Irénée Shaw: gazing at herself

What should Caribbean art look like? Trinidadian artist Irénée Shaw defies convention with her masterful — and often nude — self-portraits, which argue that all art should start from the personal, says Annie Paul

  • Irénée Shaw. Photograph by Michelle Jorsling
  • Vermont Series (2003). Photograph by Michelle Jorsling
  • From the series of paintings commissioned for a pediatrician’s office (2000). Photograph by Michelle Jorsling
  • Detail of Clear Headspace (1992), 32” x 32”. Photograph by Michelle Jorsling
  • Neighbourhood (1992), 4’ x 7’. Photograph courtesy Irénée Shaw
  • From the Holy Name Convent Series (2004), oil on canvas. Photograph by Michelle Jorsling
  • Balancing Act (1997), oil on canvas, 8’ x 9’. Photograph courtesy Irénée Shaw
  • Dividing Line (1995), oil on canvas and board, 4’ x 5’. Photograph courtesy Irénée Shaw
  • My Hands (1997) 5’ x 2’. Photograph courtesy Irénée Shaw
  • Detail of My Hands (1997). Photograph courtesy Irénée Shaw

Here I am . . . looking at you looking at me looking at you looking at me . . . This is what the work I was looking at seemed to be saying. I was at the new Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA7) centre in January 1998, attending the opening of Irénée Shaw’s exhibition Self Portrayals. All around me were images of the nude artist, her unsmiling face staring boldly back from the canvas. More often, the paintings focused on bits and pieces of Shaw’s body: her mouth, her eyes, her hands. Those hands were everywhere, expressively gesturing towards a faint consternation, anxiety, alarm, despair, as in the cruciform Balancing Act, and in My Hands robustly interacting with everyday objects — a hairbrush, a cup, a tube of lipstick.

There is a prevalent belief that you can tell an artist’s prowess by his or her ability to paint the human hand. “My hands are important, because as an artist it’s how, in a tactile way, I interact with the world. Not just as a painter but as a mother you use your hands constantly — to manipulate, to comfort, to cook,” says Shaw. The hand is one of the most difficult parts of the body to portray convincingly; many painters will simply avoid the subject by eliminating hands from their work if given a chance. Clearly, Shaw had no need to worry on this account.

What was also clear was that her subject matter signalled a cerebral yet muscular painting intellect. This was not a painter who simply wanted to capture the scene in front of her, or who deliberately placed herself in front of the picturesque and fluidly translated it into two dimensions. This was painting as thought process. Shaw was inviting us to dwell on her views of herself, on the painter’s self-gaze, and by so doing to participate in the complex puzzle of an artist using her own body as a subject. The subject matter she tends to frame in her work also reflects the latest trends in anthropological and sociological thinking, which recognises that, beyond being a mere biological organism, the body is at once a social and cultural organism.

Shaw’s tightly cropped compositions eliminate extraneous detail. As she puts it, “This close proximity is a point from which I work. I have an image of a triangle whose point is someplace close to my chest, and my vision slowly feels its way outward to finally encompass the whole. This slow and small movement away from my own body is dealt with in the images of the repeated gestures of my hand as perceived by my own eyes.

“As the seer is clearly the maker, the viewer knows that the interaction seen is also felt. The movement outward into physical and ideological space and away from convention is never easy.”

Born in Trinidad in 1963, Irénée Shaw left for the United States at the age of 20 to further her education. Few realise that, although she ended up studying visual art, her initial interest was in dance. Circumstances dictated otherwise, however, and Shaw graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore with a degree in fine art, and later earned an MFA from the Mason Gross School of Arts at Rutgers University. Shaw returned to Trinidad with husband Christopher Cozier, also an artist, in the late 1980s. Over the last decade and a half, she has established a practice as a painter much sought after for her ability to produce unusual portraits.

In the early 90s in Trinidad, a kind of alternate art scene began to coalesce around the work of a group of artists who had all studied abroad and decided to return home in the late 80s. Aside from Shaw and Cozier, two key figures were Steve Ouditt and Edward Bowen. None of these artists was interested in being inserted into the Anglophone Caribbean’s prevailing paradigm of aesthetic nationalism. Spiritually they were more affined to the work of an artist like Francisco Cabral, that Trinidadian phenomenon of the 80s, whose extraordinary chair constructions catapulted him to world attention. Conversant with the international idiom of contemporary art, these artists would explore instead ways of using new media and new ideas to articulate a meaningful relationship with the environment around them. They were responding to the challenge suggested by Cabral’s outward-looking stance.

