Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Sunday, June 08, 2003  

Portrait of the artist in a serious country

BC Pires, who's recently moved to London, talks in his weekly interview for the Sunday Guardian with Keith Khan, a London artist with Trinidadian ancestry. It's quite an informative and eye-opening piece, so I present it here in full. Khan echoes my recent observation (though somewhat more colourfully!) that when it comes to true racial integration, miscegenation is the way forward.

Keith Khan is a Trinidad-born artist living and working in London. He is co-founder of motiroti, an arts organisation enabling artists to lead and develop projects. It has won two Time Out London dance & performance awards and the BBC Asia award for achievement in the arts. Its Web site declares motiroti exists to create beautiful art inviting the celebration of differences, and connectivity, via an intriguing, and open dialogue.

So do you sell doubles as well as paratha and dhalpuri?

[Smiling, then sighing] If only I could get a decent doubles in this country. That’s half the problem you know.

I genuinely thought you were a roti shop. Why that name?

Particularly because, yeah, we do do doubles. We wanted something that would cross between people form the Caribbean and India. Roti worked both ways because any Caribbean person would recognise roti and someone from the Indian sub-continent would know “motiroti” means “big sandwich”. No one in Trinidad knows “moti” means big, so you can educate them about that.

So if you’re not a roti shop, what are you?

We should be a roti shop as well. Motiroti is an arts organisation. There are three of us. I started with Carnival many years ago but I’ve (taken) the technique of Carnival to other (areas). The shared Trinidadian way of working in a mas camp is a very reproducible model for the arts.

I’ve been tracing that, using some of the Caribbean systems of art making and invading the kind of Eurocentric arts industry here in that way. So motiroti is an arts company.

We produce both art events and big events, big, big things. Last year we staged — I was director of design for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games and I also staged the Commonwealth segment of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. And that was moved from being not in front of the queen — it was going to happen when the Queen was at the cathedral, but it was moved to the last event of the day so that she could see it and, revolutionarily, they invited us to open the gates of Buckingham Palace and have all of the people of the Commonwealth enter the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. That was the first time in history it had been done. It was a very big symbolic gesture.

You said it had never happened before. What I’m asking is, why did it happen for you?

Oh! Because I think, first, the monarchy is trying to repicture itself, but secondly, because what we were proposing about the Commonwealth — that it’s a vibrant current force and not the Empire — I was arguing the case very much that second and third generation people from this country and the Caribbean think differently about our colonial heritage.

We’re not looking back. Potentially, you can look at this thing as a future phase. The reason the palace liked my proposal was, it’s looking forward, not back.

I was going to ask what the major achievements of motiroti were; that surely must be one of them?

Yah. Either that, this huge-scale thing, or very small things, where we work with very few people, particularly disenfranchised groups, refugees or asylum seekers. So I think, either the big splashy stuff, the Queen’s Jubilee or the Commonwealth Games, or things that make an impact on people’s lives.

How were you brought in?

I was interviewed by Major Sir Michael Parker; he’s a major and a “Sir” and I was always impressed by that. They interviewed me and I had a very clear proposal about what I’d like to do. I’d done the (Millennium) dome in London. I’d worked with Peter Gabriel and Mark Fisher on the opening ceremony, so that’s another royal event, and on the central show in the dome that was on every day, for 365 days of the year 2000.

The Millennium dome was a big thing?

That was after years of schlepping around in Notting Hill. Not entirely, because I’ve done a lot of corporate stuff as well.

How do you do art for corporate people?

[with wry smile] I don’t do art for corporate people. I get paid for doing that (stuff). There’s no art involved. That’s about money. Motiroti doesn’t do that, that’s Keith Khan.

What are major achievements of Keith Khan as distinct from motiroti?

I was director of design of the Commonwealth Games. Some of the stuff that’s more commercial would be me. That was conceiving things like the royal box, the way the staging was treated, who we involved, how we involved them.

I wanted to make sure someone turning on the television in Kuala Lumpur could understand that ceremony. Minshall has done two of the Olympics and a lot of it was Carnival-based. I chose not to use Carnival, not because I don’t like Carnival, but because I was after something that was very understandable worldwide. Contemporary culture fascinates me.

But you have designed individual Carnival costumes and bands in Notting Hill?

Yah. No (longer). Last time, I commissioned Carnival groups to do stuff for the dome. I haven’t done anything myself for a long time. I want to use technology in Carnival much closer and the money isn’t around. I’m sure it is in Trinidad. Here, it isn’t around to do something really innovative and spectacular. I think it (Trinidad carnival) is a bit stale and needs to be reinvigorated. Something’s gotta happen.

