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Sunday, 21.10.18

by Joshua Surtees

Thursday was a beautifully rainy day in Port of Spain. Not the kind of deluge that batters you off the street, but a persistent and pleasant precipitation with shallow puddles disturbed by the plip-plop of droplets. The rare cool temperatures allowed perambulation of the city without fear of becoming soaked in sweat.

One minute I was in the dirt beneath the house feeding the dogs and trying to avoid muddy paw prints on my t-shirt, the next I was stood in front of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait and being served sparkling rosé wine by Mark Pereira at his 101 Gallery on Woodford Street. Only in Trinidad can one be transported from the gutter to the stars in an instant. Or vice versa.

This is the life, I thought. The epitome of idle. How Pereira acquires such important artwork is fascinating. I could ask him, I suppose, but the mystery is more alluring. Besides, art dealers cherish opacity.

Alongside the beautiful familiarity of Kahlo’s pastel drawing were two Diego Rivera sketches, all produced between 1945 and 1947 when the reconciled lovers lived together but apart, in adjacent houses in Mexico. Elsewhere, Pissarro, a recurring theme of Pereira’s, hung on the walls alongside limited-edition prints by Basquiat, Miro, Dali, Doig and Ofili.

Frida Kahlo - Self Portrait   at 101 Art Gallery

But the Trinidadian artists steal the show at 101’s Precious Paintings (until 3 November). One hopes some pieces will remain on the walls, despite many having been bought before the official opening. The Knolly Greenidge watercolours stand out. Caribbean twentieth-century classics. As good as any painter in the world, and outrageously prolific.

“This just came in an hour ago,” I hear Pereira saying to a buyer eyeing up Greenidge’s watery, timeless gorgeousness.

“If you’re collecting, Josh, you should buy a Sybil Atteck,” whispers a writing colleague. I look at the price tag and wince. But the piece, an expressionist female nude, is wonderful.

“I prefer to buy living artists’ work,” I mutter to no one in particular, resisting the urge to splash out.

“Why is Mahmoud Pharouk Alladin so valuable?” I ask Pereira.

“Sweetheart, this is older than you,” he says gesturing toward a huge Alladin oil painting of a steelband and limbo dancers.

“I’m going to go before I do something rash,” I say.

“Since when was it a bad thing to do things rashly?” he laughs, winks and hugs goodbye. A charming first encounter.

Across the road a carpark attendant battles slumber in the cosiness of a booth. “It cold in here,” she protests.

“Ever been to England?” I chide.

Through the delightful rain to Woodbrook and another magnificent exhibition at Y Gallery on Taylor Street. As luck would have it, the artist is sitting right there.

Roberta Stoddart - Sleepwalkers at Y Gallery

Roberta Stoddard, a Jamaican, resident in Trinidad since 1999, is showing over 30 paintings, mostly to do with death, in a show called The Tear Catcher.

Though they are dark, black and somewhat supernatural, they carry warmth and hope – a strange thing to say about death – rather than a chilling, sinister edge. They’re not like looking at a Francis Bacon, I tell her as she takes me around the room.

Sleepwalkers, a vast work, depicts the characters from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, with Stoddard’s own great-grandfather, a preacher, marrying the ill-fated couple, Mr Rochester and Antoinette.

“Brontë, who did not have the knowledge of this space, made Rochester one-dimensional. He was gruff but non-threatening, but Rhys writes him as a bit of a misogynist and possibly a racist. And these are the truths that we grapple with here in the region,” Stoddard explains.

“The woman of mixed heritage. Spanish Town, Jamaica. That’s me,” she says, referring to her Antoinette.

Roberta Stoddart - Dresses for Mourning at Y Gallery

“We all know how beautiful Jamaica is, it’s unmatched. But within that beauty there’s a menacing undertone. It’s like dealing with a difficult individual, you have to hold both: the good stuff, the bad stuff,” she says.

Next to it, Earth of Sorrows is entirely thick black paint, textured through repetitive manipulation.

Elsewhere, wildfires, smoke drifting over darkened landscapes, vultures and crows (“in some cultures they’re called psychopomps, they carry the dead to the other side”) ashes, cremation and a Victorian tear catcher – used in mourning wear – hang starkly on the bright white walls of Yasmin Hadeed’s minimalist space.

“It looks dystopian at first glance but by being able to talk about the darkness there’s hope,” Stoddard concludes.

Outside, the drizzle patters on my umbrella as I walk past herons wading in the waterlogged mounted police grounds, past stables smelling strongly of their equine residents, past the military cemetery where earlier that morning I saw a man urinating awfully close to the graves.

I think about life and death, and why one hurtles by so fast and the other is so bloody eternal. The only thing to do, as artists know well, is to leave one’s mark.