More than a story but a historic tour through the creative mind and work of artist Ashraph. A thought-provoking conversation for this week’s Look-Out. Take a moment to read and share his story.
The making of an artist…
He adjusts the painted wooden planks of his latest exhibition on the wall of Y Art Gallery and steps back to take it in. Satisfied, he sits down to talk with a warm and humble demeanour that belies his extensive experience as an artist and creative icon. Painter, sculptor, Carnival costume designer and jewelry designer – Ashraph Richard Ramsaran are all of these things, and at the same time, he is none of them.
Born in Diego Martin, Trinidad, Ashraph grew up on the Diego Martin Main Road in his great-grandfather’s house. Behind the house was a mosque. “It was wonderful in the early days” he reminisced. He lived opposite a huge football field but explained that there’s a building there now. “The funny thing is I always tell people I always consider myself somebody from Diego Martin, but I don’t know if I could ever go back there and live…Things have changed,” he said.
Ashraph continues to wax nostalgic about his early years. When asked, he reveals that there was little indication in those early days that he was destined for the artistic path. Then suddenly a memory surfaces; he explains:
“Well actually, I don’t know at what age, I remember looking at television. We had a black and white television at that time and I was looking at Kings and Queens of Carnival. We grew up looking at pan and Kings and Queens on television…and it could have been Allison Hennessey and they were describing the mas. Actually, I was seeing the colour and was thinking something is wrong here. It was a black and white TV and they were describing the colours and I was seeing it. It’s odd; it’s strange. That’s it. I realised that something was a little different there.”
His eyes look away and he seemed to drift into the memory. He’s brought back to the present by the flash of our camera as he laughs and reaches for his shades.
At 16 years old Ashraph took an art class but felt that it wasn’t his kind of thing so he stopped. It wasn’t until many years later that Ashraph would again find himself in the art world. In the 80s he took a part-time job at a gallery and frame shop at Long Circular Mall, a popular shopping mall in west Trinidad. There he began framing and exploring his creative side. He was exposed to the evolving art scene of the period. As time progressed Ashraph found himself at the forefront of the mas and artistic movement in Trinidad and Tobago. Things came full circle, he now owns a gallery and frame shop, on the corner of Robert and Carlos Street, Port of Spain, Trinidad. It is aptly called The Frame Shop.
He has worked over the years painting, sculpting and designing costumes with veteran mas man, Peter Minshall. In recent years his production company, Cat in Bag Productions, has produced a small mas band which attracts Trinidad’s artistic elite of painters, sculptors, actors and musicians who appreciate his satirical Mas displays like Corbeaux Town and Dog Show.
About Ashraph the Jewelry Designer…
Perhaps most noteworthy to our Adornami readers would be Ashraph’s unique, high-concept pieces of jewelry, at once functional and ornate. We ask this multi-faceted artist how he would describe himself. He says, “I would describe myself as someone who likes to explore different mediums because I am not a jeweler. I would sometimes say to my friends I am not a band leader. I try to create costumes or come up with an interesting idea. It always seems to be a little political…and inexpensive. It’s performance. Even the rings, they are not just rings; it’s 50/50 or 60/40. 60% is the display or presentation [of the] object and then the ring is the balance.”
Ashraph’s exploration of jewellery as art began organically. While working on his second Carnival Band Corbeaux Town, inspiration struck; “We were trying to figure out eyes for the corbeaux”, he says, “We had all these aluminium circles at my friend, (acclaimed local artist) Shalini Seeraram’s house, she helped me with the band. I said this is quite interesting, it reminds me of Mas and Minshall. We didn’t use those, we used light reflectors for the eyes but we discussed ideas to create jewellery . I told them about these rings I had made of aluminium and Jasmine [Thomas-Girvan] said ‘people design and get [other] people to make it’, and that’s how it started.”
Since then, Ashraph has collaborated with the Jewel Box team to produce four art installations at the Y Gallery featuring himself and a group of local jewellery designers. At the first untitled show produced by Jewel Box, Ashraph’s aluminium rings were the focal point of his pieces. Ebony heads topped white bases with the aluminium rings adorning these figures. Ashraph shares his inspiration for the work. “I was really influenced by the Minshall band Callaloo” he explained, “because when I look at the mas I see 90% or more black women in the band and his costumes are normally white. So that’s why I used these black figures. The women wore these lovely discs around their necks or around their faces and that’s how the first show came about.”
For their second show, the Jewel Box team focused on the theme ‘Hands’. Ashraph personalised the theme and used cut-outs of his own hands as the platform to display the jewelry.
At the third show, the concept of ‘Light’ was explored, so Ashraph’s pieces were soft and ethereal, inspired by fireflies.
This year the fourth group show played with the idea of ‘Spectrum’. Ashraph speaks passionately as he expounds:
“They came up with the title spectrum so I had to now find something to do. I didn’t want to use different coloured stones, that’s not me. So I was looking online at something from the National Geographic, and I don’t know, I just looked at the Bird of Paradise. I saw this Black Bird and I thought ‘wow’. When he’s trying to seduce, when it’s mating season I guess, he clears a spot and he dances. Then the female would come. Then he turns into a little ballerina and he hops around. And it’s all about seduction. And I said ok, interesting. There were colourful ones but I think I liked the black one, and there’s just a little hint of colour here, so I said ok you know what…again, since I’m not a jeweler I don’t do glass boxes. There must be objects. So I said you know what, I have to do something to go on the walls, I have to gouge the object out to create like a little stage. And I got the wood, painted it black, created a little stage for the rings to perform for the viewers. So it’s about the seduction. The rings came after. The bird came first then the display.”
