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Interview and photography by Sean Drakes
Ashraph is not a jeweller! His creative expression is not intended to be tethered to boundaries. As he develops one mixed media project, ideas nurture concepts for the prize-winning small Carnival band he co-created with friends. In the months between the season of mas, he channels his creative curiosity into gallery exhibits that are often fuelled by mas, politics or calypso, and incorporate wearable objects.
Most days he sells custom frames to avid collectors of Caribbean art from a Woodbrook shop. After a recent renovation, The Frame Shop also doubles as an exhibit space for select fine artists—that includes jewellers.
His third collection of objects of art in three years caters to a niche market that welcomes talent with bold ideas. Ashraph, 50, constructs the statement of his Black Indian collection with cedar, lace, sterling silver, smoky quartz and assertive feathers. To help you relate with why he does not claim to be a jeweller, he explains that the elegant element of his collection that is wearable, is conceived to complete the narrative of his objects. On their own they are statement pieces, but not the central character of his story.
To produce a catalog of striking images for his elegant objects, Ashraph toyed with hiring a model’s manicured hands, then he considered the weathered fingers of a labourer. An ah-ha moment led him to douse his own skin in black paint. But that isn’t what inspired his exhibition’s title.
“Black Indian is a line from a David Rudder song that I like,” explains Ashraph, “you know me, I’m into my Carnival.”
“Taking photos of traditional mas, the fancy Indian and other variations you see, they wear a lot of paint and black make-up. I think it has more personality and character than what frames the face. So I started working with black stones, then I changed up because it’s hard to find black stones.
Last year, I did a silver ring without a stone that looks like a dreamcatcher or the wire frame of a mas. That ring is why I decided to deconstruct the familiar Black Indian mas and not focus on the feathers in their mas. The main focus is the textural qualities of the face of the Indian mas and the reflection of light, not too much feathers.”
It’s the week before election day in T&T, Ashraph (also known as Richard Ramsaran) is coating his objects with black emulsion one more time, while curator Yasmin Hadeed inspects the collection and visualises their display in her gallery. Before he released his work to the world, he entertained a few questions to offer a glimpse into the backstory of his objects that will be admired on and off the wall.
Q: Is there a common thread in the narrative of your three collections of objects of art?
A: I normally work on a body of artwork to be exhibited, not just two or three paintings to put in an exhibit. I try to have the same discipline with my approach to jewelry design. However, in 2013, I took part in a group show though I didn’t produce a full collection. Stuff sold, but it’s not about that. I like my work to have a story—that show didn’t. I would rather not do that again. Black Indian is my first solo show; this show started a year ago in my head.
What distinguishes your approach to producing wearable art?
I’m not creating just a ring, it’s about creating an object that captures the story that I am trying to tell. My first collection was inspired by a Minshall band—Callallo. I saw a circle and ran with it. I created a mas band using calabash and ivory, and the jewelry was made of aluminum, ebony and silver. For the third group show, they gave me the name of the exhibition, and I created a story around light with fireflies and bugs who are the keepers of light. I had a friend write a story and I designed the pieces.
Explain the function of the bejewelled element to your objects of art.
The rings are part of the adornment of the object of art. People may see the jewelry as the main attraction, but that is not how I approach it. I did these rings because I wanted to connect them to the Black Indian heads I designed. I had two prototype heads made in pitch pine, then I started seeing the jewelry. The process is like paint going on a canvas. It’s like putting another layer on a costume. It is not a typical run-of-the-mill jewelry. Some are not practical rings.
Some know you have worked extensively with mas legend Peter Minshall. When you meditate on your finished collection do you see hints of Minshall before you?
Minshall used to say, pay attention to the details, and less is more. In my collections of objects of art, the jewelry is the detail of the mas. This collection is more about paying attention to the details.
You don’t have formal training in designing accessories, how did you discover accessory design?
I was encouraged by Jasmine Thomas Girvan and Rachel Ross, they’re both jewellers. Jasmine also creates fabulous objects. I told them I’m not a jeweller, and they said a lot of people design stuff and get someone else to construct them. So that’s how I decided to design jewelry to be part of objects of art. I work with two jewellers to create, I do the drawings, and we sit and resolve the balance and figure out how to make the ring or pendant work. From the first show, I learned that the jewelry needed to balance on the object.
What materials did you recruit to construct your Black Indian collection?
Cedar, fabric, aluminum. The rings are made with silver, bone, ebony, cow horn, red coral, smoky quartz, feathers, lava and druzy.
Do you contain yourself in temporary exile in order to produce your art?
My discipline is about focus, I don’t disconnect from anything. It’s putting in the work at night; often they are very long nights just looking at the object for hours. Then, before I go to sleep, I figure out the story.
Visit Ashraph’s ‘Black Indian’ show September 21 thru October 3 at Y Gallery 26 Taylor Street, Woodbrook.
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