Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Put Your Foot Down

Joanna Helfer’s residency journal, week one

On 6 March, 2017, Scottish artist Joanna Helfer began an eight-week stay at Alice Yard, as part of the British Council’s Transatlantic Artists Residency Exchange (#BCTAARE). During her time at Alice Yard, she is writing a weekly journal documenting her exploration of Trinidad and her work in progress.


Late last Monday night, after around thirty hours of travelling, I arrived at Alice Yard in the Woodbrook neighbourhood of Port of Spain, Trinidad, to begin my residency for the British Council’s Transatlantic Artists Residency Exchange (TAARE).

I left my house in Tayport at 3 pm on Sunday, got a taxi up to my studio on Tannadice Street, then down to the ceramics workshop to leave my keys and all my responsibilities behind. After another taxi to the station, I took the train to Edinburgh to fit in a visit to my grandparents before leaving, quickly sipping tea from antique willow pattern cups. At midnight, I caught the bus to Glasgow, another bus to the airport, then a lot of waiting. I tried to explain through my sleep-deprived muggy mind to friendly and inquisitive Glaswegians what on earth I was doing. I still don’t know. It was a short flight down to London with all the suited business folks on the way to a 9 am meeting in the city, followed by the long-haul from London, touchdown in St Lucia (where all the straw-hatted and linen-shirted tourists disembarked) and a short hop over to Port of Spain. After a simple immigration check (“What kinda art you make?”), I was here. The only thing obstructing my journey was the Trade Winds, causing a bad patch of turbulence across the Atlantic. Perhaps a portent of our times. 

The sense of displacement was profound. My apartment at Alice Yard is different to any space I have occupied before — there are sections cut out of the walls, holes to the outside which sound, smell, voices, and insects travel freely through. One wall is glass — a sheet of fabric barely shielding me from the gaze of all the visitors to the yard, gaps in the wooden slatted blinds rendering me immobile, utterly self-conscious, transparent. The boundaries between inside and outside are almost obliterated. It took me a few days to overcome my crushing anxiety and embrace the fluidity and tension of occupying a location which is a crossroads and citadel at the same time.

I am always where I am.

Port of Spain is listed in the top ten most dangerous cities in the world. I am repeatedly warned to be careful and to avoid walking alone, especially at night. In 2016, there were 478 murders in Trinidad and Tobago, and the recent grassroots mobilisation of activists across the Caribbean for women’s rights has recorded a disturbing rise in violence and harassment towards women and girls throughout the region. My proposal for this residency, which involves walking around the local region, takes on a whole new element, one which is overwhelmingly aware of the fragility and softness of my body, and otherness — my femininity, whiteness, privilege, and ignorance. There is virtually no public transport here, and cars are heavily relied upon for personal transportation, buoyed by the extraction of oil and natural gas in local waters, an industry which defines the island to a surprising (to me) degree.

On Saturday 11 March, six nations across the Caribbean engaged in a women’s rights demonstration to commemorate International Women’s Day. This sprung out of a movement which began in Barbados when women started to share their experiences of sexual harassment and institutionalised sexual and gender based violence using the hashtag #lifeinleggings. This quickly gained traction as women across the region shared their everyday encounters on social media. In Trinidad and Tobago, several activist groups worked together to organise the demonstration and march in Port of Spain. I found the event incredibly moving. There were many younger women and girls present, and the march around the Queen’s Park Savannah was led by all the girls under the age of ten, in a powerful gesture of intent — these girls should not grow up in a world where their rights and safety are compromised.

On Saturday morning, I joined fellow TAARE artist Josh Lu for a trip around Port of Spain (he will be travelling to London in May). Josh’s practice is concerned with the complex history and memory of space and he has conducted a lot of interesting research highlighting the connections between Scotland and Trinidad. The first place we visited was the Lapeyrouse Cemetery, just down the road from me in Woodbrook. The cemetery was used as the municipal dump during colonial times, and Josh has built up a sound knowledge of the various curios to be found there, from cast iron railings and crypt doors from long-lost Glasgow foundries to willow pattern crockery, just like my Granny’s, now reduced to fragments in the overturned earth. I found a piece of salt-glazed ceramic bottle from the H. Kennedy Barrowfield Pottery in Glasgow, a common find in colonial middens all over the island. The cemetery is divided up into various sections, with residents of Catholic, Presbyterian, and Anglican faiths. The gravestones and crypts are left to crumble and fade in the intense Caribbean heat, and are frequently raided for scrap metal, garden ornaments, and building materials. Many of the old crypts also house living occupants alongside the deceased, homeless folks who have used the available shelter to hide away from the harsh sun. Among the epitaphs are precious belongings, clothes drying in the sun, and scattered razor blades. 

One of the first questions I get asked by people is “Why weren’t you here for Carnival?” with a combination of pity and disbelief. Carnival is the must-see event of the year here in Trinidad and Tobago, and I missed it by a week. Most people were in a state of post-Carnival exhaustion when I first arrived, as a result of days and nights spent partying like the world was ending. There are a lot of different Carnival traditions that I’ve not quite got my head around yet, but it’s interesting to try to guess what happened from the collective hangover everyone is experiencing. I spent one afternoon walking to the Savannah, where the main event for Carnival takes place, collecting beads and trinkets left over from the elaborate Carnival costumes.

