Caribbean Conversations: Phillip Thomas – Part I

N Train
Phillip Thomas – The N Train (2008, oil on canvas, 77 x 147″)

This is the first part of an extended conversation with the Jamaican painter Phillip Thomas. Part two can be found here.

Phillip Thomas was born in 1980, in Kingston, Jamaica. He holds a BFA in Painting in 2003 from the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and an MFA from the New York Academy of Art. He has exhibited extensively locally and internationally and is represented in major collections. His recent exhibitions include his solo show “Rich in Black History” (2019) at the RJD Gallery, Bridgehampton, NY, and “Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox” at the Museum of the African Diaspora San Francisco. His awards include the Bronze Musgrave Medal of the Institute of Jamaica, the Public Prize in the 2006 SuperPlus Under 40 Artist of the Year competition, the Aaron Matalon Award in the 2008 National Biennial at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and the Albert Huie Award for Painting at the Edna Manley College in 2003. Thomas lives and works in Kingston, Jamaica, and lectures in Painting at the Edna Manley College.

Veerle Poupeye: How do you situate and define yourself as an artist, in the contemporary Jamaican and Caribbean context? Is that, in fact, the context in which you situate and define yourself and, if not, how else would you contextualize your practice?

Phillip Thomas: It has been a very complicated problem for contemporary artists of the region for some time now. The very structure of the question suggests that artists of the region ought to, in some way, self-consciously produce works of art that reflects some sort of idea about Caribbean aesthetics. As one can imagine, these types of problems produce not just specific aesthetic problems, but ultimately complicate the ways in which we go about the very nature of aesthetic problem-solving. We must, at some point, make up our minds as to what it is that we intend to produce here in the Caribbean – art or artifacts. If we are going to question whether or not the “subaltern” can speak, we cannot merely be content with speaking in unison, where that is appropriate, but, perhaps more importantly, we must also strive for individuality.

Regionalism through art must be, in my opinion, firstly an endeavor that occurs through the rigors of academic and aesthetic inquiry. Secondly, we must use our present lives and experiences in conjunction with the understanding of our historical narratives in order to convey our truest selves. If our aesthetic investigations are merely remnants of the demands of the “art market”, in other parts of the world, then those demands will produce a false sense of homogeneity. This problem of aesthetic uniformity almost destroyed Haitian Art, for example. Remember, there was a time when Haitian artists were driven to singularity by the global art market. This in turn rendered the works almost indistinguishable in their make and subject matter. Thankfully now, we can all see that this financial suffocation has changed over the years and I think for the better. Certainly, some cultures are more susceptible to these kinds of globally recognized iconographies, and Jamaica is one such cultural product. We even go as far as calling our culture “Brand Jamaica.”

Phillip Thomas – Pimper’s Paradise – The Terra Nova Nights Edition (2019, mixed media on canvas, 87 x 192″)

As for my own Jamaican or Caribbean contextualization in art, I am often speaking from a very personal space and experience through which I am “reverse-engineering” some of our national and perhaps regional concerns. One of the ways in which I have gone about discussing some of the aesthetic issues here in Jamaica, is through critiquing the problems of representation, authenticity, authorship and ownership. Much of “our” art history in Jamaica, going back to the 18th century, has primarily been about the depiction of ownership and the “other”. This meant that much of the depictions of Jamaican life was designed to present the land and people as resources that are primed for exploitation. The depictions of Jamaican life, or rather, life in Jamaica, in much of the work of the “Itinerant Painters”, didn’t simply present their subject as merely the acquisition of property but more importantly, they presented the ownership of “subjects”. This manner of depicting acquisition presented a very clear distinction between owner and owned. Now, I have argued that much of those structures are still in place today and we haven’t been able to have an honest discussion about the ways in which our search for “authenticity” has created, inadvertently or otherwise, the means through which the subject of Jamaican art is made synonymous with the demography of the working-class.

