“DID you see a man with a church on his head?” I asked breathlessly, just after 6 am on Carnival Friday morning.
I got a quizzical look, and some blank stares.
Then I spied the small group of artists and fellow mourners gathered at the corner by the National Museum on Frederick Street, making last preparations for a short piece of performance art that morning, led by the youthful-looking Josh Lu – Joshua Lue Chee Kong, the artist you may remember from his 2014 exhibition of playfully tribal, mysterious polymer figurines called Moulded Memories, or his 2016 Paradise exhibition.
He is soon hidden from view by a dark, towering costume. The towering part springs from his head: his body is just the invisible engine to move a monolithic masquerade model of the Greyfriars Church façade, which sails down Frederick Street in a funereal procession to curious stares from early-morning commuters in town.
A priest and several visiting moko jumbies from Belmont join the silent, mourning mas procession, which starts from Memorial Park and ends at the site of the real Greyfriars Church. The church was smashed to smithereens in 2014 in a fraught battle between spirited heritage conservationists and a landowner who decided to make a different use of the site – it is now a car park which charges $10 an hour.
“Progress can be a merciless force. This force can flatten sites of great historical significance, and what it leaves behind are physical and mental scars of its careless destruction on the national identity of any country,” Lu wrote in his December 15, 2014 blog post chronicling the church’s destruction that year. Joshua did more than chronicle it, though: he was one of several passionate campaigners who tried to save the building, a Scottish Presbyterian church completed in 1838 and noted for its aid to recently emancipated enslaved people.
The church’s first minister, the Rev Alexander Kennedy of Greyfriars Secession Church, Glasgow, was a fierce abolitionist who criticised the RC and Church of England’s discriminatory practices when it came to the question of the baptism of recently emancipated Africans.
Lu has noted that the church “welcomed many people of different races to worship and even to get married, all at a time when interracial marriage was taboo. It was also one of the first places to have a public library, allowing free access to anyone who was interested in using the library.”
In a Newsday interview before Friday’s memorial procession, he shared some thoughts on why he’s making this mas tribute. He said:
“I have thought about doing a performance ever since they demolished the church in 2014. I was the one, with help from members of the National Trust and Citizens for Conservation, fighting to save the church, but as we all know now, it was an unsuccessful attempt.
“I was finally able to settle on a look for the costume in the past couple of months.
“The church would have been 180 years old this year. I took it upon myself to pay tribute to the church by doing this mourning mas to celebrate its history and to mourn its demise.
He said the construction of the costume was done at Ajoupa Gardens with the assistance of Bunty and Rory O’Connor. “I have the utmost gratitude towards them, as if it was not for them, this crazy idea would not have been possible. I am also lucky to have the guidance of Kriston Chen, who is a co-founder of #1000mokos like myself, and also the support of Ryan Huggins, who has helped me on the road and prepared me for my performance.
“I just want to revive our outlook on our own rich culture and history by making it exciting again. I want to prevent the second death of Greyfriars Church, where it will be erased completely from memory. Hopefully seeing a jumbie carrying the church on its head will jog people’s memory of the church.
Lu said he had “no qualms about the church having to sell Greyfriars Church, as I am sure it was no easy decision.”
It was “just unfortunate,” he said, “that the church ended up in the hands of a private developer who was adamant in having the building torn down. He commended the members of its sister church, the St Ann’s Church of Scotland, for their “excellent job” in restoring that church.
But he was critical of the official attitude to the country’s built heritage.
“The question of what we can do as a country is determined by its people and foremost by its government. Currently, the government does not a have a good reputation for the preservation of its historical and natural resources. The Red House, Mille Fleurs, Whitehall, President’s House, the (former Speaker’s) house on 9 Mary Street, are all owned by the government and all are falling apart or still under repair for a number of years. Take, for example, Whitehall: millions were spent restoring Whitehall to be used as the Prime Minister’s Office, but that was not the case and a new office was built and Whitehall is now in a terrible state due to the lack of maintenance. We are a nation in ruins and we are okay with that by the look of things.”
He pointed out, that as well as “the grand old mansions,” there are “quite a few beautiful Victorian-era houses, commonly known as gingerbread houses, with their gorgeous fretwork that dot around the country, and not much attention or regard is paid to these historical gems.”
Their stories, he said, “are just being wiped away to build newer homes or commercial spaces, due to limited funds to restore these homes or due to lack of planning or systems in place to list to homes. If there was foresight in the mid-1900s to designate the centre of the capital Port of Spain as a historic district when most of the older buildings were still around, and have a separate area for newer buildings, it would have been a great attraction to bring in tourism – but it’s much too late for that now.”
Friday’s Greyfriars mas procession ended with a quick visit behind the locked gates to the barren church site to reminisce, and to take photographs, before a furious man ran everyone from the site, shouting: “You all get the a–e out of here! You have no respect for private property.”
For more info: Joshua Lue Chee Kong’s website: https://www.joshualuecheekong.com
Citizens for Conservation: 19, Stanmore Avenue, 345-6444, e-mail: email@example.com