Life can be dark and clouded in obscurity at times, but if you look closely you can see the beauty in the details.
On the surface, that is how one might interpret Nikolai Noel’s exhibition, The Last Place on Earth/The Edge of All Things. However, that is just one aspect of a collection that is the result of a combination of ideas and influences giving the pieces' layers of meaning.
Mythology, sea monsters, old maps, history, fear, race relations and power are some of the concepts wrapped up in the drawings and sculptures to be exhibited at Medulla Art Gallery, Woodbrook from November 22 to January 10.
Noel told Sunday Newsday most of the pieces are related to the sea in some way and the history of how the western world deposits fear. “It is the imaging of irrational fear. How we (people of colour) are seen, dealt with and treated in the New World.”
In addition, he said TT was the most southerly island in the Caribbean, so he imagined it as the last place, the edge of discovery, the edge of the Anglophone western world.
He said in 2011 when he was studying for his Master of Fine Arts in painting and print making at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Virginia, he began thinking about how obscure people of colour, Caribbean people in general, were to those around him. He said TT culture is complex and diverse and takes time and effort to understand.
“TT is incredibly unique because of the amount of religions and races, etc. We have disagreements but we, by and large, live together peacefully, so I thought that made us difficult to see and pin down. I don’t think we even seem accessible because I don’t think we have the courage and energy to look at our history in a frank manner, or take stock of where we are and who we are, what we are. But I don’t know if we need to do that – if it’s valuable or dangerous in any way.”
He said there is no accounting for what the Caribbean is because of the way in which, and the purposes for which, the island states were formed, and the experience shaped how people coped and developed as a society.
For example, he said Caribbean people usually take what is horrible or scary and make them “fancy” or palatable, as evidenced by traditional mas, so that they can deal with it. In a similar way, he takes obscure and sometimes horrible things in our history and development and tries to make it into something “fancy” so that he can deal with it.
Noel said people tend to project their excessive, irrational fears onto other people and things. He said at the edges of old maps, where there were vast unexplored bodies of water, map makers would draw or warn of sea monsters.
“These monsters were also attractive to me because they allowed me to imagine how a kind of dimness of sight and an acute amnesia, augmented by fear, can transform a whale or a walrus into a deadly, threatening man and vessel consuming monster. How the mechanics of that conversion could allow me to think about attitudes/responses toward what was/is unknown. How these creatures became so wondrous and fantastic and formidable in the imaginations of sailors and chart-makers and how again, these beasts were very explicitly meant to be feared, avoided and opposed.”
That irrational fear was also illustrated by the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, and numerous other young black men in the US, which left him in grief, distress and confusion.
He said it is difficult for him to separate the police killings of black men in the US from lynchings, and they got him thinking about his worst fear, which resulted in the piece, Map of All Possible Destinations – a depiction of a lynching tree that produced, not fruit or flowers, but nooses.
“Kwame Ture said something like, ‘If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem.’ So if power is aligned against you, set up so that you cannot succeed, or set up so that you can be killed with no repercussions. That to me, is scary.”
He said it was not just the killing themselves that disturbed him but the lack of the value of life. “Historically, what’s the value of black life? We came to this new world, in this hemisphere, and not in the best circumstances. The ramifications of that into emancipation and self-governance... What’s the residue of that historical experience and how does it colour the way we treat each other?”
He described the killings and negative race relations in TT as “breaks in politeness” where people get to see what is happening under the surface. Therefore, he said it is important for us to pay attention to how we see ourselves in the power hierarchy and how we value each other. “Even in this largely black country I don’t think we’re off the hook. We tend to look at each other in that way as well – we keep looking at darkness and blackness as danger.”
Noel, a self-styled conceptual artist, has worked with many media including painting, sculpture, and video. He said he always had a desire to create images and his first interest was drawing as it was the most accessible medium to him as a child. He recalled that he used to tear out the middle pages in his copybooks to draw on, even before he knew he wanted to be an artist.
“I am committed to drawing because, to me, it’s a humble medium. It’s a humble way to work.”
And so his pieces are a mixture of graphite powder and linseed oil stencilled onto paper and discarded book covers that he found. He said his intention is to muddle things and make them indiscernible as much as possible.
“I constructed these things so there are different reads at different distances. When you’re far enough away you just see the blurs which could be almost anything, but as you get closer you realise there is something else going on, and even closer, you get more details of that something.”