Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Alex Smailes: Does the term 'Caribbean' or 'Island Aesthetic' mean anything to you?

Alex Smailes.
Photo by Ryan Goodman

Alex Smailes is a photographer and a Director at a Brand Engineering Agency
in Trinidad and Tobago — Abovegroup Ogilvy. 

Alex:  At first it's easy to stereotype and answer on gut reactions, such as: Barbados understands style & grace, has historic preservation laws in place, immaculate public services that work and keep organic roadside development at bay. In terms of innovation, for years they have had rain water collection and mandatory solar heating. Many areas are serviced by electrical and fibre optics underground rather than ugly overhead lines. Someone invented a garbage bin that fits into a hole in the ground with a clip lid, so dogs don't strewn rotten food and nappies over the streets each morning. Vagrants are actually part of the solution and provide a fantastic, profitable glass recycling programme. Okay – mostly human functional aspects, but ultimately it adds to the general aesthetic by allowing the environment, urban or countryside, to breathe.  

Smaller islands from old English, Dutch or French equally influence a tranquil harmonious relationship with the human footprint and the surround space people live in. It feels quieter, a sense of calm, colour palettes blend with the surrounding hills or forest. Jamaica with its hundreds of years heritage is proud and celebrate the historical classic buildings they have left. Even Haiti, Port au Prince once the richest, most developed and most strategically important island nations had almost been caught in a time vacuum and (prior to the earthquake) was still one of the most beautiful cities in the Caribbean. If you scraped away the decades of blood, sweat and tears.

Trinidad, my island of residence inspires me everyday. From handmade iron burglar proofing designs that are clearly influenced from art nouveau, deco movements. A hand painted sign at the side of the street, by someone who could not decide what he was trying to sell on such a small sign and wrote- Water nuts. I sometimes presume watermelon, sometimes coconuts depending on supplies, price or mood. For my personal work, it rains for half the year here, much of my photography work is dark, grey, moody, backdrops of unpainted breeze blocks, a recycled galvanize out of necessity not social consciousness, a wooden door now a wall.

Unfortunately, there is a greater force of distaste spreading, on the grand scale it is felt in the urban development plans of various governments, destruction of green spaces, walkways, spaces for humans to interact, eradication of historic buildings. Major design decisions are in the hands of just the wrong people and committees. On a smaller scale, one of the worst destroyers of our daily aesthetic – the deadly combination of photoshop and affordable large format vinyl printing. This will or has already destroyed our daily visual journey I'm afraid.

Thankfully I'm surrounded everyday by very talented and driven people willing to learn, push themselves and absorb from the global community when needed. They figure out how to produce work that is locally relevant, yet to international standards. I truly believe we can keep chipping away and producing great work that stands out and is noticed.

It's up to the older generation of trained creatives to share knowledge and experience, if the younger ones listen, we may be able to keep the aesthetic killers at bay for a while.

Alex worked on his first book, Trinidad and Tobago, for the first two years after returning to this country. Published by Macmillan, it was designed by Gareth and represented the first joint project between the two. Along with third partner Sam (who is now based in London), Abovegroup was formed shortly afterwards.

*Photos of Alex's book courtesy Abovegroup Ogilvy


  1. TT balances the good and bad like everywhere else in the world. I like the optimism in this post. If you want to see change and have something positive to contribute, why not do it yourself and be proactive? Like Alex/G/Sam did with AG and now AGO! And like what this blog is doing right now! I like your blog T~

  2. A balanced and well written article that reflects some very valid points. We have a unique fusion of heritage and cultural aesthetic that is being overtaken by blocks of concrete eyesores. To know who we are we have to know where we come from. In the right hands, there is a way conservation and innovation can be combined. I like the Island View vibe, the cool colours and I like what the blog highlights. Keep at it Tani :)

  3. Interesting approach to answer a question that most would have wasted the opportunity and blabber the usual as if we all think alike. It of course rely on the aesthetic of the individual and i do appreciate his incite. Thank you ™ for another avenue to share the perceptions of the islands.

  4. I really enjoyed that Alex touched on his experiences of specific islands and the unique, inspirations from them.

    Together we are such a beautiful chain of islands but every single one is so unique and has so much to offer and we can also absorb additional knowledge and inspiration from the larger, older continents.

    So Much Possibility.