When last were you in Trinidad for Carnival? It’s all beads and bikinis now.

Yeah, I know. It was getting that way even then. That’s why I stopped. I went to Brooklyn Carnival. That was good. It’s so strange, though, because, (a) it’s very, very political — they have a lot of the newer politicians involved and, (b) they ban alcohol. Which is extraordinary because, you know, you think rum is part of the whole thing; but actually, a dry Carnival is not a bad thing. It was interesting. It’s a different way, but, you know.

Who and what are your major artistic influences?

Well, I always admired Peter Minshall. I wrote my thesis on him back in the day. But that was a little while ago now. I think I have different inputs in terms of my inspiration and work.

Minshall recently said, and I hope I’m not mangling his words, that blacks and homosexuals, because of their suffering, produced great art out of it. Is your sexuality relevant to your art at all?

No. Not in the slightest. In this country, racism is by far the biggest problem. White homosexuals hold economic power they don’t share and should. The opposite is probably true here. I think gay men could be doing a lot more here.

There was a series of nail bombs in this country a couple of years ago. The first was in Brixton, targeted very specifically at the Afro-Caribbean community. The second was in Brick Lane (an Asian area). There were injuries in both. The third was in Old Compton Street, the gay area, and, unfortunately, there were some fatalities there.

I really believed it would be a great moment for these three very disparate communities to come together through a shared political experience. But, no, there wasn’t.

Who are my influences? People like Edward Said, wide political thinkers who have changed my perception of what art and Carnival can achieve. I’m interested as much in the social change as the artistic change.

Any big currents, like the environment or immigration?

I think, the whole meltdown in the world economy, global shifts fascinate me most. Trinidad is a great example of what England will be. I always say that, politically, America is ten years behind Britain, but Britain is probably 10 years behind Trinidad in the sense of its integration.

By no means is Trinidad perfect, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s happened that makes Trinidad an exemplary model worldwide. It’s not surprising that so much has emerged from Trinidad because of that.

Lloyd Best has said Trinidadians are theoretical racists and practical integrationists?

Yes, yes, yes, yes. [with grin] I was going to say something about the bedroom and sex and integration.

There is some link there with [three-second pause] I don’t know [four-second pause] well, people who’ve screwed around. [with wide grin] It really makes a difference, do you know what I mean?

Do you make good money out of art?

I make a living, yes. I now employ ten people, so I suppose it’s a reasonable living.

Do you have a day job?

This is the day job. I’ve held court here (at the Commonwealth Club) since 9 o’clock in the morning on various projects. I don’t have another job. I make my money out of being an artist. I’m virtually full time an artist.

Working as an artist, could you have the same standard of living in Trinidad?


Would you like to get involved in projects in Trinidad?

For the Jubilee, we worked with Naparima, the school, as a remote distant project in, uh, thingy. It would be great to do something in the whole of the Caribbean, not just Trinidad.

That’s another thing Minshall has been saying, that we should all be repeating: he speaks of himself as being a Caribbean, in the same way Europeans call themselves Europeans?

Yes, I think of myself as a Caribbean, including Guyana, not as Trinidadian.

A cynic might say motiroti is closer to BwanaChanna, that organisations like yours exist primarily to draw down funds that float in the atmosphere for vague artistic purposes until they’re channelled into specific pockets through scams?

Uh-huh. We make projects that deliver. We actually do do things. Our projects are tangible. That could be quite a conventional view of what the arts are.

My view is they could be very wide, including a lot of stuff to do with clubs, the street, other areas people could make stuff in. As any Trinidadian would understand, creativity is everywhere.

What next for motiroti?

It’s a big old summer. I’m doing a big project on the entire exterior of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank Centre. That’s with 170 Indian dancers. Ironically.

I’m doing Alladeen (a show merging video, live performance and club music) at the Baribcan Theatre (in July)… You know cyberslavery? It’s a phenomenon where people in India are being trained to pass as Americans.

We’ve actually filmed a lot of stuff in Bangalore in India in the (telephone) call centres. It’s really shocking. You’ve got Savitri retrained to be Rachel. You must check the Web site.

Last, I’m doing a project at Somerset House… a number of Trinidadian artists will be involved in that, Greta Mendes, there’s some pan.

Again I’m being purposely culturally complex, so we’re getting a pan band to do some Indian film songs, for Indian dancers to do their Bollywood stuff to. That appeals to me. Cultural pluralism, the sort of thing Trinidad specialises in.

posted by Jonathan | 3:51 PM 0 comments


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