Vaneisa: ‘Opening the door doesn’t change the room’; Agyei’s lesson

“Opening the door doesn’t really change the nature of the room.”

The statement made me reach for a pen so I could jot it down. I was listening via Zoom on 8 February to an online lecture given for the St Bride Library in the UK by a young Trinidadian, Agyei Archer. Thirty-four minutes in, I remained riveted.

Photo: Trinidadian designer Agyei Archer.

I have known Agyei for maybe a dozen years—he was around 20 when I first encountered him—and I’ve watched him develop and flourish, despite the oppressive conditions of his life.

But it wasn’t out of maternal pride that I was listening so attentively; even if I did not know him, I would have been interested in what he was saying.

The title of his offering was: “Do it like you do it,” and it was about typography—an uncommon topic. The website advertising the lecture described it more succinctly than I could: an exploration of ‘the value of vernacular design in the English-speaking Caribbean… focusing on the role that hand-drawn and found lettering has played in his personal practice and introducing some canonical work from both self-taught and classically-rooted practices in Trinidad and Jamaica’.

If it might not be an apparently attractive subject to you, then you will understand that what blew me away was the way he spoke, and the perspectives he brought in presenting our history and a future.

He opened with a short historical account of the Caribbean, outlining the forms of labour: slavery, indentureship, the importation of Chinese, the arrival of Portuguese and Syrians—perhaps for the sake of the global nature of the audience. 

Photo: Then Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams (far right) sits on the porch of the Governor General’s residence in Port-of-Spain with former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill (centre) and Federal Prime Minister of the West Indies Sir Grantley Adams (left) on 22 March 1961.
Churchill was holidaying in the Caribbean on Aristotle Onassis’s luxury yacht ‘Christina’.
(Copyright AP Photo)

“It’s a really special place,” he said, as he described the festivals, the food, the music and the ‘cultural exuberance’. 

Having laid out this background, he moved into the historical development of typography—printing, linotypes, commerce, advertising, brand identification—and his illustrations each seemed to tell a supporting tale; quite unlike the typical accompaniments that add no depth and texture to the spoken word.

He was not just fluent in the way of someone who knows his stuff, but articulate and confident enough to challenge time-warped canons. You didn’t have to give a whit about his beloved world of design to move with the power of his convictions. 

Even as he traced his personal journey of learning, of experimenting, and discovering the places he calls home through their cultural practices and aesthetics, he kept you seeing the invisible hands that still craft the way we do things around here.

“It’s important as well for me to talk in this talk about the influences I don’t want to draw from,” he said, as he acknowledged the importance of type, and its imperial relationship with the wider world. “I am not comfortable with serving a canon that has served fascism the way the classics have.”

Image: An example of typography.

He went on to talk about why it matters to him that as one understands the past, one should also see a future built in one’s image.

Then he came to this part, which set me thinking for days.

“This new age of design loves to focus on inclusion and getting everyone in the room… but the odds are, for people like me, after you get into the room, you realise the room was never meant for you anyway. And everyone’s nice, but perspectives matter and opening the door doesn’t really change the nature of the room.

“And the more that I pay attention to that and the education systems that are set up around the industry and the norms that are set up around the industry, I think it is important for people like us, people like me, to make work that is reflective of our perspectives and are really valuable to us. I think that using things that are valuable to us to make work is the best way forward.

“The work that will matter will come from somewhere real. I like where it has come from. I like where it’s going, it feels like home does… it’s about vernacularity.

“We’ve been defaulting to someone else’s experience for hundreds of years, and maybe we can do a re-evaluation of the tools we use and the education systems and the reasons that we make the work that we do.”

Image: An example of chalk typography.

I endorse what he said, and I am impressed at the way he has thought about these things. 

When he talked about opening the door, I’d immediately remembered my experience with the Queen’s Park Cricket Club more than 25 years ago. Although I had hammered at their membership door for nearly 10 years, I did not find it a room where I fit in. (Just for the record I was not the first woman allowed in.)

It made me think about how we can get so caught up in the idea of being included that we miss evaluating what we want to include us. Agyei’s idea of making our own rooms resonated with me.

He articulated so vividly a vision I have always held that it felt like I could finally see it clearly. I wanted to share his words because I feel it is important too for us to know that there are young people who are out there doing us proud. 

Life has dealt him harsh blows, and he still struggles from those experiences, but he too, is one of our own.

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