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On the map

By Nicholas Laughlin

A version of this article was published under the title “Inspirational island” in Culture + Travel, January/February 2008

Visiting New York recently, I found myself having the same conversation over and over with the artists and curators I met. It would start when they heard where I was from.

“Trinidad!” Their eyes would light up. “You have a couple of big artists there.”

They meant, of course, Peter Doig and Chris Ofili: British art majors of the 1990s, international art majors of today, both of them now based in Trinidad, a geographical fact well known in the art world.

Invariably, a question would follow: “What are they doing there?” Doing what artists do anywhere in the world, I suppose: working, talking, looking, living. But of course that’s too simple an answer—as Doig and Ofili themselves know. “People ask, ‘why are you there?’” said Ofili in a recent interview. What does it mean for two of today’s most successful and influential artists, stars of the museums and auction-houses, to move their homes and studios to a rather out-of-the way island known to some for its calypso and Carnival, to others as the birthplace of V.S. Naipaul? “And why Trinidad?”

For Doig, at least, this is a kind of return—he lived here with his family in his very early childhood, in the 1960s. (His parents collected paintings by some of the island’s “Independence”-generation artists—Trinidad and Tobago was a British colony until 1962; it’s intriguing to think these were likely the first artworks he ever encountered.) Nearly forty years later, Doig returned to Trinidad on a short visit, and rediscovered the manic pulse of a small, unruly society in the throes of a natural gas boom, and a feisty art scene with its own traditions, debates, and “canon”. Something must have clicked. In 2002, he moved his family here; from now on his bio note would describe him as a Trinidad-based British artist.

His friend Chris Ofili followed three years later. “Changing locations heightens visual awareness,” Ofili remarked in a dialogue with Doig published in 2007 in BOMB. “What’s been exciting is living in a place where you want to take photographs every day.” In the major art centres, critics and curators began to take note. The snowfields once characteristic of Doig’s paintings were replaced by elements of Trinidad’s landscape. The paintings in Ofili’s 2007 New York show Devil’s Pie contained sly references to his new home. Even the posters Doig paints for his weekly film club—which have been exhibited in museums in Cologne and Zurich, and at the 2006 Whitney Biennial—were originally inspired by the concert and party posters that are a ubiquitous feature of Trinidad’s urban landscape.


But what does it mean for Trinidad’s own contemporary artists that their country is at last a “real” point on the art world map—because of the presence of these foreigners? Exposure and access to that art world, an outsider might think, and to new ideas and trends. But Trinidadian artists have long been outward-looking, and painfully aware of the (strange) problems and (stranger) privileges of existing on the “periphery”.

It was a dilemma confronted head-on by a group of younger artists who came back to Trinidad from art school aboard in the late 1980s, and found a local art market hungry for nostalgic watercolour and acrylic renderings of tropical topography. Their work immediately triggered debate and dissent. Steve Ouditt experimented with public murals and worked with a group of actors on a project that was part Carnival band, part performance piece. Edward Bowen’s enormous graphite-on-paper drawings played with local expectations that only oil paint on canvas could constitute a “monumental” artwork. Irénée Shaw’s unsparing and often nude self-portraits infuriated conservative audiences and confused critics. Her husband Christopher Cozier made pioneering performance and installation work, and his essays in the venerable Trinidad and Tobago Review won him enemies even as they changed the terms of the contemporary art debate.

All these artists showed their work abroad as often as at home, and they remained critically aware of what was going on in art centres like New York and London. From the ferment of their conversations was born the institution that would connect Trinidad definitively to a wider art world: Caribbean Contemporary Arts, better known as CCA, founded in 1997. Led by Charlotte Elias, CCA staged exhibitions in borrowed quarters before taking up residence in a converted rum warehouse on the outskirts of Port of Spain, where it administered a gallery, hosted dozens of visiting artists and researchers, and acted as a clearing-house for Trinidadian artists looking to extend their practice abroad, until it shut down in 2007.

It was via CCA that both Doig and Ofili found themselves in Trinidad (Doig still works in a studio at the back end of the former CCA building). They arrived to find an inside-outside, local-foreign conversation already heatedly under way. Choosing to stay in Trinidad also meant choosing to join in.


What does that conversation sound like? A good place to eavesdrop is StudioFilmClub, run by Doig and his friend the Trinidadian artist Che Lovelace. Five years after its first screening in February 2003, StudioFilmClub has something of an international reputation, thanks to Doig’s posters. But here in the “back studio” with its lofty ceiling, unglazed windows, and bare concrete floor, adjacent to Doig’s actual working studio, the atmosphere remains casual, even makeshift.

Art-house movies are projected onto a white-painted wall, the audience reclines in plastic garden chairs, and afterwards Doig turns iTunes DJ while a motley crowd gathers around the self-service bar. Ofili is a regular; you might also run into a New York gallerist or a German curator chatting with local artists, musicians, and film buffs. They might be talking about a new experimental film brought back by Doig from some biennial, or about Infinite Island, the major survey of contemporary Caribbean art that ran at the Brooklyn Museum last year, or about an upcoming concert; they might just be gossiping.

Improvised spaces like this have always been more important in Trinidad than formal institutions. Galvanize—a groundbreaking six-week arts programme, led by artist Mario Lewis, which ran in 2006—challenged artists to take their work out of white-walled boxes, in favour of “galleries” like a tattoo parlour, shop windows, the walls of derelict buildings. Three Galvanize artists—Marlon Griffith, Jaime Lee Loy, and Nikolai Noel—subsequently formed a loose collective, and in January 2008 they colonised a vacant city lot with an ambitious house-size installation.

Most promising is a modest but rapidly growing experiment called Alice Yard: literally the backyard of an old house in west Port of Spain’s Woodbrook neighbourhood, where architect Sean Leonard, with the help of Christopher Cozier, has built a tiny, perfectly proportioned gallery. Alice Yard hosts an ongoing series of artists’ projects, with performances and readings every Friday night, free and open to the public, part art event, part social hangout. Hastening slowly, Leonard plans eventually to incorporate a studio where future artists-in-residence might work. On an average Friday night you might bump into a dozen artists, Doig and Ofili among them, drinking beer and enjoying the grooves of an amateur DJ.

It’s spaces like this, surely, that convinced those two art-stars to make a move that puzzles metropolitan observers. “I don’t think Trinidad’s an easy place to be an artist,” Doig says. “For me there’s a sort of overload.” Ofili adds, “It’s not possible to do the Gauguin thing here…. It’s not about escaping reality. Trinidad is more real than other places.”

No more, perhaps, but no less. Just as real as anywhere else.