Monday, March 30, 2009


(Written for the forthcoming e-catalogue of Christopher Cozier’s Available at All Leading Stores, published for the 2009 Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan.)

nicholas jouvert 09 closeup

J'Ouvert morning, 23 February, 2009. Photo by Brian Kinzie

Some say that we lost Paradise
Some say that we living Paradise
Some say well if this is Paradise
Good God where the hell is Paradise?

Oh-oh, oh-oh, leh we go, oh-oh, to Paradise....

— 3Canal, “Paradise?”

It is the drizzly Friday morning before Carnival, and I am slumped in my chair, staring at the chaos of my desk, trying to invent a costume for J’Ouvert. This year I am playing with 3Canal. The theme of the band is Paradise?, complete with sardonic question mark, after one of the songs on their new album. Nowadays, most people don’t bother with costumes for J’Ouvert, beyond the obligatory layer of paint or mud. But I like the challenge, in all senses, of a costume. Last year it was devil wings, a bow tie, and a placard. This year, I’m stumped.

I stare at the chaos of my desk. Piles of paper, an empty teacup, my dusty laptop screen. A bowl of paperclips. A small brown cardboard box, not much bigger than a stack of Post-It notes, with plain black text on one side:


It is one of the original hand-stamped boxes from Christopher Cozier’s installation Available At All Leading Stores, shipped down from the gallery in Canada. It has sat on my desk for months, a mordant reminder of my time and place. I summon up iTunes and listen to the 3Canal song.

Buildings filling the skies
And people dying for another to rise
Black gold and crimson tides
Is this Paradise?

I pick up the phone and dial a number. “Chris? It’s Nicholas. What you think of this….”


I find a plain cardboard box lying around the house, 16 x 12 x 10 inches--not a cube, but close enough. I spend a couple of days figuring out how I’ll carry it through the streets. Should I strap it to my back? Attach it to a stick so I can hoist it into the air? I don’t want it to get crushed in the intoxicated J’Ouvert throng, and I want to carry it high enough that people can read the words from a distance.

“Put your head inside it and wear it like a mask,” one friend suggests. No, I won’t be able to see where I’m going, and I’ll stifle. Instead I imagine an old-time Fancy Sailor with some papier-mâché extravaganza perched on his head, and two cords dangling in front to help balance the weight.

In the end, the design is simple. I cut an oval into the underside of the box, just slightly smaller than the circumference of my head, and line it with strips of plastic foam. I try it on: the box sits firmly just above my brow, even if I jump around. Next I punch two holes in the underside. I thread in lengths of strong yarn and knot them on the inside. I can grab onto the dangling cords to shift the weight of the box as I move.

Now the text: Chris suggests I blow up a version of his original design, make a colour print, and paste it to the box. I decide on a more low-tech method, hand-lettering the box with a black permanent marker. I haven’t told Chris yet, but I’ve taken liberties with his text. The box now reads:


And in smaller letters:



The history of the Caribbean is a catalogue of trade wars, pillagings, predatory exchanges, bank heists on the scale of whole countries, and bills of sale enforced at gunpoint. Glass beads for gold, blood for sugar, self-respect for tourist dollars, oil for salvation. It sometimes seems there’s nothing we can’t or won’t offer for sale. In what Derek Walcott called “this chain store of islands,” independence only changed the faces of the salesmen, not their tactics.

Cozier conceived Available At All Leading Stores at a particularly anxious moment in recent history. As the wider world worried over the Bush doctrine, Iraq, Guantanamo, and the Axis of Evil, Trinidadians grew obsessed with a spiraling murder rate, garbage-can bombs deposited in downtown Port of Spain, and the latest popular business scheme: kidnappings for ransom. Fear was the hot global commodity, often packaged together with Security in buy-one-get-one-free deals; manufactured in Washington, DC, advertised on CNN and Fox News, traded in capital cities around the world, with special discounts available at the nearest airport metal scanner. Trinidad, always ready to adopt and adapt trendy imports, didn’t lag behind.

Three years later, the market has shifted. Global capitalism as we knew it took a tumble in 2008. American voters replaced Bush 2.0 with a brighter, shinier, and better-designed model. Now the world wants to buy an Obama t-shirt, the one with the new brand name: Hope.

Meanwhile, here in Trinidad, the populace has finally got the invoice for the PNM government’s Potemkin nation project, better known as Vision 2020. The costs are stated in trillions, the fine print seems to be in Cantonese, and the product was broken before it came out of the package. Port of Spain floods and traffic gridlocks in the shadow of half-finished skyscrapers built by imported Chinese labour with imported Chinese materials. They said we were buying Paradise. Well, if this is Paradise, where the hell is Paradise?


