Violence Blooms 2006-2009 Trinidad

October 25, 2009

Dhow Dhow and Pax Pax, three years of work using the technique of straight stitch applique

Violence Blooms, Adele Todd explains, ” In 2005 I was in China as a participant in the Second Beijing Biennial. In our last few days in the city, a friend and I found out about a wonderful Buddhist temple. We took a taxi and arrived in time for the latter half of the prayers in the courtyard of the temple.


Embroidered Anthuriums from the back

While there I observed some very detailed hanging curtains that were adorned with embroidered flowers done in traditional Chinese style. It was then that the idea for violence blooms emerged. The concept was to do much larger embroidery work on the theme of violence in boys as they grow to adulthood. I looked at the idea that Trinidad and Tobago on the one hand represents an idyllic space and yet faces so much internal conflicts from the people themselves.”


Detail of Anthuriums

Adele Todd Violence Blooms 2006-2009 Trinidad

Dhow Dhow and Pax Pax written in  Dimensional Dmbroidery

Adele Todd is a Trinidad based artist. She has done works in a variety of mediums since she completed her studies at the Pratt Institute. Her venues for shows have been untraditional and often provocative. She is most fascinated by elements of violence and eroticism and addresses them in her work. She is also a teacher and she regularly follows this blog and occasionally does projects with her students involving posts on this blog.

Vinod Dave came across her recent exhibit “Violence Blooms” while surfing the net and was struck by its impact. In the resulting interview, Ms.Todd reveals the inner depths of her work and provides insight into its various facets with candid frankness:

Vinod Dave: You were inspired nearly four years back, while you were in china, by some curtains embroidered with flowers. This long time between inspiration and actually creating something seems remarkable. Is this how you always work or this was so only in this project?
Adele Todd: In a day there are many things to consider, preparing my class work for my teaching, doing a project as a freelance designer and taking care of a three year old. Despite the best intentions, sometimes some work takes much longer than expected. Naturally many drawings are done and much thought is given to how to proceed and for me, I also always ask the question why? Why create this? What is it about this topic that makes me want to make the effort to commit to it?

VD: Also because of the time consuming nature of embroidery, may be?

AT: Embroidery has been proven to be my present medium of choice, along with Performance. There is much to recommend it, the color, the texture, the history and to me, the cotemporary possibilities. I am not limited to embroidery.

VD: Do you consider your work ‘feminist’ or ‘feminine’ and since you use mediums most used by females in the traditional way?

AT: I have no interest in considering my work ‘feminine’, Caribbean
or any other cultural terminology. I learnt the techniques of embroidery in private primary school and high school, and did not apply them again until adulthood. So the desire to work with the material as a soft material did not come from romanticizing the thread and cloth, but from a desire to use the technique to send clear messages about a subject matter, in this case, domestic violence.

VD: Embroidery also has an inherent element in it related to decorative arts or crafts. How do you justify the subject of violence that may be considered in conflict with the decorative?

AT: That is wholly where the interest lies. I enjoy contradiction in art. I find greater regard for subtle observation, where the appearance of the sublime is subverted.

VD: When I mention ‘decorative’, what I mean is the medium’s traditional purpose. However, violence could be very ‘decorative’ or “attractive” at moments. I remember one senior American artist (Irving Kriesberg) asking me the same question after seeing my print news media based work dealing with social violence. My work at that time had element of splattered enamel paint on manipulated news photographs of actual human violence (that actually happened somewhere). My answer to him at that time was: violence commands people’s attention as much as pretty elements do and I want my work to do just do that. Are you in agreement with this or you having something beyond this theory?

AT: This is so true. It is very disturbing that particularly in American culture, a culture that is exported to much of the world through television, movies and the Internet, that violence is sound tracked and enhanced by beautiful looking people acting roles. Violence and sex are very immediate triggers. As a graphic artist, aware of selling, I cannot help but observe these two elements.

Sex and Death is that all there is? Of course not, but they sell very well. What’s funny is that this isn’t new, it has always been so. From the Laocoon Group by Agesander, Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Delight (which I have interpreted as wearable art by the way) to Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarrentino. I suppose they stay with us because of that fact. They cause the strongest impulses in us all. I must ask you now, what do you think?

(PS: My recent work that can be seen in Connecticut, I used existing imagery from our local newspapers to look at crime. I broke the theme up into four sections, police, criminals, victims and the justice system. Today I have observed many artists using print media to inform their ideas, I am one of them. The immediacy of the imagery, whether in print or on television, has a decorative element (perhaps because it is captured in photography?) It also helps one to explore a reality that you may not want to confront directly. You have access to information without going through a number of challenges. Upon that reference, you can then place your own interpretation.)

