Interview with Trinidadian painter Tessa Alexander

Our thanks to Peter Jordens for this post.

Trinidadian artist Tessa Alexander considers herself a cultural anthropologist; her focus on social consciousness is distinctly reflected in her body of work. She is not shy about highlighting aspects of society that we tend to ignore, and forces us to think and re-think our purpose as human beings.

Tessa took time off from preparations for her upcoming solo exhibition General Admission to meet with Cassia Parrage for the October 2011 (vol. 6, nr. 3) issue of Caribbean Belle (a quarterly glossy magazine from Trinidad & Tobago) and talk about her life and artistic journey.

CB: Many people familiar with your work are unaware that you were a mainstay in local fashion before deciding to focus on art. Tell us about that experience and transition.

Tessa: My first love was always art. I was drawing and sketching at an early age. But being a professional artist was not encouraged; family and friends were skeptical as to whether one could forge a successful career in this field; and so I compromised with fashion design – something I also loved. This allowed me to still be creative, but in a way that was more acceptable to everyone.

After studying Fashion Design and Merchandising, I returned to Trinidad and produced my own label for about ten years. At the time, the local fashion industry was vibrant – there were many talented designers out there and we all focused on creating a style that was unique to the Caribbean. I represented Trinidad and Tobago at the Pret a Porter and Indigo fashion weeks for many years, and I also worked on several costuming and design projects. My creativity was reflected in my label; I still painted, but more as an extension of the design process.

I wanted to do more, but owning your own label meant handling all the responsibilities of creating and marketing a line, and there just wasn’t enough time. After the birth of my first daughter, I felt that I needed to artistically express all the emotions and experiences associated with motherhood. I wanted another outlet for this, and I started to devote more time to painting. I participated in a group exhibition, and the positive response to my work gave me the encouragement I needed to make a career switch.

My priorities had also shifted – I wanted to spend more time with my children, and painting allowed me the flexibility to juggle roles of mother and artist without compromising either. In 2004 I held my first solo exhibition, and though I have fond memories of my days in the fashion industry, my chosen life path is now that of an artist.

CB: What do you think your role is as an artist?

Tessa: I aim to appeal emotionally to the viewer, by creating pieces that portray elements of humanity, that are taken for granted, or that are perceived as ugly, unacceptable or “backward”, but that nonetheless make up very important aspects of society. I have no problem with artists who create what I call “picture perfect” art, or with people who appreciate that type of art; but for me, art becomes an emotional extension of myself. I want people to take notice of the positive and negative things that affect us – to embrace a new way of thinking. We should reflect on where we have come from, and where we are going.

My previous exhibitions can attest to that; Rethinking Landscape (2006), Urban Paradise (2008) and Glimpses (2010) all focus on everyday scenes that we would normally ignore on a conscious level.

CB: Tell us about General Admission. How did the concept for this exhibition materialize?

Tessa: General Admission was born after my husband and I attended a concert in Trinidad. With respect to public events, “general admission” and “special reserve” have always been around, but at this particular event, attendees had the option of purchasing VVIP, VIP or “general admission” tickets; we opted for the last mentioned. When we arrived, we realized that the “general admission” area was so far away from the stage that we had to rely on screens to take in the performance.

General Admission looks at this latest trend of dividing a space – creating sections within an area purely based on economics – relegating the “general admission” to the very back as “outcasts”. This very disturbing practice has become the norm; and it seems like the past, and where we have come from, is repeating itself. The pros and cons of the VIP and All-Inclusive packages are being constantly debated, and it is reassuring to see that not everyone is buying into the marketing propaganda.

In my paintings, I focus on the people and events that we would associate with “general admission”: the common man; the street vendors; traditional performers and artisans who rely on Carnival patrons to earn a living – they are becoming a footnote in Carnival history. Carnival is fast becoming a class-conscious battle instead of a unifying aspect of our culture and heritage. People get so caught up in the revelry; I just want them to step back and really reflect on what it all signifies, and what we are losing as a result.

CB: Do you draw inspiration from only local social events and landscapes?

Tessa: No, definitely not. I paint what moves me, from the fabric of all people and places. One thing that I always make note of is posture; you can tell a lot about a person from their body language, and in my paintings I tend to focus on form and movement rather than facial expression.

That doesn’t mean that all my paintings are faceless, rather I focus on facial expression when it serves to make a point. I am constantly searching for something different, showcasing the people rather than their surroundings. In 2005 I was invited to an artist residency in Delhi, India, for six weeks; and to a workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2007. Both experiences profoundly moved me. I could draw many parallels from the things I saw there. The paintings that I completed for each country focused more on women; as a female I was more drawn to their experiences. For instance, in Kenya I learned about the kanga – a rectangle of pure cotton cloth decorated with bold designs and bright colours. This multifunctional cloth is worn by women, men and children, and used to swaddle babies. Each piece has a Swahili proverb written on it, and you choose which design to wear based on the subtle meaning of the proverb. I was so fascinated by this that I would paint the women, border (the work) with elements from the kanga design, and add the Swahili meaning to it. It was amazing how the body language of each model reflected the meaning of the kanga.

So some may be critical of my work, and say that I focus only on the negative. But that’s not true. It’s about highlighting a social message, whether good or bad. It’s about being a champion for those who get lost in the fabric of society.

CB: In your view, is local art celebrated like it should be?

Tessa: The art community in Trinidad is so talented; yet, there is only one room devoted to the art gallery at the National Museum. Most artists receive exposure through private art galleries and exhibitions; but we need an adequate, permanent space to showcase our work. I was honoured to be a part of the National Museum’s “Women and Art” exhibition, A Journey to the Past, Perspectives on the Future, which celebrated 100 years of women in art. We need more events like these, and more incentives to get the public interested. We are such a gifted, multi-faceted society. We need to focus on our local talent, who have much to offer. How many people can speak knowledgeably about local artists such as Cazabon, Hinkson, Holder and Mosca like they would about Monet, Picasso and Matisse?

CB: Speaking of local and international masters – which artists’ works are you drawn to?

Tessa: (Laughs) As a child I can honestly say there was no one, because I was not exposed to artists – local or otherwise. I only became aware during high school, when I took the initiative to research artists. I love to read, and it seemed ideal to combine reading with art, and as a result, I discovered several artists I was drawn to. Henri Matisse and Jackie Hinkson I would say I am most partial to. Matisse because he painted everything in every form; his body of work was so diverse and groundbreaking for his time. And Hinkson because of his versatility as a local artist. I like to experiment with different techniques, and if you looked at my body of work I don’t think you could pigeonhole me into a specific category or style. I don’t stick to something just because it is the norm, or is considered safe and marketable. My technique is constantly evolving which to me is a good thing. It keeps the creative juices going; the last thing you want as an artist is to become stagnated or uninspired.

CB: So what is next on the horizon for you?

Tessa: After this exhibition, I intend to sit back and reflect; and also spend some quality time with my family. In terms of art, I want to experiment with sculpting. I think my interest in body language lends itself naturally to a three dimensional form of expression. For aspiring artists out there … hmmm … I would say just go for it! Always remember to be true to yourself as an artist, and it does not matter if you make your career as an artist or not – what matters is that you use your creative expression to help you along life’s journey.

For the original report go to

For more about Tessa Alexander online see

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