April 2010

Issue Home >>


Like the Star Wars Trilogy, Professor Patricia Mohammed’s short films on Caribbean iconography have been released in reverse. The last, Coolie Pink and Green, was released last year and has been widely screened to the public—even as far as India. Its prequels include a prescient documentary on voodoo and its inextricable connection to Haitian art, called The Sign of the Loa, which was made in 2007. The other three films in the series, which is called A Different Imagination, were made between 2003 and 2006, but are only now being released.

In what was the first-ever dual launch of a book and accompanying film series in Trinidad and Tobago, Professor Mohammed, who is head of the School for Graduate Studies at UWI, St Augustine, unveiled the ground-breaking study upon which her five documentaries are based, Imaging the Caribbean: Culture and Visual Translation (Macmillan UK, 2009) on April 23 at the Office of the Principal.

This in-depth research of the region’s iconography, which spanned a decade and took Prof Mohammed as far away as Seville, explores how a Caribbean sensibility has been shaped. It circles the Caribbean while focusing on Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, tracing the indelible parameters drawn on each society by the colonial encounter, crossing the boundaries of disciplines and the methodologies and material of history, literature, art, gender and cultural studies.

Imaging the Caribbean includes hundreds of images, from Aboriginal drawings and artefacts, European paintings, photographs and sculptures, to Hindu jhandi and Haitian vèvè, in a study of visual representation of the Caribbean—as perceived by outsiders and insiders alike over the last 500 years. As contemporary globalisation invokes a commercialisation of culture and packaging of national identity, the author asks: what is real and what is mythical, and how do we value the familiar?

This journey, through the visual archives of the region, maps out the way ideas have evolved over different historical periods. The book reveals a perspective of the Caribbean as not only conquered territory on which empires were built, but where cultures were reborn in the New World, where adaptability and willingness to accept the “other” has created an interlocking mosaic in which all peoples are reflected. It asks how we might continue to shape the imagination of the Caribbean and of culture itself. In chronological order, the five films in the series A Different Imagination are the title film, The Colour of Darkness, Window to the Past, The Sign of the Loa, then Coolie Pink and Green.

A Different Imagination poses questions such as: How do we see the Caribbean? Do we all view it the same way? How did we learn the visual grammar that we use unconsciously to decipher what our eyes behold? And can we begin to learn a new way of seeing, of re-imagining the region, its people and its past?

In The Colour of Darkness: An Interview with Barry Chevannes, Caribbean Scholar, the foremost researcher on Rastafari in the region traces the trajectory of the religion as it developed its own unique logic and legitimacy—and now, a global impact. When the Caribbean descendants of Africans think of the place of their origins, they encounter a black hole—a lost memory, a link broken by the Middle Passage and the passage of time. Into that nothingness, men like Marcus Garvey sought to forge a new destiny and identity, explains Chevannes, a professor of anthroplogy who has spent more than three decades investigating the family and sexual relationships, male gender issues, crime/violence, social integration, and socio-political movements.

In Window to the Past: A Conversation with Bridget Brereton, Prof Mohammed highlights the work of social historians, such as Prof Brereton, who often have only snapshots or court documents to tell of a time and a place lost to us forever. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but how do you know for certain what it is saying? Prof Brereton gives us an insight into how relics can be interpreted to illuminate lives and events from the past.

The Sign of the Loa cuts through clichéd scripts of Haiti as poor and backward and suffused with a demonic religion, exploring Haitian creativity through the complex geometric design of the vèvè, the sign of the loa (spirit or deity). The film invites the uninformed and skeptical to put aside unfounded fears of Haiti and open their eyes to the fact that within Haitian religion and the country’s prodigious artistic production lie incredible originality and innovation in New World culture.

However, Coolie Pink and Green, which was the People’s Choice for Best Local Short Film last year at the annual T&T Film Festival, the focus is on the Indian aesthetic in the Caribbean. This aesthetic has not infused itself into the geographical or cultural space as another kind of beauty or art making that has transformed what we consider to be Caribbean. It is still the “other.” By its very title the film takes a derogatory term, “coolie,” and redefines it; which is what Prof Mohammed has attempted to do with the way we view ourselves, and each other, in this ambitious project.

–Imaging the Caribbean: Culture and Visual Translation (Macmillan UK, 2009) and A Different Imagination, the film series, was launched on April 23.