WHY YOU SHOULD CARE | Cozier is challenging how the art world thinks about small islands like his — and you’re sure to see his ideas and audacity echo in a new generation of artists.
Christopher Cozier is a prominent Caribbean artist. He dislikes the label.
Granted, most artists dislike labels and work hard to free themselves from them. From Cozier’s perspective, the label “Caribbean artist” is especially pernicious. It connotes things like palm trees and tropical birds to the people who use it, most of whom live outside the Caribbean.
Academics can be worse. In the past, some pointed to him as a post-colonial poster-boy, disposed to see in his work themes like slavery or suffering where none was. “From the time you start using that language, that code, then you’re kind of proceeding to render the work invisible,” says Cozier.
At this point, Cozier probably need not worry about his work’s visibility. The 54-year-old Trinidadian has shown all over the world, and his acclaim continues to grow. Last fall, he was one of 11 recipients of the Netherland’s prestigious Prince Claus Award.
But Cozier doesn’t worry only for himself. For years, he’s helped mentor Trinidad’s small but growing cohort of contemporary artists. In 2006, he and two comrades founded Alice Yard, a humble space where young artists come to experiment, exhibit and connect. In his studio, on the page and through a community of young artists, Cozier is redefining what the art world makes of little islands like his and former colonies the world over.
For all those serious aims, Cozier is fun: a garrulous, thoughtful storyteller who is quick to see or make a joke, or pull a wayward digression from the unabridged encyclopedia that must be in his head. You might want to talk about him, but you’ll end up learning strange facts: Television was introduced to Trinidad only after independence from Britain, in 1962. The main brands of curry powder available in Port-of-Spain are Turban and, more oddly, Chief. And movies! His talk drips with casual analyses of Heading South, the Godfather and probably everything else you’ve ever seen.
Cozier’s own work is allusive, filled with symbols and references — just not the ones his audience necessarily expects. “I’m trying to get rid of the rhetorical, get rid of all the familiar symbolism,” he told a friend and Alice Yard co-founder some years ago. Back then he was working on a series of postcard-sized drawings called Tropical Night and preoccupied with “brownness, dirty stains and scummy things.” Though it won exhibits at the Tate and the Brooklyn Museum, Tropical Night’s sepia tones and griminess caught some viewers off guard.
“A lot of the color seemed a little bit tainted because I was trying to understand these kind of locations. Even though the climate is beautiful, and the trees are wonderful, and people spend thousands of dollars to come here and spend a week lying down on the beach,” says Cozier. He wanted to evoke what happens beyond that.
Papa in See-Through Jersey
In Trinidad, as in many former British colonies, the interior walls of classrooms and clinics were painted brown on the bottom to hide the stain of human handprints. That’s the kind of grime he wanted for Tropical Nights. So he cleaned out his oven, collected the oily soot and mixed it with charcoal. This he used as pigment.
He tends toward the mischievous and political. His Available at All Leading Stores (2006) considers fear as political commodity. Viewers can use custom-made stamps to print “FEAR” onto cardboard and assemble the cardboard into boxes. Attack of the Sandwichmen consists of rows of rectangular, paper-wrapped sandwiches with Trinidadian flags sticking out of them. It evokes a fleet of ships, or an assembly line, or rows of soldiers.
“His anger came from wanting to be an artist but not having the courage, encouragement, or facilities to do so.“
In some ways, Cozier and Trinidad came of age together. He was born a few years before independence to civil-servant parents who had emigrated from Barbados. In those heady, hopeful years, young people were encouraged to do something useful for the fledging nation, like engineering or medicine. “Science, science, science!” says Cozier. Art drew him in, but it felt wrong. “There was no credibility or respectability to being an artist whatsoever,” he says. As he grew older, life seemed divided into “this moment of youth and this moment of compromise, and then it was over.” He fell into “depression and anarchy” as a teenager and became, in his estimation, “a lost cause.”
In hindsight, he says, his anger came from wanting to be an artist but not knowing how, or even that it was possible.
In his early 20s, he funneled his talent into graphic design, with success. “That was credible, right? It involved employment.” But Cozier had read a lot of books about art, pored over Betamax videos of modern artists at the USIS library in Port-of-Spain, and yearned for more, even though he didn’t know what “more” there might be. In 1983, when Cozier was 24, he and the woman he would soon marry, Irénée Shaw, enrolled in the Maryland Institute College of Art. Only during his first year did he begin to recognize himself as an artist. The pair moved onto Rutgers for graduate school, had the first of their four children in the States, and moved back to Trinidad in the late 1980s.
They built a treehouse to live, work and raise their kids in. It’s a narrow, three-story affair with a studio on the ground floor and plenty of open space. Birdsong enters through the breezeblocks.
One of Cozier’s most reproduced works expresses his difficult youth, of wanting to be an artist and finding the courage to do it: Art and Nation: Things You Must Learn From Day One. It consists of a blackboard chalked into two columns and the hanging white shirt of a child’s school uniform.
The first column is headed “Them” and reads: 1) White people 2) Rich people 3) Bullers [gay men] 4) People from rich countries 5) All of the above. The second column is titled “Us”: 1) People who must pray, 2) People who must work hard, 3) People who must learn to love their “CULTURE” and always respect their leaders.
Some of his gay friends were offended. Some of his black-nationalist friends called him up to cheer and affirm that, yes, “this whole art thing is a Western liberal gay plot.” Anyone can misinterpret art. It’s the only work Cozier has taken out of circulation, though it’s also one of his favorites, and most personal.
He thinks about young artists a lot now, with a young daughter studying film in New York. Should he suggest she come home to Trinidad afterward or continue her career abroad, where there are more opportunities and support?
“I wouldn’t like her to go through what I went through,” he says. He brightens for a moment. “Though I’ve worked very hard here, through Alice Yard and other activities, to try to create a dynamic in which young artists can feel free to take risks and think more expansively.”
And then Cozier must go, for there’s an impromptu gathering of young artists at Alice Yard.