Greaves satirizes the Caribbean's political wasteland on canvas By Matt Falloon
Stabroek News
August 12, 2001

"Because we are a put together people," he grimaces, shuffling the keys to his room between steady hands. "You can see it in our food, creole rice and cook up. It's a consequence of our history but we don't have to keep flaunting it."

Stanley Greaves is back home, studying the street below from a hotel balcony in downtown Georgetown. The ruins of the April 9 fire on Regent and Robb Street are a backdrop to the restless eyes of the artist. Across the street, two old men sit on a bench by a stall in the dusk. Random noise from dogs and truck horns and loud youths on bicycles cut across his words.

"We live on borrowed goods," he says, having just asked the waitress to reduce the stereo volume. "We have not entered into a system of thought as to how we relate to the world and as a consequence we borrow terms from elsewhere."

An argument breaks out below, a misunderstanding of some sort. The dogs bark again, chase a motorbike for a few, mindless yards and skulk away again. One of the old men across the street adjusts his cap, the dog by his side flicks an ear and the argument runs out of pace.

"People link the Caribbean with entertainment and jollification," Greaves manages through the noise. "We sing calypso, we take part in carnival, our food is hot and spicy, we use bright colours. But they have those things in other parts of the world as well."

The effect of tourism, the coming of people and seeing a slice of make believe. This then seeping back into the destination society, becoming an element of the self-perception of a nation. You are what people think you are.

"Whenever we have very solemn occasions, the music that typifies the Caribbean is found to be inappropriate and we use Western classical music," he says, mystified. "We have a one-sided development. We party - but then what? We have music for joy but nothing for pathos."

A seminar on the exhibition at Castellani House on Tuesday night fell foul of a blackout. We sat in growing darkness, the heat rising, as guest speakers spoke enthusiastically by torchlight. "The Candidate," with its microphones unattached to any public address system, placed in darkness, faded with the light. "Electoral Boundary" hung to the right of the audience, microphones and darkness again, dogs keeping guard.

Greaves sat behind the speakers, helping on one occasion to shift the lectern so the speakers could be heard but then he returned silent until it was black. The audience decreased in the dim light.

"We will indulge from time to time in practices based on racial memory," he says, "but racial memory is a suspect thing. By that I mean what we imagine and what we can remember of practices from the past.

"But there is no West Indian philosophy or religion. Our culture is eclectic when we should be scrutinising what we have beneath our feet and taking our sense of direction from that.

"We took our cultural cues from the British and now from the USA. To some extent we have become a pseudo-provincial America. The whole thing swung around to KFC and ice cream parlours.

"We don't have to keep flaunting it," he repeats whilst a sound system starts up somewhere in the city, throwing out slick RnB from the frontier West Coast of the US. Later Greaves recalls smoky nights listening to live, wild music in the bar below.

Sharp, defined and distinct objects are imposed on a desolate and foreboding background. Obeah scissors, keys, candles; an eternally eclipsed sun, dogs sniffing at microphones. Buildings pasted without foundations, an absence of context.

Greaves' exhibition, 'There is a meeting here tonight', booms with his observations of Caribbean political wasteland.

"The way in which objects are put together and the relationships between the objects and the people, that's where you read the story," he says. "I have worked in a realist way in which objects are not disguised by conceit.

"One hopes that my intention and their interpretation could somehow match one another to a greater extent. It is relatively easy to read. The sugar cane stalk present in some of the works represents our history. The dogs represent people in some of the paintings and in others they are just dogs.

"The sense is not derogatory rather one of satire...

"The series does not relate to particular events in any specific location but certainly the episodes depicted can relate to practices of politicians anywhere in the Caribbean," he explains.

"The allure of power," he begins and pauses as a messenger comes from below, a date with a dignitary. "Power is something that can become very seductive. We place ourselves in the centre of the action and forget what it is we should really be doing. In the end it is the people who suffer.

"There is a political desolation in the Caribbean as a whole. I do not know if our particular governments are making the adjustments necessary to see us through this next millennium. There is no sense of a unified entity."

For Greaves, this fragmentation echoes across the region, implicating not just politics and "culture" but everyday life and the future.

"Words like Caribbean culture are used too often and too glibly. There are certainly people who do cultural activity but we don't have something to which we all subscribe - what to do, what to eat, a legal system, how to walk, morality, ethics, transportation. We are not informed by a unified plan.

"For example, people perceive that there is Caribbean obsession with colour, but I don't know that the Caribbean has any kind of bright colours - others have made it so.

"This Caribbean colour is missing from my work. What is that Caribbean colour? Our vegetation is monochromatic here," he smiles and looks down at the keys in his hands.

"Of course, that produces a sense of drama and weight.

"We have individuals of unquestionable ability," he remarks suddenly, pulling back from gloom. "But conceptual thinking is absent in the collective sense.

"It is the story of my life, made worse by all the people who are not here adding their expertise," he says, eyeing the diaspora.

The old men across the street laugh at something going on below us. The dog at their feet flicks its ear again. A boy pedals by, balancing a crate of empty bottles on the handlebars.

"We do not have enough lieutenants to do the work. You must be major, general, lieutenant and foot soldier all at once.

"A person may have a personal vision but we do not have the development of schools of thought. We have not set up concepts of artistic ideologies, never done it.

"We need education to make the people come aware of the world of thought and thinking, so we can relate to the material world," he urges. "Get on with what you see before you and make some sense out of it."

The conversation winds down. The street is beginning to clear from the day and steal into the night. The old men are gone. The dog is sniffing at their bench out of habit. The sound system has been joined by countless others, different tunes pumping out into their irrespective streets. The lights of the empty club across the way are enticing a party to begin. A few good men might sing Karaoke ballads tonight.

"Whenever nations collide," he says, distracted, "they become corrupt - the Romans, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians. Yet they seem to have time to come together and be cooked and generate distinct things. That hasn't happened here yet. Perhaps it will - to end on a positive note, we'll say that."

He tries concentrating on the keys in his hands again, eyes darting furtively. Something is tempting him to qualify the statement.

"The problem is with the language barrier. We have Spanish, French and English in the region, a barrier that brings its own particular baggage and its own particular way of viewing the world."

He pauses again, perhaps having haunting images of Babel, the enslaving echo of history again. The inedible fruit of languages colliding, creating half-languages becoming full languages - the dormant seed of civilisation.

"We should be producing a Caribbean language," he says firmly as a delivery-truck horn rips our ears with a blinding shout.