By DAVID CAVE
Who or What is “The Enemy Within?” Is it the upsurge of individuals seemingly hell bent on insurrection and anarchy? Or is the “Enemy” the remnants of our colonial legacy that have left us open to exploitation and self derision? The ambiguity of these questions and their equally nebulous answers are raised through the latest exhibition of the National Museum and Art Gallery.
“The Enemy Within” is not offered an art exhibition, but rather as a visual representation of an event. The black and white photographs of Afro-Trinidadian activist Apoesho Mutope form the principal crux of the exhibition, but it needs to be stressed that “The Enemy Within” is much more profound than an ad hoc display of photos from what is today generally referred to as “The Black Power Revolution” of 1970.
At first glance the majority of Apesho Mutope’s photographs seem to be on the mundane side, images that any photojournalist could have taken. But beneath the apparent banality are hints of a subtle, yet extraordinary mastery on the part of this photographer. There are images of funeral processions, demonstrations, meetings, and performances in dance and music. The power of the captured moment, however, lies in the fact that almost every photograph is the result of Mutope being in the right place at the right time to record a truly unique and candid perspective of events as they occurred.
As a photographer, Mutope’s greatest accomplishment comes from his ability to eliminate the stark division between the viewer and the photograph. In other words, despite the great temporal rift between the Black Power Revolution of 1970 and today, 2011, Mutope has the uncanny ability to take photographs that convey such a sense of reality, relevance and immediacy, that a viewer like this writer, who was not even born in the year 1970, enters the frame.
From a purely technical standpoint, most of the photographs are shot at eye-level. Mutope is never perched too high or too far from the action of the picture. This simple technique allows the viewer to quickly connect with the image. Some of the most arresting images in this display include an adolescent Josanne Leonard in her Naparima Girls’ Uniform, with other school children. thrusting her clenched fist in front of Whitehall. In another image, a schoolgirl is shoved by a high ranking police officer in a khaki uniform. In the latter picture, Mutope’s skill with the camera is clearly apparent as he is able to freeze the action while the child is in mid-flight.
Another significant device that facilitates this intimate connection between the viewer and the image is that very few of the photographs are covered by glass. Most of the images, especially the larger ones, are only matted. This technique is a very simple and effective method of literally eliminating the separation between the viewer and the image. Another use of the absence of barriers is the placement of the National Joint Action Committee or NJAC’s publications on painted kiosk-like stands for anyone to pick up and peruse. The stereotypical expectation for a museum would be to encase such relics in glass so that they would be inaccessible and sterile. Yet, this simple openness allows the witness of the exhibition to sense the reality of the struggle.
Mutope’s photographs centred upon the uprising of 1970 are indeed powerful, arresting (no pun intended) and well executed. Nevertheless, the highlight of this exhibition is the well planned and thoughtful layout of the written descriptions of the photographs and the elaborate graphics used to describe the sequence of events that took place before, during and after the 1970 disturbance.
On entering the museum’s annex where the exhibition takes place, visitors are greeted with detailed maps and charts explaining that this uprising was not a unique phenomenon. From the early 1960s to the early 1970s African awareness was taking place on a global scale.
Adding fuel to this Afrocentric fire was the fact that after almost ten years of independence Trinidad and Tobago’s lower classes were still suffering from a great sense of disillusion. Independence did not appear to deliver a dramatic improvement in the economic situation for most of the working class, and the unemployed and underemployed accounted for over 25% of the population of Trinidad and Tobago in 1970.
“The Enemy Within” is a brilliant accomplishment. The exhibition makes effective use of Mutope’s photographs in a simple but thorough manner in order to convey not only the events of 1970, but the passion and tension that was also present during that uprising. As Master Artist Leroy Clarke and others noted in the comments book, the legacy of this exhibition should not end when this show wraps up on August 10th 2011. Some serious attempt ought to be made to convert the layout of this exhibition and Mutope’s photographs into a textbook so that, in an age of increasing cynicism, present and future generations may know that in the first bloom of Independence, the youth were prepared to stand up and be counted for ideals larger than themselves.
This exhibition was curated by Lorraine Johnson and designed by Damian Libert.