Pat Ganase’s review of Books & Stupas, an exhibition of papier-mâché sculptures by Wendy Nanan, inspired by the Bookman Mas, ran until Tuesday at Medulla Art Gallery, Fitt Street, Woodbrook. Imps and devils have been a feature of Trinidad Carnival since the 1880s, according to Errol Hill’s book—The Trinidad Carnival. Over time, there evolved a hierarchy of devils in bands. Imps are the proletariat. The beast or dragon is a central force to be controlled, or let loose. But the real leader is Lucifer, the king devil, the gownman and the bookman, dressed in flowing robes with an oversized papier mache devil mask.
In the tradition, each character has a function. The imps control the beast. The imp with the key uses it to open the way across water usually a drain or canal on the city street. Gathering the membership, the band follows a route to the house of the leader, Lucifer, the bookman and the gownman. On his doorstep, the bookman ceremoniously records in his book, the names of all present and who knows what else, before setting out to the Carnival streets to frighten small children. Thus the devil in Carnival took charge of the word—literacy and reason—and locked it up in the secrecy of the book. It is suspected that he records everything, totting up all misdeeds for that final accounting at death. In this exhibition Nanan acknowledged her fascination with the devil’s book. Peering inside, she found that “Surprisingly the Devil is thinking of religion and the shortness of life.” For her part, the fascination was not only with the thought or the word, but the impressive process to capture and conceal or reveal the devil’s ideas. She used the bookman’s technique of creating oversized papier mache books, and appropriated his role to create her own books for her own ideas. In so doing, she entered a process both physical—the making of papier mache—and meditative. And true to the art of the Carnivalesque, what she created was both decorative and devilish. A summary of the art and industry of the book?
I had to smile at the lion (Jah) and the elephant (Brahma) acknowledging each other in The Bounce. I smiled too at Nelson Island—the (preposterous) notion that in the span of three generations from the sub-continent, an Indian woman becomes Prime Minister in these New World isles. And why not? The collection was eclectic and ironic, no religions were sacrosanct in the devil’s book. Though, to tell the truth, Christian symbols were largely absent. (This perhaps to allow the average mas-playing Trini perspective to appreciate the view without getting bogged down in unnecessary defence of his or her own dogma.) Dogen’s Rules captures sayings of the Zen teacher. The Sound of Ohm was a fiery and far-reaching symbol of symbols. We are reminded that the Gods are Watching. I like that Nanan’s Prayer Book invoked the names of female deities. Stupas are mounds or structures that house religious (usually Buddhist) relicts. Hotei’s cake is made up of kitchen moulds, fitting tribute to the old kitchen god, the laughing budai (not Gautama Buddha), a kind of Santa Claus. The graceful Stupa of the Compassion of Snails reminds us that even small creatures have purpose and usefulness—these snails kept the Gautama Buddha cool. These books and stupas converted the spare Medulla gallery into a meditative space, and worth entering even for a brief escape from the dry season heat and busyness of the world. Rooted in old traditions—both of Carnival and bookmaking—Nanan’s work used iconography that was familiar and therefore accessible. From this comfortable even welcoming stance, she was able to gently evoke feeling and thinking about religious symbols and concepts that we largely take for granted. In the beginning was the word, and the word was God. But the book—and maybe thinking itself—must surely be the devil’s.