THOMAS_George Stiebel_Framed_LowRes
Phillip Thomas – George Stiebel (2018, oil on canvas, 83 x 52″)

Herein rests a very big problem. If Jamaica’s “authentic” cultural expressions are designated in the manner that they are, then this one-dimensional delineation will only allow one demography of Jamaicans to be the subject of inquiry, rendering another demography of Jamaicans the sole collector and distributor of these findings. Am I saying that these stories are not true? Certainly not. Am I saying that “middle-classed” Jamaicans have no right to tell these stories? Not at all, but what I am saying here is that the danger of a national homogeneous brand allows, on the one hand, a one-directional flow of national self-definitions. However, at the other end of the discussion, it is also clear to see that there is something that is very dangerous about untold stories. Untold stories have the ability to mystify their undiscovered subjects. And that mysticism is a major part of how the “powerful” maintain power. In my own work, I have made a very conscious effort to open these dialogues about the idea of the “subject” of Jamaican art. Much of what I have done is to ignore the notions of the “authentic” Jamaican subject matter and allow for the development of my work to follow those natural progressions. That opening up of the subject allow me to produce works that excavates our varying demographics and the result were works of art that dealt with Jamaica’s inter-demographic relationships, and that was very fruitful for me.

8 I.M.F...cked
Phillip Thomas – I.M.F.@cked (2014, mixed media on canvas, 108 x 252″)

One of the difficulties for me in approaching an unexplored subjects in Jamaican art is how do I go about securing source material for these, more or less, unfamiliar ideas. One way I had to secure source material for a financial inquiry into my painting I.M.F@cked (2014), I selected a number of ATM machines in key locations and took the receipts from the trash receptacles, then organized them by the balance figures and regions and communities. The first reading is, as expected, the high financial threshold on some slips in some areas as opposed to others. But, what was even more interesting for my purpose was the ATM machines that were literally across the road from each other. Those machines showed some of the same disparities as machines in entirely different communities. This suggests to me that our social silos are completely exclusive, no matter how close they are to each other. It is common knowledge in Jamaica that the distance between many affluent communities and poorer ones are best expressed in culture as opposed to mileage. These contextual problems are very difficult to unravel because of my particular perspective on our national ideas of authenticity, however, they create interesting cross-fertilization for my work, they moreover, allow me to delve deeper into the very structure of our ideas of representation and invisibility. 

Phillip Thomas – An Upper St Andrew Concubine (2012, oil on canvas, 87 x 192″)

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Caribbean Conversations – Errol Ross Brewster – Part II

Errol Ross Brewster – Stop Death from Malnutrition (1984)

Here is part II of my conversation with Errol Ross Brewster. Part I can be found here.

Veerle Poupeye:- You were born and raised at a time when Guyana was entering a period of political and ideological radicalism, which significantly impacted the course of the country itself but which were also connected to and influenced developments elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Africa. What was your position towards/in these early developments, as a young man, and how did this influence your work and general outlook at that time?

Errol Ross Brewster:- Oppositional elements in Guyana’s long struggle for free and fair elections, understood the duplicitous nature of the State’s stance on the international stage with regard to liberation struggles. Leaping forward many, many years, more than a generation in fact, so that the foregoing statement could be better understood, I draw your attention to the leading Guyanese, and Caribbean intellectuals and political activist, whose collective response to the South African Government’s announcement of its intention to confer, posthumously, on President Burnham a high honour for his generous contributions to their liberation struggles was to object. South Africa was made to withdraw their intention to confer this honour under pressure from this group. Charity begins at home and the President was much less than charitable, warning of his “sharper steel,” with dissent in his own country. He could not at the same time be a champion of liberation struggles.

“Until the ignoble and unhappy regime that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique, South Africa, in sub-human bondage, has been toppled, totally downstroyed…well, EVERYWHERE IS WAR!”, such as that galvanised our understanding of the world. The Guyana government, were not enthused about Rasta messaging. But Count Ossie, and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari were shown the royal treatment because it suited their duplicitous international objectives to appear to be compatible with progressives. It was the time of the Non-Aligned Conference and CARIFESTA. As youngsters, we were not fooled, we understood that President Burnham was not the North Star of solidarity with international liberation struggles. Marley was!

Errol Ross Brewster – The Abdication (1981)

I was of a mind that the visual signification which art afforded was to be used for social transformation. “The Abdication” is one such work. It characterises the crab in a barrel mentality which was at the heart of the fight for scarce resources on the political plane, so the Parliament building is in the background. And in the foreground is the extent to which this abdication of civility and good communal sense would make itself felt. Even the old and poor were not safe! This government had let fall in on itself the home for the aged and indigent – they met it as a grand Colonial mansion which had stood for decades and let it literally fall in on itself of neglect. Any of this is sounding familiar? Does a certain political culture seem to be at work here? Might it be prudent to warn about it?

