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Between a fantasy and a hard place

By Nicholas Laughlin

La Fantasie Road, in the leafy St. Ann’s neighbourhood of north Port of Spain, is the address of the official residence of the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. On 15 December, 2007, not long after a general election that returned him to power — with less than fifty percent of the overall vote, thanks to vicious animosity between the two main opposition parties — prime minister Patrick Manning officially moved into the sprawling new mansion he had commissioned in his previous term. “The occasion was marked by a simple but moving ceremony,” said a press release, though the building itself was anything but simple.

Four prime ministers before him had been mostly content with an unostentatious bungalow on La Fantasie Road, tucked between a public rugby ground, the Queen’s Hall performing arts centre, and the historic President’s House. These modest but comfortable quarters, however, were not quite consonant with Manning’s sense of the stature of his office. Around the time he began regularly referring to himself at press conferences in the third person — “The prime minister believes,” etc. — Manning ordered the state construction agency Udecott to build him an entirely new and rather more palatial residence.

This was just one of the controversial government-funded construction projects which in the past five or six years have imposed outscale and vastly expensive new public buildings on Port of Spain, a city whose nineteenth-century street grid and twentieth-century infrastructure were already overburdened. Like many of these other projects, the Manning mansion was designed by Chinese architects and engineers, and built by Chinese labourers imported by the hundreds, to the chagrin of the local construction industry. Like these other projects, the prime minister’s new house was criticised by many as an unneeded luxury for a small country where, despite prodigious petro-wealth, nearly a third of the population survives below the poverty line; where basic infrastructure for education and health are collapsing and the civic fabric crumbling; and where an accelerating trend of social inequality drives a violent network of criminal gangs, gun culture, the illegal drug economy, and the murder rate.

But unlike the new “government campus” downtown, with its ugly Lego-block towers, or the National Performing Arts Centre on the Savannah — its front façade like the gaping maw of an immense creature, gulping down dollars — Manning’s house was actually completed almost on schedule, even as the estimated bill leapt casually from TT$40 million to $148 million to $175 million. The last reported figure was $244 million, including generous sums for furniture, drapery, and last-minute redecorating — not forgetting the fountain in the driveway, and the tidy beds of the prime ministerial rose garden.

Two months after the prime minister moved into his mansion, and barely half a mile to the south, another house named La Fantasie opened its doors, having sprung up almost overnight, from an empty lot thick with razor grass.

From the pavement in front, the little house at 43 Norfolk Street looked like many modest homes in Belmont, a lower-middle-income neighbourhood of narrow lanes, separated from St. Ann’s by a spur of the Northern Range. It was a simple single-storey structure, with a galvanize roof, decorative fretwork round the eaves, and potted palms on either side of the front door. (No rose garden.) Only the fresh coat of white paint gave away its newness, and only the small and unlikely crowd that gathered outside on three or four evenings at the end of February 2008 suggested that this was not the home of a respectable working-class family.

The casement windows of the little white house were shut tight. Anyone who strolled up the rough path from picket fence to welcome mat found the front door unlocked, and half a dozen flashlights suspended from a hook beside the doorknob. Just inside was a heavy black curtain, which the visitor groped past to find himself in a room crowded with old furniture, its walls, floor, and ceiling painted black, and the only light coming from a pair of eerie video projections. Ah, that’s what the flashlight was for — its narrow beam just bright enough to permit the curious to explore the room’s nooks, revealing: a trail of what looked like blood, leading to a fridge. More blood puddled atop a stove. Plastic blood-bags, shaped like miniature human figures, labelled “Dead Girl” or “Dead Boy.” A sinister religious painting looming overhead — not the traditional Sacred Heart displayed in Catholic houses all over Trinidad, but a figure with a black-masked or -hooded head, juggling swords. In another corner, the floorboards were removed, exposing the earth beneath the house — appearing to lift away, and revealing a woman’s unmoving lower limbs.

