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Portrait of a Trinidad artist

By ANDRE BAGOO Saturday, August 29 2009

GERARD Gaskin, 40, will never forget that day.

“July 11, 1978, I will remember that date from now until I die,” he says, seated at a relative’s house on Coconut Drive, Morvant. It was a key date in the photographer’s life, the day when — as a nine-year-old — he left Trinidad and moved with his family to the United States.

“The whole family migrated,” he says. “I remember my first impressions of America when we got there — what struck me most was the huge buildings, just the mere size of the place. We lived in this huge housing complex in LeFrak City, it was the neighborhood I grew up in.”

LeFrak City is a large apartment development in the New York City borough of Queens, built in the mid-1960s. The complex of 20 eighteen-storey apartment towers covers 40 acres and houses over 14,000 people.

“I remember the first two weeks I got lost. There were about 20 buildings that looked alike, everyone eight stories high,” he recalls.

How did he find his way home? “I saw a bottle of pepper sauce my parents had left in a window – I lived on the fifth floor. I said to myself, ‘Oh shoot that’s where I live’, and that’s how I found the place.”

To look at Gaskin today, one almost gets a sense of this wondering child as he flashes a toothy smile. He is not short, but not exactly tall. Despite the hints of grey hair drizzled on his head, one could be forgiven for wondering whether he was in his twenties and not early 40s.

But tellingly, to encounter Gaskin’s photographs is to encounter that same child looking for home, but transmuted and looking now —as a man — for self.

“All my subjects that I photograph have a lot to do with my own demons or things that I’m really interested in or stuff I had to work on as a human being,” he says. “The good thing about photography is that you can take pictures and you can develop your thoughts.”

Thus, one of Gaskin’s series of photographs — currently featured on his website at www.gerardhgaskin.com – is called “LeFrak City” and consists of candid portraits of residents there. “That’s another demon or project that is about who I am. They are all about me,” he says, with a hint of the exasperation peculiar to the modest.

This month, Gaskin talked about another of his projects, a series of portraits called “Trinidad Artists”, at a discussion forum at the contemporary arts space Alice Yard in Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain. He noted that he hopes to complete about 300 portraits of artistes, musicians, writers and others.

He’s already done portraits of rapso artistes Ataklan and 3 Canal. His motive — besides presenting a record of what editor Nicholas Laughlin calls “the creative topography of Trinidad” — is as intuitive as any other for his works.

“It comes out of me wanting to identify as a Trinidadian artist. Yes, I am living in America, but I am something more than an African- American person. I am a Trinidadian person too — but how is that? And who is that? And how do I find those links, those missing links to become a complete artist? It’s an idea of me being a dual person.”

But with the ambiguous status that all members of the diasporas experience, comes a price.

“I think it’s a joy. I love that that (duality) is what makes me different and whatever makes me different I must celebrate,” he says. “But I definitely don’t feel complete in one place or the other; it’s a very incomplete thing. I don’t feel completely American just as I don’t feel completely Trinidadian.”

Gerard Gaskin was born in Trinidad on March 30, 1969. His father Herbert, 81, at the time worked at TTEC and his mother Phyllis, 80, was a salesperson at a popular department store. Gaskin has an older sister, Marie-Therese, 44, who also lives in the United States.

The artist remembers his childhood in Trinidad before moving to the US.

“My earliest memories are probably going to school on Ana Street. I remember getting up very early in the morning to take a taxi with my father to go to Port-of-Spain.

We would go with my sister. My aunt and my uncle lived right across the street from where I went to school. I basically lived with my aunt and my uncle.”

It was years later, on a trip to Europe, that Gaskin would be inspired to take up photography.

“I got into photography went I got out of high school in America. Me and two other friends went to Europe.

One of my really good friends —Daniel Archie — had what we consider a ‘real’ camera. The next year, I started taking photography courses.”

Gaskin cites influences like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Jules Allen, Robert Frank. But others like Diane Arbus also arguably figure behind some of the qualities of his work.

“There are a lot of names. Each person brings a certain style and quality that I like and that I tap into,” he says.

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