Art buzz (March/April 2006)

Guyana-born Dennis de Caires develops a metaphysics of colour in his “St George’s Paintings” • Tamara Sanowar-Makhan explores her Trinidadian roots...

The uses of colour

Artist Dennis de Caires’s current passion is yams. He is also passionate about everyday things like mangoes, flowers, a cup, jug, glass, table, vase, chair. They are, in songwriter’s terms, his “hooks”. In his work, they appear to hang in space, then remorselessly but gently pull you in, help you engage with the space of the painting.

Just as interesting is the depth of colour with which he surrounds his objects and which he gives to them, as in Fiesta, where bananas and flowers are secondary to the ground they occupy. The result, according to one of his early art tutors, is “like trumpets blaring”.

It would be misleading to describe de Caires’s work as a world of pretty pictures. As the art critic Nick Rands has observed, his objects are “vehicles for the business of painting . . . for an examination of space, colour, arrangement, light”, all of which make connections with the artist’s concern with colour and paint. In relation to colour, the subject of the dialogue may, for example, be space, temperature, or emotion.

When I recently visited his home, a sort of enlarged tree house in the rural St George’s district of Barbados, we spoke about his fascination with colour and some of his influences. “As a young man I remember the Guyanese painter Frank Bowling making a great impression on me by stating that we were from the New World and that we could therefore approach colour in a new way . . . I think this relates to the lack of associations that colours carry here in the Caribbean as opposed, say, to a European context.

“So because I am not weighed down with assumptions about colour I can use it as pure saturated pigment, as they do, for example, in India. I’ve used it in this way in the painting La Mesa.”

De Caires’s canvases seem casual, almost effortless, though in practice his work is laboured, cumulative, and multi-layered. This raised the question of how he decides what is to be included in the frame.

“This is related to my management of an idea. If I were not to edit and deliberately remove things, I would end up making a painting of the whole world, and as an artifact it would probably have no meaning. For example, the small painting Omar’s City is partly based on a huge sign that I saw alongside a main road into Havana, which stated Con Nuestros Ideas Hacemos El Futuro [“with our ideas we make the future”]. I was intrigued by this on several levels . . . I was conscious of the conceptual approach to making art by many contemporary Cuban artists . . . I was attracted to the problem of expressing the public and private, and in the end my painting became a little acknowledgement of the friendship that I had formed with the Cuban artist Omar Estrada with whom I worked in the Fine Art Department at Barbados Community College.

“But, to answer your question directly, I know a painting is completed when I recognise that any further activity is thoughtless.”

De Caires was born and grew up in Guyana, in the north Georgetown neighbourhood of Kingston. In 1970, when he was 13, his family emigrated to England. He studied art at Winchester College and the Royal College of Art and then at Cité des Arts International in Paris. In a review of one of his exhibitions, the art critic Tony Godfrey claimed that “his colour sense remains West Indian, yet most of his education, most of his life has been in England. In one sense he is both English and Guyanese, in another, neither. Guyana for him is, like art, both a myth and a real thing.”

In another interview, de Caires has registered his impatience with the business of national labelling of art through the artist. While he is willing to concede that he was born in the Caribbean and has never made a painting that is not for a Caribbean audience, that should not be the boundary — “I want my paintings to name themselves.”

For the past 16 years, de Caires’s work has been on display mainly in the Caribbean. But he has also had solo exhibitions at the Raab Gallery in London, Galerie JGM in Paris, ProArte in Monaco, and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in Colorado. Since 1982 he has visited the Caribbean annually, staying long enough to work and exhibit regularly at the Umana Yana in Georgetown and, in Barbados, at the Barbados National Museum, the Queen’s Park Gallery, the Art Foundry, and the Zemicon Gallery. He is currently coordinator for the BFA Fine Art Studio Programme at the Barbados Community College.

Philip Nanton

Dennis de Caires’s show of new work, “St George’s Paintings”, opens at Lancaster House, St James, Barbados, on 2 March, 2006. He is represented in Barbados by the Zemicon Gallery

Art versus stigma

During Trinidad Carnival 2006, one of the video crews roaming Port of Spain was not filming the costumes or the parading bands, but asking people about HIV/AIDS. In the midst of the festivities artist Tamara Zeta Sanowar-Makhan was conducting random interviews on the streets, working on the final phase of her documentary film Stigma.

One of the storylines deals with what Sanowar-Makhan’s family suffered after her grandfather contracted leprosy, more than 60 years ago. Oswald Nahum Sanowar was treated at the leprosarium on Chacachacare — an island off Trinidad’s north-west peninsula — from 1940 to 1944. He was fully cured, and lived another 50 years, working as a pharmacist and photographer in San Fernando, but his daughter — Tamara’s mother — felt the shadow of being “the leper’s daughter” as far away as Canada, where she migrated to raise her family.

Sanowar-Makhan was the middle child of four girls and a boy. She cherishes her multi-racial — African, Indian, Amerindian, and Syrian — heritage, but only recently started to investigate her Trinidadian roots. When she was made to feel ashamed of her grandfather’s illness, she realised she had to look more closely into its origin, and by extension to consider present-day afflictions that cause similar reactions of shame and stain.

She started thinking about the family stigma more deeply five years ago, and gradually the elements of the feature film came into focus. Her cousin David Makhan sent her an issue of Caribbean Beat with an article about Chacachacare, and encouraged her to return to Trinidad to visit the island. He also pointed her to the Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA7) centre’s residency programme there.

In May 2005, Sanowar-Makhan arrived in Trinidad to start extensive research into the leprosarium, which by then had been closed for over 30 years. Her guide was Sister Marie-Thérèse Rétout, site archivist and historian. She also received support from the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA), administrator of Chacachacare, whose chief guide, Mervin Alleyne, arranged visits to the island.

In her studio at CCA7, Sanowar-Makhan mounted an installation — also called Stigma — that was a meditation and an entry point for discussions about disease and the unease generated by the judgments people make about certain illnesses, like leprosy or HIV/AIDS. She hung 20 “blood-filled” IV bags (the “blood” was made from water and food colouring) at varying distances above the floor. Plastic tubing with valves allowed the “blood” to drip at different rates into stainless steel bowls below them. The initial impact was sobering, even shocking. But there was a rhythmic pulse to the dripping liquid, and as the “blood” drained from the plastic bags, photographic images were revealed. Some of these were photos her grandfather had taken. From one bag, a woman’s face emerged: Sanowar-Makhan’s mother, Zeta. In another, a man was swimming, his strong arm bent in a forward stroke: Oswald Sanowar, as he may have looked swimming away from Chacachacare to the neighbouring island of Huevos.

Next, Sanowar-Makhan went to Chacachacare to recreate the installation in the building that had been the quarters of the nuns who cared for the leprosarium patients. She had the installation videotaped. “In the graffitied and badly vandalised site, there is still much beauty and serenity,” she wrote in her residency journal. “The sharp juxtaposition of destructive disregard, a rich, complex history, and stunning landscape heightens intrigue and emotion. Amidst bats, birds, lizards, and corbeaux, I am 12 feet up, installing a work that took five years of creating and planning to mount specifically on this island where my grandfather had been exiled.”

The passage of time has allowed Sanowar-Makhan to face the family stigma, and helped to heal her personal sense of shame. She hopes that the film — which she expects to complete in 2007 — will help others to understand that the social impact of disease often has more destructive and long-term effects than the disease itself. Her message: stigmas spread disease and prevent healing.

Pat Ganase