Discomfited, fiddling with his flashlight, the visitor might have discovered there was an ultraviolet lamp built in. Now, under the black light, disturbing drawings and diagrams appeared on the walls and furniture. Evidence of violence, betrayal, despair? A crime scene? A haunted house? The walls seemed to close in, and the claustrophobia-prone visitor turned to flee. Stumbling past the curtain at the door and out into the cool evening air, he might have looked up and noticed that just across Norfolk Street was the constituency office of the PNM, the ruling political party.

The name that the three La Fantasie collaborators gave to their project was an obvious and bitter joke at the expense of Patrick Manning’s palatial pretensions, and mocking the programme — some might say the fantasy — of social and economic progress promoted by the Manning government, under the brand name Vision 2020. But the larger metaphor — the nation as a house of horrors, with its almost-normal façade concealing the symbolic corpses of children and a shallow grave — is distressingly apposite to other places in the twenty-first century Caribbean.

In late January 2008 — as Marlon Griffith, Jaime Lee Loy, and Nikolai Noel were completing the plans for La Fantasie — six adults and five children were brutally murdered in their homes, some of them in their beds, when a gang of gunmen invaded the village of Lusignan on the coast of Guyana. Less than a month later, the same gang massacred twelve people in the interior town of Bartica. Internationally publicised attacks on tourists in Antigua, Tobago, and other territories in the past year have jeopardised one of the region’s chief sources of income. And at the further end of the Caribbean, in Jamaica, a growing incidence of child abductions and killings, on top of an already soaring murder rate, has provoked fears of social collapse.

Many Caribbean artists, as citizens, share these fears, and grapple with a mundane pessimism, our own tristesse tropique, about the future of these small, unstable territories history has bequeathed us. As citizens, as artists, they struggle — we struggle — to survive, to understand, to respond. For the Trinidad Art Society, in its role as middleman for the local business class, the response has been to “beautify” Port of Spain via a public art project which mounts large reproductions of works by socially appropriate artists in prominent locations. Nostalgic landscapes and renditions of folk culture — blown up to a scale that magnifies weak composition and draughtsmanship — are meant to stimulate both civic pride and civilised sensibilities, but instead they recede into the clutter of advertising billboards and illuminated signs.

Less politely, a crop of young graffiti artists have seized the opportunity offered by abandoned lots and untended walls to stage their own unauthorised citywide intervention. The least interesting monotonously repeat their tags, but a handful of these artists offer more pointed social commentary: “Spade” with his stenciled caricatures of politicians, “Louse” with his children bawling or hiding their faces, and “Manf” with his eerie-eyed, elongated figures surveilling the streets like jumbies of unknown motive.

But for savage indignation and sheer sardonic bravura, no visual intervention by a Trinidadian artist competes with Peter Minshall’s 2001 mas band This Is Hell, a phantasmagoria of black (for wickedness), gold (for greed), and writhing limbs unleashed into the play-play land of the “national festival.” Minshall’s vision of a people literally dancing themselves down the path to perdition has proven scarily prophetic. It’s just as scarily apt that eight years later his practice and process and his Callaloo Company’s imperfect model of creative collaboration seem to have collapsed under a burden of acrimony and despair.

Corruption and crime, comess and commerce, politicians’ ploys and citizens’ protests: La Fantasie was informed by all of these, as it inevitably was by the three artists’ personal histories, their previous experiments with outdoor art projects, and their experiences on the streets of Port of Spain. The little house on Norfolk Street stood at the intersection of the public and the domestic, the political and the personal, the individual and the collective, the visual and the performative; somewhere between the optimistic dream of a new nation like a new family building its own home, complete with fenced-off front yard, and the sour reality, almost five decades later, of broken promises, tired failures, and too many secrets lurking in corners and under floorboards.

And then, a few days later, it was gone — another sudden void in the urban landscape — its materials recycled by the workmen who helped build it. As the razor grass reclaimed its space, what was left of La Fantasie was a curious memory for its temporary neighbours on Norfolk Street. And perhaps for the rest of us — visitors from other neighbourhoods who passed through its black curtain, and were confused or amused or repelled — a troubling reminder of how quickly things (and people and places and promises) can disappear.

August 2009