Fete Type Log #2

Seeing is Knowing is Making
—Dutch proverb

In an environment dominated more and more by commercial enterprises — telephone, fast food, and alcohol — the character of Trinidad and Tobago (TT) design seems more and more difficult to find, since it all too often gives way to foreign influences.

However the call of foreign, is met by the response of hand painted fete signs. Illegally posted on the electricity poles that plague Trinidad.

Sign painting is part of our vernacular, with every Chinese grocery, Indian rumshop or hardware store, Syrian fabric store, African produce vendor, and Creole food place. It's the medium of migrant working class communities, similar to the Mexican restaurants that line the streets of LA in California. It's here that TT design seems to have retreated, or found and made space. Especially in lieu of proper cultural institutions like museums, theatres, and other cultural spaces that normally define a nation's visual identity.

My recent visit to Bruce Cayonne's garage studio was a discussion in letter subculture — in fete signage and hip hop's graffiti. How one finds their way to loving letters and how one sustains their craft. In talking to Bruce, he expresses hitting a wall. A plateau of sorts where no younger sign painter has come around to give him competition.

I show him a picture of fete signs I spotted in Boissiere Village in town, thinking it was an inexperienced young sign painter — by the inconsistent brush strokes, uneven spacing and lack of visual hierarchy. Bruce recognizes the painter and says he's actually older than him and looks like he rushed the sign — evident in the cramming of letters on the right edge of the sign — which he observed was a reused fete sign. He expresses that this particular sign painter is actually one of the good ones. That the sign was for the painter's own fete, which surprised me since it wasn't done it seemed to the best of his abilities — the lack of pride in work. Bruce broke down the fete sign earnings ratio to try to justify his colleague's design decisions — material, layout and time.

Young sign painters are rare and given the low likelihood of future sign painters, I challenged Bruce to turn towards education as a way to direct his competitive spirit and energy. To learn how to verbalize what he does to others. We have started in on the font creation process (Agyei, Bruce and myself). He's choosing a font of his own creation and hand painting the letters on Bristol board (black letters on a white background for good contrast). From here Agyei and I will scan them in at high resolution and begin vectorizing them. We'll keep an open dialogue to teach one another and others interested in learning.

In Dutch art, their 'realist' tradition is defined by art historian Svetlana Alpers as, "Seeing is knowing is making." Meaning that, "In Dutch art, what can be seen or experienced can be known, for there is always a clear body of information on the subject matter at hand . . . If you look closely enough at a thing, you can figure out how to make it, or how to fashion something just like it, or how to create something better . . . The Dutch world is essentially interior. It mirrors, maps, and paints reality as it is, so it makes sense to the observer who is already in that reality." What is defined as "northern pictorial modes" in art history. Versus "southern mode" where one observes the world around them, " . . . to deduce meaning from what we see and to make sense of what appear to be random occurrences by inventing a higher truth that aligns them in a logical manner." The current Trinidad and Tobago landscape reflects this — it's mostly exterior and southern mode and contrasts to the Dutch. Bruce Cayonne's signs however are an exception, and stand out. While there are other sign painters, I told Bruce that his signs are generous in knowledge and a great tool for teaching. A result of intelligent design decisions that have marked its success.