Salt of the earth

For salt, for as long as we have had folk tales, has been a tool used to differentiate between the good and the bad; the socially acceptable and the unacceptable.

We need salt to keep boundaries in place by marking lines spirits cannot transgress, we rub salt in skin to oust a soucouyant’s dangerous flame. In placing a line of salt on the floor of a crowded gallery space where just about anybody may trammel it, may accidentally find themselves on the wrong side of it, artist Nikolai Mahesh Noel has made a statement about the arbitrary ways of power and how it marginalises and excludes on the basis of meaningless differences. Rich, poor; white, black; African, Indian; gay, straight; PNM, UNC; foreign, local; nation, colony; artist, plebian; holy, unholy. All of it can suck salt.

Noel was born in Belmont a suburb of the capital city of Port- of-Spain. He received a BA from the University of the West Indies in 2009 and an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2012. His early practice consisted of figurative and representational drawings. In 2010, Noel began to produce conceptual works and objects. Today he uses material to carry the content of his work as he creates objects, drawings and installations that engage history, identity and the sublime.

Noel’s salt lines were part of a show put on from June 17 to July 15 at Medulla Gallery, Fitt Street, Woodbrook. The show was a collaboration with several other artists who have been holding regular meetings at various locations in Port-of-Spain such as Alice Yard, Woodbrook, and Granderson Lab, Belmont. They meet to discuss critical ideas about art – including Beyonce’s brand of feminism – and to show work in an open environment conducive to feedback. Hence the title of the show, the understated, “Show”.

Though pieces were on a small scale, the ambition of the work was not. The most outstanding piece was a collaboration between all the artists. A mound of rubble – complete with a bottle-cap and nail– was neatly displaced on a small shelf. A work comprised of a work in progress, making us contemplate how nothing is ever really finished: art itself, even if in a fixed form, continues to grow and build in the mind. Like a society: possibly being demolished, possibly rising from the rubble.

Exhibiting artists included: Jaime Lee Loy, Alicia Milne, Noel, Tamara Tam-Cruickshank and Luis Vasquez La Roche. Lee Loy pinned rose petals on the wall spelling out “Sorry”. As the show progressed the colours faded and the word grew morose, even if the piece grew more and more fragrant.

If Noel’s salt lines reminded us of Lot’s wife and how she looked into flame and turned into salt, Milne gave us another product of heat. She produced exquisite ceramics: miniature matchboxes with no labels or identifying marks. The ambiguity of these objects, arranged in two sets of piles, matched the idea of transgression on the salted floor. Not fragile like paper, they were solid, yet still breakable, as demonstrated on opening night when one fell to the floor and shattered.

But back to the salt. Another association evoked by Noel’s work was the fact that salt is associated with the sea which surrounds us. In the universe of Noel’s work this is a possible reference to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In Catholic Trinidad, the salt may also refer to a specific Bible passage: Matthew 5:13, which reads, “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavour, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men.” The salt is, thus understood, a reflection of an unanchored society in a wider political sense. We salting.

Yet, there is a liberation in how we are invited to trammel lines. The salt remains indestructible. Sodium chloride never loses flavour. Rather, the grains may change and grow. Never quite static, not really fixed. Like this art.

Though small in scale and somewhat casually put together, I found this show to be deeply provoking and ambitious, with some pieces reaching the sublime.


"Salt of the earth"

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