Interview with... Trinidadian visual artist, Elechi Todd
Elechi Todd is a visual artist from Trinidad and Tobago, living and working there today. From drawing to painting, he extends his multidisciplinary skills to film-making: he founded ETV Island for which he creates professional videos (music, commercial or filming). Elechi has participated to several exhibitions such as 'Relative' held at the Lost Tribe Carnival recently, and Icons: Ideals of Black Masculinity with CCH Pounder Collection. He also had his work shown at the Prizm Art Fair (Miami, Florida) and Arnim's Gallery (Port of Spain, Trinidad). Elechi curated a few exhibitions, the latest he collaboratively curated with a group of artists titled Shot to the Ego.
Segolene Py: Present yourself in a few words
Elechi Todd: My name is Elechi Todd, I’m an artist from Trinidad and Tobago. I’m a painter, video maker and unofficially an exhibition organiser. I currently work with acrylic paints on watercolour paper. I’ve collaborated with artists locally on a few experimental video projects and also have been involved in the planning and execution of several group exhibitions with various artists over the past eight years.
SP: You have quite a particular style that I have not really seen before. What inspires you and how would you qualify your style ?
ET: I try to consciously absorb as much as I can from my environment and hold on to the things that resonate with me in some way. I think the thing that has the greatest impression on me is my environment. While moving around in Trinidad and observing various things in the space, there’s so much information that can be absorbed on a daily basis. So when I get into the studio all that stuff is in my head along with whatever other ideas I got from books or music or other artists' work and whatever other things might be happening in my life and that stuff gets mixed up together. While I’m painting I think I’m witnessing the unfolding of this processed and reorganised information, which might have something of value to offer to me and other viewers.
The journey through these different parts or versions of myself is what really excites me about making art.
Music is usually playing in my studio while I’m working, it energises and sustains me throughout the painting process. I can draw information from music to feed my painting, so it’s not just background noise it’s actually an important part of my work. Sound is so direct, and most people don’t really need to understand it, they just feel it. It vibrates within you without your permission and I try to think about my work making an impression in a similar way.
Since my grandmother died I’ve been reading her books, and she had a very expansive collection of Caribbean literature, from fictional novels to texts about Trinidad and Tobago’s history. These books definitely have been shaping my perspective a lot over the past five years or so. When I started seriously asking myself some existential questions, I wasn’t finding the answers I needed anywhere, so I turned to my granny’s book collection. Those books helped me to orient myself in a way that I could have a more informed perspective. It was similar to the experiences I’ve had with really great teachers. They open your eyes and turn your world upside-down.
I’m not sure I would qualify myself as having a style really, I always feel like my work is undergoing some kind of development that could cause it to change drastically at any moment. I’m sure there might be a general vibe or feeling that’s evident in the things I make but it all feels very intuitive and improvisational. I’m more interested in the discovery that happens along the way. The journey through these different parts or versions of myself is what really excites me about making art.
SP: Why use black and white as your main palette today?
ET: Right now most of the things in my studio are actually pretty colourful. However...it wasn’t a conscious decision to make those paintings in black and white. I can’t remember exactly how it started, I simply couldn’t see myself working any other way at that time. All the ideas I was getting just asked to be made that way and I felt as though adding colour, if there was to be any should arise naturally. I didn’t want to think too much about why I wanted to make the paintings in black and white, I was already confused enough about other things related to those paintings.
In hindsight, I kind of see that body of work as the beginning of a transition period in my practice. This was around the time of my above-mentioned existential crisis. I was working through lots of old ideas I had about myself and the world around me and trying to purge those things and introduce new ways of thinking and being into my life. I needed to peel away some layers. I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere with my work and I needed to experience a transformation.
The black and white paintings make me think about when there’s a flash-back in a movie and it’s shown in black and white and it’s usually this traumatic event that impacted the main character in a big way and it gives insight into the current narrative. I think that’s the best way I can describe that body of work. I was trying to put a lot of things behind me.
SP: Any reasons why you started painting ?
ET: I started painting at school, and at 16 I knew that it was what I would be doing for a long time. It was just obvious to me, there wasn’t really anything else apart from sports that made me feel as engaged.
I wanted to be a sprinter or a rugby player but I ended up getting injured. Then, when it was time for me to choose the subjects I’d focus on in my senior years of secondary school, I almost made a practical decision to study business and economics and stuff like that. Luckily my teacher saved me from making that decision. Something I’m eternally grateful for.
My mother also made tie dye and batik cloths and painted on things like vases and cracked wares to decorate them. I had always seen art at my house and my granny’s house. There’s a painting my granny had by a Haitian artist of three owls perched on a tree branch that’s burned into my memory. That exposure to art from various sources at an early age would have affected me in some way. Even though nobody really talked openly about the paintings or had discussions about art or told me anything about art, it was just around and I guess that was enough.
