THE HUNTING OF THE ART

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.

THE RETURN TO PARADISE


My guide and I did enter, to return
To the fair world: and heedless of repose
We climbed, he first, I following his steps,
Till on our view the beautiful lights of heav'n
Dawn'd through a circular opening in the cave:
Thus issuing we again beheld the stars.

(Dante, Divine Comedy)


Our journeys have ended back in paradise. We are in Bimshire to be precise, having spent the past month wrestling through the urban jungle of London which, while not the same as Dante’s Inferno, or Purgatory, still had it’s fair share of challenges – particularly for Andre. He is probably still regaling the regulars at Mike’s Bar with tales of having survived being away from home for a month for the first time, snow, inter-city trains, challenges to his belief system after seeing dinosaur bones, unfriendly Londoners, shopping in Primark, the wonder of a building like Norman Foster’s Gerkin and motorway driving.

For us it is nothing less than a hero’s welcome at Grantley Adams Airport. The sun is shining. It is hot but not humid. Jack is well and does not seem too resentful at having been left behind. He was looked after by the grandparents who I gather read to him, cooked his meals from scratch rather than open a can as instructed, and cuddled him with the tenderness they might a third grandson. Velma has eliminated every trace of dirt so that the house is gleaming – not an easy feat since the adults insist on all white interiors, in spite of sharing the space with a grubby canine and even grubbier kids. Mom cooked our favorite Indian food - served with dhal pouris brought from Trinidad. The old saying about absence and the heart etc. seems true in this instance. Pity the welcome was marred by the PM’s announcement that when I next fill the tank of my diesel car it will cost about 77% more than it did previously.

But is our paradise really here or is it in London? We love both worlds. The boys delighted in having snow fights on the Common but they also missed the freedom of wearing shorts and t-shirts and going to the beach. They said sad goodbyes to Johnny and Freddie but made anxious phone calls to Joshua in St. Lucy to ensure he knew of their impending return and had not forgotten their standing Saturday play date. The Husband continues to bring cheer to BA shareholders as the first person to claim domicile in Club seat 10J on the BGI to LON route. We mercilessly use him as a courier to bring us little treats we don’t get here, or would pay an arm and leg for, assuming we found them. You know the sort of essentials: bits from the Apple store, Leonidas chocolates or the latest bestseller.

I am really happy to be back in the sunshine, staring at blue skies while I write. Enduring grey skies for days on end is the fastest route to feeling life is all doom and gloom. If I stayed any longer my coping strategies would have been narrowed to (a) drugs, (b) drink, (c) hibernation until June, or (d) some grizzly combination of a, b, and c. It is not that being in London was awful. It is just I would never have gone there had I known this was the year I would have to wear my winter coat and boots in freakin’ April. But, apart from the cold, the days were wonderful. Most of the time was spent in an open access studio in the East End of London blissfully making art that I have not been able to do in Bim because of a lack of access to facilities. And having worked pretty much on my own for the past 18 months it was a relief to be in this space with interesting fellow artists – especially Ann whose generosity helped me complete my projects within a near impossible time frame.

I was not so sure it would work out renting studio space for this short time. My first day was a little tense. It was clear that this interval abroad had transformed me into a strange hybrid - simultaneously exotic (flying in from Barbados), and mundane, (as in, hang on a minute, you’re really a south Londoner). But mainly everyone just got on with work, made endless cups of tea, and listened to the background noise of Radio 4. One gentleman of a certain age, and very camp, memorably broke the afternoon silence on the first day while I was bending over a screen printing bed.
“That bottom is just begging to be spanked.”
I slowly turned around, smiled and looked straight into his eyes.
“If you’re going to spank me, do it properly, or not at all.”

He mumbled, fumbled, and fled.
I never saw him again. Shame, and we were just getting to know each other…

The days developed into a routine of a long slog in the studio after which I would head to the West End to see friends, or take the kids out, or be a culture vulture. Apart from feeling exhausted all the time there was the question of changing out of the artist’s uniform into, if not Yummy Mummy clothes, at least Semi-Slummy Mummy garb. You didn’t think artists had uniforms? Come on – every profession has them and we are not to be excluded. London artists wear some variation of All Star sneakers, jeans and preferably a black t-shirt under a jumper or leather jacket. Because my art and mummy worlds operate as parallel universes neither usually sees me in the uniform of the other. However one night I was invited to Nobu for arguably the best sushi in town, a treat courtesy of our dear friend TK. I had to change in the toilets of the studio and tried really hard to scrub out the black ink embedded in my cuticles and forearms. But I was spotted leaving by S. as he wheeled his bike out into the cold night. I hung my head in shame at being caught in flagrante Ferragamo delicto. To my surprise he winked and laughed. “Don’t worry I won’t tell anyone. You scrub up nice.”

