An exhibition entitled ‘.868.’ was recently held at the University of York’s Norman Rea Gallery, situated on campus and totally student-run. This year’s autumn opener was curated by Svetlana Leu, a second year Art History student from Trinidad and Tobago, who took the opportunity to showcase artists from her own country.
Upon entering the exhibition I made my way round, consciously trying to soak up the spirituality of the photographs displayed. There were ten works by three Caribbean photographers – Dylan Quesnel, Zacques Morrison and Maria Nunes – none of whom had previously exhibited overseas. Three themes emerged in my mind: Quesnel seemed to focus on landscapes and symmetrical beauty, Morrison on everyday life, and Nunes on carnivals and the arts. During a later interview with Svetlana Leu it emerged that these themes were intentional:
“The three aspects I hoped to capture were natural beauty, lifestyle and culture. I chose these themes because they are the most accurate depiction of what life in Trinidad and Tobago is like. ‘Trinis’, like everyone everywhere else in the world, work very hard. We are a very industrious people but at the end of the day, everyone looks forward to the weekend, public holidays and Carnival Monday and Tuesday when you can relax by going to the beach or to a waterfall with your family, or go to our popular ‘fetes’ (parties) where thousands of people are in attendance, or parading in the streets in colourful costumes during Carnival celebrations. These images are portrayals of places, events and festivals that define our lives – they are the fibres that make up our cultural identity.”
As much as celebration and parties are a large part of the culture in Trinidad and Tobago, it seemed that Svetlana also wanted to define a deeper undercurrent of the country. Particularly for a quintessentially Northern English city that could easily be forgiven for hailing Trinidad as a holiday destination, the exhibition stripped back the stereotypes and focused on the culture and history of the country.
Svetlana comments, “Yes, there are beaches and people do frequent them, but there are also many other layers that make up our culture and who we are as a cosmopolitan people.” She goes on to make specific reference to the way that colonization has shaped the current fusion of cultures, marking the fact that there is now a sense of ‘hybridization’ captured in many of Maria’s carnival characters, who embody a range of different national influences.
“Often when I say I am from the Caribbean/Trinidad and Tobago, people think beaches and sun. I wanted to show that not only in T&T, but also in every island in the Caribbean region, there is so much more to who we are as a people than the beach. Our countries have a history that is deeply rooted in the effects of colonialism and migration, seen in the development of plural societies.”
Whilst moving around the gallery (through a careful and clever layout designed to make people move through the three photographers’ work individually, one wall at a time, then turn back into the centre where three plinths highlight photos that Svetlana believed would leave the viewer “wanting more”) it struck me that although I had a good grasp of what the exhibition was trying to fulfil, the title was a mystery: ‘.868.’ At the risk of appearing uncultured, I found Svetlana and asked her the meaning, to which she replied that it was the national telephone code for Trinidad and Tobago, for example ‘+44’ in the UK.
Immediately themes of ‘calling home’ or ‘dialling home’ rushed to mind, in some way linking York with Trinidad and Tobago through the sense of modern technological feats, suitably reflected in the use of photography. ‘868’ also alludes to the way that cultures are now more connected, through the use of mobiles and internet; a person from the United Kingdom could quite happily pick up the phone and dial 868 in order to be connected to another person in Trinidad and Tobago.
It also spoke eloquently of Svetlana’s personal situation. While living apart from friends and family, making telephone calls and presenting art which captures the essence of T&T must be a relieving reminder of the culture Svetlana is away from while studying abroad. When speaking with the curator later on, she informed me of another meaning, further dissolving ambiguity:
“In Trinidad and Tobago, ‘868’ is commonly used among the younger generation to refer to the country. It is usually phrased as “repping 868” – slang for representing Trinidad and Tobago. It denotes a sense of patriotism, which I thought fitted in well with the proposal for this exhibition, as my aim was to showcase artwork from my country in York.”
Overall Svetlana believes the exhibition was a success, both in terms of popularity and educational value. In light of her initial anxieties about how the works would be received and translated by a British audience, and a less ethnically diverse audience compared to that of say, London, she remarked: “many of the comments I received were along the lines of ‘I didn’t know that…’ or ‘I have never seen that…’. Some of my professors even felt that I should have provided descriptions with the pieces. I believe that this is a true testament to the fact that visitors were really interested in the works and had a great desire to learn more about the historical background of the images.”
It seems that the unique choice of material and lack of knowledge about Trinidad and Tobago on behalf of the audience worked as an advantage, as did, perhaps, the lack of information and labelling of the photos. Far from an atmosphere of cold ambiguity and incompatibility, the display left visitors (including myself) hungry for further knowledge, a slow appetite and empathy emerging throughout the viewing.
“.868. was my first solo curated exhibition. Honestly it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I was not only honoured to have been able to bring a taste of my country to the beautiful medieval town of York, but for someone who is usually quite modest, I could not help but feel proud. The reactions of everyone here and at home really made me feel that all my hard work had paid off. It’s a truly wonderful experience to see something you have organised and coordinated for months turn out to be a success.”