THEY barely speak above a whisper, but their paintings of tranquil beach scenes with waves gently sweeping a beach and majestic macaws in flight speak volumes about the lives that five artists have created in the island prison of Carrera.
Led by inmate Alladin Mohammed, Thackoor Ramcharan, Leslie Huggins, Richard Huggins and Tackoor Ramcharan can hear calypso from the inmates’ band room and whirring sewing machines from the tailor shop while they work from 7 am-7 pm in their studio, which borders the playing field.
Mohammed says, “My art is a gift passed down from my grandfather and father, who was a midnight robber in Carnival. I grew up in Calcutta, Freeport, with art all around me.” His white uniform, spattered with paint, conjures up images of J’Ouvert.
Mohammed, 42, has spent half his life in prison. Outside, he worked at a confectionery business as a graphic artist. Convicted of murder, he spent ten years on death row. In those dark cells, Mohammed did an art diploma online from Penn Foster High School in the US. When his sentence was commuted to life in prison, Mohammed was sent to Carrera.
Soon, he realised Carrera offered a whole new world for painting. In Port of Spain, there are no trees, not a blade of grass – no view of anything except walls. At Carrera, there were open spaces, ocean views and sunsets.
“I requested an airbrush and ASP Morgan granted the request under the condition I teach others so the idea for the Carrera Art School was born,” says Mohammed.
Leslie Huggins became Mohammed’s first student. Huggins grew up with a grandmother and had his own mechanic business and welding garage in Sangre Grande before he was arrested for murder.
“I used to drink and lime and party, and that carried me down the wrong path,” he says.
Convicted of murder in 2001, he was put on death row in Port of Spain Prison.
In his cell, he used pens and coloured pencils to create postcards and letterheads with flowers and scenery for inmates and officers. But one day, he decided to “lock off” art. “I decided it could do nothing for me.
“Then I met Alladin and got involved in art again.”
In 2008, Huggins’s sentence was commuted to life, and he came to Carrera.
“I joined the art studio. Art made me like a new person. I’m calmer; more peaceful now. I try to assist people in their suffering.”
Huggins loves wildlife scenes – “Birds, especially macaws, and scenery with waterfalls. I like water and colours that reflect the island: greens, blues and brown.”
Mohammed and Huggins have many artistic achievements they are proud of, including the book trees they designed on the walls of the Port of Spain Prison library, which were once their death row cells. San Fernando Mayor Kazim Hosein commissioned them to do historical paintings.
Currently, Mohammed has eight students, including Richard Huggins, who worked in auto body repair before arrested for murder in 1998. Convicted in 2001, he came to Carrera in 2006 when his death sentence was commuted to life.
“I was scared about the environment – the weather, storms.”
He enjoys abstract art and making jewellery boxes in dark colours: red, orange, black, yellow and blue.
“Art has helped me to focus on being more relaxed. It teaches me to think and have a sense of control.”
One of his favourite pieces is The Beauty of Aspiration, a 3D piece that features a tiger in a jungle leaping from the painting. “A butterfly in the picture creates a sense of harmony,” he says.
Rawle Ghanny, a mechanic from Chaguanas, who came to Carrera in much the same way as the others artists, first thought of being an artist when he passed Mohammed’s cell on his way to take a shower.
“I admired his art, and I asked if he would teach me.” Ghanny started to draw postcards with Christmas scenes that included Santa and candles.
“I’m a fan of nature and ocean views. I love birds, macaws, hummingbirds and deep colours: green, purple and yellow.
“I believe God put me in Carrera to become a professional artist.”
Held for murder in 1994, Thackoor Ramcharan, a mechanic, was convicted in 1999 and joined the art programme when the prison system transferred him to Carrera in 2008. He likes painting birds – especially kiskadees – nature, mountains and the sea, using red, yellow, pink and lime green.
“When I view a sunset here, my spirit gets lively,” he says.
For the artists of Carrera, a sunset never gets old.
The Carrera artists’ annual art show will be held in Long Circular Mall, St James, from June 12–16.