Errol Ross Brewster – The Immaculate Deception (1981-2019)

I thought so, and so the work I made was not what people wished to put on their walls. They’re not in the National Gallery of Guyana collection, despite having being bought by Dr Williams years earlier. And they did not match people’s drapes, nor did they match with the draping of consciousness that people had to engage in to preserve their livelihood in that time. You did not have, actively, to oppose the government to be targeted. You could lose your job for who you associated with; For not attending events at which numbers, drawn from the ranks of teachers and civil servants, were required to. Increasingly, the Garden City became over run by garbage. People fell through the cracks and bedraggled beggars appeared everywhere. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception attracted beggars by day and prostitutes by night. They could not be ignored. School children became active in anti-government protest and some took to purposeful vandalism.

Errol Ross Brewster – Exploring Victoria’s Secrets (1981-2019)

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Caribbean Conversations: Errol Ross Brewster – Part I

The Brewsters, 1956, Kitty, Georgetown

Here is the first part of a two part conversation with Errol Ross Brewster. Part II can be found here.


Errol Brewster is a Caribbean artist from Guyana, living in the United States. With more than four decades of a Caribbean-wide, multimedia imaging practice, he has participated in multiple CARIFESTA’s; the EU’s Centro Cultural Cariforo, “Between the Lines”, travelling exhibition, 2000; the First International Triennial of Caribbean Art, 2010; and the Inter-American Development Bank’s “Sidewalks of the Americas” installation, 2018.


Veerle Poupeye: – You were born and raised in Guyana. Tell me about your family background there and how your early years put you on track to become an artist. Was your decision to become an artist supported by your family? And do you have any other artists in your family, then or now?

Errol Ross Brewster: – I’m the last of 4 children, born in 1953, in Guyana, to a mixed-race family in which my eldest sibling was 17 years older than I, and the youngest 12 years older. They were early sent abroad for further studies, and I found myself as a  virtual only child by the time I was 5 or 6 years old and kept from playing with the neighbourhood children because of my father’s aspirational working class attitude that saw them as a possible  influence on me that should be avoided.

It may have heightened my interest in the life of the so-called lower classes, and that interest found expression in my art years later. At the time I simply turned inwards. I turned gleefully to routinely making an absolute mess of the drawing books and painting sets my elder siblings sent me gifts of. I would entertain myself with drawing what I saw out the window of the other children’s play, and I took a great delight in transferring the comics in the newspapers by coating then with candle wax and burnishing then onto my drawing books.

It was probably having to spend so much time alone that sparked my interest in making art.  In the doing, hours would go by unnoticed. And many years later, in 1974, I would leave my first job after two years to go to a Canadian art school. While I worked as a teller at Barclays Bank DCO, I would at every chance I got draw on my desk pad, those customers waiting to be attended by other tellers. I was not interested in banking, but it was the best paying job a high school graduate could have, and I saved my money with the intention of going away from this problematic country. We’d just experienced CARIFESTA’ 72 – the first ever, and it seemed that being an artist, in addition to being most interesting, was also a viable prospect. I ignored the cautions of my parents, who nevertheless supported me in my decision to go. I had no idea what long term challenges I’d opened myself up to. There were no other visual artists in my family before me, though, my father, it must be said, was a prolific writer of poems, and some were actually published in an American anthology of poetry. My niece, Susan Brewster Taylor is an award-winning architect in Jamaica, and one of my cousins Sandra Brewster, alumna of my old school the Ontario College of Art and Design, is an award-winning artist in Canada.

Errol Ross Brewster – Thirsty Boy (1972), ink on paper

VP:- Your biography mentions that you were already an exhibiting artist before you went to art school in Canada. Please tell me about your early work. What was your relationship to other emerging artists in and from Guyana at that time?

ERB:- Aa a teenager many of my friends had an interest in art and we would hang our paintings on the fences of public places in the city. We were following the example of other artists older than ourselves, who had loosely organised themselves into a group with a name which I’ve forgotten now, and had written a manifesto for one of their outdoors exhibitions – something unheard of in Guyana, at the time.

Carl Martin was one of the leading lights of that group. We had attended the same secondary school at different year levels, but had the same art teacher – a British expatriate – John Criswick. He remained in Guyana for many years, and was much interested in the folk traditions of the Guyanese people. He schooled a considerable number of Guyanese artists. Angold Thompson and Victor Davson are two others who readily come to mind. I was greatly impressed by all three of these artists. Criswick, was a great portraitist. The portrait he did of the first President of Guyana – Arthur Chung, hangs in the Legislature building. He was also a landscape painter, and his top students – Carl Martin and Angold Thompson also were. Unfortunately, Martin’s career had a premature, tragic end. He was, last I know, living in a men’s home in Georgetown, completely uninterested in art. Thompson, whose father Basil was also an artist, still paints in Georgetown, and Davson, went on to make an international name for himself in America as an artist of acclaim in the USA. 

