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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Albert Huie: light on the land

Danielle Goodman meets Jamaican painter Albert Huie

  • Huie in his studio. Photograph by Donette Zacca
  • Crop Time (1957; 86.5 cm x 91.5cm; Wallace Campbell collection). Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Huie at 80. Photograph by Owen Minott
  • Huie reviews his exhibition with author Goodman. Photograph by Owen Minott
  • Mount of Prayer (1975; 89cm x 123cm; from the collection of Dr and Mrs Vincent Hill). Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • "When Puppa Jesus is coming off the mountainside..." Photograph by Donette Zacca
  • Self Portrait (1938; 51 cm x 50 cm; Wallace Campbell collection). Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Early Morning at Morgan's Harbour (1984; 51cm x 61cm; Fong Tom collection). Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Boy in the Purple Shirt (1978; 45.5 cm x 35.5cm; from the collection of Fong Tom). Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Detail of Lunch Time (1966; 61cm x 51 cm; collection of Jamaica Inn)
  • Huie among his painting at Devon House. Photograph by Owen Minott
  • Barry's Shop 1964 (1964;76.2 cm x 117 cm; collection of Wallace Campbell). Photograph by Franz Marzouca

Ever since he was a child, Albert Huie knew what he wanted to be. “From about 11, I felt that I wanted to be an artist. I went to a school in Falmouth. Believe it or not, we studied the lives of Rembrandt, Constable, Turner. Their works were in colour in the books that we read, so I had my early insight into those things. That confirmed in my mind from an early age what I believed I wanted to do.”

But Huie’s brothers would have none of it. They mocked Huie and destroyed his paintings, and it fell to his grandmother to protect and defend him. She would threaten the brothers. Huie can still remember her words. “Now, if you ever trouble him again, I will wring your neck!” It was she who gave Huie a washstand and let him keep his pencils, paints and paper in the big bottom drawers, while warning his brothers, “If you ever dare . . . ”

Now in his early 80s, Huie can still see her clearly in his mind, drawing herself up to her full impressive size to defend him. It was she who gave him his sanctuary, probably because she recognised her own rocklike determination in the boy. At 16, Huie set out to paint. Now, 65 years later, here he is walking through an exhibition of his works at Devon House in Kingston, “Albert Huie: Father of Jamaican Painting”. The exhibition marks the launch of the first book on Huie. Jamaican Edward Lucie-Smith, author of the standard reference book on the history of art, has written a long essay to accompany the reproductions in the book.

Huie walks slowly, master-like in his beret and glasses. He leans on a stick and says, “My first interest, if you look at my earlier work, is light. Light and shade.” He pronounces “light” with a special delicacy. “Here in Jamaica there are two dominant lights: the morning is silver, later, it is gold.” In the long room, encircled by his paintings, his presence stirs  onlookers into heightened attention. The sun is low and its rays come through the tall panes in long blocks of gold. Great bowls of flowers are set on end tables in the ballroom beneath a mirror, beneath a portrait. A lady wearing slippers polishes the wood floors with a wide dry mop.

Huie squints at the first piece. “That [Barry’s Shop,  1964] gives you a very good idea of light, as far as I’m concerned. Because, you see, inasmuch as there’s colour in the picture, the painting is dominated by a certain time of day, when the light is so strong that colour seems to be subjected to that light.” Nowadays, Constant Spring Road in Kingston is a busy road bordered by shopping centres; all traffic, fumes and grit all day, most days. In Huie’s rendering, the vista along the silent, car-less road stretches past the figures all the way up to the mountains. The thin, anonymous figures are bleached and ghostly under the midday sun. The trees and the building seem to have sucked up all the life, leaving the wraithlike people to move painfully slowly through the heat.

Huie has chronicled the evolving townscape, but is equally interested in what endures behind them. “I am influenced by the hills and how light affects the hills. Hills change so rapidly.”

