Art has always been an important part of my life. Growing up I remember my parents being constantly engaged in creative endeavours and my fondest memories are from the time when we lived “by the river” at upper School Street, Carenage. My father, who was about 30 years old at the time, built a small but comfortable wooden house for his young family to live in. There, we were surrounded by animals; ducks and geese, our cat Kitty-ann, our parrot Mubarak and the occasional stray dog that would wander into our unfenced yard to harass the chickens. Around the wooden structure my parents planted seasonings and herbs. I especially remember the mint, and to this day the smell of homemade peppermint tea takes me back to those simple days. The house was surrounded by trees of all kinds that provided shade, fruit and climbing adventures.

On the path in front of our house, my father would arrive on his motorcycle which we would hear long before we could even see it. If he arrived during the day, we would race to the verandah that skirted the house and peep through the strips of wood in excitement to see him. He never came empty handed, we could always expect a little gift or a surprise from him each time, even if it was just a flower or some tomato balls (a hard sugar coated candy). Every time we heard the bike’s roar approaching in the distance it would be the signalling in our little hearts of the start of our daily celebration. If he arrived at night, we closed our eyes tightly, pretending to sleep, but waiting in anticipation for a kiss on the forehead that would send us off sweetly back to our bush dreams.

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Painting of a typical Trinidad wooden house (A gift that I will cherish) 

 There was no electricity or running water, and so we depended on the river to wash, drink, cook and clean. The river was beautiful. As children, my brother, sister and I would play there while my mother washed our clothes. The river was also mysterious and we kept close to my mother, never venturing too far up or down, and ever vigilant for the resident “zangies” or river snakes that we assumed lived in the dark corners near the rocks and under dead leaves, for they would surely suck our toes off if we troubled them! My father caught one on a particular occasion and for the first time we came face to face with one of our biggest childhood fears only to realize that it wasn’t that scary after all. He kept it in a bucket on the verandah for a while and then let it go again.

For the few years that we lived there, before our lives began to feel like a roller coaster, the river defined us. It was a source of peace and hope. I cherished our little special corner of the earth where, in my innocence, I believed that life was perfect and was always going to be that way.

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Me riding my tricycle on the verandah c.1985 (Behind me is the river)

At night kerosene lamps would illuminate my parents’ faces in the dark as my father told us stories about the adventures of the H.M.S. Bounty and its brave captain; my mother, always looked on with reassuring glances to comfort us when at times the shadows really began to look like huge whales. Outside, a chorus of strange night creatures would sing their quarrelsome songs.

During the day the house was flooded with natural light but remained cool because of the close proximity of the trees. When my mother swept or dusted anything I saw magic in the little dust particles that floated around in the streams of sunlight. I used to jump to catch them and pretend I was picking sapodillas (my favourite fruit). The house was furnished with just the bare minimum. I remember a few wooden chairs with floral patterned cushions, a bed in the children’s room with a mosquito net. A hammock. A small table where we had our meals. Book shelves built onto the wall. And a small kitchen that could be entered from the back of the house via three or four wooden steps. I used to stand on those steps and throw bits food for the ducks and chickens. With no running water, the kitchen always had a lot of buckets and other containers filled with water. No refrigerator meant that we only had icy drinks when we visited grandmother’s house in Belmont or Mama’s house which was further down on School Street.

My mother sketched a lot, she loved to draw plants and flowers and did them with whatever she could put her hands on whenever she had the time. My parents owned a plant shop for a few years on Mucurapo Road, St. James. My father had a green thumb and would mix the soils and set plants and seedlings. My mother did the sales and the decorating of the plant shop. It was beautiful as far as I recall, with a stone pathway and hanging baskets. I am sure that customers felt that they were in a different world on entering the shop. My mother also bought and decorated ceramic vases and pots. She stuck chip chip shells on them to make butterfly wings, she painted flowers on them and then glazed them. These were also sold at the plant shop. (Wish I had a photograph of those). I remember helping her gather the chip chip from the beach, taking out the meaty part to cook, and then cleaning the shells and laying them out to dry. I am sure somewhere in Trinidad or Tobago someone may still have one of my mother’s vases. Maybe for a subsequent post I can work on some together with her for old times sake.

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Sketch of anthuriums in a vase by my mother March 2nd, 1991 (day before her birthday)

 My father sketched and painted. Unfortunately, he had even less time than my mother due to his countless duties in the community, I do however remember some of his work. He especially loved to draw banana trees. I do not have any of his early works but I do have work that he did between 1990 and 1992 which I will discuss in subsequent posts. His biggest artistic accomplishment during that time though was the house itself. He may not have thought that it was art but looking back I see now that the planning, skill, love and care that he put into creating that beautiful space for his family was nothing short of an amazing labour of love and art.

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Detail of painting done by my father 1991. Signed “Waki”

These were the moments that defined my early life, and my appreciation for art and nature. These were the moments that shaped who I am today. Along the way there were simple but powerful experiences that taught me the importance of family life and our inherent creative spirits. Beautiful moments and moments for reflection happen everyday. During our busy existences though, we either do not notice or are moving too fast to take the time needed to digest them. If we look at our lives as works of art, what would we do differently?

This is about seeing art in the everyday.

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My brother Muhammad (left), my sister Hajar (on Abu’s shoulders), me (front) and my father crossing the river to get to our house. c. 1986 (So amazing that this photo even exists!)

 

Nimah Muwakil… the sapodilla girl…