Errol Ross Brewster – Queh Queh (1974), ink on paper

Georgetown, being a small community, was such that everybody knew everybody, and artists, though fiercely competitive, were highly sociable. This made for easy association with big name artists, and I knew Ron Savory, Stanley Greaves, and other leading artists quite well even though they were considerably older than I was.

My contemporaries, however, never really saw ourselves in the same vein. We were having fun, shocking the community, and going around painting murals on the walls of restaurants and discotheques that would engage us. A few did! This, and all the excitement surrounding CARIFESTA, led me to think, contrary to my parents’ understanding, that art could be a viable way of life. My father wished me to be an accountant. He, in fact, trained me in double entry accounting as a ten year old, and was encouraged by the fact that I had gotten in the School Leaving examination, a distinction in Math, as well as in English Literature The world was then in the grip of an oil crisis – OPEC having quadrupled the price of oil, at one stroke –  and my painting and drawing reflected the chaotic trajectory of the world’s eco-political system. For me then Dali was a god, as was M.C. Escher.

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Errol Ross Brewster – “Beware the Promise Today”

I am very pleased to be able to publish this photo essay by Errol Ross Brewster, as a first post on his work. It will be followed by a two-part interview with him (click here for part I).


“BEWARE THE PROMISE TODAY” is a photo essay about the demise in Guyana, in the early 1970s, of the very first trains to be introduced in all of South America in 1846, and the impact on the Guyanese people – in particular the poor and vulnerable, of a peculiar political culture that arose in that time and has continually plagued the country until now.

It is offered as symbolic caution, and a reminder  of how the placing of party politics (the paramountcy of the Party was a much touted doctrine of the ruling party at that time) above country led to ruin then, and could likely, without extreme vigilance, now and in the future, rob the country of its new found wealth. Included is a George Lamming quote, succinctly summing up the tone of the country in the period in which these photographs were made.

They were made in the early 1980s, on B&W film and solarised in the processing to lend them an air of menace, which was a hallmark of the time. One was much later computer manipulated to introduce colour for a different emotional impact. Very few of them have seen the light of day in the four decades since they were made.

The country, at the time, was in a very oppressive mode under a government so paranoid about its legitimacy (of which it had none) that it could not tolerate free speech. Journalists and photographers were routinely harassed and worked under seriously threatening circumstances. I was banned from the national archives; arrested and hauled off to the police station on occasions; suffered equipment seizures; intimidated by police and party thugs on the streets. And it grew so dire I had to have a body guard while photographing protests and disturbances in the city. 

But I was lucky: Father Darke wasn’t.  He was an elderly, expatriate, Jesuit priest, who was a photojournalist for the Catholic Standard newspaper and he was killed by party thugs in broad daylight as he covered a protest in front of the Magistrate Court in this same period. This is also the period in which Dr Walter Rodney was assassinated.

Errol Ross Brewster
Sunrise, Florida
October 2019


A society partially impoverished by the burden of supporting an unnecessary and alarmingly high ratio of military persons to civilians (an increase of 800 % over ten years) is what Guyana had become by the 1970s.

Compounding the problem was the government’s equally alarming lack of vision. The absence of foresight that attended the demise of an infrastructural support on which the poor and vulnerable depended did not “build.” Its impact was to “destroy.” It disregarded the historically significant value of the first trains to be introduced in all of South America in 1846

Trains propelled America to the status of an economic superpower in the world. The placing of the country’s interests over personal political interests could not in a poor underdeveloped country have driven the choice to scrap them.

It’s fashionable now to regard industry as the engine of growth. We seem not to realise that the fuel for that engine is culture – the very way we are. The adulteration of that fuel gave rise to a lack of regard for history and our engine sputtered and stalled.

The wheels of our economy ground to a halt under the arrogance of blaring sirens announcing the arrival of backwardness, and a dangerous political culture which evolved into a tradition is today still proudly on display.

That absence of vision left and continues to leave strewn in the way forward the carnage of vehicular accidents on the pot-holed roadways, and innumerable other hardships rippling throughout wide swaths of society, with the poor feeling the brunt of that abdication of good sense in favour of relatively small personal benefit.