In the last few days in London I managed to go to two book readings. The first was with Khalid Hosseini (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns). He came across as an open, compassionate man, fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a writer and telling the stories of the Afgan people of whom so little is really known. Salman Rushdie was the other writer we were privileged to hear. He was in fine form talking about his new book, The Enchantress of Florence. Rushdie’s humour and seering intellect covered a range of topics from the history of the Mogul empire, to ethics, to the price of advocating free speech. Both events, in different ways, fed the soul and the intellect. They also paved the path back to this quieter space; this contemplative place where experiences are translated into other work.

Whether we are here, or there, all we are trying to do is provide our children with confidence to navigate the world and know that paradise is where ever you feel secure and loved. For them home translates into a single place where a precious shell collection or blue remote-control car permanently resides. Of course they will later understand that home is a more complex notion beyond geographical confines – a concept over which wars are being fought daily. I will make it simple for them. Home is a place called Bim where, just occasionally, we emerge from the trials of everyday life and see the stars.

START SLOW - THEN EASE OFF

Yesterday was the London marathon. Two apples, a camel, several celebrities and an amazing man with cerebral palsy all crossed the finish line. Every marathon I watch reminds me that I should never have run away from repeating the feat of finishing the NY marathon in 2005. This is what I wrote then about that experience.


As I lined up on the Verrazano bridge almost at the very end of the trail of 42,000 plus runners for the New York marathon I read this on the back of a t-shirt: Start slow – then ease off. I knew I was with the right crowd. The next 7 hours were a very long, slow, run. It is my running and it has changed my life forever. I saw NY, a city I have been visiting since I was 11 years old, in a new light. I met people from every socioeconomic, age and cultural group. At times I was smokin’ high and other times I wondered if there could be a lonelier place on the planet. But mostly I was smiling, conscious in the knowledge that I was in the process of shedding skin.

The first thing I noticed as we queued up for the bus to take us to the start of the race was that all the French and Italian runners had their countries of origin prominently displayed across their bodies. We Brits were in fancy dress. There were the firemen from South Wales in full gear, the Macmillan Bear, the Army lads in uniform with heavy backpacks and the ladies who showed off fabulously decorated bras. Elvis, of course, could not miss the event and the boys in kilts showed up. Our friend Tony said a fully clad British rhino passed him. The United Kingdom could be proud.

Mine was not the run I expected. I was frightened that I would have to fight my body and pain and anxiety to get through 26.2 miles. Instead I found that I was there to celebrate. It was a celebration of hard work towards what seemed an impossible goal for someone with no running talent. I still have no talent. But I have enthusiasm and I have dared to hope and to dream and to have faith. I have not felt so much joy apart from the birth of our beautiful sons. And, like childbirth, it was not all pleasant but you are changed forever. Get this – I am now an endurance athlete. Yeah baby that is what I am putting on the CV from now on.

Marathoners have many stories. I chatted to a couple that had amazinhazen.org splashed across their backs. Hazen is their 4-year-old boy with cancer and they were raising money for his hospital treatment. Just that week he had had 4 days of chemo but they said he was going to meet them at the finish line. I met a man running in memory of his wife Sharon who had died almost a year to the day. He was trembling and tearful before the race but his buddy was running with him and somehow you knew that he was going to be okay with such a solid friend. There was the couple – she a veteran of 21 marathons and he 30. I explained it was my first. They told me to get a move on. I also met crazy people like the man who commanded “And now you will talk with me” which gave me a serge of energy to leave him in the dust. The only other times I had that outpouring of energy was when I saw our sons on the course – at miles 8, 17 and 21. Oh, and I felt really full of energy at mile 18. Just when I should be hitting the wall I was fantasizing I was Paula Radcliffe and wanted to run like the wind. I could practically hear the Chariots of Fire music. Maybe I was hitting the wall after all.

Because I ran for Great Ormond Street Hospital – in a top specially customized - many assumed I had or still have a sick child being treated there. I told them about brave Olivia and the fantastic treatment she had received. She and her parents had even come from London to cheer us on.

