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Saturday 20 April 2019
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Not a happy place

Artist Richard Rawlins disrupts vision of TT

People like to say Trinidad is not a real place, but artist Richard Mark Rawlins is adding to that in his exhibition, Here is Not A Happy Place.

The exhibition, ongoing at Medulla Art Gallery, Woodbrook, is a collection of a child’s dress made out of two national flags, 13 acrylic paintings on canvas of the dress at different locations, and two video installations.

At an initial glance the paintings look
fanciful with their bright colours and imaginative imagery. However, on further inspection the feeling of loneliness emerges, as well as the idea of something bad having happened to the child who wore the dress.

To add to the haunting feeling, a whistled version of the song Tomorrow from the musical Annie played in the background, which, to some, could bump that feeling up to creepy.

Rawlins told Sunday Newsday the original piece, the dress, showed at Alice Yard in Woodbrook two years ago. It was placed in a black box with two tap shoes facing backwards, with Tomorrow playing in the background.

He said he made the piece to mark his 50th birthday and his frustration with society and the way people do things. In addition, when he was creating the pieces he had in mind a then recent article that listed 37 women who had been killed or had gone missing for the year, never to be seen again.

“I wanted to create this symbol called A Dress to the Nation...It was to mark the amount of times I listened to addresses to the nation from the prime minister or president. I felt I reached the point that I heard so many of these and we still seem to be spinning top in mud, saying the same things over and over, asking the same questions, so that it became pointless.”

He said he saw TT as “little orphan Annie,” as the government or parents rotated every five years and did not get to know the people, its children. “Nobody seems to be getting what the child needs right.”

During the showing, the meaning of the piece evolved because it happened to coincide with International Women’s Day, and when people, including men, stood in front of the paintings to take photos of the dress, their reflections showed making it look as if they were wearing the dress.

He noted in his blog Pleasure, a comment made by poet Andre Bagoo about the piece. “A dress is a gendered thing. It makes us think of the guises adopted by women and men. Of the body’s impulse to conceal and reveal; to dress up and dress down,” Bagoo had said.

Bagoo’s comment inspired the piece Boys Trying on Dresses, and Rawlins said he began experimenting with the dress. He took it to different places to be photographed at different locations and ideas for more pieces came to mind, although he did not deliberately work through every idea.

He recalled that at one point he took the dress to a park near some swings and used clear fishing line to attach it to a tree. The breeze blew, the dress lifted and started to float, so he filmed it, added the audio of Tomorrow being whistled, and later the short piece showed in several film festivals.

That year he began studying at the Royal College of Art in London and, after graduating last month, decided to show his collection.

Engage and think

Rawlins said the way people in TT see art bothers him. At exhibition openings people drink wine and lime instead of focusing on the art. Also, they only see the surface of the work, the “pretty colours” or that something is “amazing,” and either ignores or cannot see the message of the work.

He said he prefers to engage uncomfortable topics and “disrupt” with his art, as there are enough beautiful imagery of the country’s flora, fauna, and sceneries in what he calls the normative.

“We have a lot of talented artists with different skills, working in different media, showing different content. I am not against any of that. When I did this work I deliberately did something I wouldn’t normally do. I sat down to actually make pretty, nice work.

“Here is Not A Happy Place will bring you into contact with the concept of the artist as the alter-native. The term, coined by artist Christopher Cozier, refers to artists whose visual aesthetics coexist with, and yet intervene in, the popular imagery in circulation. And perhaps that’s what these paintings are – a subversion camouflaged by a normative form, a normative process of art production, painting, with normative materials, canvas and paint...

“But when you actually get into it, look beyond the pretty, you begin to see other things.

"What I would like to see is our society engage things in a deeper way instead of at a surface level where we are just okay.”

Rawlins said the dress became a metaphor of TT – it is a beautiful country with happy people, including himself, with no major riots or revolutions but underneath that there are many problems that need fixing.

And in the same way people engage with art, they distract themselves by the colour and “niceness” of “surface things” like Carnival, instead of focusing on the serious issues on which the country has to work.

He noted that, in addition to viewing TT as an orphan, he chose Tomorrow because the hopeful song is in contradiction to TT’s situation, as he is doubtful anything will improve in the future.

He recalled that one viewer found his video installation uncomfortable.

“That’s just perfect. That’s my work starting to do something – not just, ‘It’s nice’ or, ‘It has pretty colours.’ We have to talk about these things, have a discussion so we can start to have action around it.”

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