Impacting people, not as a glancing blow or a side swipe,

but full on, and leaving in its wake a trail of overgrown societal failures.

A persistence of that abdication kept people locked in a disadvantaged state

with such empty sloganeering as “Make the Small Man a Real Man” spewed ad-nauseam in the faces of broken people lying paralysed by poverty on city pavements

and literally sinking into the dark depression of the grave

after the exhaustion of endless protest for bread and water,

and even more prayer.

Prayers to try to stave off the normalisation of that which in an earlier generation, characterised by Martin Carter in poetry as “…the terror and the time” would have been taboo.

People felt that spiritually, they needed to be bathed anew. And George Lamming would in time come to describe the tone in the country thus: “Today we meet in a dangerous land, and at its most dangerous of times. The danger may be that supreme authority, the supervising conscience of the nation, has ceased to be answerable to any moral law, has ceased to recognise or respect any minimum requirement of ordinary human decency.”[i]

It was a struggle just to face the dawn and make the day’s catch,

or to reap the riches of labour in the field where was planted what felt like it could be the last batch.

Guyanese faced this daunting struggle with an astonishing spirit of determination to overcome, and with a high degree of innovativeness. Should they, with this experience of leaders putting their personal interests, and that of their party above country, trust their new found wealth to this same culture of governance which gave rise to a regrettable decision to run the very first trains in all of South America into ruin?

Beware the Promise Today!


Errol Ross Brewster is a Caribbean artist living in the United States. With more than four decades of a Caribbean-wide, multi-media imaging practice, he has participated in multiple exhibitions, regional and international – in various editions of CARIFESTA; the EU’s Centro Cultural Cariforo traveling exhibition, 2000; the International Triennial of Caribbean Art, 2010; and the Inter-American Development Bank’s Sidewalks of the Americas Artistic Installation, 2018.

© Text and images: Errol Ross Brewster, all rights reserved


[i] Essays, Addresses & Interviews 1953 – 1990. Edited by Richard Drayton & Andaiye. London: Karia Press, 1992.

From the Archives: Osmond Watson (1934-2005)

Watson_Osmond_Peace&Love_R&S_catalogue
Osmond Watson – Peace and Love (1960), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

While I work on several new blog posts, here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011) – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved. Osmond Watson was one of the key artists of the post-independence period in Jamaica.

The painter and sculptor Osmond Watson grew up in Jones Town, a West Kingston neighborhood, in a Garveyite working class environment. Africa had more concrete meaning for his family than most since his mother was born in Sierra Leone, as the daughter of a West India Legionnaire who was stationed there. After attending the [Institute of Jamaica’s] Junior Centre’s youth art classes, he received a scholarship to attend the Jamaica School of Art and Craft. He subsequently received a British Council scholarship to attend the St Martin’s School of Art in London (1962-1965) and returned to Jamaica in the late 1960s.

While his earliest work was in line with that of the earlier generation and mainly concerned with Kingston street life, it was during his stay in London that Osmond Watson developed a formal language and iconography that was uniquely his own and one of the most recognizable among Jamaican artists. Visits to the British Museum and other cultural institutions provided him a range of formal and iconographic sources, such as traditional African sculpture, cubism, Byzantine icons, stained glass windows and Early Flemish painting. Jazz and the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam were also important influences. His most important source, however, was Jamaican popular culture, not only in terms of his subjects but also in his bricolage aesthetic: he routinely combined conventional, meticulously executed oil painting and woodcarving with found objects such as decorated plastic mirrors and sparkly costume jewellery, thus lending dignity and value to these “low brow” tokens of local pop culture. Although he remained firmly committed to the art object and was perhaps the most skilled technician of his generation, Osmond Watson thus subtly undermined the “high art” pretensions that were promoted by contemporaries such as Barrington Watson (no relation). As David Boxer put it, Osmond Watson “strove to create works that could be understood and appreciated by all levels of society” (2004).

