Wednesday, February 08, 2006
by Rupert Roopnaraine
from the January/February 2006 Issue (No. 72) of Caribbean Beat
Painter, sculptor, Guyana Prize–winning poet, musician — Stanley Greaves has spent his 50-year career mastering one medium after another, and today is considered one of the Caribbean’s most distinguished artists. Rupert Roopnaraine talks to Greaves about his childhood in Georgetown, his formative training at the hands of E.R. Burrowes, the connections between his writing and visual work, and his ongoing attempt to establish a genuinely Caribbean metaphysic
I last saw Stanley Greaves in London, in the spring of 2004. We had arrived from different journeys to attend the opening of an exhibition of new paintings by Barbadians Ras Akyem Ramsay and Ras Ishi Butcher at the Islington Arts Factory, and to participate in a panel discussion with the artists. Listening to the exchanges that evening, surrounded by walls enlivened by the bold painterly expressiveness of Akyem’s canvases and Ishi’s austere, self-contained images of the private life, my thoughts went to the evolution and transmission of our intellectual and artistic traditions in the Caribbean.I have come to think it is not, in the first place, about the work as such — though they admire that enormously — but on account of Greaves’s exemplary dedication to the creative life, maintained through thick and thin for over half a century. I think it also has to do with his uncompromising insistence on the highest quality of execution. “There is no excuse for not pursuing mastery of technique”, he wrote in the catalogue notes for a 1994 exhibition to celebrate his 60th birthday. What richer guidance for a new generation?
That night in Islington, it was an exchange between generations. Ramsay and Butcher are two of the Caribbean’s brightest lights, who set out 15 years ago to make war on the cultural establishment, and opened up new ways of seeing and telling. Greaves is a respected elder who had himself, 50 years before, sat at the feet of the redoubtable and legendary artist E.R. Burrowes in the Working People’s Art Class in Georgetown. What is it about Greaves’s increasingly classical work that they so admire, these iconoclastic young men at the cutting edge?
“Too many individuals talk about their intentions,” Greaves has said, “and no amount of sincerity will give the work the power it deserves. Natural ability is not enough . . . it has to be informed and supported by sound technique . . . searching for an easy way is a waste of time.”
It is difficult in a restricted space to do much more than give a sense of the main themes and scope of Stanley Greaves’s life-long intellectual and artistic researches. He has called them “visual arguments.” While the sense of a series of philosophical investigations visually pursued is particularly strong in the sequence of his paintings, we must also pay due attention to the explorations carried out in his three-dimensional work.
His formal academic training at the University of Newcastle and Howard University was in sculpture, and over the years he has produced, in addition to the better-known wood carvings Political Gift, Orissa, Sonya, and Man and Bird, scores of constructions, making creative use of a wide variety of materials, such as glass, aluminium, formica, steel, wool, wire, plaster, and canvas. In his mixed-media fabrications, his interest is in the tension produced by the interaction of the various materials. These sculptural explorations are concerned primarily with identity and difference and, in the realm of material, with the unity of opposites. Certain of the arguments are carried over into the ceramic work — bowls and dishes and pots — to which he has been applying himself in recent years. “Ideas and concepts,” he has written, “to a significant degree, determine the materials and techniques required to give them form.”
RR: What drove you in the direction of sculpture and ceramics?
SG: A simple question, demanding a simple answer, with several extensions to it. The underlying thing is that I regard myself principally as a maker, with reference to my addiction to exploring the form of things . . . from digging holes in the ground to making a guitar. It is a combination of this fascination with form and the ideas with which I am bombarded that has led me up many paths.
Apart from art work, I do basic woodwork projects, including a guitar; written verse, short stories, and a few compositions for classical guitar; studied calligraphy and even wrote notes for a book on the subject, with special reference to left-handed writers; designed jewellery for family, and so on. Making means giving form to things, and as a child my greatest pleasure was observing artisans at work. My father John provided me with a lot to observe . . . he did woodwork, rope work, sign painting, repaired shoes in a rudimentary fashion, played guitar and drums, trimmed trees, whatever . . . I learned a lot from him.
My first tool was a penknife, which was used to carve boats, guns, and knives and a figure which, when shown to Burrowes, made him present me with some carving tools from under his bed. They were a bit rusty, but with loving care were brightened up and sharpened. I still have a few of them . . .
RR: Your paintings have always told stories, even when the emphasis was heavily on composition. How would you describe the “content” of your sculpture?
SG: Mostly exploring form, from the semi-abstract to the purely geometric in my most recent pieces. A profound experience was looking at rocks in rivers which had been carved into fantastic forms . . . there were also the knotted roots of giant forest trees . . .