They say that Americans are really friendly but having lived in Boston I could not agree with what they said. But lord have mercy did the American citizens come out to support the marathoners. I had whole bars full of drunken folks on First Avenue chanting my name. In Brooklyn one woman had a Trinidadian flag and when I shouted I was a Trini her whole posse nearly picked me up to lift me all the way to the finish. Total strangers told me how proud they were of me. Other runners told me to keep going despite the unusual November heat, blisters on my toes and the nagging feeling that quitting wasn’t such a bad option after all. And the support did not end there. Friends Gary and Clare and their kids George and Lucy appeared about mile 18 with a huge banner that my little boy proudly told me said “Ingrid, Avi, Go, Go, Go”. George and Lucy had made it specially.

Oh I have almost forgotten to tell you the best bit. Somewhere on the Queens-Boro Bridge, where no spectators are allowed, and the landscape is bleak and unforgiving, and you really have to remind yourself that running over this bridge, on this day, at this time, is all you ever wanted to do in life, there I met Erica. We began running together. It was her forth marathon but she was ready to quit this one now. She had stomach cramps, she was depressed – you name a negative emotion and she was full of it. I don’t know why but I made her a promise. I said that no matter how slow she went and no matter many times she had to stop I would stay with her to the finish. She did not exactly cheer up but she did grab hold of my hand and make me repeat my promise in all the official languages of the United Nations. For the next eight and half, slow, miles Erica literally latched on to me. People who know me will attest to the fact that I am not a cheery person but this woman had a transformative effect on me. I became a cheerleader for anyone I met who was struggling or being negative. And the worse part is - I really enjoyed buoying everyone up. Finally one guy yelled out, “Shut it Pollyanna”. I blew him a kiss and continued on with a permanent grin on my face. They say everyone deals with the wall in a different way.

That our sons were witness to this achievement was only possible because darling Charles left his home in Connecticut on a Sunday morning when he could have been having a lie-in, organized everyone and took them to various spots to see us. Jolie took time off from work, flew in from Chicago to actually stay and help with the kids. When she rubbed my legs that night and practically fed me soup I knew we had chosen an angel in our sons’ godmother.

And my top tip after all that I have been through?
Do not use a portable toilet at any gathering of 42,000 people. It is just plain rank.

By the way - I crossed the finish line holding Erica’s hand.

EMBRACING TRUTH, BEAUTY AND DUTY

We are still in London so stop reading now if you don’t give a toss about life in SW17. Spring has sprung. But, in this in-between time, the heavy coats are kept out for easy access. Winter can return at any time and without any warning. We are all doing the things we cannot access in Bim – albeit some of us rather reluctantly. I sent the young men off to the Natural History Museum to experience the “Ice Station Antarctica ” where you can see, feel, hear and smell what it is like in such extreme conditions. Sadly my young men are not made of hardy stuff and no one came home saying they can’t wait for us to take a trip to the South Pole. Actually they came home begging for hot chocolate. Andre claimed it was worse than being in a freezer. He is even threatening strike action.
“Persaud,” (I am never Ingrid when he is complaining) “if dat is what you want me to see in dem museums me eh going nowhere again. Man dat bare cold eh good for humans.”

Tomorrow they are off to see The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army, at the British Museum.
“Why do we have to see the Terracotta Army? I want to go to Lego Land.” wails First Born.
“It is an amazing exhibition and you will enjoy it and you will learn lots. Didn’t you like the exhibition on Tutankhamen that mama took you to last week? You did like it, didn’t you? I know you did even though you cried and said you didn’t ever want to go to another museum.”
Three pairs of eyes stared blankly back at me.
“Guys, trust me. You’ll thank me when you’re older.”
No one looks convinced – least of all Andre.

With the temperatures rising it really is getting harder to keep the kids interested in gallery and museum hopping. They want to be in the park playing football with Andre or on their micro scooters. The Husband thought it best if he spent time with the boys while they scootered around Wandsworth Common. After the first of these outings he came home exhausted from running to keep up with them. If you can’t beat them, then, he concluded, you join ‘em. He disappeared yesterday into a department store and emerged the proud owner of the most flash, most revved up scooter I have ever seen. Shadowfax, as he has named it, was immediately taken for a spin in our park.

