By Raymond Ramcharitar
"They don't even know how beautiful they are, the people here.
That's why I paint them," says Boscoe Holder, in his studio on
Woodford Street surrounded by about a hundred canvases of his work,
and echoes of the party to commemorate his receipt of an honorary
doctorate from UWI last Friday.
The house itselftwo structures, one a beautifully preserved
colonial house, the next, a modern, high-ceiling studioprovides an
apt metaphor for Holder's endeavours in the arts which have spanned
a good half-century. "The arts" is usually a Philistine
generalization or a boorish dismissal, and frequently both
simultaneously, but in Holder's case, the generalization is
appropriate, since he's been a professional visual artist, dancer
and pianist since his childhood in the mid-thirties in Trinidad.
He was born Arthur Aldwyn Holder to Arthur and Louise Holder, in
Trinidad "in the 1920s" (even his CV doesn't give a precise birth
date). All the firstborn men in the family are called Arthur; the
name "Boscoe" came from a Mary Pickford silent film his mother saw
while she was pregnant with him.
The Holders were, by all accounts, of the black bourgeoisie: his
parents were ballroom dance champions, and from an early age, he
remembers, aware of the importance of education, but not rigid about
it"they were really super parents," he says, "they let me do what I
wanted to do, and supported what I did; they weren't obsessed with
academics". This included music in his pre-teen years, and visual
arts (he taught himself) and dance in his teens.
He was one of the early members of the Trinidad Art Society, with
people like Ivy Hochoy, Hugh Stollmeyer and Amy Leon Pang, and more
than any specific event, person or group, he remembers the spirit of
his time and place, which might in a later time be
This sensibility is at odds with the humourless utilitarianism that
characterizes what's retrospectively become the proto-"nationalist
struggle" and labour politics associated with the period. But the
bohemian spirit, with its necessary transnationalist urbanity, seems
to be key to Holder's worldview, which, from his cynicism about the
society's violence and decay, wavers between the saturnine and the
mordantly comic. The problems, from listening to him, seem directly
related to this humourlessness.
"I was in class with Eric Williams," remembers Holder. "He was
brilliant, he was bright enough to stand up to the British, but he
thought dancing was frills. And that's the problem, there was no
art, no architecture, no national costume, things like that. The
British brought lawthat's the only thing I miss them for."
Holder's thoughts about the state of the nation would not make a
nationalist's heart glad: he thinks we have demonstrated that we are
not capable of responsibility for ourselves. "You want to have
tourism, but you can't even get a taxi, what the hell is that?"
These are sentiments, though, that have come from a lifetime of
experience here and elsewhere, as an active participant in the
foreground, and not a member of the faceless masses, or an armchair
Like many other Trinidadians, Holder left Trinidad in the late 1940s
for England. Unlike many other Trinidadians, he lived the life of a
well-known performer and artist almost from the start.
In Trinidad in the 1940s he had his own radio programme Piano
Ramblings on the American armed forces radio station, and formed the
Boscoe Holder Dancers, which performed traditional Afrocreole local
dances like the Bele and Shango. In 1946, after visiting Martinique,
where his mother's family came from, he was taken with the food, and
music, national costume and dance, and integrated it all into his
own company, which he left in the care of his brother, Geoffrey.
Geoffrey Holder later went to the US, and became a dancer, actor,
and general bon vivanthe is perhaps best known locally for his role
in the Eddie Murphy movie, Boomerang. (The brothers' one surviving
sibling, Marjorie, is not involved in the arts.)
But Boscoe also went to the US, to New York in 1946, where he taught
at the Katherine Dunham school, and exhibited his paintings. In
1948, he returned to Trinidad, married Sheila Clarke, had a son, and
departed for England. His son, Christian, joined them a few years
later, and also, at an early age was dancing with his father's new
company, Boscoe Holder and his Caribbean Dancers, which toured
widely in the UK, Europe and Africa (Egypt).
In each place, in addition to the dance shows, Holder displayed and
sold his paintings. His son was awarded a scholarship to the Martha
Graham school in New York, and was the lead dancer for the Robert
Joffery dance company for many years in the 1970s and 80s, and is
now a writer-producer.
Holder pere lived in England working as a producer, musician,
nightclub owner, and even making appearances on the BBC (television
and radio). He returned to Trinidad briefly in 1961-62 on a
scholarship courtesy Eric Williams, which was offered to entice
accomplished nationals to return (Holder remembers VS Naipaul being
another recipient), but in 1970, he returned permanently, and has
been here ever since, occupy a strange place in the society.
His paintings, of mannered landscapes, and elegant swan-necked black
women, and powerfully-built young men are not fashionable in these
days of the theatre of ethnic exaggeration, but he exhibited
throughout the region in the 1980s, and a book on his life and work
was produced by Geoffrey MacLean in 1993. He has also received many
The Trinidad and Tobago government presented Holder with a Humming
Bird Gold (1973) and the Venezuelan government presented him with
the Francisco De Miranda award (1978).
Outside the region, in 1991, along with his brother and son, he was
given the Drexel University (Philadelphia) Award for International
Excellence, and in the early 1990s was presented the Medal of the
City of Paris by Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris.
But in his house on Woodford Street, Holder seems most at home,
relaxed and affable with his son. Walking through the gate abutted
by high gray walls is like walking backward into time. The house
remains beautifully preserved, with white fretwork and a sign over
the façade: "Holders House". The yard is rich with several fan-like
traveller's palms, flowers and carefully tended flowering bushes. To
the left of the house is a studio space where the sign above the
façade reads "Holder House 2000"; this was originally an adjoining
house which Holder purchased a few years ago and transformed into a
high-ceilinged studio and exhibition gallery. The garden behind the
house is guarded by two life-size nude statues of a man and woman,
and the high walls. There is presently an exhibition up, of about
100 pieces, which can be viewed by invitation only.
Holder is pleased with the award from UWI"It's a compliment and I'm
glad to have it,"but he constantly returns to the disintegration of
the society around him, the disappearance of any sense of civility,
law and order.
Holder's time was not a perfect one, and his memories of a sun-lit,
flambouyant childhood could be rebutted by volumes of tales of
suffering, but this does not mean that life and world did not exist.
The elegant black men and women that sit pensively in Holder's
canvases, and his house and life, are a part of Trinidadian history
which seems to be in the process of erasure amidst the rush for
reparation, and that is a true tragedy