Antiguan and Barbudan artists discuss the state of the arts in Antigua and Barbuda
This virtual roundtable was convened by writer, and editor of this special TotO issue, Joanne C. Hillhouse early in 2014. Hillhouse, specifically, recruited Antiguan and Barbudan artists whose work has intersected with the literary arts whether through cover designs, visual storytelling, or producing their own art themed books. Glenroy Aaron, Mark Brown, Heather Doram, and Emile Hill participated in a conversation, however, that was much broader than the narrow place where the world of art and publishing meet.
Joanne C. Hillhouse: Okay, so to begin…Taking the definition of aesthetics as “a set of principles underlying the work of a particular artist or artistic movement” (Oxford Dictionaries), is there an Antiguan and Barbudan aesthetic? how would you define it?… part two of that question, how would you define your art and how it fits (or does not fit) within that aesthetic (assuming such an aesthetic exists)?
Heather Doram: It would be difficult for me to define an ‘Antiguan’ aesthetic as there is so little Antiguan art pre eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds. There is also nothing recorded about Antiguan art. To my knowledge early Antiguan art (post colonial and pre 1980’s) was purely about aesthetics. The images were the daily reality of individuals and of the time. They were more often than not realistic interpretations of flora, landscapes and portraits. The paintings decorated the homes of the upper class and middle classes in the society. In addition, in the early 1950’s onwards there was an explosion of the textile and creative crafts as young women were trained to sew and to use local seeds, shells etc. to better themselves and create cottage industries. Later on this developed into items to support the influx of visitors in the tourism industry. In the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s a younger generation of artists some with formal training, some self-taught burst onto the art scene in Antigua.
They were reactive and passionate. They were not satisfied with the realistic interpretation of the Antiguan landscape. The wanted to push boundaries, they wanted to produce work with the visual language of engagement with their audience. Many of their works responded to and explored social, political, gender issues and self. The younger generation sought to explore their roles as messengers in their visual language. I think artists like Mark [Brown], Emile [Hill], and Zavian [Archibald] can be included in this group. They are much more open to expressing themselves and exploring a range of media and techniques in their work.
If my thoughts on an Antigua aesthetic are true, then my work does not fit the mold. I think that artists are essential catalysts of change; we have the power to raise consciousness, stimulate debate and promote change. To me art is a tool of empowerment. The creative process is just as important as the outcome in my work. I think that sometimes when we are too attached to the outcome, then we are not completely present during the process of art making. I love taking on new challenges and thinking outside the box. I am a storyteller, conveying narrative, personal and cultural experiences through the juxtaposition of decorative pictorial and abstract imagery. I want my pieces to be magical; my surfaces must be textural and inviting. If the viewer is drawn and becomes involved then I would have achieved success. One of the major underlying themes in my work responds to my personal history and that of women in general. The images depict women, the joy and sadness of their journey, maternal responsibility, the nurturing of human life, rekindling of childhood memories and the difficult and complex life of a woman, particularly a Caribbean woman. They also reflect a new spiritual awareness and my ability to transcend the past and shape my future.
I should also mention other aspects of the visual arts such as the carnival arts which for many years have been excellent vehicles for self-expression in Antigua.
Joanne C. Hillhouse Sidenote: Among her many achievements as an artist, Heather Doram is, also, an award winning designer of Carnival costumes, often in collaboration with her husband, Connie, a builder of Carnival costumes.
Mark Brown: Well said Heather. For me, however, I cannot define an Antiguan aesthetic as I do not see an existing one.
I view art making as a human activity which cannot be defined as mine or yours, and this is based on the type of work which I engage in. My work, in my mind, is about responding to stimuli, that act of engaging with my feelings about my environment, religion, identity, sexuality, all of which most, if not every human being faces at some point in life. As a result, for me Antiguan Art, like Art elsewhere, is individual voices singing their own tune. Of course we may use objects specific to our culture [that have] distinct meaning but many times these same objects may have a different name in another culture and [be] used in different contexts, but then it is also specific then to that locale. How else do we explain lending your voice in paint or any other medium to a specific issue in a way that you deem visceral and then later on somewhere else, Google for instance, you discover another artist on the opposite side of the globe exploring the very same idea in very similar ways. To me it is just the act of discovering, in visual format, that which is buried deep within with the ultimate aim of finding out the real reason for my being “here” and at this time.
Joanne C. Hillhouse Sidenote: Nadja Thomas wrote in ARC magazine that Mark’s “paintings pose fundamental questions on the human condition”.
