Aubrey Williams: Tapping the Source

Geoffrey MacLean introduces the great Guyanese painter Aubrey Williams, whose work is on show in the Caribbean

  • Aubrey Williams. Photograph courtesy the October Gallery, London
  • Sunspot maximum (1989, 47 x 60 cm.) Photograph by the October Museum, London
  • Red Henge (1989: acrylic on paper, 48 x 61 cm.) Photograph courtesy the October Gallery London
  • Shostakovich Quartet No. 14, Opus 172 (1980, 132 x 208 cm.) Photograph by the October Gallery, London
  • Eco Cataclysm (1989, acrylic on paper, 47.8 x 60.3 cm.) Photograph courtesy the October Gallery, London
  • Shostakovich Quartet No. 7, Opus 108 (1980, 132 x 208 cm.) Photograph by the October Gallery, London
  • Towakaima (1962, 76 x 178 cm. ) Photograph courtesy the October Gallery, London
  • Courtesy The October Gallery, London

The first I heard of Aubrey Williams was through a friend of mine who had completed his diploma project–based on carnival forms from Trinidad–at an art college in London. His final presentation had been received by his English assessors with total non-comprehension. It was Aubrey Williams who stepped in, with his quiet intellectualism, and saved the day with an appreciation of the work. All suspicion of Trinidad’s great surrealist expression was removed. My friend earned his diploma.

And who better to be an interpreter of carnival forms than the man who wrote about the “Santapee bands” in Georgetown, where he grew up as a boy, and the serious error of offending his parents’ sense of decency by trying to participate? “I would be screamed at and thumped for running out when these bands came around, and invariably accused of harbouring rotten appetites.”

Later, in 1986, when Aquarela Galleries mounted an exhibition of work by Michel Jean Cazabon at the Commonwealth Institute in London, I met this gentle giant myself. As we walked around the exhibition, Williams was in awe of the talent of this great Caribbean 19th-century painter, and distressed that Cazabon had painted in “his country” but remained unknown to the Guyanese people.

Aubrey Williams was born in Georgetown, Guyana, on the South American coast, in 1926. He developed an early interest in painting, but his parents insisted that he needed a proper job, and he became an agricultural officer. He was sent to Hosororo, in the far north-west of Guyana, to work at an experimental agricultural station: it was an area of dense jungle, where the only easy travel was on the huge brown rivers. The indigenous people of the area were Amerindian, the Warrau; the young Williams was introduced to pre-Columbian art through their rock paintings, known as timehri (literally, the mark of the hand). This encounter was decisive in forming his identity and giving him a creative source for his own painting.

In 1952 Williams went to London to study, not painting but agricultural engineering. He soon abandoned this to devote himself full-time to the thing he really cared about, his own painting. He studied at the St Martin’s School of Art and became associated with the New Vision Centre, staging his first exhibition at the Archer Gallery in 1954. He spent the rest of his life in London, overlooked by many critics even though his work was exhibited internationally. Despite his involvement with the European avant-garde, he remained a distinctively Caribbean artist, using the myths and landscapes of pre-Columbian Guyana for his subject matter and inspiration. He died in 1990.

The images of Williams’s art are unmistakably Amerindian in origin. That earned him the disapproval of ‘some intellectual critics; but drawing on imported African or Indian Caribbean culture was less important to Williams than what he felt to be truly indigenous. In an interview with Rasheed Araeen in 1989, he spoke of this Amerindian influence. “What else have I got? I have come out of South American earth, South American history and South American happening, I have drunk the water and eaten out of the earth. No, I’m just being myself.”

West Indian painters over the years have often used Amerindian symbols and forms to express their independence. In Trinidad, Hugh Stollmeyer in the 1930s, Sybil Atteck in the 1940s and Carlisle Chang in the 1950s all travelled this road. Several contemporary artists in Martinique and Guadeloupe, such as Charpentier and Laouchez, do the same. But few have drawn from this source of inspiration as consistently as Williams.

Out of a feeling for what he perceived to be his “real” culture came Williams’s four great series of paintings: illustrations intended for a book on tropical birds, paintings on the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, his Olmec-Maya series, and Cosmos.

Eve Williams says her husband’s interest in documenting animals, particularly birds, was nurtured by his desire to educate and entertain their daughter Maridowa. The illustrations reflect the haunting beauty and range of the Latin American species, the vivid colours of the tropical rain forests, and the spectacular plumage of the Amerindian deities. They are not just ornithological renderings, but intensely personal expressions.

Williams’s series on the music of the great Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who expressed so vividly European anguish over the Second World War and his own battles with the Soviet state, was painted over ten years or so. Why would a Guyanese painter interpret the works of a Russian composer? Williams answered this question with another. “Why did Shostakovich use themes from Shakespeare, Lorca, Michelangelo, Rilke, Burns and Apollinaire ?”

Although the images of the Shostakovich series are less obviously Amerindian, there are geometric forms reminiscent of the Maya and Aztec aesthetic. Williams deliberately showed in his paintings a respect for the structure of the music by reflecting it in the structure of the paintings. His colours, still vibrantly South American, reinforce the emotion of the music.

The Olmec-Maya series is perhaps more obvious in its direct reference to indigenous pre-Columbian art forms. The series was both a tribute to those civilisations and a warning to our own. The Olmec-Mayan civilisation disappeared in a mere 30 to 50 years, “leaving only tarnished artefacts, due to their inability to cope with their technology.”

Williams first exhibited his Cosmos series in 1989 at the Hayward Gallery in London at The Other Story : Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain. It showed the vast span of Williams’s spiritual and intellectual development, from the birds of Guyana and the environment of his childhood, through the memory of his Amerindian heritage, culminating in an appreciation of universal expression through music and spiritual realisation through the cosmos.

Williams was very much his own man, an artist impossible to pigeon-hole. Guy Brett, a former art critic of the London Times, wrote in 1981: “Williams paints in a style which many would dismiss as an anachronism: a kind of abstract expressionism which is supposed to have lived and died in the 1950s and early 1960s. But in his hands the method, and the emotion, are full of vigour–and much of the philosophy too–proving how facile these linear notions of change in art can be.”

In 1990, some weeks after the event, I heard of Aubrey Williams’s death in London. Realising that the passing of this great West Indian artist had gone virtually unnoticed, I wrote an obituary for the Trinidad press. Unfortunately, it appeared in the first newspaper to be published after the sad coup attempt of July 1990, tucked away amid details of the trauma.

But perhaps this was not inappropriate. Aubrey Williams was ever conscious of the fragile balance of our civilisation. He showed us, through the rich fabric of his paintings, how much we have to lose.