One Carnival tradition I have managed to get involved in through Alice Yard is stilt-walking. There is a traditional character called the Moko Jumbie — a masked mischief-maker on high stilts that was once a mainstay in Carnival and is now starting to make a comeback thanks to the innovations of local artists and groups. Local practitioners Josh Lu and Kriston Chen are collaborating to hold regular Moko Jumbie sessions beyond Carnival season, teaching the act of stilt-walking to beginners from all over T&T. On Sunday, we spent the afternoon in the yard of a traditional timber-frame house which has recently been renovated. Aspiring Moko Jumbies from all over Port of Spain and beyond came along to learn both stilt-walking and the history of the house, facilitated by a carefully curated intervention by Josh.

Over the past week, as my sense of place has altered, and I find myself less uncomfortable with my outsider status, I am drawn again to one of my favourite poems by the Scottish writer Norman MacCaig. MacCaig wrote of his experiences exploring the wild coastlines of western Scotland, but I think this poem travels with some resonance to Trinidad, and the wild urban landscape of Port of Spain.


I watch the lush moon fatly smirking down —
Where she might go, to skirt that smouldering cloud,
Is space enough to lose your image in.

Or, turn my head, between those islands run
Sandpapering currents that would scrub the dull
Picture away in suds and slaverings.

Even this grass, glowered at with force enough,
And listened to with lusting, would usurp,
In its beanstalk way, this walking, talking thing.

I choose it should not go. I turn for these
Paltering beautiful things, in case I see
Your image fade and myself fade with it —

A dissipation into actual light:
A dissolution in pure wave: a demise
In growth of green goodness, sappy and thick —

And think myself a foreigner in this scene,
The odd shape cramped on stone, the unbeastlike, clear
Of law and logos, with choices to commit …

Thump goes the wave then crisscross gabbles back —
As I do now till, wave to wander at,
I come again, to tower and lurch and spill.

From A Round of Applause (mostly 1959–61)


Joanna Helfer graduated with a BA (Hons.) in Time Based Art and Digital Film in 2009. The past eight years of her professional work have primarily consisted of setting up and facilitating community arts initiatives in Dundee, Scotland. These include Tin Roof, an artists’ collective serving the creative community of the city by providing collaborative opportunities, resources, and space to make work, and Hot Chocolate Trust, a youth work charity working with marginalised young people. Alongside these, her personal practice as a multidisciplinary artist includes filmmaking, photography, performance, sound art, printmaking, and installation. She combine themes found in her community work with her personal practice, particularly in trying to uncover hidden or suppressed histories of people and places through performative exploration and creating relationship-based interactive experiences. She is particularly inspired by the Situationist movement and the practice of the dérive, using walking as a recurring methodology to provoke new work.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

AY/24/7: Richard Mark Rawlins

A Dress to the Nation

From 3 to 8 March, 2017, a new work by artist Richard Mark Rawlins will be installed in the Alice Yard Box and accessible to viewers 24/7.

The artist writes:

This work, created for the occasion of my 50th birthday, is meant to symbolise my feelings about the trust, hope, security, and prayer that in my opinion have been expected of every one of our citizens over the course of my lifetime, but without any real sense of reciprocity.

From as early as I knew myself, I can recall the countless times we as a nation, certainly my parents, my brother, and I, would dash home so as not to miss an announced “Address to the Nation” by the prime minister, or in some cases the president, of the day. Today that is no longer required, and it does not hold such  pomp, circumstance, and authority, as everything is re-broadcast on social media.

While some addresses were often responses to public dissatisfaction over some perceived ill or another, and others still heralded political actions to be taken against an opposition member or sitting member of government (read: sacking), or on the odd occasion the announcement of a curfew or house arrest, for the most part I found them mystifying, in the sense that they left me no better off than before. In recent times they could even be described as befuddling, leaving all but the most sycophantic in a perpetual “WTF” moment.

Every time I hear the words “an address to the nation” now, I can’t help but hear the song from the musical Annie playing in my head. That cute-lily-white-milky-soppiness of sacchrine, that extolls the virtues of looking on to a brighter day. The sun will come out tomorrow. Again. Yeah, allyuh could wait for that....

About the artist:

Richard Mark Rawlins is a graphic designer and artist living and working in Trinidad and Tobago. He is the publisher of the online art magazine Draconian Switch, and collaborator in the Alice Yard contemporary art-space initiative. Noted exhibitions include the Bienal Internacional de Asuncion 2015 (Paraguay); the Jamaica Biennial 2014; Season of Renewal, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica; The Global Africa Project, Museum of Art and Design (MAD), New York; The General Public, Alice Yard, Port of Spain; and NEO GLOBAL, AHFMB during Miami Artweek 2016. For the past ten years, he has been exploring the cultural poetics and politics of life in Trinidad and Tobago, notions of nationhood, and black identity as presented via a global lens.