Another less-publicised celebration of what Trinidad and Tobago has produced by its 50th year of independence took place in the James Wray Gallery, Belfast, Northern Ireland. The High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago in London, His Excellency Garvin Nicholas, made his first visit to Belfast on September 11 to officially open an exhibition of paintings by London-born Trinidad resident artist Rex Dixon entitled Caribbean Edge.
In his opening remarks Nicholas observed that these paintings clearly showed that Dixon had made Trinidad his home. He said he was able to see the colours of Maracas Valley where the artist had his studio, a mixture not just of Carnival colours, but of all the vibrancy that made up the amassed cultures of Trinidad, among them the richly varied festivals of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
Set against the early autumn chill of September and the grey buildings in Belfast, this explosion of colour on the walls was the quintessential representation of the Caribbean in the north. This energy created by colour, gesture and mood was observed by many viewers at the opening. Graham Gingles, renowned artist from Northern Ireland, also commented on the contrast between the artist’s work and the weather outside. “It’s extraordinary how a gallery space in Belfast can be part of the Caribbean for an evening,” he remarked. Gingles has visited Trinidad on several occasions and has had the opportunity to compare climate and topography.
“The combination of colours that Rex uses, the juxtaposition of reds, oranges and yellows are not Northern Ireland landscape colours at all. If Rex had been painting here it would have been a grey-blue muted show. Walking from the house to his studio in the Maracas Valley, the colours that he sees, the light which is completely different, the contrast is evident. “I saw Rex’s painting years ago when he was living in Belfast and these are very much about the Caribbean. I think if you get behind the essence this is not just Carnival colours but very much about Trinidad itself.”
Dixon worked in Belfast in the 1980s before teaching art in Jamaica for 15 years. He has lived in Trinidad for the last 12 years, and shows annually with the Softbox Gallery in Port-of-Spain. Owners of the James Wray Gallery, Alan Wray and Toby McMurray, had seen his paintings in the Engine Room Gallery in Belfast and welcomed the vibrancy of Dixon’s abstract expressionist pieces to extend their gallery’s offerings.
While at first sight the paintings are complex interplays of colour and gestural form, as Graham Gingles also noted, they demand a closer look from the viewer. Dixon says of one of the paintings entitled Raft, “It’s about all the people who are driven by hunger, economics and other political requirements to leave the Caribbean any way they can, sometimes by raft or broken-down boats, or inflatable dinghies to reach the US—especially the people from Haiti or Cuba; many are sent back or worse yet drown. So the painting is a multicoloured Caribbean seascape, the horizontal lines top and bottom of the picture are horizons against which are splashed a horizontal line of blood. From the thunderstorm or melee in the middle of the picture, a great storm, a mass of cloud or spume or spray, a small mast can be just seen disappearing beneath the tumult of waves and sea and sky, chaos reigns.”
He noted that “the Caribbean, like Ireland, is full of the shadow of exiles, comings and goings, suffering and new departures. Exiles emigrate and empires fade but hopefully the land and sea will persist despite any nuclear disasters.” The yellows, reds and blues of Raft are more than beautiful lines and splashes of colour on canvas. By living and working in the Caribbean for nearly three decades, dixon’s European training and sensibility have additionally absorbed tropical light, flora, fauna, geography and culture. As His Excellency remarked to the opening crowd at the exhibition, in taking his work to the United Kingdom, Dixon exposes elements of the warmth and multicultural mixing that represents the society of Trinidad and Tobago with the political and social depths that may be confronted through an artistic lens. While Dixon will continue to show annually in Trinidad, his next goal is to host similar exhibitions of Trinidad’s colours in galleries in New York and London. Rex Dixon’s Caribbean Edge will continue at the James Wray Gallery, Belfast, until September 29.
Patricia Mohammed is Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at UWI, St Augustine, and is the wife of the artist.