My Trini father has finally made the thirty-minute plane ride over from his slightly larger rock to our small rock. It may have something to do with the Gary Sobers Charity Golf Tournament but we are happy to see him whatever the ulterior motive. His visit has prompted some discussion about having two fathers. The little ones are a bit confused as grandpa to them is that man who dotes on them and lives with grandma about ten minutes away. I explain how extremely lucky I am. I got two gorgeous babies in one go and I also have two wonderful dads. First Born, always the trend spotter, pipes up,
“Mom, so can you have two husbands?”
“No she cannot.” growls the incumbent.
So, confined to just the one husband, I can hardly get into much trouble. But trouble has a way of finding me. It started innocently enough with an invitation to have a couple drinks at the beach on a Friday afternoon. This is my idea of the perfect mother-and-sons bonding activity. And before you call social services, the kids splash in the water and I splash a little rum into my coconut water, not the other way round. Everyone starts the weekend feeling chilled.
This time Annalee and Ewan, both established artists, let me down one quick drink before they insisted on a decision. Was I in, or out, of the art collective we have been talking about for the past months? No more procrastination. I am seriously contemplating the wisdom of Groucho Marx’s quip about not wanting to join a club that will have him as a member. But, a couple of those coconut waters later, and perhaps the odd tonic water with added vodka for taste, not only had I agreed to be in, Annalee had an agenda that will take the rest of 2008 to complete. Then Joscelyn, a Bajan artist living in Canada, phoned to say she “hear ‘bout what we doing and she in de vibe too”. So in the space of one afternoon I go from a grumpy, non-joiner of clubs, to part of a gang of four.
Our first order of business is a challenge with repercussions for as long as we remain together. What shall we call ourselves? The name must convey authenticity, creativity, and the fluid, impermanent nature of our “house of ideas”. Suggestions included Hetty’s Tent, named after Ewan’s mom and a reference to the many informal churches that are held in tents in Bim. Nah. Not quite us. Then someone thought of Breadfruit - a crop brought to the Caribbean specially to feed slaves. We even contemplated calling ourselves Black Belly Sheep – an indigenous sheep that looks like a goat with issues. Two hours of fierce debate later, The (One and Only) Husband rocked up to the lime and immediately suggested 14 x 22 – a reference to the dimensions of this small rock. Annalee informed him it was actually 21 and, since height comes before width, it was 21 x14. It stuck. You have no idea how irritating it is to give credit to an economist, for the name of an art collective.
21 x14 has immediately settled down to work and you can follow our journey on http://21x14.blogspot.com. The others suggested we kick off by showing recent work and I “volunteered”. There were frantic emails to ensure all the administrative details were in place for this event. Ewan wanted to know what we all wanted to drink. I got up at dawn - not to check over my work, but to cook a dish. This is a proper West Indian collective: once the food is sorted we are good to go. And it proved a challenging, provocative time filled with lots of positive feedback, laughter and excellent suggestions of how to push the work forward. Ewan’s up next and is already working on a series of related drawings. And Ewan, if you are reading this, stop *%#^ing around on the computer and get back to work.
In order to make my next artwork I need external help. I have to persuade the present incumbents of what was Congo Road plantation to share some of their research into the history of the house, their personal stories, and, crucially, their images. With a little encouragement from Shawn, the gracious Mrs. Hunte invited me to Congo Road to discuss the work further. She was generous and kind beyond anything I could have hoped for. Over delicate cakes and tea, her daughter shared her original research as well as correspondence and photographs relating to Congo Road. Mrs. Hunte is a fellow artist, engaged at the highest level in the almost lost art of making “Sailor’s Valentines” - octagonal images composed entirely of shells that served as tokens of love. Nineteenth century Barbados was a famous site for the production of these elaborate works that now sell at Sotheby’s for serious moolah. She enthusiastically explained her methodology, inspiration and desire to modernize the appeal of these love tokens. I also got to see her extensive private collection. By the time I left she had made me feel part of the family and of course would work with me.
This would have been more than enough but then the charming Mr. Hunte arrived. He is equally famous as a member of the Merry Men Band – a Bajan institution almost as ingrained in this culture as pudding and souse. In costumes that look a bit like a breakaway group of Robin Hood’s men, they captivate audiences with their distinctive take on calypso. It’s been at least forty-five years since these guys started jamming together and I will be in the front row next time they perform.
Mr. Hunte, a mischievous glint in his eye, revealed a little of his life in music and the challenges he continues to set himself. And like his wife, he too was warm and generous. We walked to my car and he handed over loads of CDs and, yippee, agreed to his portrait being done. I was almost ready to drive off when we got on the topic of how all inhabitants of these Caribbean rocks, regardless of colour or race, express emotions through one crucial, non-verbal sound. Spelt “steups” (generally), “cheups” (Trini style), or “chupse” (Bimshire), this sucking of air through clenched teeth, is considered the West Indian preferred method of communicating dissatisfaction with a state of affairs. But Mr. Hunte suggested that this was a very limited understanding of the range and depth to which our people have developed the cheups and urged further research into its taxonomy. As a man of melody he treated me to a rendition of various cheups that had me laughing so hard the tears prevented me from driving.
So, at Mr. Hunte’s prompting, I have done a little digging and can share with you the findings of Frank Collymore in his book, Barbadian Dialect. He considers this phenomenon a little understood part of our lexicon. Nevertheless, Collymore, proposes the existence of at least seven classifications. These are:
(i) the chupse of amused tolerance, described as an “oral shrugging of the shoulders”,
(ii) the self-admonishing chupse,
(iii) the disdainful chupse (“accompanied by a raising of the eyebrow”),
(iv) the chupse disgusted (with “the eyelids almost closed”),
(v) the sorrowful chupse (really “a series of quickly emitted chupses” accompanied by the slow shaking of the head from side to side),
(vi) the chupse offensive or abusive, and, the most feared,
(vii) the chupse provocative which in one sound combines (iii), (iv) and (vi) and “often leads to blows”.
You have been warned.