Kenwyn Crichlow’s analysis of Alfred Codallo’s
watercolour painting, FOLKLORE (1958).
Kenwyn Crichlow is a distinguished Trinidadian-born artist and art educator. He is Coordinator of the Visual Arts Programme in the Centre for Creative and Festival Arts in the Faculty of Humanities and Education of the St. Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies. He is Lecturer in studio arts, design and art history.
This week’s article focuses on a critical essay by Crichlow on a little known but significant work of visual art held in a Trinidad repository.
In 1958, Alfred Codallo exhibited a watercolour painting, known as FOLKLORE. It currently hangs unobtrusively on the walls of the Marie Louise Hall in the National Museum and Art Gallery in Port of Spain, Trinidad. It is a narrative painting that has famously depicted the figures of the Trinidad and Tobago folk pantheon (See Illustration) in ways that had only been spoken of – its representation indicating the extraordinarily subtle, mysterious, symbolic, pictorial language that is an integral part of the heritage of 20th century Art in Trinidad and Tobago.
In an art historical context the painting provides a reflection of concerns expressed during the decolonization of Trinidad and Tobago in the years before political Independence in 1962. Its narrative style suggesting some of the ways the “dramatis personae” of a group portrait could be used to show, to narrate and to describe. The figures, poised at the edge of the forest, are unmistakable to viewers, especially in their connection to memory and myth. It is hardly the first time the forest has served as theatre for artistic representation. Artists are drawn to the shifting shapes, the textures, the shadowed light, the darkened interior of forest that seem compelled to evoke its eerie intensity. The painting introduces its audience to the nexus of darkness and the figures of the hidden forest world in the mysterious incarnation of the folk pantheon.
The audience for this painting was the Trinidad Art Society, embodied in a jury that included several urban sophisticates who formed its executive and had the authority to recommend the purchases of significant pieces of artwork for the National Collection.
This painting is of importance as it draws attention to the imaginary figures in the oral tradition of storytellers in Trinidad and Tobago. It brings the entire adventure of traditional thought into an ingenious spectacle of the differences in shades of meaning of the figures in a way that gives nuances to the forest world of the bush and its connection to the forces of cultural expression in the period of decolonization.
Before this painting, a visual representation of these figures did not exist. It is to the inventiveness of the artist, Alfred Codallo, that an audience largely resident in urban Port of Spain was able to formulate thoughts about the deeper attributes of the figures and of the landscape to reflect concerns of the emerging post-colonial 20th century Trinidad and Tobago.
The painting shows a perpetually damp and fecund landscape in which the silk-cotton tree, the bamboo patch, the placid river and the crossroad are
pre-dominant motifs. The silk-cotton tree is one of the largest trees in Trinidad and Tobago and, like the bamboo patch, has played an important role in the spiritual life of rural people. Codallo brought them together in one
seamless imaginative space. His depiction offers a hidden landscape of the
bush as an underworld that lives in the memory of the diverse peoples who
are agitating for self-government of the island.
Indeed he invites us to share his vision of the figures as the fussy inhabitants of this mythological world where the damp space under the silk-cotton tree and the arches of the bamboo patch are the location and architecture of intense power, the place in which the anxious details of character and personality are displayed. The figures are manifestations of dread, even as they were more intended as figures of caution. They are assembled in this claustrophobic place, a surreal wilderness of twilight juxtaposed to the sublime moonlit hills in the distance.
This painting represents the opening of the dark forest of the soul to the light rising on the horizon. More urgently, it points to the capacity of an oral tradition to shape visual perception: the primeval bush as underworld in the pictorial expression of that part of the mind in which primary processes manifest an inherent intelligence and sensibility of the folk figures.
In the period of its creation, the painting clearly disrupted assumptions of the folk arts, music, dance and theatrical enactments, which were then pejoratively perceived as either the formation of an exceptional intuition or the amusing demonstration of an inherently unsophisticated form. It represents the wealth of the oral tradition as it came to be crystallized in the narration of rural storytellers.
This essay brings together insights derived from a closer viewing of Alfred
Codallo’s FOLKLORE. Such a viewing stands to benefit the study of
Caribbean painting and the wider expression of the folk arts in the
decolonization period. It is an attempt to demonstrate as flawed the premise
that a non-scribal, vernacular folk art was the construction of rudimentary
perceptions. Accordingly, it explores the figures in that landscape as pointing a pathway to a sincere interpretation of the folk imaginary in 20th century Trinidad and Tobago.
The full length of this article appears in THE ARTS JOURNAL Volume 5 Numbers 1 & 2.
The editor of THE ARTS FORUM Column, Ameena Gafoor, can be reached by E-mail at: [email protected] or on Tel: 592 227 6825
THE ARTS JOURNAL is a publication of THE ARTS FORUM Inc.
Volume 5 Numbers 1 and 2 has been released.
The Journal is available at: Austins Bookshop on Church Street, Georgetown; Universal Bookshop at the Pegasus Hotel; New Era Bookshop at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, Timehri; Bernadette Persaud at: [email protected] (Tel: 220 3337; or from the editor.
For guidelines for submission of articles to THE ARTS JOURNAL see website:
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