`An invitation to a Dance’: hymn to a considerable Guyanese artist
By Raschid Osman
May 23, 2004
AN EXHIBITION celebrating the work of Emerson Samuels now at Castellani House in the city is nothing less than a hymn to a more than considerable Guyanese artist.
`Invitation to a Dance’ is a major event on the local art scene, a retrospective that resonates with a remarkable robustness, and a sure feel for movement and composition that make for a uniqueness that Samuels has made all his own.
The Samuels technique relies heavily on form, with mostly muted colour, and a flair for filling his frames with a busyness that is satisfying and quite memorable.
`Invitation To The Dance 2’ is reproduced on the cover of the exhibition’s catalogue, and a good choice too, for it is indicative of the artist’s strength. Here, a company of dancers are in performance, costumed in billowing fabric, the lead dancer’s leg anchoring the piece in the foreground, with an extended arm lending balance to the skillfully contrived tableau. The ploy of using nether limbs as axes on which his paintings turn is very much a Samuels trademark.
There is an interesting variation to this in `Invitation To The Dance 6’. This is a duet, with the strong diagonal of the woman’s uplifted arm linking with the man’s left leg, the two limbs almost bisecting the picture, all this against a swirling, turbulent backdrop.
`Forward Thrust’ is another example of the Samuels flair for depicting people on the move, with four men pulling a cart, and here, the muscular legs of the man in front anchor the piece with dogged determination.
And there is still room in the Samuel reserve for reflection. His `Lady Guyana in Repose’ tingles with a latent vitality, even though the subject is supine, the face composed and serene, the torso vibrant with just a hint of menace, very much like a wild animal at rest. `Lady Guyana in Repose’ must have been influenced by Van Gogh in his Tahitian period.
Then there are the Samuels’ portraits. He paints himself as a young man, intense and determined, with lips slightly pursed, and then as the `Old Master’, the face now mellowed, the mouth less set and the eyes no longer burning with the fierce drive that is synonymous with youth.
Those interested in the Georgetown of not so long ago would be pleased at a section of the exhibition featuring Old Georgetown cityscapes. There is `Main Street Looking South’ with a monument which is no longer there, and a `Main Street Looking North’ with the Cenotaph, which is still there. The aerial `Stabroek View’, with the inevitable clock tower and the area in the foreground which was later Donkey City and is now a not-too-pretty conglomeration of shops, and which seemed to be a small recreational park at the time of the painting.
Other pieces in the Old Georgetown Series include a Fire Station on Brickdam, with a splendid old fashioned fire engine, and `Troops on Parade’, quaint with horsemen in the wide-brimmed felt hats of that period.
Then there are other evocations of city life: a Market Scene, a view of Water Street from the now vanished Bettencourts building, and a postcard-pretty Kingston residence.
What is remarkable about Samuels work is the contrast he achieves between repose and movement, as noted before in this review.
Two of his paintings which exemplify this strength are `Grannie Ponders’ and `Invitation To The Dance 3’.
Grannie sits in her chair as serenely as only the elderly can. The white arm of chair is the pivot on which the piece turns, and at bottom right, the bright red of her shoes next to her unshod feet provides a startling highlight, relieving the muted shade of her dress.
In stark contrast is `Invitation To The Dance 3’. This is a Queh Queh group, with strong, stomping bare feet, white and blue and red and yellow dresses swirling around voluptuous hips swaying every which way, faces ecstatic with mouths wide in celebration, while drummers off to the left provide staccato rhythms with fluttering hands on taut drums.
An unexpected and welcome addition to the Samuels retrospective is a section of New York drawings, with skyscrapers and trees dwarfing a people on the move, and when they are indoors, they are also dwarfed by the New York Subway Station.
This celebration of the work of Emerson Samuels continues at Castellani House until July 31, and the extended run is richly deserved.
Samuels, a winner of the Burnham Medal for painting, was a major talent, informed by a compassion and humility that endow his work with timeless beauty and integrity.
Samuels was indeed a national treasure, and we would do well to clasp to our breasts the work he has left behind.