By documenting light on land, Huie has also told the history of this land. The landscapes, filled with the sense of place specific to a particular site, allow him to discern something common to all places. “My painting when I started was almost what I’m painting now, but probably not at the same level as I’m painting now.”

He is referring to the depth and refinement of his skill, honed from his studies in Canada and at the Camberwell College of Art in London in the late 40s. But the levels Huie talks about are also the accumulations of the perspective of time. Walking through the exhibition, viewing each episode of Jamaican life as reflected in the landscapes, you see the infinitesimal changes of the landscape over decades in sharp focus. The differences are extraordinary. Now there are no more tall coconut trees to tether sky to coastline (they died out from disease in the 70s); the hills too have changed rapidly, as much because of the city’s expansion as by the movement of light across them.

The mystery of Huie’s vision of life in Jamaica goes beyond the discovery of that common light. He also picks up on the specific feeling of time. “The portraits say something to me about life in Jamaica: the people and how they affected me even at the time of day. For example, Lunch Time tells the story of what can happen in a morning. You get a lot of that reflectiveness in a Jamaican face.” Boy In the Purple Shirt, as well as Huie’s many portraits of young girls, express a vulnerability combined with guardedness that define faces on the brink of adulthood.

Mount Of Prayer is an example of Huie’s belief that action expresses sound.  “When a shepherd is saying ‘And Puppa Jesus is coming off the mountainside,’ you can do that because you’re feeling that. From the time you are on the spot to when you go back to your studio, that action you want to paint is well riveted in your mind. When you’re watching a group of Poco people, it’s very active. You carry that with you from what you’ve seen.” Huie carries more than an abstract sense of action away with him; he remembers the service, the call and response, the invocation of the Shepherd. “Bless the consecrated spot mi God, bless the consecrated spot.”

Huie goes on, “You see, this is one of the characteristics of the Jamaican people. They’re always moving, you know. Even when they’re standing still, there’s a sense of movement.”

There is something else that is peculiar to Huie’s vision of Jamaica, apart from the dynamism of groups of people, beyond even the way a face touches him at midday as distinct from at 5 p.m. One morning at the studio, we get closer to defining the mystery.

Huie’s studio is actually a little annex to a villa up in the hills behind Kingston. Everything is neatly tiled, glassed, shingled, and finely finished. Tall trees draped with hanging vines loom on the untamed hillside, and round dark-green leaves brush against the tinted window glass. Inside the annex the familiar deep scent of oil paint soaked into a stained drop cloth is spread on the tiles.

The brushes are gathered like flowers in jars on the floor, blooming up and out like the flower arrangements at the exhibition. Bright canvases are propped against the wall. There are fine little nudes painted on pasteboard against china-coloured backgrounds. Looser brushwork with more white space sketch out incomplete but still recognisable landscapes in green, blue, and subtle violet and yellow.

Leaning against a wall is a lady’s portrait from the 40s — you can tell from the pearls and the coif — desperate for restoration. Outside, great green leaves and vines and high mountainside trees still loom and hang in front of the steep drop of the hill towards the plain. Huie sits on a low stool next to the easel.

On his palette, white is in the centre, the cool colours on one side, the warm colours on the other. “I sketch as much, or probably more, with paint than with pencil. I love plenty sketches before you sort of settle down to the final thing. It’s quick. I’m striving for two things. I’m striving for form and colour in my sketches.” The large curl of white paint in the centre is a clue to the creamy keynote of all of Huie’s paintings, the way he uses white as his reference for mixing colours. This encourages the sensuous thickness of paint on canvas, the pleasure of feeling as well as seeing the brush stroke that is Huie’s handwriting.

The liveliness of the brush play is something that Huie admired in the paintings of Monet. “Monet was the one that I loved, because there was something dramatic about him.”

Like light, love is a favourite Huie word. He is an affectionate and lively man, engaged with life. He seems always to have been exposed to all social levels of his Jamaican world; you can see it in paintings of smart dances in an interior parlour glimpsed from outside, in scenes of workers resting outside a community centre in the hills, and in the borderline surrealist picture of an Ethiopian supporter.