VD: I asked because I thought so in the first place. Also your training in graphic design at the Pratt – is that a driving force leading you towards using certain mediums, the way you execute and the choice of way of expressing?

AT: My training, my experiences, my observations, all influences my choice of mediums and media.

VD: Performance and self-involvement seem to be part of most of your art projects. It also becomes an act of story-telling. Is this because you want to do it that way for some reason or you are interested in mixed-media/multi-media interconnections that tend to tell the whole story from various angles without opting out anything? If so, do you thing one needs more than one aspect of expression in order to tell it in a complete way? You also divide the story telling in intervals that count as day/s.

AT: I am very excited about media, all types, used in art. I would use my cell phone to explore showing my work if I have to. Use everything to get the message across. I suppose this is because of my design background. It makes me thing of purpose all the time. So I love to engage my students in outdoor art projects or creating zines and blogs. Not everyone gets what I am trying to encourage, it is an uphill struggle would you believe it. So many people complain that artists are not taken seriously, they can’t get a show etc…but that’s all they do, complain. So, really creative art does not come from this region much, and when it does, it is imitative. A mix of media expands choices, expands possibilities. For me, I like to say, I go where the idea demands me to go. I plan on doing a short DVD of older women talking about their sexual lives for a body of work on female sexuality called ‘Stain”. I am looking at the fact that although we live in a less sexually oppressive world, women can still find themselves on the wrong side of the moral sexual divide

VD: Violence Blooms, at first looks completely organic, then ‘decorative’ (like flowers blooming on plants). Then as one observes closely, elements of violence emerge. That bears potentials of awe and shock strategy. Was this your purpose using this strategy for a reason?

AT: It was exactly my purpose, and when I was in China and got the inspiration from of all things, a Buddhist temple curtain, I paused and reflected for some time on the contradiction.

VD: The initially blooming decorativeness turns into shocking violence. I think that way of suggesting violence has more power than bringing one directly to a scene of blood stained dismembered bodies.

AT: I think so too. The plan was to create four of these floral targets, using all of our familiar red flowers.
With the viewer either connecting them from a distance as a large red mass, then on closer examination seeing the floral detail and finally seeing the violence hidden among the blooms. This is how I feel about crime in my country. It is my statement.

VD: Many of your works also pulsate with a ‘crime scene’-like quality. Is living in a crime saturated environment behind that element? We all live in a crime-infested environment no matter where we live in the world today. Is Trinidad (that is where you live, right?) more intense in this area or it is just like any other part of the world that would have been the base for your art?

AT: For many of us in Trinidad and Tobago, population 1.3 million,5,128 square kilometers, crime was gradual, shocking and still difficult for most of us to come to grips with. For little islands, the drug culture that helps spawn a percentage of crime was the first point. I can remember as a child, if there were five murders in the year, that was completely shocking. Car accidents were the major discussion regarding death.

It does not help that murders are on the front pages very often in our media, so there is sensationalism and a glamorization factor to it that our media seem oblivious to changing. But lately, I see them trying a bit more to push such things down a bit and to focus on more edifying things.

VD: You also talk of thieves. Thieves can be sneaky and often non-violent. You seem to be very aware of crime in general. Is your definition of crime more personal or political? Your work seems to be dealing with the personal rather than general. Or is that more of a social commentary Can you comment on this?

AT: A friend of mine has a theory that one must be careful not to make self fulfilling prophecy in your work. It has come home to me in my life, the life of my friends, it does seem that observing a particular thing makes it grow in attention. Yet, as an artist, we never know what our role means ultimately. I started to work in 1998/9 in earnest because I could not see myself creating sweet potboilers that sell extremely lucratively by the way and help many artists live quite well. I saw so many things that needed addressing, and it was my upset that compelled me forward. It was not a judgment on those who want to create pretty things. I just felt that we as a country also have a space to explore the present as we move forward.

VD: I sense in a subtle way elements of eroticism in many of your work. Is that intentional? Do you see a comparative relation between the erotic combat and the actual violence?

AT: The erotic is something that I am looking at much more. It is interesting that you mention it. Going so far into violence demands a retreat or I should say, a reversal or rebounding. It is a hard, wearying topic, and there are other things that consume the mind. My carnival portrayal of one of Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings, was such a diversion. I wanted to observe the male by playing up male genitalia, unseen in the history of our masquerade for a woman to do. I am very interested in the idea of this type of observance.

VD: This work has unusual exhibition space. Is it a public forest or a private garden? Do you often have concerns about where to exhibit because many of your work would not fit into a regular gallery setting?

