Just don’t call it Painterly…

This is a review I wrote for the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, 2016 edition (to see my review of the Review, check Blogger on Books). To order copies of the Review or to subscribe email Paget_Henry@Brown.edu

I reproduce my review here. While you can excerpt and link with credit, it is not to be copied, pasted, published, or in any way used without my permission.

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(a review)
By Joanne C. Hillhouse

“Sometimes,” writes Mali Olatunji, in this book, appropriately dedicated to his elders, “even I have great difficulties in deciphering the pictorial or symbolic philosophy of some of my ‘Woodist Jumbie’ photographs” and this reader can’t help nodding in agreement and relief. Because the book is confounding at times, though I must say never boring or, for that matter, frustrating. How could it be with the artistry of the master artist, as he is described throughout by co-author Paget Henry, and the guidance of a sage such as Henry, de-constructing the images throughout? But the personality of the book is sometimes a perplexing mix – is it coffee table art book for the art-lite appreciator, a philosophical journey in image, a technical work with appeal to fellow photographers and aficionados; it is at times all these. The effect is that sometimes the commentary gets in the way of simple appreciation of the work, sometimes it leaves the reader feeling lost especially when what’s seen and what’s explained are at odds, and sometimes it’s absolutely necessary in bringing clarity to the artist’s vision and helping the reader make key connections. And so where does this fit, this book: among other art books? among instructional photography books? among philosophical tomes? or within easy reach in the section for pretty picture books? The challenge is that it doesn’t sit easily on any of these shelves – a marketing challenge to be sure. But marketing is not my business here. So I’ll talk perhaps about the things I find most interesting about this book.

The images I appreciate for their essential beauty. The philosophy that underpins them, this intriguing sense of an artist grappling with both an idea and a new technical language to speak it, is also interesting to me. And I absolutely love the Antiguan-ness of it – that it is fine, fine art that acknowledges the existence of the jumbie of African-Antiguan/Caribbean lore, defiantly inserts them into privileged spots usually occupied by the deities of Western mythology – Jesus in Da Vinci’s Last Supper for instance.
This book is significant on several levels. Consider, for instance, that the visionaries behind it – Olatunji and Henry – come from a small island in the Caribbean; and have both distinguished themselves as immigrants in that country so many hold on a pedestal, America, where Henry is head of Africana studies at Ivy-league university, Brown, and where Olatunji, though rooted in his African-livity, photographed and learned from the masters of western art for decades as the fine arts photographer at the Museum of Modern Art. I mention this not in a look at them aren’t they special way, but because I want to underscore that they then took all acquired there, and mixed it in with the ingredients that made them here, in Antigua, where folks had no choice but to be creative and inventive to make life. By so doing, they’ve brought that distinctive brew, articulated it as well as such a thing can be articulated, and offered it back to Antigua, though sadly an Antigua now more pre-occupied with looking out than looking within and celebrating its own creativity.

And so it is with some bitterness that Olatunji says in the book, “It is beyond doubt that contemporary Antiguans and Barbudans have already shifted from their African-Antiguan Distinctiveness to the adaptation of outside cultures. Our contemporary generation is fast becoming completely ‘follow-fashioned’…” And if that is so, it is good that this book exists as another record not of our folk history – as do books like Monica Matthews’ Journeycakes and Keithlyn and Fernando (and Papa Sammy) Smith’s To Shoot Hard Labour – but as the articulation of a philosophy informed by home, Africa; nourished by the imagination, by the act of re-inventing ourselves here in Antigua; and which somehow also wouldn’t exist without some Western instruction as well.

This book is unique for these reasons, and for being daring enough to stare down the mockery of even acknowledging the existence of jumbie much less the audacity to build a visual and spiritual philosophy around them. To suggest that they are more than just the boogie man, to posit that they are instead the non-corporeal essence of our ancestors still with us, still looking on on things, still formulating opinions on things, still watching, still guiding, still seeing. Their opinions and feelings on the things they see, certainly as the photographer sees it, is communicated with the careful selection and application of grains of wood (and sometimes leaves). This is not just for-so. As, per the photographer’s own acknowledgement, given the belief that jumbies live/d in trees, this idea of their vision taking on a woodiness makes perfect sense. It’s one story any way, and he backs it up with striking and convincing imagery.