SP: Do you feel part of a certain community and do you think you have a role in it ?
ET: The art scene in Trinidad is pretty small, but as a result I think it’s also very accessible. The proximity to more established artists has been beneficial to me. I’ve found that most of them would be accommodating and open to having a conversation with a young artist. This career isn’t a straightforward path at all, and having a community that you can get some guidance and reassurance from is incredibly important to anyone’s continuation.
There definitely are small subgroups of people that might think a bit differently but ultimately we all pretty much lime at the same places, because there aren’t that many options. I think my role is to continue that spirit of openness and generosity and also just to keep trying to make valuable contributions to the space with my work.
I think my role is to continue that spirit of openness and generosity and also just to keep trying to make valuable contributions to the space with my work.
SP: What is your process of creation/how do you work? Would you say your practice changed over time ?
ET: The first thing for me is to have an idea and for that idea to be compelling enough for me to want to pursue it. That nudge to begin making a painting can happen in a number of ways. It could just be a thought or an image that comes to mind, it could be from a photo I took or just me being in the studio throwing extra paint that I mixed for another piece onto a small canvas on the side.
When it comes to the physical process of making, there’s a fair bit of experimenting involved. I’m always discovering a slightly different way to make my paintings, and in the process of making the work so many new things just come up. Whether it’s the way I’m using the paintbrush, the tools I use other than brushes, whether I work on the floor or the wall, how I use the paint, whether it’s watery or thick. There are so many variables to work with and I just try to lean into the possibilities to continue to discover more. To me it’s a normal part of being an artist, that curiosity is what drives us and permeates everything we do. I just want to try things in different ways to see what happens.
Making art really is a learning process for me. I’m always trying to learn something, and soak up whatever information I can get from books, music, films, paintings, conversations with my peers or various mentors. So as I’m learning, I’m making adjustments along the way and when I look back at my older work there’s definitely a lot that has changed.
SP: There is a recurrent character that seems to come back in your paintings, the silhouette with horns, who is it and does it have a specific meaning?
ET: I remember doing doodles of heads with halos next to heads with horns when I was in secondary school, but there wasn’t really anything profound about it, I was just thinking pretty naively about the concept of heaven and hell, good vs evil. I think it was just something that stuck with me since then. As I grew a bit older and was starting to think about things differently, I found greater difficulty in rationalising the presence of this shadow or silhouette in my work. A horned head has such specific connotations, and my initial associations with it just started to seem a bit unsophisticated in comparison to the things I had been exposed to since, so I struggled with that disparity for some time.
Later on, I started to pay closer attention to Carnival, around the same time that I developed an interest in film-making. I think my desire to capture something interesting with my camera led me to different events like Traditional Mas, The Dragon Festival, and J’ouvert, which all happen around Carnival time. I developed an affinity towards the Jab Molassie character in these moments and realised that there was a connection between the horned characters in my work and the Jab, beyond just the visual representation of it. The Jab Molassie is one of the many forms of Devil Mas characters that make up the Carnival ecosystem. It’s basically a person that’s covered in black pigment that can wear some combination of a variety of hand-made or found objects like: horns, wings, a tail, some might carry a chain or a fork or both and most of them have a flambeau and use it for breathing fire. So I started reading up about the history of Carnival and the Jab Molassie and I realised just how much I was assuming that I knew about these things.
The history behind the Jab Molassie changes slightly depending on where you read about it but it basically emerged out of the period of slavery in Trinidad and Tobago as a form of resistance and self-assertion by oppressed Africans during the Carnival season. There’s much more that can be said about the Jab and Carnival but for the sake of keeping this long answer short, I’ll stop there.
The thing that really struck me while observing people playing the Jab Molassie was their ability to completely transform to the point where the person virtually disappeared, and what was left was this character that seemed to have a life of its own. What I saw in the Jab Molassie makes me think about those masked dance ceremonies that are a part of the cultures of so many societies across Africa. In these ceremonies the masked figures take on the characteristics in movement and dance of the particular spirit that the mask is supposed to represent. And in a similar way, the Jab in its possessed state, covered in black pigment, appeared to be doing the same thing. I could see evidence of an essential aspect of the Africans that would have come here, present in the Jab Molassie, despite all odds. So this idea of perseverance and the ability to overcome, connected to what I was initially trying to express in those paintings. The Jab Molassie helped to make that reference to the image of the horned figure much more rich, and connect with something deeply rooted in me.
SP: Do you have any projects/exhibitions/events coming up/ongoing ?
ET: I’ve been in my studio developing some new work and I can’t really say much about it right now but I hope to share that with the world very soon !
Contact & Socials:
ETV Island (Youtube)