Alfredo Codallo was a cantankerous perfectionist, an alcoholic who swapped his masterpieces for rum and cigarettes. As an artist he was beautifully flawed. Friend and fellow artist Holly Gayadeen in 1983 published a book, Alfredo Codallo, Artist and Folklorist. On page one there’s a handwritten inscription by Codallo, which reads; “Through Art I wish to speak in a language that all should understand. A language of beauty—unspoilt by confounding ‘isms’, yet rich with common understanding and native pride.
“In my self-imposed job of preserving the Folklore way of life, dance, (Land, River and Sea Scapes) of my country — I am trying to establish a link with our past in the most comprehensive way that I know.”
Codallo was compelled to draw and paint. He was compelled to conjure up works that would reach back into the past and cling to culture and customs—lest they slip away, unheard, beyond generations. The graphic bite of his pen and ink drawings on paper are as sharp as the allegory of our most treasured folklore traditions.
Much like the mythical creatures depicted in his art, Codallo gave identity, voice and tone to the secret stories of Trinidad’s remotest communities. It’s as if he tip toed in, passing salt sprinkled on the path, a cactus plant placed by an open door, orange peel drying beside the sink, a prayer book and a blue cross tucked inside granny’s apron, and from that vantage point he eavesdropped on the fables and tales told in hushed patois and broken English.
“Hear nah, If soucouyant (pronounced soo-koo-ya) suck yuh, get some salt and put it in front de door so she must stop and count it, every grain, anfforeday morning, she go still be counting, so yuh go know who she is.”
From single incisive lines he also wove together the tableau vivant of 1950s Trinidad—an era of British colonial rule, but a culture that under Codallo’s pen became invisible. He created a theatre window, which brought his audience eye to eye with a cast of legendary folklore characters. The soucouyant, la diablesse (the female devil with one cloven hoof), douens, thought to be the souls of departed children, and Papa Bois, the custodian of the animals of the forest who, up until that point had all remained silent and unrecognizable.
And at the weekends Codallo would be drawn to the rural villages, the landscapes of Toco and Santa Cruz, the mise-en-scène of his boyhood imagination, and from that perspective his art became a looking glass.
In one of his most loved works, The Bongo Wake, Codalloskilfully invites us in to an ancient village drama. It opens up against a forested backdrop, the further you look beyond the trees the more you become instantly aware of the remoteness, of the distance geographically between this gathering and elsewhere—while at the same time the past is found right there, present, on the surface.
But it’s within that open clearing by the glow of the flambeaux that Codallo commands your undivided attention. Baroque in his expression of multiple scenarios, as well as in his use of light and shade, he’s able, through the agility of his pen and brush to capture so precisely, not only dancing flames and facial expressions, but to measure the length of laughter, record the temperature of night and re-echo the intonation of ol’ talk—filling the senses with ritual dance and fragments of myths, and the clang of the shango bell or the heartbeat of an Indian drum.
In an age when the Caribbean wasn’t regarded for its great works of art, Codallo held down regular nine-to-five work as a commercial artist. His great collections are now scattered between private collectors and the National Museum of Trinidad and Tobago. For decades his work was bartered and sold for pittance—subjected largely, to a blackout of appreciation.
“Back then the people of Trinidad couldn’t care less about art,” laments Holly Gayadeen. “Even now all people care about is calypso, drinking in bars and feting every night—this is our culture, not art.’’
And for Codallo, a self-taught artist, perhaps it was enough that his “self -imposed job’’ earned its keep.
“On a Monday morning Alfi would come with a brown paper bag, containing a rolled up painting of some kind, which he would have knocked up over the weekend and he would tell Len Chong Sing (former editor of the Trinidad Guardian newspaper), ‘Hold dis, nah, gimmie a petit for dat’, a petit means a petit quart of rum,” recounts Gayadeen.
In Codallo’s days—outside of the Art Society, with which he and Gayadeen were affiliated—there was very little recognition or value placed on an artist’s role in society, or for that matter any credible appraisal of their work. In fact Gayadeen, who served for 12 years at the Art Society, first as secretary then as president recalls an original Codallo being sold to the museum for as little as TT$100 dollars.
Today, however, Gayadeen says a Codallo such as his most famous piece originally titled Nous Ca Sortie Au soir, patois for We Are Going Out Tonight (re titled Trinidad Folklore) is priceless. And what elicits such high acclaim is Codallo’s unutterable attention to detail. Technically superb, he tamed watercolours, and with draughtsmanship precision he had a sense of scale and composition that is still without peers.
At age 58 Alfredo Codallo was dead. He was visiting his son in New York and suffered a heart attack. It was 1971. Today, Codallo is not a name on many people’s lips but 2013 marks 100 years since his birth in Arima, East Trinidad. There’ll be no memorial stone to honour him, no posh 6 p.m. exhibition, with glasses of chardonnay and glossy booklets bearing his name. If he’s mentioned at all these days, it’s usually with some reference to the dog. It could be assumed that Codallo’s dog symbolised the artist’s own sense of duality, belonging, or not, and simply not caring too much either way. You meet the sleeping pothound sketched in pieces such as Backyard Baking, The Serenaders and The Chaatti, he always looks satisfied, front legs crossed, and you’re left with the sense this dog belongs to no one and everyone at the same time. There’s a clear feeling his dog somehow earned the right to be there.
And so, Codallo let his sleeping dog lie, perhaps as a placeholder in our memories that resolutely holds us to our past.
Crick crack wire bend, that’s the way the story ends.