A Life Lived In Art

JAY DUNCAN Reviews Valerie Belgrave’s Art For The People, A Photo Memoir.

Once again we are being treated to another book by Valerie Belgrave. This time a Photo Memoir of her version of Art for the People, the latter, a phrase well used by Ms. Belgrave over the years, (her novels, especially, we often dubbed Romances for the People). This recently released memoir is a well-presented, hard cover, full colour, limited edition picture book which traces Belgrave’s career from her High School days at St. Joseph’s Convent, San Fernando, through her landmark exhibition of batiks at the Trinidad Hilton in 1974, right down to the present day, documenting the many areas of art she has dipped into and mastered.
Along with the many photographs of art work presented, the book contains a generous supply of newspaper articles and clippings—quite an archive! They provide a revealing testimony to the impact, in Trinidad, of Belgrave’s work over the last (almost) forty years.
Of particular interest to readers of the T&T Review is a 1974 clipping from a “Tapia” paper. The writers, “Chris and Lisa”, who hailed Belgrave’s work as “refreshing and stimulating”, wrote that it was reflective of “a style and an art that depict the origins and ways of our people”, observing too that, “…Ms. Belgrave succeeds in putting across something of her social awareness and the result is very worthwhile” – a glowing testimony and a validation of her book’s title, Valerie Belgrave’s Art for The People, a Photo Memoir.
That Tapia article also went on to question whether the exhibition venue, the Trinidad Hilton, wasn’t too “luxurious” a location for the common man for whom Belgrave professed to work. Belgrave unwitting supplies the answer nearly 40 years later in this memoir. Not only was she the first person to take Tassa drumming to the Hilton, (for the opening of that event), but, she explains, with the publicity generated by the event, “hundreds and hundreds of people “ came to see what all the fuss was about making it “the first time that the public had ever patronized the formidable Hilton in that way.” She also goes on to suggest that the “relatable” quality and the relevance of her work to the ordinary Trinidadian, helped to forge a much needed link at the time, between visual art and the common man.
Belgrave’s guiding philosophy is certainly unusual. Not content to continue doing something just because she could do it well, she would dare to try something different. She also writes, “Never having set lofty goals, I never had cause to feel ashamed of anything I tried to do. I could as easily address a university class, as dress a queen or write a Mills and Boon”. The implication is, of course, that she felt more guided by the task than by personal ambition. This idea of “following the call” being closely linked to her professed belief that the attempted task somehow reveals its secrets and becomes the teacher especially if approached “with humility”.
What might be of particular interest to Art students is the variety of uses to which Belgrave put her batiks over the years. Photographs of beautifully draped models, brides, beauty queens, even of a priest’s chasuble, are found on the pages, but in addition she also used her batik in the service of costuming for the theatre. The book gives us a look at some of her sketches and at some of the costumed actors. Her costuming philosophy – “flinging cloth” – reveals not just humour but a delightfully innovative approach.
There are a great many reproductions of Belgrave’s batiks in this memoir. In fact, the book allows one the rare opportunity to view Belgrave’s batiks and paintings in the same space, forcing observations about the link between the two. Flip through the book and the lines blur between one medium and the other. Batik seems to have left its mark on the paintings, perhaps in the style, perhaps in the use of colour, and of course, in the subject matter.

The vibrancy of colour in her paintings prompted one critic who is quoted in the book, to say that “Belgrave makes her colours sing”. Perhaps this sense of colour might have been honed through the intricate mixing of dyes that Belgrave talks about in the batik section of the book.
It is noteworthy that the landscape paintings reproduced in the book are almost never without people or hints of people, as if people validate the land. When it comes to “genre” paintings or those where figures predominate, people seem to become the landscape. Her figures tend to fill the canvas in what she refers to as “monumental style”. It’s as if Belgrave is trying to aggrandize her people, or perhaps, show them to themselves. It was Dr. Merle Hodge who suggested that a people only begins to see themselves when they are fictionalized. One suspects that this is Belgrave’s way of so doing. This might also be why the supposedly “genre” paintings shown in the book, are not at all typical generic scenes done with country or culture-promotion in mind, but are scenes of real individuals. Each character portrayed has very individual faces, stances, skin colours and attitudes. Belgrave’s paintings are certainly art “about” people rather than merely pleasant folk scenes as many typical genre paintings tend to be.
The story of how her best known writing, the historical romance, Ti Marie, came to be written fascinates with the almost arbitrary nature of how events unfolded – although one does suspect that much more discipline and a lot less eccentricity went into this project than meets the eye. Of course, one has to concede that perhaps, only such a carefree approach could have allowed a West Indian, educated in the field of literature, as Belgrave explains she was, to dare to write romances and popular novels; high literature being traditionally the realm of West Indian writers. It must be of great value to more “pop”-centred generations, however, to have a writer of Belgrave’s calibre break ground for them.

Unpretentiousness, unburdened by literary ambitions and literary mentors, seems to have helped her novels to materialize. Such stated attitudes give the book the very human, down-to-earth, element which one finds throughout. It’s as if Belgrave is saying, “it was easy to do, you can do it too”. There is no false modesty in Belgrave’s language. Her delight in her achievements is clear; her stance is neither boastful nor arrogant but rather inspirational. What she seems to expect is that people will share her joy in these achievements and take strength from them.
This memoir, one of the first by an established artist of T&T, will undeniably be a valuable resource for students of art and of literature, and even for aspiring writers, for Belgrave does give some small insight into the publishing process, sharing some of the letters between herself and her initial publisher, Heinemann International. The many clippings in the book also give students the clues to where more information might be found.
One must hope that the powers that be will make a book like this available to all students by placing it in school libraries at the very least. The chance to view the career path of a successful local artist doesn’t come along very often and is something to be valued.
To those who have followed this artist’s career over the last 40 years, this memoir will be a delightful trip down memory lane. Valerie Belgrave’s Art For The People , A Photo Memoir, is a carefully conceived and beautifully executed book, very worthy of one’s coffee table.

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