Richard Mark Rawlins during his talk for the presentation of ‘STEUPPS!’

Named after the Caribbean ‘sucking teeth’ expression of distaste, ‘STEUPPS!’ is filled with political satire, comic book characters, social commentary and something the artist describes as ‘pointless’.

“It feels like for me, what I wanted to create was that thing that I used to do when I was a child… I used to do was to lie down outside on the grass and squeeze my eyes tight and look at the sun, and then close my eyes back and try to see all the cool stuff going on; the stars and circles…”
– Richard Mark Rawlins

This childhood pastime is what Rawlins used as a guide to display his 40-odd pieces around Trinidad’s Medulla Art Gallery. The former Vermont Studio Centre (VSC) resident artist kicks off ‘STEUPPS!’ with a bang.

Tired of the traditional five minute gallery scan and 30 minute wine drinking session that has become the norm at Trinidadian art exhibitions, Rawlins decided it was time to revolutionise the gallery experience.

“I wanted to find a way to actually integrate an art show audience into the work. I wanted to give them something to do.” And he did. By providing everyone in the audience with ‘steupps’ illustrated bandanas to wear, Rawlins explains: “that made them part of the show… so the audience became a performance artist in a brief moment. They got to take a big picture with everybody in the gallery with practically the same face on, whether you’re a man, woman, white, black, short, tall… it was just a cool moment.  It was a feel good moment.”

The interactivity does not end there. The audience was invited to write an artist statement or drop their comments into a posy (bedpan). Rawlins also held an artist’s talk during his ‘STEUPPS!’ exhibition at Medulla’s Art Gallery, encouraging the audience to critique his work.

Rawlins’ artwork featuring ‘megees’

After spiraling down the staircase, you are welcomed by none other than a series of hand gestures known as ‘megees’ (also spelt as ‘meggies’). Created from a stencil he used at VSC, these ‘megees’ are the Trinidadian equivalent of telling someone ‘gotcha!’ or ‘the joke is on you’. They shock and tease you. It sets the tone for the sarcastic sense of humour that fills the room.

L-R: ‘BLUE Dan the Hater man’, ‘SIMILING Dan the Hippy man’
‘That guy that guy Joe…Him again’ & ‘Mr. Fabulous’
(Acrylic, bottle caps, copper nails on hardboard)

Using bottle caps, copper nails on hardboard, illustrative callouts and text, Rawlins transforms four acrylic pieces into eye-catching conversation starters. Their pop art-influenced faces humanise the exhibition.

But Rawlins, who is also a co-founder of Trinidad and Tobago’s Erotic Art Week exhibition, puts his own spin on pop art here. These four pieces showcase an effective balance between the freeform look of sketchy drawings and the polished ‘wow’ factor from the acrylics. He achieves the best of both worlds.

‘Dem and Us Toting Series 1’ (Acrylic, graphite, oil pastels, bottle caps, copper nails and screenprinting on hard board skids)

His more intricate pieces from the ‘Dem and Us Toting’ series are layered with different media: acrylic, graphite, oil pastels, bottle caps, copper nails and screenprinting on hard board skids. These portray figures built into unusual shapes from bits and bobs and an abnormal number of eyes mixed with some humanistic features.

The symbolism here is overflowing: machine head, half man/half machine, man-made dreams, the parallels between infrastructure and humanity, doing but not seeing, seeing but not understanding. However you interpret it, it is dynamic.

‘Jookinboard Steupps’

And like any good designer with an advertising background, Rawlins knows how to grab your attention. Be it with three-dimensional pieces like a ‘jookin board’ (wooden washboard) converted into a skateboard or a ‘no parking’ sign that must have been ‘borrowed’ from the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service or a huge pouting face, representing a person steuppsing, painted onto the walls. This face is repeated through the collection as a motif: on the bandanas, artwork and even on the toilets!

And what compelled the contemporary artist to express these symbols continually?

After returning from VSC, Rawlins grew frustrated by artistic constraints and a lack of studio space at home. He began to question whether people would even understand his art. His friend, Bajan artist Sheena Rose urged him to explore these feelings. The result is the story behind ‘Pointless’.

‘Pointless’ (Acrylic on canvas)

“I feel like a pencil with no point! A pencil in a circle, you can’t sharpen it. But [there is] a place to put the sharpener, but you can’t put the sharpener on, because it’s in a circle. And you can’t erase [anything] with it because you can’t access the eraser because [you’re] going in a circle. It’s just pointless!”

The metaphor spun off into other representations such as ‘Universe’ featuring a pair of Converse shoes that goes both ways. It has two fronts but no backs. You can’t put both feet in it. You can’t go either way in it. It’s pointless.

“I felt like the pointless pencil was a metaphor for the creative individual’, Rawlins reveals, “or anybody that’s ever made anything that felt like you’re ‘spinning top in mud’”. It describes a situation where you are exerting a great deal of energy for nothing. Pointless.

'Breasts, Sins and Oral Fixations' Hexaptych (6 pieces)
‘Breasts, Sins and Oral Fixations’
Hexaptych (6 pieces)

But Rawlins is more than a designer. He is a storyteller. His most entertaining story, ‘Breasts, Sin and Oral Fixation’, is told by means of a hexaptych; separated into six pieces. With lollipops, guns and pineapples protruding from the pieces, the suggestive shapes keep the innuendo rolling.

‘100 Visual Cue Cards’

The final wall display is a spectacle on its own. With a staggering 100 cue cards, it looks like Rawlins framed 4” x 6” snapshots directly from his brain. ‘The wall’, which Rawlins identifies as the most autobiographical section, is inspired by the period when Rawlins’ car broke down. He was forced to walk more and that meant he was also able to see more. The experience changed the way he interacted with his surroundings. And so came the artist’s favourite piece, ‘100 Visual Cue Cards’ fondly known as ‘the wall’.

“The stuff on the wall there, the comments that you see there; that really is me. The blue piece there with the big handle bar/moustache, that’s a portrait of my dad. He passed away but when I made the graphic and I started making the moustache, I realised that that was the place it was coming from, and the ‘steupps’ kind of translated more from the dimple in his chin… And there are other pieces in there [with] other people that I look up to”.

The 100 piece assortment scans through a diversity of issues, societal opinions, and politics. Each frame is just as unique and refreshing as the last. You are never bored.

The artist shows versatility across various media and a colourful scope of relevant themes, expressive concepts and fresh design ideas. He takes risks and it works. ‘The wall’, like all of Rawlins’ work, has a profound resonance with Trinidadian life but still speaks volumes to a global audience. This quality is intrinsic to the entire ‘STEUPPS!’ catalogue.

For gifts featuring Richard Mark Rawlins’ artwork, check out his online collection.

To see more photos from the exhibition, browse the web album below.

‘STEUPPS!’ by Richard Mark Rawlins