To bring his vision to life Ashraph uses materials like aluminium, sterling silver, topaz, felt, black coral and wood. We asked whether his jewellery is sold individually or as part of the installation. He answered, “Well the ring goes with the display. Each black four by four goes with the ring. That’s up to you. You could take it. Because my rings…I can’t see someone throwing them in a jewel box. So I think that it’s kind of nice to have a little object in your house, and sometimes I think people might buy it and never wear them.”
As we speak curator, Yasmin Hadeed glides about the gallery, occasionally reminding Ashraph of names and time-lines when the details slip him. Jalini, an employee at the gallery, sits quietly as we talk. When we ask Ashraph how his jewelry has been received by the public he turns to Jalini. She answers without missing a beat, “Each artist does something different from the other, but with him, he always presents a narrative that allows people to go somewhere and it’s a very set theme for him; the story he’s telling. And I always think people are so drawn to that. Since I’ve been here he’s always done something that people gravitate to immediately. The firefly concept, that was a story and each piece took you higher and higher into the story. They were soft tender little things. And then this one, it does something visual. From the time you walk into the space it’s the first thing you see. It’s the loudest touch to the whole manifestation of the concept spectrum.”
Ashraph chimes in, “That is actually what it was set out to do. Because he is performing to seduce, so as you walk in, it draws you in. He captures your attention. It might work for some people [just as] the female bird might be interested. And some people might be like, ‘He [not] that hot.’”
On the topic of how is work is received, we ask Ashraph what feelings he wants to evoke in someone who wears his jewelry. He laughs as he does often throughout our chat and replies:
“It’s funny you should ask that because I said to somebody, ‘I don’t really care’ because these things are so odd and so awkward. For instance, these rings are huge and it’s about telling a story, and sometimes I wouldn’t say you suffer for the mas, that’s not the right term, but you can’t play mas and ‘fraid powder. If you like it you might have to suffer a little, because it’s not regular everyday jewellery…They’re interesting things you can wear [but] not all the time. I look at it as an object or part of an object. The things I do sometimes are not for everybody, not everybody will wear it. People may say yes this is lovely but not my kind of thing…I’m telling a story and the jewelry is part of the story. They are like supporting actor and actress.”
Other Jewelry exhibitions from the Artist…
Besides his four exhibitions with other Jewelry Designers at Y Art Gallery, in September, 2015 Ashraph put on his first solo show entitled ‘Black Indian’ also at Y Gallery. On his inspiration for the showing he shared: “I was inspired by Carnival, the Black Indian character. It wasn’t about feathers and beads and all of that. It was about the texture of the skin and sometimes people might have grease on and it’s how the light hits the face. So it was really not about the costume just about the face. So in that one I had cedar heads and I covered it with lace or whatever just to give it texture. In some of them you see a little light, maybe a little stone in it so you see something popping. It’s really about that.”
His thoughts about the creativity in the Caribbean…
Soft music plays in the background as our conversation deepens. On the state of creativity in the Caribbean he is open with his views. He opines, “My thing is always that we don’t have enough artists and the ones that come out of UWI think it’s easy and as soon as you come out of UWI you are an artist. No, you have to take time to undo what they’ve taught you and then to come into your own. I don’t think that it’s an easy job. People might think it’s an easy job to be an artist. Like me, it’s not an easy job to be a jeweler; I’m not a jeweler. I don’t make it. I have to respect these people who make these things. I don’t have that talent. I mean I could design it, I might like to try making it one day but it’s just the time. It’s a whole process.”
He continues, “Back to the whole thing with art, I think people look at it as an easy way to make money…We don’t take art seriously in school. Then we go to UWI and who’s teaching? That’s going to sound like I’m bashing, but people who just go get something on paper. They’ve never really explored the art. So it’s just really surface, it’s nothing from the heart. They just can’t be from here (points to his head) it has to be from here (points to his heart); it’s very personal.”
Ashraph admits, “Not because you’ve had two shows you’re a designer. Sales mean nothing at the end of the day. I mean for me the thing is, if a painting sells does that mean it’s a good painting? You have to question sometimes whose buying the stuff. Sales mean nothing at the end of the day. It’s just money. Sometimes the best painting doesn’t sell. That’s why the best artists can’t survive. The work doesn’t sell. It’s a kind of strange thing actually.”
His personal accessories style….
We continue to take photographs of Ashraph and to use the opportunity to ask what his go-to accessories are. “Ring and shades” he says, “that’s it! I’m too simple for words. That’s it for me. And my man bag.” We ask about his ring. Its regular oval shape and silver setting contrast. He tells us that he was in New York on the morning that he found out that Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated. That day he bought the ring, an Arabic prayer inscribed in its oval stone.
Ever the performance artist, Ashraph tells us that he had planned to wear only black after he turned 50 last year but that plan didn’t work out. This year he’s reconsidering the colour. He explains that he’s always had a connection to the colour blue. Blue, he says, may be his signature colour soon. At the entrance of The Frame Shop two small blue bottles sit in a small enclave. Traditionally these bottles ward off maljo (also: malyeux) or the evil eye cast by an enemy. Rooted as he is in local tradition and culture they fit perfectly in his space. Like his work, the maljo bottles are both functional and aesthetic.
We ask Ashprah what inspires his work. He answers,
“The thing is with my work; painting or anything, it’s really about my experience and what influences me, because my thing is, I can’t write anybody else’s story. That’s my take on it. I could only convey my experiences because I want to be true about what I am doing and I want to be 100% comfortable with it. So it’s always about my experiences, my personal life, my stuff.”
Interview was held at Y Art Gallery with Leah Thompson and photographed by Tameika Fletcher-Birmingham. Other images were provided by the Artist from his previous exhibitions. To see more of Ashraph’s work visit The Frame Shop, Corner Robert and Carlos Streets, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Learn more about the Gallery on Sunday as we give you a sneak inside.