By Duff W. Mitchell
“Nature is mighty. Art is mighty. Artifice is weak. For nature is the work of a mightier power than man. Art is the work of man under the guidance and inspiration of a mightier power. Artifice is the work of mere man in the imbecility of his mimic understanding”. —Anon
In Port of Spain, Trinidad, beyond the 1930s the community was most intolerant of a young woman not married even getting pregnant. More often than not, she was banished to Toco, Matelot, Mamoral, Biche or some other country district where an extended family member harboured her – thereby taking shame out of the family’s face. During the Carnival season in Gonzales in 1938, nature took its course. Young Ellen Aberdeen got pregnant and found herself on the horns of the dilemma: What do I do in this artificial order of the day? After protracted consideration, young Ellen, a non-swimmer, decided to reconcile matters by jumping off one of the jetties below South Quay to join the ancestors of the Middle Passage.
The relative calm of the harbour scheme waters suddenly changed. The splash of a wave drenched young Ellen while a voice declared: “Suppose you ain’t drown, you will make your family shame!” Young Ellen succumbed to the power mightier than the artifice of her contrivance and ‘returned to the hills of Gonzales to take her blows’. She managed with the pregnancy under the saving guardianship of another man Ebenezer Clarke and saved the day for LeRoy seventy years ago on November 7, 1938.
By that time Ellen Aberdeen was Mrs. Ellen Aberdeen-Clarke. Now, the rest of the family felt comfortable to deal with her. Two sisters came to visit and proclaimed in the course of jubilation: THIS CHILD IS NOT YOURS … HE IS OURS. They were of the Orisha faith whereas Ellen followed the Belmont Gospel Hall. The Gospel Hall was the training ground for children although they were Anglican, Roman Catholic or Methodist. The Gospel Hall Sunday School, their outings, their Boys Club and their Christmas concerts were drawing cards for all of Belmont until the time came for Confirmation or First Communion and so on at the brink of adolescence.
From the period of his adolescence, LeRoy opted to be present, to take notice and to be truthful to his self commitment wherever his group of friends went. On one occasion the group went to Blue Basin to refresh themselves. They encountered the lingering remains of a Spiritual Baptist ritual. Not entirely prankish impulse took possession of the rest of the group. They destroyed the sanctuary of candles, vases of flowers and the contrived altar while one boy stood aside and did not join the wrecking crew. An immaculately dressed Baptist woman attracts his attention and disappears upon proclaiming to LeRoy: You’ll be a Leader of men.
In those days, on account of the acute shortage of school places for secondary education, there existed strictly speaking private schools. One Arthur Murray ran such a school named Osmond High School. Let us pause to underline the significance of Arthur Murray’s Osmond High School. Many professionals that is to say – doctors, lawyers, engineers, diplomats, top public servants, teachers, nurses, government officials – graduated under the erudition of Murray’s Osmond High School. One of its now deceased educators, J. Hamilton Maurice, became the first President of the Senate. One of its students succeeded him – the late Dr. Wahid Ali. Another student became our Master Artist – LeRoy Clarke.
Let us charge the Ministry of Education with the responsibility to name the next key institution of learning in honour of Arthur Murray’s contribution to the education and life of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
Mr. Murray, Principal of Osmond High School who frequently relieved his staff at Robert Street by taking all four senior classes for any period that suited him, was seemingly touched by a mightier power when, in the midst of a Geography lesson on Africa demanded: Clarke, when are you going to go to Africa and set my people free?
Always intrigued by the Shango Baptist bell-ringing messengers who graced the hills of Gonzales, LeRoy grew up to launch his well groomed manhood at St Philip’s Anglican School in John John. John John provided a set of circumstances that marked the defining period of young LeRoy Clarke’s life. For, he encountered in John John, all the elements of under-privilege that cried out for attention. Not to mention his acquaintance with the Yoruba icon Andrew Beddoe, whereupon he opted for the Yoruba persuasion.
While he continued to hold down Cabinet positions in Osmond’s Ex-Pupils Association, draw, paint, play with verse and serve Derek Walcott’s Theatre Workshop, LeRoy’s appetite for community work satisfied itself in John-John. St Philip’s, sitting on rocks, saw a luscious kitchen garden. An Ex-Pupils’ Association grew to affiliation with the St George West Congress of Youth Clubs.
In short order, officers of the Community Development Department roped him in for specific training on Nelson Island. The Tacarigua Orphanage surrendered its Men’s Hostel to the community. Tokyo Steelband found a new home. It was obvious that a mightier power had possessed LeRoy. The community response was overwhelming. Everybody wanted a piece of LeRoy, while, his wife to be, Vera awaited him in New York. It was time to leave.