Emile Hill: Growing up, my impression of the Antiguan aesthetic was of one depicting local life, beaches and all things nautical, flora and fauna, carnival etc. Now this might be simply based on my own exposure at that time and not necessarily the reality, but, as they say, your perception is your reality. I’ve often wondered in recent times, and because of my own experiences, if this leaning towards such an aesthetic was based on what artists considered to be more commercially acceptable art. I recently had an experience where someone close to me said “I appreciate you putting your heart and soul into your work, but do you think anyone wants THAT on their wall?” That question has raised an awareness for me as to why some artists approached their work the way they did.
Today, though, I think visual art has evolved and continues to do so. This is evidenced simply by looking at the members of this round table; here we have artists that approach their work through a wide array of media and we can see the influence in today’s Antiguan Arts landscape. I myself have been inspired by Heather’s use of texture—I call her the “Queen of Art I Want to Touch” in private—and Mark’s sheer honesty and boldness.
So where do I fit in? I think I’m a bit of a dabbler, trying anything at least once, learning as I go, researching and trying new things. So it comes out in different ways, depending on the outcome I’m looking for—today it may be a photograph, another day graphic art, a painting etc. As someone who is also involved in the performing arts, I am heavily influenced by other works of art, whether they be music, literature, film.
Joanne C. Hillhouse Sidenote: Emile worked with live models to capture not just light, shadow and meaning but also movement in his photography book – Angels Project.
Glenroy Aaron: To be honest, I have learned a lot more about the Antiguan aesthetic from this conversation than from my years of observing art in Antigua. I say this because there is so little indigenous Antiguan art to observe, and historic recording of it is also quiet faint. My art is basically an attempt to capture the beauty around me and the moments in which they occur. My techniques and methods continue to evolve as exploring New continues to excite. Forays outside my comfort zone to explore deeper emotions have produced interesting results; with some apprehension as to the commercial viability of such ventures. The balance between creativity and viability is tricky but can be done, as others have found ways to make it work. Themes and scenes indigenous to an artist’s place of birth will ultimately make its way onto an artist’s canvas but considering the fusion of influences and cultures that have existed on the islands for some time now, an Antiguan aesthetic may be a bit difficult to define. Further, holding that many view art as a visual expression of the artist’s thoughts and emotions, we can appreciate that some of these ideas and emotions may not be “local” in scope.
Joanne C. Hillhouse Sidenote: Aaron has said he’s an artist in transition – mixing media, digging deeper, and engaging in collaborations with other artists to capture iconic slices of Antiguan life.
Joanne C. Hillhouse: I think Emile hit on an important point…this idea that the aesthetic has been defined by the audience by what is perceived as commercial, sellable…but there is as you all have indicated a shift especially among the new breed of artists to create from the inside out…to, as Heather said, not be so attached to the outcome that you inhibit the creative process. Especially for those of you who work with younger artists/students, how do you get them to engage with that when their reality is telling them that’s not practical, art is not practical, and the type of art you would want to do is definitely not practical…how do you (all of you) dare yourself to create in spite of yourself being a part of that reality?
Mark Brown: As one who works with young artists daily, I remove the commercial side out of the equation. In doing this I find that they feel less tense about dealing with issues and feelings which may not make for sellable work. I know that they will emulate my lifestyle and how I approach art which is with a kind of reckless abandon as I do not care to sell, I care to create and if it sells well great but that is not my aim. I have been privileged to meet those who appreciate my art enough to collect it so I know that there are people out there who can appreciate it and who will buy as well. My students see this and in turn understand that it is not wasted effort. It is the best of both worlds- create with purpose in exploring questions about life and self, and whether it sells or not there is a feeling of accomplishment and you would have caused someone else to engage with not only your work but pose questions in finding answers to their own reality.
Heather Doram: With the correct approach young artists can be guided to express more of themselves from within, it can be done! It’s a process of seeing, critiquing and observing, beginning with the work of others. Young artists must be encouraged to be more introspective, they must record their innermost thoughts, feelings and identify the things they are most passionate about. One way is to develop ‘themes’ in their work.
I see my art as being extremely therapeutic. When I’m working in my studio, time flies and I suddenly realize that it is 3am. That’s because everything—stress, racing thoughts—just seem to melt away and I find myself totally at peace. That’s why I’m so passionate about ‘art-making’. I want others to be able to find that peace through art-making.
I, personally, have been stuck on the same themes for a number of years and there is still more to be squeezed out of them. I never tire of them. With this approach we, the artists, would help to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the work of the artist as the viewer would develop a deeper connection and appreciation (to) the work. Then we would hopefully have persons beginning to collect the work of specific artists. Lots of collectors purchase work which speaks to them, which touches some deep places or feelings or which captures a period, an event, which could be personal, social, political or religious.
