Trinidad and Tobago is constantly buzzing with artistic and cultural events — music, dance, theatre and drama, fashion, literature, and bacchanal. Trinidad is unique because of the number of arts and cultural traditions that have been preserved over the years. Literature in Trinidad and Tobago is diverse in its origins. Today, it’s written mainly in English and borrowed from the oral stories of Africans and indigenous people, folk tales and religious stories brought over from the Indian and Chinese workers, as well as European literary traditions that were introduced.
It’s no secret that when visiting Trinidad, drinking rum, whining to soca music, and hitting up the beaches are must do activities. Those things are coveted, but the island has a rich culture and there are many hidden gems waiting to be discovered and explored.
Over the years, many different art groups and organizations have been formed catering to the needs of all types of artists from across the island. For example, the Women in Arts Organization is led by and made up of women artists only and caters to the needs of women artists. Trinidad and Tobago artists have produced all types of art from sculpture to paintings to even carnival costumes (mas) which are now being considered a special kind of art, unique to our culture with its own very important traditions and history.
We hold a rich art historical tradition, although not much has remained from the pre-Columbian era, many items that have been found, especially in Tobago, are objects that were created by our indigenous ancestors and served many functions such as household, religious, as well as artistic or aesthetic. Thus, many objects that have been unearthed are considered to be part of the early art history of the islands. During the 1800s, one of Trinidad’s earliest fine artists, Michel-Jean Cazabon (1813-1888) dominated the colonial era with this art. There is no other record of a locally born artist producing work at that time. The magic of his work lies in the photographic record of what the landscape of Trinidad looked like in the 1800s before there were digital cameras to capture it all. Thankfully, a collection of his work can be viewed at the National Museum and through the Office of the Prime Minister’s Legacy Exhibition.
The small size of the local arts scene means that many artists are part-time semi-professionals. But there’s certainly no shortage of vibrancy or creativity. Artists draw on the classical and folk traditions of Europe, Africa and India, combining them in original ways or adding a creole touch to create new forms that are distinctly Trinidadian.
Carlisle Chang’s “Conquerabia” is an artwork which was listed (meaning legally protected) by the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago as a Grade D Property of Interest. Conquerabia is a mural primarily cast in cement with other added materials located on the ground floor outside the Port of Spain City Hall. It is believed to be the original name of the Amerindian settlement that preceded the Spanish city, but in many ways the mural sums up Chang’s vision of the entire country. It epitomizes, too, his vision of its art, in its symbolism, its style and even the materials used in its construction.
It used to be that most of the work, not directly related to the carnival arts, ceased after Christmas, when carnival fetes and parties took over. However, that has changed over the years, with theatre producers, music presenters, and artists showcasing their work almost right up to Carnival and throughout the year. Although activity is typically concentrated around Port of Spain, other towns like Chaguaramas in the west to the University of the West Indies (UWI) in the east and San Fernando in the south now have their own vibrant art culture.
For the artistically curious, artworks in Trinidad can be found at the Royal Victoria Institute (National Museum), the Central Bank Museum, Angostura Limited Collection, Bermudez collection, major banks, private galleries and major art collectors such as Christine Millar. There are many historic works of art that still need protection from the National Trust Act for the next generation to treasure.
Subrina Hall-Azih is a Trinidadian educator residing in New York.