`He lived his life totally'
English art critic Anne Walmesly pays tribute to Denis Williams' contribution to art and literature
July 5, 1998
Denis Williams, who has died at his home in Georgetown, Guyana, aged 75, is known especially for his brilliant work in London in the 1950s, in Nigeria in the 1960s, and in Guyana in the 1970s: all times of great ferment and creativity in the arts. Williams worked as artist, art historian and teacher, novelist, anthropologist and archaeologist. Yet, as the late Aubrey Williams said of his compatriot (no relation), visiting him at Issano in 1970: `He lives his life totally, all the time, you can't categorise his life, you can't facet it, you can't divide it up'. Dynamic, passionate, enthusiastic, at times autocratic and stubborn, Williams put his considerable intellectual powers, creative gifts and prodigious energy into a wide range of inter-connected work, in the many places, on three continents, where he lived.
Denis Williams's vivid, early visual memories are of his mother's oil-paints box and jewel box, of the nearby Botanical Gardens, and of walks through the capital city's streets with his father. He drew constantly. The first exhibition of art in Georgetown in 1931, as he later said, `anchored my whole future; I knew I was made to do art'. The young Denis Williams' outstanding natural ability in drawing and painting drew the attention of the British Council representative in Georgetown. He was encouraged to apply for - and won - the first British Council scholarship awarded in the colony to study art in Britain.
Williams studied fine arts at the Camberwell School of Art from 1946 to 1948. Camberwell was then the leading London art school. William Coldstream, Lawrence Gowing and Claude Rogers were amongst his teachers; his fellow students were mostly ex-service men and women. Teachers and students alike were all awakening, in the first year after World War 2, to recent art developments on the Continent.
On his return to British Guiana in mid 1949, Williams worked intensively on a series of paintings in oils on sacking: `Plantation Studies', `Origins', `Burden and Release', which were shown at private exhibitions Wilson Harris, who met him then for the first time, recalls that the paintings aroused considerable comment and some hostility. Michel Swan, the British writer and traveller, in Georgetown in 1955 for research on his subsequent HMSO book, recalls seeing some of this work and finding it `startling, frightening, violent in mood' Williams was unable to find, as he had hoped, a senior, well-paid teaching post in Georgetown, and was back in London in May 1950.
When Williams had exhibited in London at the Berkeley Gallery shortly before returning home, his paintings had been favourably noted by Wyndham Lewis. Now eager to establish himself as an artist in London and with a body of new work. Williams asked Lewis's advice as to how best to show it.. The result was a one-man exhibition at Gimpel Fils, in December 1950. Its centre-piece was the painting `Human World', reproduced in Time magazine, and bought by public subscription in British Guiana, becoming the first art work in Guyana's now extensive National Collection. The show was fully covered by Lewis in The Listener under the title `A Negro Artist', which warmly acclaimed his paintings and hailed his `very remarkable talent'. The show resulted in Williams becoming a visiting tutor at the Slade and being offered a teaching post at the Central (now St Martins Central) School of Art, where his colleagues included Alan Davie, Keith Vaughan, Victor Pasmore, and Roger Hilton who became a close friend and with whom he shared a show at Gimpel Fils in 1954. After `Human World' Williams's work changed radically in style, becoming totally abstract and mathematically based, much influenced by Mondrian and the constructivists. His paintings were shown widely in group shows, including the Daily Express Young Artists Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1955, when Lucien Freud won the prize of 500 pounds sterling and Williams, with `Painting in Six Related Rhythms', 250 pounds sterling. The judges included Graham Sutherland, Herbert Read and Anthony Blunt. In the summer of 1956 Williams showed in This is Tomorrow, at the Whitechapel Gallery, an important exhibition which aimed to explore the possible collaboration of architects, painters and sculptors in an integrated art on constructivist principles. Again, this proved a turning-point for Williams. He felt, as he later said, that he had worked himself into a straightjacket, that he had reached the end of the road with `pseudo-European painting. `A great reaction set in ... to get back to who I am'. He had long haunted the British Museum galleries of ethnographic artefacts from Africa. Now he applied for posts in Africa.
From 1957-62 Williams worked in the Sudan, teaching fine arts and art history at the Technical Institute of African Studies in Khartoum. These years provided his first experience of work in archaeology. He travelled the deserts of Northern Sudan, studying the remains of antique Napatan and Meroitic cultures, and drawing newly excavated artefacts. These years also prompted his first work of fiction, Other Leopards, now a classic of Caribbean literature. Largely autobiographical, it exposes the double sense of alienation which Williams experienced as a colonised black Englishman in an African Muslim culture.
In 1962 Williams moved to Nigeria, initially at the invitation of Professor Ulli Beier, to take part in Mbari workshops at Oshogbo in the Yoruba-speaking, western region of newly independent Nigeria. At the 1963 workshop, Williams taught alongside Jacob Lawrence, the distinguished African American painter. At these workshops young men and women, with no opportunities to experience Western art-making, produced highly personal images and individual styles, amongst them artists now well known such as Jacob Afolabi and Rufus Ogundele: Soon Williams was given a lectureship in the newly-established Institute of African Studies at the University of Ife, then sharing a campus with the University of Ibadan. Here he found himself amongst leading Nigerian writers, including Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark. A request for an article on bronze artefacts led to Williams's extensive travels and research among the iron and bronze-working societies of West Africa, and to his writing the monumental, pioneering if controversial, Icon and Image: A study of sacred and secular forms of African classical art (Allen Lane, 1974). After four years at Ife, Williams spent a further two years at the School of African and Asian Studies, University of Lagos. At both institutions he founded museum collections of African artefacts and edited journals of African studies. And he wrote a second novel, The Third Temptation: set in Wales, it employs the complex narrative technique of the then new nouveau roman.
Alongside his constant travels and work as a professional anthropologist and archaeologist, Williams was deeply involved in the contemporary visual arts of his country. He curated, and wrote the catalogues for, several shows of Guyanese art, from those in Jamaica (1976) and Nigeria (1977) to those in London (1986) and Cuba and Venezuela (1987). His interest and involvement in the work of his fellow Guyanese artists, and especially in the young, was unending. He oversaw and greatly encouraged, work by indigenous Indian Guyanese and East Indian Guyanese in a field previously dominated by Guyanese of African descent. In turn, he won their admiration, respect and devotion. `Doctor' or `Uncle Denis', as he was known, will be sorely missed by the many artists and fledgling critics and art historians to whom he was mentor. With characteristic generosity, he interrupted work on the publication of his own book, early this year, in order to contribute to the monograph on Aubrey Williams which accompanies the current show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.