Tuesday, February 20, 2018

What things are true


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In a recent column on Mr Robinson's autobiography, I noted that autobiographies and memoirs—in which the author writes the story of his/her own life, or part of it—can be valuable sources for understanding the past. And in my last piece I wrote about Lawrence Scott's fictional reconstruction of the life of Michel-Jean Cazabon, Trinidad's great 19th-century painter. Scott shows how he made his native island his primary source of artistic inspiration.

Both points resonate in the recently published What Things Are True by celebrated T&T artist Jackie Hinkson. It's "a Memoir of Becoming an Artist" (the sub-title), covering his first 28 years (to 1970). It explains why he decided to become an artist, what formed his talents and his skills, and how he too made T&T and the Caribbean his primary source of inspiration.

As in most memoirs, there is rich social history in Hinkson's finely written book. Hinkson grew up in Port of Spain in the post-World War II period (he was born in 1942). He belonged to the city's mixed-race, but definitely Creole, middle class. (Describing his encounter with MP Alladin's work, Hinkson comments on his "shameful ignorance" of Indo-Trinidadian culture and lifeways.)

Long noted for his fine drawings and paintings of older buildings in T&T, Hinkson gives us lovingly written pen portraits of the gracious Port of Spain houses in which he grew up, in the heart of the city—first on Shine Street, then Richmond Street. These old style wooden houses were like so many "that seemed to have sprung gracefully from our soil and culture", he writes.

His Richmond Street family home had been built around 1900, then a desirable middle-class residential area. Though it had become less so by 1950, it "still maintained some of its air of gentility and prosperity". The house, like so many of its era, was built of masonry and wood, with a long porch, a portico with fretwork decorations, wooden Demerara windows and jalousies. The inner walls and floors were of local wood. Cool and shady indoors, the house "embodied certain evolved tropical architectural values", Hinkson writes, characterised by the use of local materials and "graceful, understated simplicity".

This house, where Hinkson spent much of his childhood, was located in Cobo Town, a district with many poor people in barrack yards, a few wealthy families, and others "in between", like the Hinksons. The big yard of the family home was a meeting point for boys from all these groups, but Hinkson records that as a child, he felt closer to the poorer families and envied the greater freedoms of the barrack-yard boys.

As we would expect in a "growing-up" memoir, Hinkson writes about his school days, first at the well-respected Richmond Street Boys EC (that is, Anglican) school, then at Queen's Royal College. The boys at his primary school were socially (though not ethnically) mixed, with middle-class boys like himself, and many from "Behind the Bridge" and the barrack yards. He was one of three from the school in his year to win a coveted "exhibition" to QRC, which Hinkson describes as "a democracy of the elite", fully multi-ethnic by 1955 when he entered, representing the array of Trinidad's diversity (though less so in terms of class).

While he attended QRC (he was far from a stellar student) he discovered art at the Public and Central libraries. And the rest of the memoir focuses on Hinkson's evolution as an artist. He writes about the local art scene around 1960 and his encounters with the island's artists, from the established ones like Sybil Atteck and Carlisle Chang, to his contemporary and close friend, Peter Minshall—whose influence on the young Hinkson was profound, though not always straight-forward. The "5 Young Painters" exhibition in 1961, featuring Minshall, Pat Bishop, himself and two others—first made him known as an aspiring artist, when still at school.

Hinkson spent a difficult but rewarding year in Paris (1963-64), taking desultory art classes, but mainly absorbing the great European art tradition in the city's fabled museums and galleries. Here he first wrestled with a dilemma very familiar to Cazabon: where did he stand in that great tradition, a novice painter from the Caribbean, what could he take from it and what could he offer to it? Was it all too "white", too foreign, too European, to be useful to a Caribbean artist in the era of independence?

"We had to add and broaden our knowledge of the world, not shrink it", Hinkson concluded; "we could not be ashamed of Africa and India, but neither should we chuck out our European heritage in the name of nationalism"—or, for that matter, ethnicity (blackness). Like Cazabon, he searched for "the right art for the little piece of the earth to which I belonged", and insisted that the scenes and people of his own region were as worthy of great art as those of Europe.

And so, after university studies in art in Canada, Hinkson determined to live and work in T&T, to find in the realities of his country and region his primary source of artistic inspiration, to be content to be known as a Caribbean artist.

• Bridget Brereton is emerita professor of history at UWI,

St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean for many decades.