For three or so hours on J’Ouvert morning, Paradise is an empty space, an absence, in a cardboard box I balance on my head. Watch me, turning into a metaphor for a nation bearing the burden of false advertising and false hopes. If anything and everything is for sale, if art is just another product with varying profit margins, if Cozier can taunt us with the joke of commodified Fear, then I can re-commodify, re-sell, re-brand.

Down Ariapita Avenue and up Carlos Street. Oh-oh, oh-oh, leh we go, oh-oh. Hundreds writhing and rubbing up and gyrating, bareback and torn t-shirts and busted-up sneakers, rum and paint and around our necks the little plastic tags that prove we paid our $200 to play with 3Canal. Oh-oh. Down Tragarete as the sun rises, up Edward and across Gordon, and eventually we reach the Savannah. Oh-oh, oh-oh, leh we go, oh-oh, to Paradise....

But Paradise is heavier than I expected. At half past eight, by Memorial Park, I slip out of the band and stride off with my cardboard box, now spattered with pretty pink and purple paint. It’s early, but the sun is already too hot.

nicholas jouvert 09

Photo by Brian Kinzie

Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Everybody wore painted toenails then"

I had read and heard so many malicious accounts of Mrs. Jagan that I was prejudiced in her favour. Although she has suffered much from visiting writers, she received me kindly in her small air-conditioned office. She sat behind a large desk, neatly ordered, on which were photographs of her husband and children. Her bag was on the floor. I thought her far more attractive than her photographs: women who wear spectacles rarely photograph well. A plain cotton frock set off her balanced figure; large hoop ear-rings and red toenails gave her a touch of frivolity which seemed incongruous in that office, the door of which was marked: Hon. Janet Jagan, Minister of Labour, Health and Housing. She looked tired, and her talk was frequently broken by nervous laughter.

-- V.S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage, 1962

Janet ... talked of what I had written about her nearly thirty years before.

"People remembered two details mainly. You wouldn't believe. The first was that I painted my toenails."

I had forgotten that, forgotten the fact, forgotten that I had written it.

"I don't know why that should have caused such interest," she said. "Everybody wore painted toenails then."

"Everybody," Cheddi said.

She said, "I looked at the book just the other day. And the other thing you mentioned that people talked about--I checked that, too--was the book I was reading."

I had forgotten that as well.

"It was Colette. The Vagabond."

That would have made an impression: the boastfulness and shallow sensual vanities of Colette, in a setting so removed: muddy Guyanese rivers, old river steamers. And then, in a distant reach of my mind, the two details together did bring back an impression, rather than an idea, of a trip in the interior with Janet Jagan, when she was minister of health.

She said, "I looked for it among my books the other day. I don't think I have it anymore."

-- V.S. Naipaul, "A Handful of Dust: Cheddi Jagan in Guyana", 1991

(Janet Jagan, 1920-2009)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Phagwah faces

phagwah faces 32

I was drenched with abeer, caked with coloured powder, and stalked by a six-year-old girl with a pichakaree, and I was glad. My photos from yesterday's Phagwah celebrations at Aranguez Savannah are posted here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A week in the life: 8 to 14 March, 2009

Read: The first half of Marlon James's new novel, The Book of Night Women; lots of random stuff online

Wrote: emails

Listened: to Horace Andy and Bob Marley; and a bit of Ella Fitzgerald

Swam: at Doctor's Cave Beach in Montego Bay

Hiked: up an old donkey trail from Top Jack into the southern foothills of the Blue Mountains

Flew: back home from Jamaica. My brother was co-pilot of the Caribbean Airlines flight--the first time he's flown me since a jaunt to Tobago in a four-seater 'plane nine years ago

Acquired: a copy of the very first issue of Savacou; a bottle of Busha Browne's planter's sauce

Ate: masala dosa at Pushpa's, with Annie; a whole wheat ackee patty (aka a "yattie")

Drank: Twyman Estate peaberry coffee; a mojito

Gave: Georgia her Christmas present, at last

Caught up with: Roxanne and Nicolas, friends visiting from New York

Felt: great affection for Jamaica

Worried: about all the work piled up on my desk, especially CRB business

Regretted: that I haven't been blogging the last couple of months

Plotted: a trip to Suriname and French Guiana next month

Other significant events: 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize Caribbean/Canada regional awards announcement ceremony on Wednesday night