Osmond Watson - The Lawd is My Shepard (1969)
Enter a captionOsmond Watson – The Lawd is My Shepard (1960), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

Osmond Watson’s affectionate engagement with the popular culture is evident in the painting The Lawd is My Shepard (1969) which, like Eugene Hyde later did in Mask a Come, appropriates the Jamaican Creole language in its title. It is a striking, monumentalized image of a market woman seated in a typical stall made from recuperation materials, surrounded by her produce, all lovingly detailed, and with an open bible in her lap, at the very geometrical centre of the image. The work was obviously conceived as a social icon which comments on economic self-sufficiency and the defining role of religion in Jamaican society, but unlike Karl Parboosingh’s Jamaica Gothic, its tone is affirmative and celebratory rather than critical. The work exemplifies Osmond Watson’s style, which is characterized by ample, geometrically stylized forms influenced by cubism, a fondness for patterns, deep, glowing colours and heavy black outlines, which give many of his paintings a precious, stained glass appearance.

Like Hyde, Osmond Watson was attracted to the Jonkonnu masquerade as a defining African-Jamaican tradition, which he depicted in his Masquerade series of the late 1960s and 1970s. One such work is Masquerade No. 6 (1971), a depiction of a dancing “Horse head” masquerader. Most of Osmond Watson’s other images are static but the Masquerade series depicts dance movement, for which he uses a Cubist, or rather, Futurist faceting and repetition of the forms, especially the limbs of the figure, which gives these images a dynamic, filmic quality. His Jonkonnu paintings have nothing of the threatening, disorderly quality that gives Eugene Hyde’s 1938 – Mask A Come (1976) its political ambiguity but represent the masquerade in an aestheticized manner which is closer to Rex Nettleford’s National Dance Theater Company “high art” representations of Jamaican traditional culture than to the actual sources – a good example of what Partha Chatterjee has called the “classicization of tradition” in nationalist cultural products (1993, 73). While this may seem to contradict Osmond Watson’s anti-elitist agenda, it also reflects his resolve to represent Jamaican culture in an affirmative, dignified light.

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Riddles of Identity: Tessa Mars in Context

Tessa Mars exhibition flyerThis essay was written as a commission by Le Centre d’Art for the catalogue of the exhibition by the Haitian artist Tessa Mars titled “île Modèle-Manman Zile-Island Template”, at the Maison Dufort in Port-au-Prince, May 31-June 29, 2019. It was translated into French for the catalogue. The original English version is posted here, with permission from Le Centre d’Art (all rights reserved by Tessa Mars, Le Centre d’Art, and Veerle Poupeye)


Haitian campaign
Tessa Mars – Any Other Island – Toutes et N’Importe Lesquelles (2019)

 

Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, [identities] are subject to the continuous “‘play”‘ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in mere “‘recovery”‘ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.

 – Stuart Hall[1]

One of the defining characteristics of Tessa Mars’ work, is the way in which she reflects on her positionality in the histories and art histories of the Caribbean and specifically, of her home country Haiti.[2] This is exemplified by those works that feature her alter ego, Tessalines, which she introduced in 2015 while on a residency as Alice Yard in Trinidad and which has appeared in many of her works since then. In these works, she playfully claims space among the heroes of revolutionary Haiti as a quasi-mythical, horned warrior woman, armed with a machete or dagger, who is at the same time fearsome, comical, provocatively sexual, and vulnerable, and who is always recognizably Tessa herself, even though the details of the figure’s visual appearance constantly change. Through the figure of Tessalines, Tessa Mars inserts herself symbolically into a male-dominated historical narrative of revolution and self-liberation that is central to Haiti’s official national identity, while making space for ambivalence and subversive re-readings of collective and personal relevance.

Tessa Mars - Dress Rehearsal
Tessa Mars – Dress Rehearsal, November Ritual (2017)

Representations of iconic figures and scenes from the Haitian Revolution are pervasive in Haitian art, to the point of being commonplace, as nationalist historical references that are often also intermixed with the iconography of Vodou, which is the other main pillar of Haiti’s national identity constructions and which also appears in Tessa’s work. There are other contemporary Haitian artists who have cited these representational histories with a comparable sense of identification, irony and critical intent, such as Edouard Duval-Carrié and Vladimir Cybil Charlier, and there is also a tradition of satirical engagement with Haitian history and politics in the popular culture. What sets Tessa Mars apart, however, is the manner in which she inserts her own image and personal identity into this narrative.

References to the Haitian Revolution, Vodou, and related events and beliefs elsewhere in the African Diaspora, have become part of the visual vocabulary and ideological strategies of many artists of the Global Caribbean. The manner in which Tessa Mars inserted herself into the narrative of revolution and liberation, for instance, reminds of how the Jamaican-born artist Renée Cox took on the persona of Queen Nanny, the part-historical, part-mythical female freedom fighter and spiritual leader of the Windward Maroons in 18th century Jamaica and the sole female among Jamaica’s official pantheon of National Heroes, in the series of photographs collectively known as Nanny of the Maroons (2014). While some of the photographs in the series are more intimate, and even eroticized, its most powerful image is The Red Coat, in which Renée Cox/Nanny poses with her machete and defiantly wears the red uniform coat of her arch-enemy, the colonial militia, to become a militant icon of historical and contemporary black female empowerment and resistance.