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“Image 33: Nelson’s Dockyard 2” P. 55, The Art of Mali Olatunji: Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda by Mali Olatunji and Paget Henry.

I’ll talk here about some of my favourites.

There’s the cover image of the jambull/john bull, a fearsome creature we didn’t have to imagine as children as he was always part of the Carnival, charging the crowds, barely kept in check by the whip man, scrounging for the pennies thrown – a confusing narrative even now into adulthood. Recently when I posted a picture of late artist E. T. Henry’s impression of a John Bull on my facebook page (facebook.com/JoanneCHillhouse), it got an origins conversation going, and no two theories were the same. Was the John Bull a stand in for ‘Great Britain’ per one narrative, was it a satirical character from the English imagination, or was it per the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda’s newsletter, which prompted the post, a masked African witch doctor being tended by the ‘Cattle Tender’? Olatunji’s image – which I remember first spotting many years ago, likely my introduction to the artist’s aesthetic, in the lobby of the Royal Antiguan Hotel – elevates the be-horned character to god like status as he hovers over the city at night. And I think that projection is intentional, the positioning suggesting that he has the freedom to move at will and to see all. There is no ‘cattle tender’ or bakkra in sight.

There’s the Slapping Hands image which has a whole back story, a story some of us grew up hearing about a girl who opened a book she shouldn’t have after being told not to. There’s even a related calypso – penned by the late great Marcus Christopher and sung by Eugene ‘Canary’ Henry all the way to the crown in 1960. In the Olatunji image we see several ghostly hands coming at the subject, whose eyes are wide in undisguised horror. Who knows what the real story behind this bit of local lore is – though Glen Toussaint does a good job of chronicling it at his blog Dat Bwoi for Jackie  as part of his series on regional folklore of the, shall we say, superstitious variety. As with these things, even his version leaves question marks: “Some say that she was going insane, slapping herself, others claimed it was in fact a Jumbie attacking her. Whatever it was, the hand prints on her face were clear enough…” And whatever it was Olatunji’s Slapping Hands does as good a job of capturing it visually as anyone could. What strikes me as I consider this image and Glen’s accounting is, no modern Antiguan would perhaps admit to believing in much less seeing a jumbie…but they’re not prepared to discount the possibility… for fear of vexing the very jumbie they’re not prepared to declare they actually believe exists.

Olatunji, of course, shows his hand i.e. declares his belief, with this book. It’s a bold move.

Olatunji is not a fan, I think it’s fair to say, of the term used throughout by Henry – “painterly photography” – but it’s hard to describe another of my favourite images, Eyeing the Groundswell, as anything but. It is a beautiful image and the strokes laid by the bark overlaying the beach scene has the brain instinctively categorizing it as a painting rather than a picture. It is not something documented – as people tend to think of photographs – but something conceived; the realm of the imagination, artistry, painting (though of course, within that conceit is the dismissal of photography as something innately outside the realm of the imagination, artistry, painting, and perhaps that implied dismissal of the fact that he’s contemplating shutter speeds and depth of field rather than oils and brush strokes is what vexes Olatunji). Olatunji attempts to address this tension when Henry gives him the last word in the book. He writes, that paintings are a “referent” of the artist’s inner self while photographs are “light-reflected creations from a surface or a state being”. That being the case, he must conclude, but only sort of, that his images lie somewhere in between. His images, he writes, are “self-referential” but with “layers of multiple objective realities” and something quite different, and intuitive, as a result.

This particular image, beyond its prettiness, gets the Henry treatment, a breakdown re the creative and technical process of creating it, a documentation of the artist’s intent, and the analyst’s interpretive treatment. If you’re interested in such things, you can study the picture with this information as context, or you could simply appreciate the innate beauty of it, the hyper-sharpness of the colours, the storminess of the skies, the stillness of the beach below; and that would be enough.

The warm tones of “Graceful interfold of beachness” are also appealing in a way that has nothing to do with the brain and everything to do with the soul. But ever there to feed the brain, Henry explains again about the selection of the bark, what appealed about it, and the effects of the overlay. And you’ll agree, I think, that there is a Van Gogh-esque quality to the way the lines curve their way down the length of the image.