A couple hours later the doorbell rang and the little ones ran through the door laughing and asking if we could have Chinese takeaway for dinner because we don’t get good Chinese food in Bim. There was no sign of The Husband.
“What have you done with your father?” I asked suspiciously.
“Oh, he’s outside. I think he said he can’t move or something.” shrugged Second Born.
Slumped against our front garden wall is The Husband. Shadowfax is lying on the pavement.
“Are you okay?” I asked tenderly.
He was still panting.
“Only just. Those little bastards made me go for miles. And scootering is like sprinting.”
“Didn’t Shadowfax outfox two little boys on cheap razor scooters?” I inquired.
“Leave Shadowfax out of this.” he snarled.
It may be called Shadowfax but you still need major fitness or at least Gandalf-like magic to keep up with two active boys. (If you have no idea what I am on about then you have been asleep for the Noughties and missed a trilogy that has spawned a whole industry of wannabees. And you particularly missed sex-on-horseback, Aragorn a.k.a. Viggo Mortensen).

I however have been getting little sleep since we came to London. Every minute is crammed with work, friends, galleries, plays, movies as well as attending to the quotidian details of life. The best experience I have had has been a production by Punchdrunk of The Masque Of The Red Death. Based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, (apart from Masque there are bits from at least seven short stories, including The Black Cat, Berenice and The Fall of The House of Usher), the experience plunges you into the macabre world of all that haunted a writer plagued by depression and alcoholism.

I use the word “experience” because this is a unique theatrical adventure blending live performance, music, mime and installation art, with no physical boundaries between "audience" and actors. Punchdrunk have taken over all four floors of the Battersea Arts Centre and every part of it is the set. On entering you are given a Venetian, carnivalesque mask – white with a long, hooked nose – which you wear at all times. This is the only real demarcation between the actors, and we, the other participants, who at times become part of the performance. Having achieved masked anonymity, you are left to wonder around the building as you choose. You go where you want, when you want. There is no path to follow. The only other rule is that you do not talk.

No two people can have the same experience of Masque. I walked around in the dark, opening doors. Sometimes they led to magical, empty rooms where I could imagine the scenes that might take place - the love, the anger, the passion. You could come back to that room later and find a whole scene taking place. Sometimes rooms seemed to disappear. At other times I would stumble onto a scene – like the back stage dressing room where two young men argued while getting ready to perform in a cabaret. Another time I came across a character and decided to follow him. I stood right next to him while he introduced himself as a doctor to a young girl in her bedchamber. He tried to hypnotise her. I think she was playing the role of Madeline, Roderick’s sister from The Fall of The House of Usher.

Knowing these details only deepened the enjoyment of the production but you certainly don’t need to know anything about Poe or the short stories to be spellbound by this intense, irredeemably sad, mad, world. I left soon after the doctor did and after many other adventures stumbled upon him again – this time shaking hands with a portly gentleman on the main staircase. I followed them into the basement where they drank wine. Then he "murdered" the fat guy and buried him in a cavity of the wall. It is hard to explain but you are not just a voyeur. You are with them, seeing their sweat and feeling their breath. You are made to consider your own moral culpability. Should you intervene? Could you intervene? Where does art end and life begin?

For the most part the actors carry on as if you are not present - simply pushing you out of the way if they need to. But you have to be prepared for anything. I was not. My pal Kate reported that a nice man wearing very little came and sat on her lap and said she had the firmest thighs he had felt in ages. My thighs had no such luck. Another time I was exploring a tiny room that looked like a surgery. It smelled of formaldehyde and there were dirty, blood soaked cloths everywhere. I was just about to leave when in burst a man about to vomit and a woman who was attending to him. Once he was stable she helped him with his jacket. They kissed passionately and he left, having barely spoken to her.

I was about to go too but the woman held me back. She pushed the others out and locked the door. We were alone. Slowly she turned around and looked me straight in the eye. She was whispering. At first I did not understand. Then it became clear that she was saying over and over, “Show me. Show me. Show me.” When I did not respond she threw a glass of water at me. I was now even more shocked and unable to respond. But the tone of her voice became more and more insistent until she was inches away from my face. By now her hands were on me and she was yelling, “Show me! Show me!” I was already wet, and, with nothing to lose, decided to play. She was now pushing me against the wall, trying to remove my mask. I shook my head and pulled it firmly to my face. We struggled for a bit and then I put my hand on her chest and shoved her away. She backed off. With a look of utter disgust she said, “The world is divided into adventurers and cowards. I usually pick correctly.” And with that she unlocked the door and vanished into the darkness.

Several times later in the night I tried to find my way back to that room and to the woman who now haunted me. When I finally did, she, of course, was not there.