By Akima McPherson
Akima McPherson is a lecturer (on leave) in the Department of Language and Cultural Studies, School of Education and Humanities, University of Guyana (UG) and a practicing artist. She graduated from the University of Guyana with the BA degree in Fine Art (Distinction), 2001 and is currently pursuing the MA degree in Fine Art studies in the United Kingdom.
ART IN THE CARIBBEAN: AN INTRODUCTION. Anne Walmsley and Stanley Greaves in collaboration with Christopher Cozier. London: New Beacon Books, 2010. pp. 184. ISBN 9781873201220 with colour images and a Glossary of Art terms.
ART IN THE CARIBBEAN: AN INTRODUCTION (2010) is only the second publication to attempt a meaningful survey and discussion of the visual art of the Caribbean region. The first such text was Veerle Poupeye’s well-received work, Caribbean Art (Thames and Hudson, 1998).
Granted the scope of both texts is immense – surveying a geographically complex, culturally and linguistically diverse region over a vast period of time (from pre-Columbian times to the present) – both texts have done very well to stimulate and situate a discourse on the region’s art.
Commendations are offered to the authors of both texts. Many with a vested interest in the region’s visual arts, no doubt, are appreciative of their efforts.
Art in the Caribbean An Introduction aims, as stated in the preface, to be “a visual anthology, a virtual art gallery” of art in the Caribbean from the 1940s to 2000s and this, in the absence of any Caribbean art collection or gallery in the region or further a field.
Consequently, this is the second text where it is possible for artists, researchers, students and connoisseurs alike to see in one location a selection of the region’s art that is either contemporaneous or historically significant.
In achieving this visual anthology, an image is selected for particular years between 1943 and 2007. Why the omission of some years? It is not clear. Could it be no significant work was produced anywhere in the region that particular year?
Dubious as that is, it may simply be a constraint of space and budget. Of note, it is only when we reach 1987 that we begin to get occasions of ‘overlap,’ when multiple works and artists are presented for particular years. Hence, for 1987 we are introduced to Francisco Cabral (Trinidad) and to Wendy Nanan (also of Trinidad), then in 1993 to Bernadette Persaud (Guyana) and to Norma Rodney Harrack (Jamaica). In this way, we are able to make more effective comparisons between what emerged within territories.
The collection comprises works from artists across the region that are (or are proving themselves to be) significant to the art history of their country.
Anne Walmsley received a Doctorate from Kent University for research on the Caribbean Artists Movement, published in 1992 as THE CARIBBEAN ARTISTS MOVEMENT 1966-1972: A Literary and Cultural History. She has taught a course on the art of the Caribbean at the School of Oriental Studies (SOAS), University of London. Her two anthologies of Caribbean writing, The Sun’s Eye (1968, new edition 1989), and, with Nick Caistor, Facing the Sea (1986) are widely used. She compiled GUYANA DREAMING: The Art of Aubrey Williams (1990).
For each of the works selected a description of the work is given, no doubt, as a means of encouraging ‘seeing’ of the different aspects of the work, followed by a brief biography of its artist.
Despite the brevity of these biographies, in very few instances they do provoke significant questions for further research. For instance, how was Lam’s first solo show (presumably in Paris) received and stylistically did his work reflect his association with prominent artists of Cubism and/or Surrealism, or did his work already reflect the emergence of “an individual visual language”? And when was Lam’s solo show?
Art in the Caribbean An Introduction also seeks to consider the variation of visual practice in the region and thus concerns itself with
“[a]rt made from indigenous and locally available materials; made within the climate and conditions of the Caribbean, reflecting its contemporary concerns and the imagery of its daily realities, ever renewing its visual language; art which will be seen primarily by viewers within the region” (vii).
In deciding upon their collection, the authors have sought to present “classic works from the early years of the modern period to those at the forefront of contemporary innovation” (viii). The result is an opportunity to view in just a few pages the leaps and bounds made in the aesthetics and techniques employed by artists working within the Caribbean over a seventy-year period.
However, we are uncertain why of the region’s significant artists some are included in this section while others not. Mention of these artists is made in the second section of the text.
One should be cautioned that it would be an error to presume the works presented constitutes ‘Caribbean art’ – a very debatable notion – and that the aesthetic evolution suggested is indicative of the region.
In other words, because the images are presented in a chronology and typically the Caribbean is treated as a homogeneous cultural unit, one must avoid seeing the works as characteristic of a ‘regional art’ and its development. The fact is that some of our artists continue today to work in dated aesthetic modes.
Stanley Greaves is a well-respected Guyanese artist and teacher. Trained in Guyana, the United Kingdom and the United States in fine art, he has an appreciable biography of teaching in Guyana and Barbados; he received a Diploma in Art Education while in the UK. He has also served the Caribbean Examination Council in its design of the Art and Craft Syllabus
Therefore, if the work presented for a year is traditional or political or ‘syncretically’ religious, it does not mean it is representative of the aesthetic and content of art from its country of origin or even of the Caribbean region as a whole.
This is a very useful point to make as the intended readership of the text, students taking the Caribbean Examination Council’s CSEC and CAPE examinations, may infer such.
It is important to note, too, that the survey, being as it is a survey done through 40 images and artists, cannot begin to address the complexities of how the region’s art has evolved within the different locations. However, this is better accomplished in the second section of the work.
What this collection of images allows is for readers to play with their own sense of a territory’s art history/situation and to situate the art and artists presented against that. From the point of view of the intended audience of the text – that category of students already mentioned along with art and cultural studies students at tertiary level – we are not certain whether the companion artwork for each featured artist is a seminal work and of how it fits into the artist’s oeuvre.
Thus, the keen student must embark upon a journey to place the work within the artist’s body of work and its overall relevance to the local situation.
Noted as a shortcoming by the authors is the text’s emphasis on the Anglophone Caribbean. This, they write, is due to the origins of the book and the anticipated readership – an unfortunate position as one’s language of socialization and comfort does not necessarily preclude one from being interested in art from other language locations of the region. Of the 40 artists within the collection, 12 are from the non-Anglophone Caribbean, still a credit to the scope of the text.
Excited as I was to see work from the region’s artists past and present, I was dismayed by the few instances of repetition with images in the Poupeye text, feeling that with opportunity to see only one reproduction of work I would have preferred to be titillated by the new rather than scrutinize the familiar. (I expect it is very likely that those who endeavour to explore this text would also endeavour to explore Caribbean Art.)
In the collection of 40 images there are 7 instances of image repetition. Thankfully, in the collection of 40 there are 17 works by artists who are not featured in the Poupeye text although they may have been mentioned in passing.
Consequently, one feels introduced to new works, rather than revisiting familiar ones, and one can also become excited by the imaging of works that attempt to locate the visual art practice of the Caribbean in a more international and vanguardist aesthetic.
In this latter regard, I would like to draw attention to the works of KCHO, Annalee Davis, Alida Martinez, Maxence Denis, Petrona Morrison, John Cox, Herve Beuze.
The aesthetic currency of the works, the questions and problems they pose, and their concern with materiality and form are important and situate them in a visual culture dialogue that transcends their Caribbean geographical spaces.
PART TWO of this Book Review will appear next Sunday.
The Editor of The Arts Forum Column, Ameena Gafoor, may be reached on E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone: 592 227 6825