A catalogue documenting their work was produced by the artists in collaboration with Ulrich Fiedler, a German surgeon and collector of contemporary art who was then resident in Trinidad. Fiedler immediately realised the scope of their ambition, and became a major source of support for the young returnees. These artists represented no coherent group or school as such; what united them was merely the fact that their work departed from the established aesthetic norms of the Trinidad art scene. Each of them has gone on to develop an independent career living and working as an artist in Trinidad.

Shaw, for one, found herself turning to other women artists in the region, in whose work she could sense concerns and themes similar to her own. But the southern Caribbean art scene was male-dominated, and the response to her attempts at self-representation (as opposed to cultural representation) quite hostile. Shaw describes a visitor to one of her early exhibitions who “warily proclaimed, ‘Who she feel she is to paint she self on such a big canvas? She must feel she is somebody!’”

Alongside Self Portrayals, in January 1998 CCA7 held a seminar where Shaw spoke together with artists Annalee Davis of Barbados and Alida Martinez of Aruba. From this exchange emerged the idea for the first regional show of women artists, the landmark travelling exhibition Lips, Sticks, and Marks, which included artists from Trinidad, Barbados, Aruba, and Jamaica, and was curated jointly by Shaw and Davis. The show opened at the Art Foundry in Barbados in August 1998, timed to coincide with the inaugural conference of the southern Caribbean chapter of AICA (the International Association of Art Critics).

Unsurprisingly, the critical reaction was mixed. One reviewer in the Barbadian press was lukewarm; what, he asked, did Shaw’s focusing on personal issues have to do with Caribbean identity?

Her answer is simple. “As a Caribbean person, in the light of our historical circumstances, the assertion of my own narrative and presence is important.”

“I recall being told by a well-respected artist that if I wanted to make ‘serious paintings’ I had to avoid using too much colour. Needless to say, I did not buy this. I continue to challenge the notion that one has to live and work in a place covered by a grey haze to have a ‘real and serious’ life.

“Years later I even found myself making a large black and white painting in response to this, and then had fun decorating and violating it with beautiful pink and red artificial flowers . . . So I continue to desecrate canvas with my image of myself and its attendant desecrations, trying to figure out for myself who owns them and their meaning.”

Painting the personal, the domestic, and the pedestrian, for Shaw, is almost a deliberate defiance of the grand gestures of masculinist modern art. “The chair in my living room says more about me than Stollmeyer’s Castle,” she once announced (referring to the landmark building in Port of Spain beloved by landscape artists). On another occasion she said, “To me, if something doesn’t tie in to a personal experience, then it’s just rhetoric. It’s like politicians standing on a soapbox blowing hot air . . . at the end of the day, if you can’t tie it back — if you can’t pull it back into something personal you’ve experienced yourself — it’s just that I find a lot of female artists sometimes start with what seems small, insignificant, and personal, and you can then relate it to a bigger issue.

“Whereas sometimes you’d find a lot of male work starts out there on the soapbox and not all of it can connect back to the personal. I think only the successful stuff comes back to the personal. When it’s not successful, it just stays out there on the soapbox, y’know, preaching.”

Far from being irrelevant in the Caribbean context, Shaw’s approach to her work identifies her as one of those who, in the words of anthropologist Setha Low, cross “the micro/macro boundaries from individual body and embodied space to macroanalyses of social and political forces.”

Today Irénée Shaw teaches art at the Holy Name Convent girls’ secondary school. She has much less time to paint now, and when she does she tends to focus on subject matter “that’s not necessarily artworthy”, but which has personal relevance. So, for example, her paintings of the convent have special resonance for her, though they may be seen as “innocuous spaces”. “They’re the kind of spaces we inhabit or live and function in on a daily basis, but the kind of spaces we take for granted,” she says.

“The way I approach space in those interiors and those spaces is very closely related to how I approach space in a portrait, in that I see the spaces as not merely architectural spaces but psychological spaces. I’m very aware of the lives that inhabit the spaces, the culture that surrounds spaces; it’s almost as if the spaces have a personality. The same ways I try to get at the psychological side in a portrait, to me the spaces have a psychology as well . . . Because I never see the spaces really as empty. I see them as spaces where life happens, and because I’ve come to know Holy Name and what it means and what it’s about, I’m constantly aware of the personality of each space that I paint.”

