Pat Bishop’s passing leaves a hole in us. Not just the Trinidad and Tobago visual arts community, of which she was a significant part as a painter, or Despers, the venerable steelband with which she worked, or the Lydians, the magnificent choir which she directed from 1987 until her death on August 20, 2011. The work she did and the direction she articulated for our national and cultural identity is irreplaceable. It sounds trite but the lady was really a national treasure and we are the poorer for her passing.
At the memorial for her on August 28 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, I cried and cried. Not just in sympathy for my friends who are members of the Lydians but for myself that I didn’t have the courage while she lived to spend more time with her instead of holding up that silly veil of some kind of separation between journalist and subject—after all, I had in the past been called upon and could conceivably be called upon again to cover her work or canvass her views on something, anything. What contact I had had with her was professional, not personal, and I always left our interviews with a feeling that I had only glimpsed her creative genius and her understanding of us as Trinidadians.
Consider this unpublished statement she made in a 2007 interview I did with her for Caribbean Beat on her work as director of the Carnival Institute: “If we are not to get to Darfur it is important that we collect and show the various public art processes and what they say about ourselves.” As we enter the third week of the State of Emergency in Trinidad and Tobago don’t those words seem prophetic?
And this, from the same interview: “I have all sorts of fantasies. I have in my head a flock of robot corbeaux—they will have beak caps and radar—and an encounter between the King Douen and Spongebob.
“The only way our children are going to find their place in the sun is to know who they are and to get on to the information superhighway. If I did my cartoons of Mama D’glo combing her hair, Yugioh would fall in love with her. They would know they are part of the world and not just someone that must say ‘Yes, master’ to Miami and survive on barrels from that part of the world.”
I was disappointed, to say the least, at the remarks made by Bhoe Tewarie at the memorial. Dr Tewarie, in his capacity as Minister of Planning, Economic and Social Restructuring and Gender Affairs, was one of the last people to see her alive, as he had hosted the meeting at which she collapsed, never to recover, on August 20. He talked at the memorial about the young Pat Bishop’s desire to be seen yet he failed to mention that the better part of her career as historian, musicologist and cultural researcher was far more devoted to looking than being seen. Not “look me,” but “look we” was what she in her latter work was all about. More than anywhere else, you could hear it in the magical way she fused tassa, African drums and steelpan with European Baroque tradition in her epic signature piece the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah as performed by Despers and the Lydians and Malick Tassa Drummers at the very memorial service.
It was this that stuck in my throat: rage. The government would make sure that Pat’s work was remembered, he said; but I somehow got the impression that it was the works themselves and not her intention that the government would celebrate. Pat Bishop was an artist’s artist, and even greater than her desire for making her own work visible was her passion for protecting our arts and fostering their growth, probing them for an understanding of our national possibility and potential. Dr Tewarie, in addition to your tributes and a retrospective exhibition or whatever is planned to memorialize Pat Bishop, why not found a National Arts Council that would give significant and transparent grants to the arts in this country? Would that not be the better way to celebrate her legacy? Wouldn’t she be glad to know that some artist here, digging in the rich soil that is our cultural heritage, would have it that much easier? That our arts could be as respectable and comparatively well funded as any? That the hardscrabble life lived by some artist could be a little easier for it?
My friend writer Barbara Jenkins, who writes for the Lydians, eulogized Pat Bishop in a note published in the programme for Winterreise, the show Pat was directing at her death. With Barbara’s permission I’ve republished her words here. I wonder if Dr Tewarie will read them and I wonder if he will then understand.
A Winter Journey of the Soul
Do not go gentle into that good night…
…Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Pat Bishop died on Saturday 20th August 2011. She had been working on this Winterreise concert when she died. As was her way, she was also working on a collection of paintings, She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore. For Pat, one creative activity inspired another, even segued into another. She could never do just one thing at a time when she was on fire; she had to find outlets everywhere or be consumed by her own energy, go into meltdown. This time, as she completed both – preparing for the concert and putting the last brushstroke on the last painting – she did self-combust.
I would venture that it was not the strain of the work she did do, that killed Pat Bishop – she was tireless with the choir, the steel, the painting, the teaching, the guiding, the writing, the thinking. These gave challenge, gave hope, gave reward in lifting the spirit, her own and those she worked with. It was the stress of what she did not do, could not do, that broke her.
More than anyone, I think, Pat recognised how lucky we are to have found ourselves here, in this miraculous space that is Trinidad and Tobago. How lucky we are to have arrived here with the gifts of intelligence, creativity and endurance and the blessed serendipity of being thrown together to share and fuse and mix and blend and make newer, better, more original creations, of people, of things. A people who, musical illiterates in the conventional sense, could take industrial waste, an empty oil drum, use heat and hammer, and create a musical instrument. A people who, colonised and coloniser, enslaved and slave-owner, plantation overseen and overseer, heated together in this crucible, could emerge as us! Look at we! Just look at we! Yes, WE the subject, not the object.
How many times must you say to a national community; how many times must you say to the corporate world; how many times must you say to ministers and governments of how many regimes, that the wealth of a nation is the people, their creativity, their natural born gifts, their talents? Not just say, not just talk, speechify, posture, but show by example, demonstrate by unceasing labour, by walking the walk, barefoot over beds of nails, through coals of fire, decade after decade after decade?
Say over and over and over, that our wealth, the treasure of our human capital, is inexhaustible, renewable, sustainable – the only long-term capital that this country possesses, the only investment worth while, the only thing that could, would, last beyond all other wealth. That this wealth must be recognised, nurtured, developed, cherished, rewarded?
That all else is ephemeral, all else, dross?
It was while she was called upon to say it one more time that the fragile clay vessel that housed her soul broke beyond repair and Pat Bishop died.
Pat had been going through A Winter Journey of the Soul for a long, long time. She had been soldiering on, putting the last of her energies into what she could do, while still hoping to persuade others, the powers-that-be, that the key to this country’s salvation lies, not in physical structures, but in empowering institutions; not in consumerism, but in conservation; not in $GDP, but in human GDP – Greatest Development of all People, ALL people – through their myriad talents, their boundless creativity. And she died, while saying so, one last time.
Is anyone listening?
Can anyone understand?
Barbara Jenkins, Lydian
Wednesday, August 24, 2011