I remember well recounting experiences to [Guyanese poet] Martin Carter, saying that nature truly was the master carver, and the most we could do was to try as near as we could to approximate this. I failed, but am happy to report on the pioneering work of the Amerindian sculptor Ossie Hussein in this respect.
RR: What about the pottery?
SG: My inspiration . . . came from the marabuntas . . . the wasps that make tiny spherical clay pots in which to lay eggs. I was about ten, and thought that if creatures without brains and fingers could make pots, what about me? My experiments came literally to an abrupt end when the newly made wet pots were put to be baked in my mother’s coal-pot. I felt that just as she used to put soft dough in an oven to get hard, the same would happen to my pot. It exploded, and my experiments were banned, much to my annoyance. It was about 35 years later at Howard University that I made a fresh start . . . the interest soon settled on prehistoric pots, early historic and antiquity . . . Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese, also pots from South American civilisations and Nigeria, Mali, and South Africa . . . all great productions.
RR: You said that you have been writing short stories. What moved you in this direction?
SG: I see it again as giving form to ideas. Ideas for short stories suddenly — and I mean suddenly — arrived, and I found myself having to deal with them . . . a completely different exercise to writing verse, which I have been doing for nearly as long as painting and sculpture.
RR: Do you intend to have them published — as you did with your book of poems Horizons, which won the Guyana Prize for Literature?
SG: Yes, the Guyana Prize for first book of poems . . . surprised me, as it must have done others . . . Anyway, about the stories, I intend to do some line drawings to accompany them — pen and ink, my favourite drawing medium . . . I like books with pictures. You can see so much in one glance.
To get a sense of the essential continuities and leaps of Greaves’s arguments, it is best to begin at the beginning, with his paintings of compassion — The Preacher, Beggar and Urchin, The Weeding Gang, People of the Garden City — the group of works that has come to be known as the “People of the Pavement” paintings. In these works of the 1950s, his best known in Guyana, Greaves is very much the public painter: bold social themes dramatically expressed in a readily accessible idiom. The work of the great Mexican muralists was a strong influence in this period.
The ironically titled People of the Garden City, with its images of despair and dislocation, is at once the most achieved and the most disturbing of the early paintings. (Ironic, because Georgetown, with its wide tree-lined avenues and flowering yards, was frequently described as “the garden city of the Caribbean”.) No drama, no narrative, no sense of community; only starkness, stasis, isolation. The four figures, each immured in its panel, tell of atomisation. In the upper central panel, a man forages in a garbage bin. It does not seem to have yielded much. In the lower panel, a naked figure is curled in a foetal position in a niche in a wall, one eye closed, the other looking out.
In the right panel, the iconoclast, eyes aglow with terrible purpose, tears off the leaves sprouting from a lamppost. The leaves, originating in the iron rungs of the post, are in the process of mutating from mineral to vegetable state; they have eyes, and cross over to the animal world: iron — leaf — eye. In the left panel, a woman with a Madrasi head-tie draws the curtain and invites our contemplation of those cast out from the garden, the dispossessed of the city, a prophecy come true in the Guyana of the 1980s and 90s.
With the “People of the Pavement” paintings behind him, Greaves left Guyana for the United Kingdom in 1962, where he was to remain until 1968, pursuing further studies in art at the University of Newcastle.
RR: Why did you choose Newcastle?
SG: Well, as a youngster I used to visit Burrowes on Sundays to look at art magazines and books. At the time, the art colleges like St Martin’s, Camberwell, and others were quite famous, but they offered a diploma, not a degree, which I felt would pay more in teaching on my return.
RR: You left Guyana as a painter. Yet you chose to study sculpture at Newcastle. Why?
SG: At Newcastle, as in other art institutions in the 60s, the major interest was in Pop Art and Op Art, neither of which had any relevance to my way of viewing the world. The first dealt with the consumer society, which Guyana was not, and the other dealt with the psychology of perception . . . My paintings were narrative, told stories, and therefore out of style. My work in sculpture and constructions was formal, and therefore timeless — like Egyptian sculpture — and did not accommodate narration, so I made the grade, and survived.
RR: In a sense, therefore, you have maintained both line and direction, like a good fast bowler.
SG: Yes, I suppose so. To do otherwise is to end up being lost in the bush, or doing tricks like a circus performer — not good for the psyche.
He returned to Guyana in 1968, but several years were to pass before he took up his brush again. The turning point came not in the studio but in the Guyana bush. Accompanying his friend and former pupil the photographer Bobby Fernandes, Greaves travelled into the deep Guyanese interior. He had always had a special feeling for the forest, and on this particular trip he experienced an epiphany that had a profound effect on him.