New York was the ideal place for LeRoy to reflect and focus on his surrealist tendencies in the world of Art. A nation had appeared not out of the spirit of courtship resulting in the pregnancy of struggle.
Europe had had enough. Britain had mounted the stirrups of maternity to push and push and push harder and harder to give birth to nations she had raped in the womb of colonialism. The trauma of the raped gave Bob Marley his immortal persuasion: Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. LeRoy paralleled Marley’s call with Fragments Of A Spiritual. Something had to be done to rekindle the flame lit by Eric Williams and fuelled by carnival band leaders, George Bailey, Harold “Sally” Saldenah, Ken Morris and responsive conversations that were going on all over Trinidad and Tobago.
While Discipline, Tolerance and Production were the adopted watchwords of the nation , the motto for nationhood fell short of the mark and could today find reference in our work ethic: ‘Together We Aspire, Together We Achieve’. A pixilated proverb comes to mind: ‘If aspirations were equine, eleemosynaries would afford themselves transportation’. That is to say: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
Not only did our motto fall short of the mark, it became entrenched through one laureate when he sang “In order to achieve, we going to aspire and we bong to be a success.” (Sparrow).
If only we could amend this to read “In order to achieve, aspire then perspire and we bong to be a success.”
LeRoy knew that and determined to work hard to prepare himself and to perspire on the job of reconstruction of which he then dreamt. In the process he has built up a library of books and music that must be preserved so that the baton he has held since 1972 will be held in turn firmly in the marathon relay of the African struggle for identity and self-fulfillment. I speak of his library, but you must see it for yourselves. Moreover, I know of no normal diligence that could produce the volume of work that this artist, possessed with the summoned cosmic energies of mother Africa, has offered. Engaged in the re-drawing of the folklore characters of Alf Codallo and Fanon’s ‘Wretched of the Earth’, the mightier power invited LeRoy to embellish upon the Douen. LeRoy took on the challenge and passionately laboured through Douendom and the series of paintings called Douens to launch an exhibition at Howard University. At Howard University at that time was the venerable C.L.R. James in whose literary honour a library stands in the Borough of Hackney in Islington, England.
The Douen itself being a mysterious character, the exhibition was accordingly mysterious. Such it was that when C.L.R. James visited the exhibition, he made sure to say to LeRoy: “On Modern Art I am an authority. On any artist worth his salt, from Michelangelo to Picasso, I am an authority. But, about this I know nothing. Tell me about it.”
The series Douens had a peculiar attraction to Trinidad and Tobago. TRINTOC underwrote its coming home to Trinidad and made a grand affair of its showing at Government Training College for teachers on St Vincent Street. Busloads of school children from all parts of Trinidad and Tobago, the general public and a private viewing by President Ellis Clarke, all added to the introduction of a new languaging in the space. Whether the messages in the work reached the people, could take second place to the fact that folklore had taken centre stage and was for the first time ushered into the language culture to describe the condition of the African psyche – Douendom. All the cosmic energies that occupied the benevolent undertaking had realized their potential. Obeah!
By that time LeRoy had already established the journey his work was going to take; for, in 1972, when a group of artists assembled to carry out a post mortem on Fragments Of A Spiritual, he unexpectedly turned up for a confrontation. The confrontation came to a head when, for all and sundry to hear, LeRoy asserted: Artists in Trinidad prefer to dance to the minuet rather than to dance to the Calypso. Clarke theorized that Calypso, Steelpan, Folklore and Obeah held the keys to the hearts and minds of his people. He was prepared to employ the familiar as the vehicle to lead the African mind. Here are a few instances worth noting:
The blood sucking Soucouyant spawned the images of an external social order determined to drain the African of everything upon which his humanity depended – Language, religion, culture and institution in his portrayal ‘Weavers of the Dust’.
The morocoy, that Deacon of the Order of the Species, served as a reminder of an organism never forgetful of ‘from whence he came’ (with the security of moving around with his own house) and stood out as the emblem and symbol of endurance in the portraiture ‘Eye Cosmogonic Morocoy’.
The Pan, having come from the realm of waste if not worthlessness, without language, without form, risen from a dust-bin to the exalting finesse of a musical instrument, stands firmly in the foundation of the painting Pan Matrix. The Douen of course, rendered ‘obzockey’ with all the distortions engendered by some 500 years of oppression and subjugation of every unimaginable kind and weaved into a social misfit with head and feet in opposite directions neither knowing from whence he came nor where the hell he was going, gave vitality to the whole series called Douens.
