Review: A Stitch in Crime: Adele Todd’s Embroidered Scenes of ViolenceMonday, August 27th, 2012 Categories: Features, Reviews, Updates
The exhibition of visual arts university lecturer and artist, Adele Todd, opened on August 22, 2012 at the Night Gallery on 33 Murray Street, Woodbrook, Port of Spain, Trinidad. Entitled “Police an’ Tief,” the body of work comprises thirty-two pieces of sewn scenes based on the artist’s collection of newspaper clippings – media photographs and articles – of crime and violence in Trinidad and Tobago.
Todd’s pieces are a culmination of eight years of creative effort. She shares: “This is the longest time for a body of work by me because I had to keep stopping. At the beginning of this century I was doing work on domestic violence and I started collecting newspaper clippings to do big embroideries. Then I got depressed doing the work. It was gut wrenching…I needed to cleanse myself so I stopped. Yet, I had to keep coming back to the work. I started collecting images again and I began to work differently but the work ended up inside me. I could not divorce myself from it. I had to stop and start. At one point the number of people killed in Trinidad and Tobago was equivalent to the number of work I had done. I felt that if I stopped, crime would stop, which is kind of arrogant but it raises questions about [the effects of] what you are putting out as an artist. Yet, if it is a calling to do, you have to do the work.” Adele Todd created a blood-splattered piece of fabric – with red knots of embroidery – which would serve as what she calls “an anchor piece,” one that could keep her focused on her calling for almost a decade: her visual investigation of violence.
The name of Todd’s exhibit immediately calls to mind the lyrics of Jamaican reggae artiste Mykal Rose’s 2008 song called “Shoot Out.” Rose sings: “Police and tief inna shoot out…/ in the community jah innocent, jah move out…/ police and tief couldn’t be friend/ yet de two ah dem role set de same trend…/police ah buss shot/ people get flat/ bad bwoys return shot/ de whole ah dem strapped…/ so when the violence gonna stop?” The song is punctuated with the sound of a gunshot and the pump action for reloading and a bullet’s shell is heard as it hits the floor. This is a track that resonates well beyond the island of Jamaica and I hear it playing in my head as I engage with Todd’s work, which is on display in the midst of unfolding hostilities between police and the residents of the Hill View, John John, Laventille area of Trinidad. The day before Adele Todd’s exhibition opened, 23-year-old Nigel Caesar was killed by police who, as Jensen LaVende reports in the Daily Express, “claimed they were acting in self-defence as Caesar had opened fire on them.” LaVende writes:
“So angry were the residents of [the community] over the killing that they…hurled obscenities at the police and, when they could get away with it, threw stones and other items at the officers who they were adamant went above and beyond the call of duty to murder their neighbour…. According to residents, Caesar was walking down a flight of stairs when the lawmen opened fire on him. The neighbourhood said after Caesar fell into a nearby drain, another officer ordered his junior to ‘shoot him again.’ After numerous pleas by the residents for Caesar to be assisted, the officers ‘pick him up like a dog and throw him in the back of a jeep,’ residents said…. Caesar’s cousin…screamed and shouted at the officers as they patrolled the area. “Allyuh too wicked,” she exclaimed. Backed by other residents, [Caesar’s cousin] charged at the officers, accusing them of being ruthless in their tactics…. [She] shouted: ‘I know my cousin was in war. I didn’t mind if gunman did kill him….’ Other residents promised they would be protesting and blocking off the roadway to ensure justice is served.”
This killing raises a myriad of social concerns – ones picked up by Adele Todd. With her drawings in thread, Todd literally addresses issues of ruthlessness, despair, vengeance, law and (dis)order, warped justice and the abuse of power as parts woven into the fabric of the Trinbagonian society. And, like the Nigel Caesar incident, which reveals a number of different elements in a web of violence: community, criminal, police, victim and family, Todd presents her work in four sections: “police,” “tief,” “victim” and “the judiciary.” The layout of the exhibition, with Todd’s fabric pieces hung on a number of intersecting lines, demands that visitors become a part of this web, moving among the lines and getting caught between police, tief, victim and lawyers. There is even the outline of a dead body preserved on the floor in blue tape. Visitors interact with it by stepping on it with irreverence, indifference and sometimes a lack of awareness or they intentionally avoid it. It is a testament to how we deal with death and brutality around us.
In the “police” segment of the exhibit, pieces such as “Guns for Hire” and “To Protect and Serve Self,” tell of a perversion of authority. I am reminded of Mykal Rose’s words here: “police and tief couldn’t be friend/ yet de two ah dem role set de same trend.” The trend is one of savagery and Todd’s pieces underscore a reality that police too, can play a sinister role.
In “Police Paparazzi,” Todd’s skillful execution of satin stitch provides a vivid description of police uniforms in relatively high relief. She uses backstitch to define bodily contours and give a contrast in dimension. Loose threads are brilliantly used to depict the tresses of a female officer. A camera is trained on the three police officers in the piece as if they are the celebrities or superstars in a story of violence. The piece may also be interpreted in another way. The title “Police Paparazzi” also invites us to use the metaphor of photographers who often take extreme measures to get a shot so that we might read the officers as rabid shooters. The police become the paparazzi, framing and shooting the criminal, not with a camera but rather with a gun. Todd stitches her police scenes on grey cloth, a fitting choice for illustrating Trinidad and Tobago’s police who are recognised by the grey-coloured shirts that are part of their ensemble. The decision to leave the fabric with its wrinkles and creases gives us a sense of the texture of newspaper – the source from which she has made her art.
In the “judiciary” section, a judge or lawyer dressed in robes flaunts his power in the piece entitled “Swagger.” In the “tief” segment, criminals are put in the spotlight and are fleshed out in contrast to the police who remain in outline in such pieces as “Check His Pockets.” In pieces like “Big Boi” and “Pixellized” the criminal either hides his own face in shame or the media has blurred the criminal’s face for identity protection. In the “victim” section, we see a corpse being carried in a body bag. Another piece shows a woman holding a picture frame and flowers. It’s title “Why” is a pertinent question not only for the subject of this piece but also for all of us. It is a question that Todd addresses in this body of work.
Adele Todd’s exhibition is well timed, as Trinidad and Tobago prepares to celebrate a milestone of fifty years of independence on August 31, 2012. With islands stained with blood, we must question what we are commemorating. Todd offers a mangled Trinidad and Tobago coat of arms as part of her exhibition, compelling us to consider it as a more apt symbol of the nation’s condition. Can a stitch in crime save nine, ten or even more lives? An exhibition such as this one, attempts, at the very least, to open our eyes, expand our consciousness and strike a chord in us. And maybe, it can even stir us to play our part – whatever that might be – in making a positive difference. Adele Todd’s “Police an’ Tief” exhibit runs through August 30, 2012 at the Night Gallery.
- LaVende, Jensen. “Police too Wicked: John John Residents Clash with Cops Over Killing of Painter.” Daily Express 22 August 2012: p3. Print.
- Rose, Mykal, perf. “Shoot Out.” 2008.
- Todd, Adele. Personal interview. 22 August 2012.