“I was experiencing difficulty on my return home, to find my way in painting,” he says. “Nothing worked, and I was puzzled. After travelling in the bush for a few days, I began to have difficulty relating events to the days they happened. At nights there, I had incredible dreams about art and music . . . I wrote poems on them much later.”
On his return to Georgetown, his application of his concept of “the lattice effect” — consisting of geometrically precise verticals and diagonals — created a significant stylistic turn in his work that had to do with the act of perception and the way it affects the presentation of shape and form.
“I was discussing this ‘lattice’ effect with Martin Carter,” he records in his journal, “and gave examples of it seen in nature — palm fronds, ripples, spider’s web, network of cracks on the end grain of wood, turtle’s shell, bark of some trees, eg samaan, mango. As I see it now, I have to find out more about the effect by producing more work, and then relating what I have discovered to problems of existence and being.”
In the paintings of this period, issues of composition move to the forefront of Greaves’s concerns. Paintings like Channaman and Canecutters are also exercises in geometry. Narration and psychological or symbolic content give way to the formal organisation of shape and colour. In Channaman, the scene is familiar enough: the interior of a shop selling nuts and boiled chick peas (channa). In the iconography of the painting, the proprietor, with 50-cent coins for buttons, surrounded by bright lights, is the high priest in his temple of Mammon. His acolyte serves a customer his two bags of channa. While it is thematically linked to his painting Beggar and Urchin, the stylistic concerns of Channaman are of a different order.
“I noticed, for example, that whenever I viewed anything through the fronds of palm leaves I would get a kind of rhythmic fragmented effect. The same thing was true when viewing things through picket fences.” The concentrated use of the lattice effect in the paintings of this period moved Greaves far beyond the formal and stylistic techniques of the “People of the Pavement” series, allowing him “to activate the picture plane in a way that [his] former technique of using a heavy black outline could not.”
Greaves’s “Caribbe-an Metaphysic” series of mini-paintings (all eight by ten inches), first exhibited in Barbados in 1993, are among the most autobiographical of his works. They are a celebration of his childhood in working-class Georgetown of the 1930s and 40s.
RR: I remember finding this a strange title — “Caribbean Metaphysic”? And why did you choose that format and call them “mini-paintings?”
SG: Well, for some time I have felt the absence of a true Caribbean metaphysic to be a great personal loss. At the same time, therefore, a great longing to participate in a system based on inherited homeland values of great antiquity . . . this is idealistic thinking, of course, which has got me only as far as the mini-paintings. The intention here was to establish a fundamentalist attitude — to create a relationship with objects, hence the pictorial content of the paintings. I deliberately used the term “mini” because they are neither conceived nor executed in the tradition of miniature painting.
RR: Such a metaphysic demands a certain kind of authorship.
SG: Yes, and yes indeed . . . which is not just a random collection of concepts based on borrowings . . . I’ve actually written some notes on the place of appropriations, with particular reference to the practice of art in the Caribbean — nothing scholarly, just an exercise to help me determine my own position as regards a standard artistic practice — denied by some. But that’s a story for another place and time.
The mini-painting Tap recalls the great municipal tank outside St George’s Cathedral in Georgetown, where the little boys from the neighbourhood, among them a young Greaves, gathered to buy the family’s water from the municipality at one penny a gallon during the dry season. The contents of a small boy’s pockets are everywhere: a razor-blade in lieu of the forbidden penknife, buttons for trading, a fish-hook, bent nails left over from the last rainy day — when the boy Greaves had to take hold of the hammer and straighten bent nails for his father, a rainy-day chore in the workshop, a place of pure magic. His mother Lydia’s needles, buttons, and spools of thread have their place also.
RR: There is one of your father’s accomplishments that I find utterly fascinating.
SG: What’s that?
RR: Dice maintenance.
SG: Yes. That’s a funny one, all right. The men who operated gaming boards at the race course would bring them to be repainted, and dice that had a bias — good news for the person making bets, but bad news for the operator — which had to have the bias removed. Dad would roll them to see what was happening, then sandpaper the offending face or faces until balance was established. It looked to me as if he was performing some kind of arcane ritual.
Then, in the full bloom of his maturity, Greaves returned in the There Is a Meeting Here Tonight series to the explicitly political themes of the “People of the Pavement” paintings of the 1950s.
RR: How did this series come about?
SG: I have this belief that at times I am in control of what to paint, and at others the paintings take over . . . this series is a case of the latter . . .