AT: I do indeed have difficulty with places to show, and so I have become radical about it. I have decided that I will show anywhere I can.

VD: Your embroidered line often resemble to dripping blood stains. Is that for the subject enhancement? Thread, fabric, and needle – all these have delicate balance with femininity and at the same time you electrify them with something as harsh as violence. Does the act of embroidery itself stand for violent act of piecing or stabbing? Do you identify yourself (since you many times become part of your work, almost performing the art work) with the violent human nature in its rawest form when you create? Does the act of creation and destruction become almost one when/if you do?

AT: The technique just seems right. When I began with looking at domestic violence, I did a great deal of research into the topic. I concluded that men featured prominently in the abuse, so I asked myself what happens with boys as they grow to manhood. What informs their aggression? For me, I like to understand the subject. I read everything I can, from newspaper articles to treatise from psychological journals…whatever it takes. I firmly believe that your work reflects honesty.

In Performance, getting inside the thinking of the thing is also extremely intimate and emotional. When I did my piece, “..When you dream wedding,” I recall wondering whether the impact would be strong enough, and one of the ladies who was working on preparing the space for me to do my work walked into the room, and I revealed the cutlass (a long knife) and she instantly stepped back and was visibly shaken.

It was that reaction that made me fully aware of the power of Performance. So in other words, you cannot involve yourself in your work and hope to stand apart from it, even if you think you are not part of the experience.

VD: I myself seem to be obsessed with this subject, hence, I ask too much about aspects and nature of violence in your work. Hope you do not mind that. How does it feel to be a woman and behind this act (since traditions teach us otherwise – that women are more nurturing than ‘destructive’)? Also I notice reading about Trinidad as a vital location for the Caribbean art, majority of artists are dealing with violent subject matter in their work. Does this have to do with the area’s social environment as a violent one in particular or is it more general in a sense that the whole world as a society is violent?

AT: When I started working like this, no one was doing it. People came to my show and where quite surprised by the subject matter. Some wanted to know whether I was a victim. However, now, the wolf has been at too many doors for artists to ignore such subjects.

Also, when I started researching violence, boys and men dominated the question, but in only ten years women and girls have gone from victim to instigators in violence as well. As populations increase and resources shrink, this subject shall remain a very concerning one. The writer Octavia Butler and others who portray the future as harsh should not be proven right, but we seem unable and unwilling to prevent this reality from becoming possible. However, I really hope that we can succeed in leaving a better world for our children and their children.

VD: You talk about violence as part of growing up (in boys growing up into adulthood)somewhere. Do you say that as a cultural aspect or this is a gender issue? Is your work aimed at social change? Do you think it is possible to change anything via art?

AT: How wonderful it would be if my work could do so on a larger scale. It is a large part of why I persevere. It must be known that some of us did not just sit back and throw up our hands at what we saw in our society.

I strongly believe that Art can change the world. It may be overtly simplistic to say, but in some ways, didn’t America buy into the graphic design staging that went along with selling Barack Obama? Certainly he was sufficiently charismatic and had the right ingredients to be chosen. But a lot of it was art and artifice, it just is the nature of our world. You have to know how to sell. The media controls so much.

VD: Certain attractiveness permeates most of your works. As I said earlier, violence has this quality too. Are you consciously relating them since many of your titles also refer to the pleasant things in life (blooms, paradise, hope etc to name a few)?

AT: Yes, the names draw you in and lull your sense of comfort and expectation.

VD: I see more of the Caribbean art only on internet. Is there some reason behind that? Is art covered in other media like the press in that part of the world?

AT: There is not enough exposure, not enough critical writing. Those who do both are a closed clique. Artists are suspicious of each others’ success (0r so it can seem). Our government does not spend a great deal on exposing artists. Although this year with the Summit of the Americas in which many head of government attended including the American president and the American Secretary of State, there was a great show of putting up large murals of artists work. But naturally all of it was about culture, so you saw pastoral scenes and people playing our national instrument and attractive abstract paintings. I am not knocking this, artists were so happy to be acknowledged. But the hard edged contemporary group was completely ignored.

I would consider myself among them, It is true that my work may not be easy to make a mural of, but then, no one approached me with a brief either.

Vinod, thank you for the opportunity to discuss my work with you.

VD: Thank you for much insight.

Indian contemporary art

3 Responses to “Violence Blooms 2006-2009 Trinidad”

  1. Vinod Dave Says:

    very strong work, adele. would like to post on my art & chocolate blog with your permission.

  2. myalweed Says:

    really powerful work Adele. With your permission, I’d like to teach this material in my course on “women & gender in global contexts”. Email me if you want to chat:

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