This dichotomy which exists within artists between going commercial and responding to stimuli or demand or being totally intuitive and self-expressive will always exist. Even though many of us will produce commercial items there will always be the side just yearning and burning to express so much more of ourselves, our feelings and our thoughts in our work.
Having a National Gallery where upcoming artists can view our work and those of other Caribbean artists couldn’t hurt either.
Mark Brown: Heather, I can relate to your thoughts especially the points of being at peace with self when working as this is where I am most settled as well. I would like to also reinforce what you said about having a national gallery. It is a need as I find that students respond well to work in that setting as it attaches more value to and appreciation of making art.
Joanne C. Hillhouse: Which begs the question…why don’t we have a national gallery; what will it take to make it happen?
Emile Hill: I always think of my students as lucky. They don’t ever HAVE to think about their work being sellable but are simply guided towards self-expression and exploration.
The beauty of teaching is that you’re always looking for new techniques and approaches to art making and so your own scope broadens. It tends to be very rewarding.
As a graphic designer as well though, there is clearly a very commercial side to art making that I teach, but I always stress Artistry. A poster can be a poster or it can be a work of art that impacts lives. It entirely depends on the approach.
I suppose in my case, although I won’t say I only think along the lines of sale, there’s always that tiny hope? Ha ha. For me the notion of selling a piece is tied up in how I myself look at and purchase art. I think it’s just a good feeling to have someone appreciate, especially the message of, your work and want it to be a part of their lives.
I’d like to be honest here about what the Antiguan approach to art is (or seems to be, at least). Let’s look at music. Antigua is filled with amazingly talented Jazz musicians but few persons know who they are or often hear them play. Jazz, the established genre of music that has birthed some of the world’s greatest musicians and performers, is almost treated like a sub-genre here, one that operates solely on ‘the underground’; well not really, the jazzicians play in the hotels. But that, to me, that is how art is also viewed here in Antigua: as the discipline that, well, gets a perfunctory pat on the head every now and then.
Until the true impact of what we do is understood on a policy making level, a national gallery, or any other avenue for public appreciation will only be fully maintained by tourist/ expat traffic.
Heather Doram: As Director of Culture I attempted to jump-start the process of sensitizing ministers of Government and even the Prime Minister about the need for a National Gallery. In that regard the Department of Culture commissioned AND purchased at least three paintings of Cultural icons (Dame Gwendolyn Tongue, Sir Reginald Samuel and Mr. Reginald Knight) and an abstract featuring the ‘coal pot’ by Lawson Lewis, to go towards the National Collection. It may have been presumptuous of me but I gave it a try. Just as the Mission Statement for Education speaks to the development of the well rounded individual, it is the responsibility of any government to satisfy the basic needs of its population including providing training and facilities for the development of the visual and performing arts. The research and documentation of our history and culture should also be a priority. These areas have been treated with scant regard, which is a pity as we have come to a time in our development when governments are beginning to realize the value and importance of the cultural industries and the contribution they can make to our economies especially with the decline of tourism. So much for that.
Joanne C. Hillhouse: You’ve mentioned some of the initial purchases for the aborted gallery …but returning to our original point about the Antiguan aesthetic, if you were curating a National Gallery which three to five pieces would you go after and why…and which of your pieces would absolutely have to be included?…Think anthropologists down the road unearthing this gallery and thinking ah, this is Antiguan art.
Heather Doram: Growing up, I would have been aware of the work of artists such as E.T. Henry (watercolours), Reginald Samuel (oils), Marie Browne Theodore (oils and acrylics), Muerah ‘Artist’ Boddie, (oils), and expatriate Pamela Wright (watercolours). I would include a painting from each in a national collection.
If I were to include one of my pieces it would be one from “The Strength of a Woman” Series or from “The Essence of Life” series. The pieces from these series best exemplifies who I am as an artist and encompasses my reoccurring themes materials and techniques.
Joanne C. Hillhouse: I too think of ‘The Strength of a Woman’ series when I think of your definitive work Heather, though, of course, you continue to evolve…. Mark, Emile you’ve both created around the subject of angels albeit with different narratives and techniques….Glenroy you told me of some new directions you’re taking your art in the last time we spoke…could all of you touch a little bit on what ‘stories’ you’re working on now, what ‘directions’ you’re headed in as artists and why…? What’re you working on…and what makes it fresh and interesting to you…? And what makes it part of the still evolving, still not clearly defined Antiguan and Barbudan aesthetic?
Heather Doram: I strongly believe that the fact that I was born on and grew up on many sugar estates and developed a close affinity to the land and nature has everything to do with my need to express these things visually.