Through the woman in John-John, at close range Clarke came to learn the power and will of the woman to defend her man even against the police, felt the rhythm of her language and witnessed her enthusiasm for working at the Arts and Crafts to celebrate Independence. Although her “fancies are bounded by no law” for Clarke the woman is the embodiment of hope; for man is individual and supportive by nature whereas woman is the possibility of the demonstration of creation. For him she is the obeahing of togetherness – of unity. She stands erect, well endowed in the forefront of an embrace of the world of African vibrations and energies in the portrayal ‘Will Know How To Embrace My Earth’. So much for theory.
As for his practice, LeRoy spoke truth to power. In a televised conversation with Sat Maharaj that was getting out of hand, LeRoy reached out to Sat and with a gentle touch on Sat’s shoulder suggested “I (LeRoy) should be getting on. Not you. Because if I left home with five dollars and returned home with one dollar, my four dollars went to you”. Needless to say, calm returned to the airways.
Sometime before this when the United National Congress in its turn at governing, named its cabinet, LeRoy uttered this monumental observation: I got the feeling this morning that I had awakened in Pakistan! Truth to power! For we further witnessed the dismantling of the fabric of fair appointments to key Public Service positions by replacements clearly in tune with the biases that characterized the regime’s administration. Another recipient of the key to the city of Port-of-Spain, the poet laureate, Brother Mudada, amid encore upon encore, achieved the distinction vox populi with a four verse satire – a taste of which went as follows:
Dey only looking so
But dey have dey good sense
Dey know what dey doing
Cause when you look at this government
You see folks who intelligent
Look, as dey win dey reshuffle
Look, how quick dey fit in new people
Even though it may hurt so
All dem CEO had to go
The first government I know
Whey serving its people so
We are not talking politics here, nor are we taking a look at LeRoy Clarke as a politician. Rather we are taking a look at the Master Artist whom politics cannot ignore.
Another aspect of his practice was ‘Example is better that precept’. Once he had reconciled matters with his God and adopted the Yoruba discipline to walk in the ways of his ancestors, LeRoy changed his wardrobe completely. Never again was LeRoy Clarke to be seen except in authentic African raiment, symbolizing the return to his roots. The pursuit of all aspects of that discipline led to the recognition in his elevation to Elder and later Chief Ifa’ Oje’ Won’ Yomi’ Abiodun.
The Chief, the Elder, the Poet who paints, LeRoy Clarke like President Max Richards has recognized that the underpinnings of strong statehood – tradition, togetherness and inspiration – are not as sound as they should be. Moreover, that tradition obstructed by whim, inspiration detoured by fancy and togetherness poisoned by hypocrisy are clearly the complications of social diseases that can lead to failed statehood. The worst of them being hypocrisy. David Rudder did not venture below the proverbial surface to contend that in Trinidad & Tobago the Ganges meets the Nile. It took the promising Sekon Alves to point out in a composition by Larry Harewood.
All this talk about unity
Seems only a fallacy;
For it doesn’t show
When we vote. Oh no!
When the Ganges meet the Nile
In country or town … Tell me
Is there a pretensive smile
Or a genuine frown?
‘Cause the way you talk bout me
When I’m not around
Could lift this country up
Or bring it right down.
LeRoy Clarke has inspired treatment of this disease at a personal level with timely doses of (and I quote here) “Eye am perhaps the biggest hypocrite in the world… but Eye am working on it.”
As for his regular aesthetics, music must accompany his approach to a canvas. In accordance with the mood of his undertaking, he would opt for calypso, by Stalin, Brigo, Shorty especially Sparrow and Shadow – Sparrow for his renditions and Shadow for his lyrical and musical adventure, Shorty for his inventiveness, Brigo for his command and Stalin for his commitment.
He finds pan music especially conducive to some aspects of his work especially that of the late Clive Bradley and Boogsie Sharpe. He finds Boogsie particularly intriguing and often sees the tapestry of his paintings reflected in Boogie’s arrangements. He considers Boogsie sheer genius.
If theory, practice and aesthetics are components which complement each other and must be developed so that liberation movements of Afro-Caribbean people succeed, the work of LeRoy Clarke amounts to an interesting devotion to take the Horse of African psyche in Trinidad and Tobago, in particular, to the fountain of freedom and self fulfillment – his El Tucuche, via the epic journey from Fragments of a Spiritual through Douendom.