Caribbean art: no easy definitions
Arts on Sunday
by Alim A. Hosein
September 8, 2002
An investigation into the rise of Caribbean art as a subject, and of Caribbean art criticism would make an interesting and a very revealing study. When did Caribbean art begin? How is it defined? Who are the artists and what qualifies them for inclusion in whatever ‘school’ exists, if such a school exists at all? What kinds of art are to be considered ‘Caribbean,’ and what would be selected as the canon? These questions have already been considered, debated and documented, if not decided, as far as West Indian literature is concerned, and it is instructive to note the way development in this area has gone in order to carry out any investigation into Caribbean art which has lagged far behind it.
However, while that series of questions has, indeed, been interrogated in the study of the literature, one of the most important things that the Caribbean art historian has already recognized is that one should be wary of it. One needs to be vary suspicious of characteristic definitions, particularly those that are too narrow, to avoid canons and to resist any facile answers to those questions.
There is always a danger of arriving at too hasty conclusions.
It is also useful to note the progress in the literary criticism because, in contrast to it, relatively little has been published on the same scale about the art. It seems the work has only recently been developing. What certainly helps such development is the work that goes on in universities, out of which comes research, the writing and publication of critical studies, and the training of critics and historians. An outstanding example of this is the definite acceleration of this kind of output that followed the relevant developments in Jamaica. The long-standing Jamaica School of Art joined with the separate schools of drama and music to form one training complex. A school of dance also developed there, and a definite catalyst was when these became amalgamated with the University of the West Indies. The fine arts immediately became a focus at the Creative Arts Centre (renamed the Phillip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts) on the Mona Campus although there was no official certification. But development was rapid as soon as the two institutions joined forces and the School of Visual Arts at the Edna Manley College began granting degrees.
A brief diversion into similar, if far smaller, developments in Guyanese art is of interest. The main criticism and academic interest in the subject were carried mainly by Denis Williams, who founded the Burrowes School of Art, and Basil Hinds, who was the leading reviewer in the newspapers. Then Stanley Greaves pioneered academic training at university level at the University of Guyana. This kind of tertiary work played its part since Alim Hosein, who emerged as an art critic, was trained there. Moreover, a distinct intellectual focus deepened with the expansion by Professor Doris Rogers of what Greaves started, allowing research-oriented studies to emerge in Philbert Gajadhar and to solidify in Bernadette Persaud. At the same time, the growth of the National Gallery at another institution, Castellani House, gave greater focus and productivity to critical writing by its curator, Elfrieda Bissember. Added to the continuing study of Greaves’ art by Rupert Roopnaraine, critical attention to Guyanese art has begun.
Yet, of very great importance to this critical development, is the research of Anne Walmsley, who has published extensively on Aubrey Williams and has conducted courses in British universities. Her publications on the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) and the course on Guyanese and Caribbean Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London will give the art a place on the university circuit and, possibly, the kind of international prominence that the literature has achieved.
These factors in the growth of Caribbean art, reflected in the foregoing summary, have, without a doubt, contributed to the production of a book that must rate as one of the most important publications on the subject to date. It is simply titled, Caribbean Art, written by Veerle Poupeye and published in 1998 by Thames and Hudson, London, in the ‘World of Art’ series. Poupeye is a Jamaica-based art historian, critic and curator, lecturing in Caribbean art history at the Edna Manley College. She also directs the visual arts programme for the community-based Multi-Care Foundation in Jamaica.
Poupeye’s work documents the history, the development, the social and political background as well as the styles and preoccupations of the artists and the significant movements of Caribbean art. The 224-page book is supported by 177 illustrations, including 76 in colour, and covers the art extremely well across a wide range of territories and spanning the entire twentieth century. It is very sensitive to the various social and political climates in these various countries, analysing the way they interact with art. Yet, while Poupeye tries to cover so vast a geographical area and chronological time-span, she manages quite skilfully, to avoid sweeping generalizations, stereotypes and narrow conclusions about the art and its several creators.
This sensitivity, and the author’s attention to individual concerns and peculiarities even in such a broad survey, is a major strength of this publication. It is a guide to the art, yet it is analytical. Poupeye does not present blocks of separate documentation about each artist or critical issue, but engages in interesting comparative discussions about both.
A good example of this may be found in her comment on Phillip Moore, one of the most prominent and original Guyanese artists. She comments on “intuitive” artists with strong religious connections, carefully pointing out that “Moore is associated with the Jordanites, an inspirational guyanese church, but his work expresses a very personal, utopian vision of Guyana, an ideal of community in a country that has a history of racial and political divisiveness.” In this sense, she compares him with Jamaican painter, Leonard Daley, whose work, because of his religious persuasion, is always expected to be Rastafari. But, like Moore’s work, Poupeye explains, “Daley’s visionary images are too individual to accommodate any religious or ideological label.”
Brother Everald Brown, Jamaican revivalist elder and artist, is another kindred spirit, whose work is also often categorized. Like him, Poupeye writes, “Moore frequently uses polymorphic imagery, but his brilliantly coloured, symbol-laden pattern structures are more intricate.” She illustrates this with an analysis of his The Cultural Centre (1996) “an allegory of multi-cultural Guyana.”
Veerle Poupeye also recognizes the importance of avoiding the generalizations of schools and easy definitions, beginning the book with a statement on this necessity. She starts with the work of Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam (1902-82) whose The Jungle (1943) has been described as “the first visual manifesto of the Third World.” Then she cautions: “the use of Lam’s art as a benchmark, however, illustrates how difficult it is to define Caribbean art without lapsing into dogmas or stereotypes.”
Very often the author ends up being too brief about an artist who may be considered important or major, thus deserving of greater coverage. But this, while a minor disappointment, helps to make the point, because Poupeye cannot in this study of the entire Caribbean, Hispanic, Francophone, Dutch and English, select individuals or a canon. Above all, what is commendable is that this breadth does not commit a sacrifice of depth. The book provides, for specialists, students and the average reader, a very vivid, comprehensive and effective account of Caribbean art. Even her choice of a cover illustration reflects her eye for significant arteries. It is a detail from Stanley Greaves’ There is A Meeting Here Tonight (1993), which suggests her interest in the integration of political and social factors in the social and human preoccupations of the artists.