The old house, the people, the landscape brings me back to an innocent, simpler carefree time of my life, of our lives. I’m also working at the same time on another series; “The Sands of Time”, which again delves into my past and my African heritage along with vestiges of colonization. Another series is still in its embryonic stage. Everything will be pared down, uncovered, laid bare. They will reflect simplicity. They will be about what is really important. Has a lot to do with ‘aging’.
Every new body of work becomes fresh and interesting because it is either a new way of looking at the same subject matter or it is taking a completely new direction, perhaps using new materials and techniques as well.
It can force the audience to become more involved or raise them to new spiritual, ethical, moral levels of thinking among others.
Emile Hill: Ok so I’m a bit of a texter (cell phone, social media etc.) and on more than one occasion I’ve found myself engaged in several conversations, all completely different subject matter and all requiring a different “Emile” to deal with each of them. And I think, in this day and age, this happens to most persons at some point in time.
The series I’m working on presently deals with the “multi-sidedness” of human interaction and relationships. It’s caused me to ask myself some questions, looking at whether this is a means of masking the true self and why? Is Survival a reason? What makes us accommodate each other so, switching faces? Is the face we see real, fake (and sometimes, does it even matter)?
With regards to the Antiguan and Barbudan aesthetic, I think that every artist’s contribution is one that continues to make up the grand tapestry of who we are and so I think it fits simply as a local artist’s perspective on things… another thread in the tapestry.
Heather Doram: I love that Emile ‘threads in the tapestry’ that makes up the Antiguan aesthetic!
•••Joanne C. Hillhouse Endnote: Heather goes on to make a point about finally taking off the other faces and just being herself, no pretentions; and it seems clear, at least to this roundtable convener, that that’s what all these artists are stretching toward – personal truth and the freedom to express it; if they are part of a larger Antiguan and Barbudan art story, this would be the point in the telling where the characters are breaking with formula, and embracing the freedom and exhilaration of telling their story on their terms, and discovering who they truly are in the process. So, what is the Antiguan and Barbudan aesthetic? Keep your eyes peeled, it is coming to come. • This back and forth took place via email. Around the virtual table were: Glenroy Aaron has always had a passion for anything artistic. Drawings and doodling captivated him in his childhood years and this love of the arts was nurtured in primary and secondary school and later honed under teachers in the Cambridge art programme at the Antigua State College. Upon leaving school he continued with his passion, branching into oils, which is currently his primary medium. He strives to capture the beauty in nature and human emotion. Mark Brown is a leading contemporary Antiguan and Barbudan artist and art teacher who has pushed boundaries on canvas and in the classroom with his students going on to produce provocative new pieces as fresh voices on the local art scene. His Angel in Crisis series caused quite a stir as well and won him Barbados’ Carmichael Critics Award. He is a graduate of the Barbados Community College. His medium is oils on canvas. One of his paintings was the cover image for Claudia Elizabeth Ruth Francis’ book The Road to Wadi Halfa. Heather Doram is a leading Antiguan and Barbudan artist and award winning Carnival costume designer. She graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design, in the USA, with a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fibres. She continually stretches herself through mediums and has treaded the boards as an actress on the stage and in films with, among other projects, starring roles in the political drama No Seed for film and the Maisie and Em buddy comedy in development for TV. Her visual arts also intersected with the literary arts when she did the cover design for The Boy from Willow Bend by Joanne C. Hillhouse. In 2002 she was awarded the Grand Cross of the Most Illustrious Order of Merit for her contribution to the arts in Antigua and Barbuda. She is also the designer of the National Dress of Antigua and Barbuda. Emile Hill is an art teacher and artist – creator of the Angels Project, a book inspired by the movie City of Angels and Frank Peretti’s Piercing the Darkness, which became a seven year labour of love blending photography and in particular ways of manipulating light as he explored these ageless superheroes and the intersection between the spectral and the solid, religion and real life. He placed second in 2014 in the Wadadli Pen Cover Design Art Challenge. Joanne C. Hillhouse is the Antiguan and Barbudan author of The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (novellas), Oh Gad! (novel), Fish Outta Water (children’s picture book), and Musical Youth (Young Adult novel which placed second for the inaugural Burt Award in 2014). She has been anthologized in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, For Women: In Tribute to Nina Simone, In the Black: New African Canadian Literature, among other books and journals. This post also includes an image by X-Saphair King, a former student of Mark Brown’s. X-Saphair is a contemporary Antigua-based artist. He loves to use unconventional material to create textural elements. His goal is to educate aspiring artists.