Le Bon Combat
Tessa Mars – The Good Fight – Le Bon Combat (2018), detail

While the similarities are tantalizing, the fundamental differences must be noted: in the adventures of Tessalines, there are no iconic heroic stances or definitive ideological positions; instead, her ironic play-acting and changeable appearance complicate and subvert the very notion of fixed identities, positions and historical narratives, and represent a different kind of identity politics. Tessalines is, as Tessa Mars insists, a more personal icon, that speaks first and foremost to issues of personal freedom and subjectivity, and serves as an avatar through which her self-identity is negotiated, questioned and explored. Tessalines not only re-interprets key events from the Haitian Revolution, as part of a national imaginary to which Tessa is negotiating her own relationship; the avatar also appears in Tessa’s symbolic, introspective conversations and battles with her own self, as in The Good Fight – Le Bon Combat (2018). The Tessalines narratives are often violent, which is not surprising, given the references to a revolutionary war, but in some instances this may appear to be self-directed, as in the recurrent image of stabbing her own chest with a dagger or machete. This self-directed violence is symbolic and cathartic, however, and serves as a tool for self-inquiry and -affirmation, rather than for self-harm. And it also references certain ritual practices in Vodou, where such actions have similar symbolic implications.

tessa-mars-Conversation-avec-Hector-H
Tessa Mars – Conversation avec Hector H. (2015, not in this exhibition)

Such conversations with Haitian history and culture occur throughout Tessa Mars’ work and, in doing so, she also engages with Haitian art history and, more generally, with the manner in which Haitian history and culture have been represented in art. One such example is her 2015 painting Conversation avec Hector H. (not in this exhibition), in which she interprets Hector Hyppolite’s famous Maîtresse Erzulie (1948) and replaces the figure of Erzulie with the image of her own nude body. Unsparing (in terms of the unidealized representation of her body) but as enchanting as the original painting, Conversation avec Hector H. is a tribute to one of Tessa’s favourite Haitian artists.[3] It also, and more explicitly than with Tessalines, inserts her image and person into the mythological universe of Vodou and the complex notions of gender and sexuality that are being negotiated in that context. Tessa is herself a Vodou believer and its beliefs, symbols and ritual practices are part of her lived experience. More broadly, the work is also a meditation on personal identity, womanhood, the female body, beauty, and sexuality, and on the representational codes that surround these subjects.Read More »

From the Archives: Ken Abendana Spencer (1929-2005)

empty-art-gallery-in-museum

Here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011), which is taken from a section which explores how artists in Jamaica have marketed their work – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.

The post is not illustrated, as I was unable to get permissions from the Spencer estate in a timely manner at the time of submitting my dissertation and am not able to pursue this solely for the purpose of this impromptu post. Reproductions of Ken Spencer’s work are however widely available online and I encourage readers to search and peruse these.

[There are a number of] Jamaican artists who have devised effective individual marketing strategies and acquired significant wealth in the process. Barrington Watson, as we have seen, has controlled the promotion and pricing of his work by operating his own galleries. His friend and contemporary Ken [Abendana] Spencer (1929-2005), who peddled his works to locals, expatriates and tourists, was a more extreme example.[1]

Spencer started out selling his sketches on a street corner in Downtown Kingston. He joined Barrington Watson in London in 1952 but did not study art there, as Watson had hoped. Instead he started selling his works directly to Jamaican professionals who were hungry for reminders of home. (Greenland 2006) On returning to Jamaica, he continued this direct marketing strategy and Watson remembered that “he would go around the island in a car, and sell his work in Montego Bay and Negril. He would put a bunch of works into a car and his idea was to come back with none” (Ibid.). He personally visited potential buyers, many of them first-time art buyers, and often left the hesitant with a stack of paintings to ponder, to come back a few days later to an almost guaranteed sale (Moo Young 2006). His paintings can be seen in many hotel and bank lobbies, the offices of doctors, dentists and other professionals, and middle class homes.