I had done three unrelated paintings — so it seemed at the time. Later on, I saw a connection between them, and searching through my sketchbooks found other images that could be used . . . this was followed by things I actually saw in Guyana and Barbados.
In the notes he drafted for the exhibition of this series, Greaves wrote: “It is a savage irony that the institution of politics, which should be the instrument of protection of the people (and the development of their strength across a range of activities), and contain the potential for significant action, should be the instrument of the destruction of the same values . . . Herein lies the irony which is the fundamental message of this body of work, which poses questions whose answers lie in the manner the will of the nation is expressed — self-damnation or self-salvation. The choice is clear.”
Executed between 1992 and 2001, the Meeting series comprises a sequence of 14 paintings: four trilogies bracketed by a Prologue and an Epilogue. The story as such of the Meeting series is the story of an election, from the announcement and introduction of the candidates to the declaration of the results and the aftermath, moving through the launching of the campaign, the presentation of the party manifesto, the political meetings, the demarcation of electoral boundaries, the casting of the ballot and the fate of the ballot papers, the announcement of the results, the enthronement of the victor, the protests, and, in the Epilogue, the judgement of the court, a final judgement of sorts. The episodes are mainly though not exclusively drawn from Guyana’s elections, especially the elections of 1997 and 2001. The specific reference of the second trilogy, The Candidate, The Manifesto, and Party Supporters, is to the Dominican Republic elections of 1996.
The Prologue establishes the setting, the actors, and the emotional tone of what is to follow. The ruined façades, one sacred or religious, the other profane or secular, both crumbled and decrepit, define a square where black dogs gather. In a mysterious space behind the secular façade is a room with a verandah, a wooden floor, one plank broken loose, and an elegant bed with brass knobs. In the distance, a schooner drifts, its sails reflected on the face of a still sea. Other iconographic elements recur throughout the series. The cross formed by the lamp-post reinforces the religious dimension, inviting us to consider not only the exploitation of religious imagery and idiom in the utterances of the politicians, but, more significantly, the accelerating dissolution of faith in the politicians as original spiritual beliefs gain more and more ground. Political Protest, one of the final paintings in the series, strongly suggests that this faith has been abandoned in favour of the older beliefs.
RR: The Meeting series was exhibited in Guyana, Trinidad, Martinique, and the UK. Did it produce the effect you expected?
SG: I must express my indebtedness to Therese Hadchity of Zemicon Gallery, who offered to get the show to those venues after I had doubted the possibility of doing so, knowing the problems involved.
I never really do work thinking about the way it will be received. It was noticeable that viewers in the Caribbean were easily able to read the narrative symbolic content of the work, because it related to shared experiences. London viewers had some problems deciphering some of the imagery that was too localised. The overall irony conveyed was, however, understood by all.
Just before we met in London last year, Greaves had been working in Barbados to complete a new series of single-figure paintings for an upcoming exhibition. Along the lines of his “Caribbean Folklore” paintings of the early 1990s (such as Mrs Baxter, Hatman, Madonna with Pumpkin, Banana Manna, and Magus with Upturned Bananas), these most recent works, among them the exquisite and highly accomplished Moon Bread and Book Man, deepen the technical explorations of space and stillness in motion that marked Greaves’s earlier series. There is the same unsettling interplay of contradictory modes: realistically presented objects deployed in an abstractly presented space.
As he moved into the earliest of the “Caribbean Folklore” paintings, Greaves had sensed the need to locate his figures in a certain kind of space. In the case of the first one, Mrs Baxter — named after the street of fried-fish vendors in Bridgetown — he firmly anchors her in a particular place, with its silhouettes of houses in the background and in a space defined by the table on which she does her frying. The objects are realistically depicted, while the houses are reduced to shapes representing houses. A certain tension is created by the juxtaposition of realistic and abstract modalities. Greaves had discovered from his “mini-paintings” that while a realistic modality was used for the presentation of objects, the space inhabited by the objects took on different aspects. There was a certain flattening in some areas, where space was really shape implying space; in other areas, space took on a kind of cosmic aspect, hinting at infinity.
“I have been mystified for a long time about dualities and the effect they have on our experiences,” Greaves says. “Duality is so evident in spoken language, so why not in art? I am still trying to find a way to express this in painting, and not successfully so far . . .”
As he starts his eighth decade, it seems that Stanley Greaves’s investigations, his “visual arguments”, are far from resolved.
Parts of this profile are drawn from The Primacy of the Eye, Rupert Roopnaraine’s book on Stanley Greaves, forthcoming from Peepal Tree Press
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Wednesday, February 08, 2006 ::
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