Huie explains: “In the 30s and the 40s Ethiopia was in the popular consciousness, people were talking about the Ethiopian war and it caught on in Jamaica. And all these movements were in sympathy with the Ethiopians. At that time, every 1 April, they would have this big march. As a young man, and one who was interested in the arts, I was interested in the colourfulness of all that was going on. So I presented myself at all these political and religious meetings. Whatever it was, wherever it was, I would be there and see what was happening.” As a child, he remembers being taken to see Garvey speak, and the vivid unfamiliar sight of Falmouth square filled with thousands of people shoulder to shoulder.

In speaking about the way he works, Huie stumbles upon a crucial observation of something essential about his Jamaica —  the way it plays with perspective. “Looking out there, sometimes waving out through the trees over the hillside view, you wonder what is close and what is far, because sometimes things that are close can be diffused by the things in the distance and vice-versa. You get this sort of thing happening all the while. Something that is very far will come very close to you, depending on how they catch the light. Quite often, something that is very far from you, if you’re not careful, you believe you can touch it, you know.”

Huie thinks this is an especially Jamaican quality, of land and people alike.

Huie has seen Jamaica through the great changes of the century — cultural, social, and political. His first mentor, H. D. Molesworth, was an Englishman whose innovations at the Institute of Jamaica shocked the local bourgeoisie. The Institute did not cater for the likes of Huie, who was painting decorative glasses for sale at the market to make his way.

Huie remembers an early encounter with an official in the halls of the Institute. His voice flings out in perfect imitation of the woman’s dismissive, haughty tone: “‘Hey, you. What you doing here? What you want?’ You had to have a sharp tongue, or else they’d kill you! Anyway, there was no art gallery there at the time. All they had to exhibit at that time were  agoutis, live and stuffed. Iguanas.” He told the woman she belonged in the exhibition hall with the rest of the dead animals.

After an immensely successful exhibition of his work in 1943, Huie left Jamaica to study. “The war was still on and people were saying that the war could have hindered me. But it didn’t. A lot of people who were accustomed to going away — the collectors, people with money who would sort of go away to England at a certain time — they were all right here in Jamaica, they couldn’t get away!”

Huie also channelled his enthusiasm into education, co-founding what would eventually become the Jamaica School of Art with Edna Manley, in 1948. His achievements (including a prestigious gold Musgrave Medal, in 1974, from the very Institute that had tried to exclude him as a boy) have not puffed him up.

There is a spontaneity and an openness about Huie that accounts for his appeal to children. “I remember once in America, I encountered some kids who were getting art lessons from me. And in no time, I wasn’t instructing them, it was a sort of communal thing, they were helping me and I was helping them at the same time! When the time came for them to leave, I got little notes from them saying they were talking and listening and enjoying themselves so much with me, that they were sad that something so beautiful was interrupted. I’ve got some of those letters still. Those are things that you keep.”

Walking through the exhibition, Huie stops to rest a little. In the panelled ante-room on the west side of Devon House, a spotlight of copper reaches his face from the window. He is now the one under scrutiny. The camera clicks loudly in the small room. Huie’s face and eyes are still, the liveliness gone latent in them; there is a waiting and a receptivity in them. The same softness was there when he worked, registering the impression of light on a hill, a shop corner, the melancholy curve of an eye, the density of a flank or belly or shoulder.

The mystery of vision is something the artist can’t identify. Deep in concentration, painting, he says, “You’re alone with God, and that’s the most godly time of your life, when you’re alone with God.”

Beyond any particular painting, it’s in the whole sweep of his work, the way each new painting has added to the documentary of Jamaica seen through the detached but loving vision of a spectator who thought he was watching the light move across land. For nearly a century Albert Huie has tracked its movement across life in Jamaica, that “consecrated spot”.