Despite the analytical and cerebral nature of her painting Shaw acknowledges painters such as Frida Kahlo and Vermeer as major influences. Shaw would have come across Kahlo’s work in the 1980s, long before the Mexican artist enjoyed the revival of interest in her work which has since made her a household name and the subject of a Hollywood film. Shaw was also intrigued by the precious paintings of interiors she came across during a residency in Italy, the representations of sacred objects and spaces and the puzzle of how to reconcile all this with her own nude female body, which would necessarily be viewed as profane.

or Shaw, these ruminations were profoundly influenced by her own experience as a practicing Catholic. “Growing up and going to Catholic school is part of your socialisation; it sort of helps to form who you are, who you become, and so much of my work has been analysing that, analysing my socialisation, analysing who I am, what I am, never feeling ready to come up with the answers, but still asking questions . . .

“I guess I was thinking too about the idea of reliquaries and precious things, probably my little stint in Europe did that, you know, you would come across these little reliquaries in churches with a piece of somebody’s finger preciously put away in an ornate something, and I guess I was thinking about the relationship between these precious bits and things that we hold sacred and dear to the human body . . . the idea of it being precious, or being vulgar . . .

“Woman’s body, for instance, is it something precious, is it something to be revered, is it something vulgar . . . what is your own relationship to your own body? As a Catholic, obviously those are issues that come up.”

The exigencies of work and family life mean that practically the only painting Shaw is able to undertake now is commissioned work. Occasionally, someone approaches her with an unusual commission. For instance, some years ago Shaw was asked to produce a series of paintings for a pediatrician’s office; she came up with a children’s toy series, framed with unconventional materials. “They’re sort of tacky materials, but they’re materials that people tend to like, you know, like upholstery material, things that you sit on, you know what I mean? The run-of-the-mill stuff that appeals to the sensibilities in some way.”

Using unconventional material in her work is typical for Shaw. One of her earliest works, painted after returning from art school abroad, was a portrait of a madman. According to Shaw, “The whole scenario with the vagrants was a story that evolved right in front of our window in Cascade. An old house in front of ours was taken over by vagrants from the asylum in St Ann’s. I painted one of them. But then I sewed it up, and the madman’s hands are almost like a bird’s hands, kind of trapped in the sewing, but most people don’t realise that it’s sewing, they think it’s drawn — when they see a reproduction they don’t realise that it’s actually thread . . . Because you can’t tell, it looks like maybe it’s just red lines.”

Shaw also painted a large seven-foot landscape that she then wrapped in electrical wire, because she noticed that in the landscapes that were selling in the galleries at the time things like telephone poles and electrical wire were conveniently left out. “So when I included the wire I included it almost as a defacement of the landscape. But the deciding factor for that series, that landscape, was that it was right there, it was something in front of me . . . so the spaces that I choose to look at or get involved in are always something very close. If I do make a broader comment on society or something, it always comes from a personal experience.”

Fortunately for Shaw, considering that this is frequently the kind of commission she gets, she has always enjoyed portrait painting, beyond the fact that it pays the bills. “I’ve always seen my portraits as psychological studies. A portrait commission I really enjoyed doing was of the Hamel-Smith twins, Angela and Alison.” Intrigued by the idea that they were two separate entities but almost like a mirror image of each other, Shaw constructed a butterfly-shaped portrait that is a slanted construction with each twin on one half.

“It’s like a double couch; you can split them apart and have them as two separate individuals, or you can put them together and it’s like a butterfly, like a mirror image. On the sides of the box are included pieces of writing that describe each one’s personality or interests — writing that was very important to each person.”

At a residency in Vermont in 2003, feeling the slight displacement of returning to a North American environment, Shaw found herself going back to the self-portrait. She produced a series of images of her face obscured by flowers and rain, suggesting an inability to find herself in the North American landscape. The paintings were designed to be like books, bound with “Northern plaid material that you see in the stores there a lot — plaid, Northern kind of hick material, so the edges of the paintings were framed with that, and they were like books that you could hold.”

Back in Port of Spain, Shaw rarely has time to make such experimental work in her daily routine. She looks forward to returning to the studio when her four children are grown up and need less of her time. Meanwhile, she has thrown herself heart and soul into the work of training her young students at Holy Name Convent, a task she finds both stimulating and exhilarating.

The girls she teaches are incredibly talented, according to Shaw, and making much more sophisticated and exciting work than she did at their age. A large number of them intend to pursue art as a career, and Shaw looks forward to assisting them with procuring scholarships to pursue their dreams. At the rate she’s going, Trinidad and Tobago should have a bumper crop of women artists in the near future.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.