A vista of Haitian history

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A report by Mark Lyndersay for Trinidad’s Guardian.

A week ago, Kwynn Johnson was patiently walking the obsidian black stage at Big Black Box, 3Canal’s performance space in Woodbrook.

Stanton Kewley, the bandmember who was to assist with the hanging of the work with his team, was running late, and the artwork—a massive panoramic measuring 30 feet wide by 43 inches high—was restless in the morning breezes, rousing intermittently from rest where it lay, a white canvas slash running diagonally across the stage, imposing even at the level of the feet of those in attendance.

The work was first shown at the 2017 edition of Bocas Lit Fest and represents another phase of Johnson’s investigation of Haiti through drawing.

“In 2012 (Jackie) Hinkson saw the early stages of a series of Haiti drawings I was working on, each 3×2 feet, and he said I should try to go larger,” Johnson said.

“My last solo exhibition in 2013 comprised 25 graphite drawings; so this is a continuation of this material use.”

The work’s mounting at the stage space is also a continuation. The artwork Place as Palimpsest includes, with the permission of the playwright Derek Walcott and his heirs, work done for the set design done by Johnson and Carol Williams for a 2004 staging of scenes from his play The Haitian Earth.

“The inclusion of this storyboard organically anchors the broader theme of the composition,” Johnson said, “but it does not overpower the other layers of history, for example, our understanding of the cholera bacteria in the ecology of 21st century Haiti.”

A palimpsest is, formally, a document which has been erased and written over, but retains traces of its earlier form.

For Johnson, who read for a 2015 PhD in Cultural Studies, this examination of Haiti and research of its culture through art, rather dryly described as “practice-based research”, has been an endeavour of decades.

“I draw from the idea of a palimpsest as a way to convey a metaphor for the earth, or rather, how the geology comes about and can come to be understood…place as a concept is understood in the ways people attach meaning to their physical environment through their daily routines.

“Place is also seen as a repository of history, in which repeated use becomes etched with layers of meaning. So that, when we look at a place in the present, we understand it in light of the past, which is never quite erased.”

Very specific geographic and cultural artifacts are pervasive and repeated elements in Place as Palimpsest, and provide crucial markers for an artist who has tied the two in exhibited works in 2007, examining Tobago’s Buccoo Reef and 2010’s Black Gold: playing with oil.

“As with my last exhibition, this work is primarily made for the Haitian audience, but it is always interesting to show it in Trinidad where there is some measure of interest in drawing.”

But, and she quotes Prof Matthew Smith of UWI, Mona here, “People are curious about Haiti, not interested.”

Hanging Place as Palimpsest

Place as Palimpsest is hung using carpenter’s clamps strung with fishing line.

“I’ve used this hanging technology in 2005 at the National Museum and Art Gallery when I exhibited a series of watercolours which resembled strips of celluloid film, the way they are hung in a darkroom,” Johnson said.

“These clamps worked perfectly at Bocas and at The Big Black Box, and I will use them in Jamaica and Haiti. Most spaces prohibit attaching object to their walls, so hanging is always safe.”

“This technology does not impose on or impinge on the integrity of this drawing. The stage of the Big Black Box was its perfect ‘frame’, and lit with stage lights, is truly potent.”

“This is also my very conscious move away from the vulgar and unnecessary thing we are plagued with called framing—cost.”

Next for Place as Palimpsest [Yon kote tankou Palimpseste]

Tonight, Kwynn Johnson will have a conversation with Wendell Manwarren, Script, Set, Scroll at Big Black Box from 7 pm.

Exhibitions are confirmed for Jamaica in October 2017 and Haiti in December 2017.

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