By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 06, 2008
In 1980 when Peter Minshall was about to bring out Danse Macabre, David Picou, a good friend of Ken Morris, took Morris a sketch from Minshall and asked him to see what he could do with it. That suggestion led to the production a section in Minshall’s band that reflected Morris’s artistry as a copper worker. These sections which never exceeded sixteen pieces became a significant part of Minshall’s carnival productions during the 1980s including Danse Macabre (1980), Jungle Fever (1981); River (1983); River Gods (1984) and Golden Calalbash (1985).
Ken Morris was one of our most talented sons. After he graduated from Goldsmith College in England, he returned to Trinidad and established his studio in a larger Victorian gingerbread house in Belmont, the home to the Rada community that had Shango ties with Africa. Within that African milieu Morris perfected his craft. In 1954 he introduced metal repousse into carnival by working on copper that was readily available and easily malleable.
Glendon Morris, Ken’s son, saved his father’s gingerbread house at great cost. No one, not even the most conscientious of our art lovers, assisted him in this endeavor. No one really thought that saving his father’s gingerbread house was a part of the national cultural agenda. Now, we are told that there is another gingerbread house, the Boissiere House at Queen’s Park West, that should be preserved as a part of our national heritage.
Those who wish to preserve the House make the important point that The Gingerbread House is a part of our social and cultural capital that must be treasured. While it is true that we, as a nation, are endowed with enormous financial capital we cannot make the same claim for our social and cultural capital.
The Gingerbread House represents much more than a building with exotic associations. It is also connected with the name Ralph De Boissiere, the author of Crown Jewel, the second best novel written by a Trinbagonian. Needless to say, pride of place in this field goes to V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. It goes without saying that we cement our literary culture more firmly into our national consciousness if we see the Gingerbread House as complementing the Monkey House in Chaguanas, another national monument that embodies our spiritual architecture. I borrow the latter phrase from Elder Le Roi Clarke.
A people is the sum total of their histories. Our history and our culture are not so much what has been done to us and what we have imported into our spiritual horizon but what we have created within our national home ground. The degree to which we display those things that are ours it is to that degree that we construct ourselves as a people. It is clear that the Gingerbread House stands as a magnificent edifice to our literary, cultural and architectural heritage.
Eric Williams, it was reported, “was a direct descendant of the Boissiere family who built the Gingerbread House” (Express, March 2) Erica Williams-Connell, the daughter of Eric Williams, suggests that the Gingerbread House would be a wonderful place to house the Eric Williams Collection, the archive of her father’s works and his library. Using the Gingerbread house for this purpose is an important link to our historic memory and suggests a sense of historical continuity.
There is an angst that grips our national soul when it comes to our culture and what contributes to our spiritual well being. In his foreword to The Other Gift, Carlisle Chang bemoans that “Perennially Trinidadians express an angst born out of cultural neglect” which we try to correct through agonizing over that which contributes to our cultural capital. It is a manifestation of a deep-seated ambivalence that we continue to neglect indigenous aspects of our culture that represents who we are as a people. Somewhere along the line we realize that we have squandered many parts of our national heritage which only diminish the nation.
Serious societies always make an inventory of what it is central to its well being. They seek out the intangibles that are not readily available for public consumption and cultivate those dimensions that strengthen the national unconscious. These monuments may not be many. In the Middle Passages, Naipaul scoffed at the limited nature of our cultural artifacts. Unlike Derek Walcott he forgot that the reassembling of the fragments of our spiritual architecture was a necessary element of national cultural construction. Although there is no way to know a priori what is worth preserving it is certainly true that it is only that when we take a backward glance we are able to value what is important to us and, as a consequence, what needs to be preserved.
We may have squandered the legacy of one our or most innovative mas men-a genius when it came to working with copper. We may even have neglected his gingerbread house which should have been a cultural monument to the nation. Let us not allow another indispensable part of our culture to disappear into the hands of those who only money knows and who see financial profit as their only god.