Most of Spencer’s works represent “traditional” Jamaican subject matter, such as market women and mento musicians – reassuring images of “Old Time Jamaica,” as one contributor to his obituary put it (Greenland 2006). They are painted in a recognizable, confident gestural style: typically, the image is invoked by just a few broad brush or palette knife strokes and set against a monochrome background, often the white gesso undercoating of the canvas. [His large, prominently placed and curvilinear signature served as his trademark.] Spencer’s sketchy semi-abstract style – which in itself challenges the assumption that Jamaican audiences do not respond to abstraction – also reflected his goal to produce and sell as many works as possible. He reputedly worked on several canvases simultaneously, which were lined up so that he would not have to clean off his brushes to change colors, and thus saved time and paints. (Moo Young 2006) He also once told David Boxer that a painting was not economical if it took more than 30 minutes to complete – the sort of stories that horrified “knowing” art lovers in Jamaica.[2]

Spencer’s expansive, jovial personality played a crucial role in his sales and he cultivated his image as a notorious eccentric. He lived in Portland in a self-designed, six-storied castle and willingly entertained local and tourist visitors there, although it was implied that works would be bought. Spencer also frequented the New Kingston hotel bars in search of sales. The art dealer and framer Herman van Asbroeck tells a story that illustrates Spencer’s ingenious “traveling salesman” tactics:

A year ago a man came into the shop and put a Ken Spencer on the desk. He wanted to have it framed. I asked him: ‘You bought a Ken Spencer?’ And he replied: ‘No, I won it!’ Apparently, he had come to Kingston for a builder’s conference and a group of them had gone out for a drink. They ended up in the Hilton at 2:00 a.m. Suddenly a gentleman approached their table and asked if they wanted to play a game. He told them he had a number in his pocket and then he marked out cards 1 to 5. Everyone took a number and the customer in my shop was the winner. Then Ken Spencer introduced himself. By the end of the night, all the people at the table had bought paintings! (Greenland 2006)

These anecdotes, also, marked Spencer as one who was not a “serious” artist.

While he occasionally produced more ambitious works, Spencer was not an artist who strove to produce “masterpieces” but one who deliberately produced generic paintings that were recognizably “a Ken Spencer.” [He] did not significantly pressure local cultural institutions for public recognition and never had an exhibition in a gallery.[3] When asked why, he claimed that he did not need such exposure because all of Jamaica was his gallery (Moo Young 2006). His sense of achievement thus came from the prevalence of his work in the Jamaican environment. Others, however, took up his cause and already during his lifetime there were heated arguments within the art community about Spencer’s artistic merits and the NGJ’s neglect of his work was cited as evidence of the elitism of the Jamaican art establishment.

Spencer was an undeniably gifted painter and the local popularity of his work is a cultural phenomenon that warrants its own recognition. The recent attempts at inserting him into the national canons, however, obscure that had he handled his work differently, he could certainly have been a recognized member of the post-Independence mainstream. Spencer was unapologetic about being primarily motivated by economic gain and opted to disregard the processes by which artistic worth is conventionally determined. He thus represents an instructive counterpart to those contemporary artists who resist the forces of the market and, despite the fact that he had far less to say, succeeded where they have failed by reaching deep into Jamaican society. Spencer’s choices also separate him from Barrington Watson, who used more conventional art sales methods and always asserted the “high art” status of his work. While Watson’s exact position in the local art hierarchies has been contentious, his inclusion in the national canons is quite secure, unlike Spencer whose chances at consecration as a “Jamaican master” will always be tenuous, because he broke the codes of “high art” in his pursuit of commercial success.

Endnotes

[1] He was commonly known as Ken Abendana Spencer during his lifetime but the lawyers responsible for his estate insist that his legal name was “Kenneth Abondarno Spencer” (Forth Blake 2006).

[2] Personal communication, David Boxer, January 11, 2006.

[3] The NGJ owns three Spencers but none are on permanent display. One of these works was transferred from the IoJ collection in 1974 and the other two were part of a major donation by the then Chairman of the NGJ Aaron Matalon in 1999, which sought to address lacunas in the NGJ’s collection. While there may have been other expressions of discontent on Spencer’s part, I know of only one incident, a year or two before he died, when he complained to the NGJ Registrar about not being adequately represented in the NGJ’s collection (personal communication, Roxanne Silent, Registrar, NGJ, March 12, 2008).

SOURCES

Greenland, Jonathan. “Remembering Ken Spencer.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1-2

Moo Young, Howard. “Jamaica Is My Gallery.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1