Where Dialogue Begins…
Artist Marlon Griffith works on the costumes he designed for the scrap group “Sperit” in his studio at Popopstudios Center for the Visual Arts.
They had come to Bay Street colorless. Intricate patterns carved into unusual forms, Marlon Griffith’s costumes, donned by the scrap group “Sperrit” during the Boxing Day Junkanoo parade, were bound to inspire questions.
“What are these?” a puzzled official asked Griffith, who had been video-taping the group on the parade route.
“This is my work,” the Trinidadian artist replied.
“Interesting,” said the official.
Griffith recalled the exchange days after the parade, noting what was perhaps one of the most important elements of his presentation.
“You could see he was curious about it which is good,” said Griffith.
The presentation had been part of a continuous conversation with dialogue boxes scattered around the globe. Griffith, recipient of a 2010 Commonwealth Connections international arts residency and the current Artist in Residence at Popopstudios, has introduced interpretations of his native Carnival into festivals, street parades and galleries on three continents.
His goal: To take Carnival as an art form beyond the streets of Trinidad and Tobago.
“Here I was doing this thing, and I was happy doing it, but I needed to explore something more. It was like ‘how do I take this thing and do something else with it?’,” said Griffith, who played mas or participated in Carnival as a child and began designing and constructing costumes as an adult.
The artist, who now lives in Japan with his wife, began creating Carnival-inspired pieces after a trip to Hartford, Connecticut in the mid-90s. There he saw other artists exhibiting work that pertained to the event outside of its context.
“That became a big part of the work, taking this thing outside of the context and placing it in another space and seeing how people respond to it.”
Griffith learned about Junkanoo six years ago from Bahamian artist John Beadle. The similarities between the festivals despite their distinct identities piqued his interest.
“We have all these other festivals in the Caribbean … they’re so similar to each other, but at the same time, so different because our histories between us are so different,” he said.
In is latest intervention here in The Bahamas, Griffith incorporated a motif that he has been working with for the past few years. His Junkanoo costumes were abstracted forms of the humming bird.
“The humming bird is an image that is always so representative of the Caribbean,” said the artist, who, in working with the motif over the years, has learned of the aggressive and territorial nature of the bird. Griffith’s preoccupation with the humming bird has been about exploring ways to “take that image and turn it into something more than what it really is, and in doing that it kind of exposes who we really are in a sense.”
The Junkanoo costume forms included abstract swans as well. Griffith used the swan, with its association with elegance and grandeur, to represent the magnitude of the tourism product he found on arriving in The Bahamas. Yet at the same time the swan, a form assumed by Zeus in Greek mythology to rape a woman, represents the dubious nature of the industry with its potential for negative effects on local culture.
Together the abstracted forms and their new interpretations of known images also point to Griffith’s efforts to create a new Caribbean mythology.
“We grow up hearing all these mythologies about people that live in the Caribbean but … where are the new mythologies for the time we live in now? All of the images are based on things we are familiar with but at the same time they’re not so familiar,” he said.
As for his other artistic interventions, some of which he has performed with curator Claire Tancons, Griffith said that public reaction has varied.
“We have been able to do some interventions into different spaces and communities and there has been positive reactions as well as negative. But we’ve been able to learn from those interactions, and I think we’ve learned that there’s a big relationship between the artist and the people.”
At the time of the interview Griffith said that he was still assessing the reaction to his presentation at Junkanoo. He did say, though, that he has been able to learn more about the region through such projects.
“This work kind of helps me understand these islands a lot more, and I guess that’s where the dialogue begins.”
An installation by Marlon Griffith at Popopstudios.
The Nassau Guardian