An Art Exhibition and the Suspension of Class via Travel

Last week, I attended General Admission, an exhibition by local artist Tessa Alexander held at the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago.

The collection incorporates several themes, each of which showcase different aspects of Trinidad. Some pieces portray the “every day” people of the island – the sno cone vendors, the doubles man, curbside CD sellers, and students.

Tessa Alexander Trinidad Art Society

Banyan Tree by Tessa Alexander

Other pieces illustrate Trinidad’s annual Carnival celebration, depicting scenes like a woman walking alone after Jouvert, a man suiting up with his devil mask, and a young woman waving a white flag while drummers play in the background.

Trinidad Art Society - Tessa Alexander

one of my favorites from the collection

The third and most poignant set reveals characters in various states of reflection, with waterfalls, beaches, and forest paths providing the backdrop.

Trinidad Art Society - Tessa Alexander

The Journey by Tessa Alexander

While the individual paintings are beautiful, the greatest impact comes from the message the overall exhibition communicates. It’s about more than street food and Trinidad’s most important celebration.

It is a social commentary on classism.

There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else. – Andrew Carnegie

The exhibition space was divided into two parts by a giant scaffolding separating the two; the general admission and the VIP sections. Along the gate were life-sized paper people representative of the general admission crowd looking longingly into the VIP section.

General Admission Tessa Alexander Trinidad Art Society

the scaffolding

The exhibition draws parallels between a typical concert seating – general admission, VIP, and sometimes even VVIP – and society’s class system. The general admission section hosts the majority of the people, while the VIP section is populated by the “haves” of society, the upper echelon, those who likely choose the VIP section as some kind of display of status, like peacocks splaying their feathers during a mating ritual.

The exhibition made me reflect on the consideration of class and how it relates to travel. Traveling is one of the closest ways I’ve found to be excluded from a society’s class ranking. Because no one knows my past, my future, my level of education, or my income bracket, I find myself in a fortunate state of class suspension where I am free to mix with whomever I feel like. There are no social rules to play by that are associated with a particular class.

While I’ve had short-lived forays into the wonderless world of the bougie crowd, it’s really not my thing. My time spent there has always been clouded with an indescribable vibe of tenseness not conducive to freedom. It seems like the more elite you consider yourself, the more rules you have to follow – you have to dress a certain way, in certain brands, attend events due to social obligation, speak in a certain way, date certain people – the list goes on.

If you have learned anything about me, you know that I loathe living by rules – especially those which have been imposed by someone else.

I’ve always tried to avoid the class game. Too many people are concerned with reaching a certain status, attaining a certain number of possessions, falling within a specific income bracket, or trapping themselves within some other meaningless label that just serves to enforce the illusion of the ego.

You can keep your VIP section – I’ll cool in general admission.

8 Comments
  • Casey
    July 5, 2011

    Hm, that exhibition is quite interesting, particularly the way the two “levels” of admission were incorporated. 

    I identify and pretty much agree with your commentary, traveling is definitely a way to step outside the *normal* classes. The normal rules governing social interaction don’t apply as you said; however, I think it is interesting to realize that we’re not exempt from all social rules and we’re not totally classes. You didn’t say we were, I’m just extending the idea a bit for there are some interesting ideas here.

    For example, among travelers, as much as we would prefer not too, we have our own classes and rules governing social interaction. You’ve got the young gap year-er, the partyer, the vacationers, nomads, etc. Sure, these classes don’t come with as much baggage as society’s normal classes, and we certainly (or so I hope) don’t judge people too much based on these classifications. The rules we live by are much more relaxed, and–my favorite part–malleable! We work together to create our own social rules, so why we can’t live outside the system altogether at least it isn’t at the behest of others.

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    July 5, 2011

    That’s a really good point, Casey. A nomad or vacationer may at times feel superior to the gap year traveler, the hippies may scoff at the tour groups, etc.

    You’re right, there are many social rules that exist outside of class. I’d still conform to the general rules of society, i.e. wearing appropriate clothing or following certain social customs, though the difference is that I do that out of choice and respect and not due to a feeling of obligation.

  • Nomadic Samuel
    July 7, 2011

    I like the point you bring up about travel stripping away the social norms that typically bind or label us.  I find myself dressing down intentionally and trying to be as minimalist as possible while on the road.  I find it rewarding to have this freedom and to not be judged – at least beyond a brief encounter.

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    July 10, 2011

    It is freeing to not be classified so rapidly when you’re from the “outside”. I don’t really dress down or up though – I always try to blend in with the local population, which differs a lot depending on where you are.

  • Jeannie
    July 14, 2011

    Okay, okay… LOVED this post to death!!!  To quote: “the more elite you consider yourself, the more rules you have to follow – you have to dress a certain way, in certain brands, attend events due to social obligation, speak in a certain way, date certain people – the list goes on.”

    Waving my hands in taut agreement!  Such carefully constructed worlds are all about one thing: control.  Maintaining some kind of facade, but what these circles miss every time is nothing is controllable.  And the more you push, compartmentalize, categorize, people either rebel viscously, or become crushed – unoriginal thinkers.  Cattle, really.

    I will forever love Noam Chomsky for saying that some of the most creative thinkers are NOT university/over-educated folks.  Just ponder the amount of protocols and hoops meshed into the academic world, that sap any genius from the receiver. Apply that to the elite circles you speak of.  An entire world of bland, segregation – for what?

    A very colourless world, if you ask me. 

  • Jeannie
    July 14, 2011

    PS: I think Casey has a point as well.  There is a diff between conforming to something out of respect/custom and out of mostly choice. :)  What I think you’re referring to is the wide fissure between classes and the constructs in place in order to “belong” to such a group.

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    July 14, 2011

    Good point. The real geniuses of our time largely played by their own rules and were thus considered socially inept. Definitely a colorless world… and I’m so glad we don’t have to live in it :)

  • Jasmine Stephenson
    July 14, 2011

    There is definitely a difference between cultural acclimation (which I participate in as much as possible) and the cruel game that lumps an exclusive set into one group, granting them all the privileges, and the everyday person into another, made to feel inferior.

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