Do I have a history that can register in a global conversation or not?” The India-born, Jamaica-resident critic Annie Paul suggests that artists like Cozier “suffer a double illegitimacy when they go abroad, because metropolitan critics see their artistic practice as too elevated above or irrelevant to the realities of third-world countries. What, conceptual art in the periphery?”

“I see my work as not about pronouncements, but about conversations,” Cozier says — “conversation” is one of his favourite words. It’s also the aim of his critical writing, which led to his joining the collective of Small Axe, a Caribbean journal of social, cultural, and political criticism launched in 1997 (and invited to participate in Documenta 12). And the conversations that artists like Cozier started in the early 90s created the momentum for Caribbean Contemporary Arts, or CCA7, an arts centre on the outskirts of Port of Spain that hosts artists from abroad, and where Peter Doig and Chris Ofili now have studios. (Even as the presence of these art-world stars draws the international spotlight closer, Trinidadian artists continue to grapple with the relevance of their location.)

Cross-national conversations also provide vital stimulus. Cozier’s work with Fung — born in Trinidad, resident in Canada since 1973 — is an apt example. They met after Fung saw Cozier’s 2001 show Intersection +. He began taping interviews with Cozier, and they collaborated on a video installation, The Unbearable State of Sliced Bread (2004), shown by curator Andrea Fatona at the A-Space Gallery in Toronto. Then Fung decided to turn his footage into a documentary, even though, as he puts it, “I don’t like documentaries about artists. I find the mediating lens puts me at a distance from the artwork.”

Uncomfortable uses several strategies to close that distance. It zooms in on the artworks themselves, then cuts away to Cozier analysing the real-world objects — furniture, building materials, a particular kind of palm tree, the podiums where athletes receive their medals — that are the etymological roots of his private vocabulary. Cozier recreates Art and Nation (Notes), Learn from Day #1 (1998), the piece that first caught Fung’s attention, a blackboard whose chalk inscription declares an “Us” and a “Them”, and pokes fun at the nationalist agendas communicated through classroom rote-learning. And just as Cozier’s work circles obsessively over a set of intractable problems and puzzling symbols, Fung’s unresolved narrative ends where it starts; he constructs sequences from material recorded sometimes years apart, and leaves in obvious discontinuities.

Though Uncomfortable will air on Canadian television later this year, there are currently no plans to screen it in Trinidad. And after a couple of years of travelling and showing abroad, Cozier has hunkered down and returned, as he always does, to drawing: to a new series with dark, sinister tones. “I’m trying to get rid of the rhetorical, get rid of all the familiar symbolism. I’m extending and expanding the vocabulary.” The images are sometimes nightmarish, often sardonic: a man in a fenced enclosure gobbling human flesh; a dog that marks the corners of its territory — the page — with yellow splashes; flocks of hummingbirds performing suspicious tasks; a slice of cake topped with an obscenely round, red cherry.

 “Drawing is my thought process,” Cozier says. “It’s about investigation, speculation.” Drawing is also a deliberate choice, the ephemerality of “notes on little pieces of paper” a response to the monumentality of painting on canvas. “Note-taking to me is conceptually very important. It has to do with notions of being sure and unsure.” Drawing becomes a performative act: “When I make those marks, there’s a sense of being alive.”

Ornate script spirals and fills empty spaces on the pages. Heavy sepia washes, nervous pen-strokes, rubber-stamped shapes that flirt with thoughtless replication, and the sense of a narrative in fragments. “I’m using the vocabulary and trying to find my way through it,” Cozier says. Looking at the drawings, I’m tempted to shuffle them like cards, see if I can make them tell a story. I can’t, at least not yet.

It makes me a feel a little bit uncomfortable.