The entire beach series boasts a natural beauty, an alluring fluidity in the swirl of the bark, and a sense of nostalgia for moments of nature either uninterrupted or in harmony with the humans who come to her. Through Deconstructed Beach-ness, Dogging the Groundswells, Nascent Salt, Barbuda, and Sea Bathers, there is not a resort in sight, and so nostalgia is stirred by the sense of something lost.

In the two-picture Barbuda Conch Blues series, we get first a straight-up documentary image, a relatively mild interaction between nature and commercial activity with the return of fish boats to the beach. Then, the same image, as seen through the woodist eye of the jumbie, and you’ll find yourself wondering as you peer through the image of shadows and light, and shadows within the light, what’s jumbie’s view of what he’s seen. For my money, s/he seems troubled – maybe due to the fact that the men returned with no catch, a tid bit shared by Henry which, along with the turmoil surrounding resort development plans on the sister island, yes, is impacting my reading of this image. Is nature withholding her bounty or has she been overused? Is the environmental commentary deliberate or mere projection? This image interests me as it raises questions in my mind.

The book hits a sweet spot in terms of both text and images with the series that follows, the focus on the Anglican Cathedral, Big Church in the local vernacular, a conflicting symbol with historical and religious implications for Antigua and on a more personal level, as broken down by Henry, for Olatunji. The first image shows the church within context of the city, on the hill, dominant, towering over everything; the second image, Easter Sunday, in black and white shot from within the church garden/graveyard as people pour out in their Easter Sunday best, is almost idyllic – both are documents rather than straight up commentary, the jumbie has not weighed in as yet. That changes, the next five images showing a progressively tumultuous relationship between the viewer, the jumbie, the departed, likely African, soul, and this symbol of English and Western and Christian dominance. It is an uneasy relationship and the swirl and heaviness of the chosen barks, the way they shadow and settle like a cataract over the scene by the time we get to the last of these images, Entombed, underscore this. There is no denying the contrast Henry points out between the picturesque, relatively speaking, beach scenes, and these images awash with critical intent:

“Unmistakable is the tension from his boyhood between a deeply felt African spirituality that had been devalued and negated by an imperial Christianity. In this series, the colonized African strikes back through the vision of the Jumbie at the colonizer on the terrain of religion. The particular intensity of these images makes it quite clear how strongly our master artist has experienced and lived this conflict.”

I have to agree.

And it’s at this point, I think that it hit me that as much as these images are supposed to be the world through the jumbie’s eye, it’s actually the world through the jumbie’s eye as interpreted and sometimes influenced by the artist – if this were a book I was writing, the jumbie would be a character in that book, with a certain amount of agency/independence of its own but filtered through my understanding and shaping of that perspective. It was for me a pivotal turning point in terms of my reading of this book. What I was reading/seeing was a story as told to the artist by the jumbie as shown to me by the artist and interpreted for me, to some degree, by his co-author. It was if not a work of fiction, a work of creative non-fiction, and all the more interesting because of it.

The Slave Dungeon one of the non-woodist images sprinkled throughout the book had me thinking of my first meeting with Olatunji – not a great beginning for us – and my introduction to this site which found its way into my novel Oh Gad! It’s at Orange Valley and (like the baobob on the Freemansville main road where national hero King Court/Prince Klaas and his fellow rebels would meet to plot) should, in my view, be as protected and revered as the British fortifications. The dungeon is a place where you can feel the pained and longsuffering and enduring spirit of our ancestors, it is a place where their jumbie lives, or so I posited in my reporting on the site back when and my interpretation of it in my novel. What is the photographer and his co-author’s intent in placing it here? Well, Henry explains that this image which continues the photographer’s encounter with colonialism should have had a companion image as others in the series will, but the jumbie version of the image “has deteriorated”. Now, I want nothing so much as to see it.

I suspect the jumbie’s response to it was strong, stronger than society’s lukewarm, ambivalent response, relative to the sites of British memory, e.g. Nelson’s Dockyard.

In this section, I am particularly drawn to investigate the Papa VC image wherein the esteemed and yet all too humanly flawed Father of the Nation in grey tones overlaid with gold-hued bark and the suggestion of ghostly faces within his peripheral makes for a formidable presence. Love him or hate him, there’s a solidity to him in Antigua and Barbuda’s understanding of itself as a nation and in Olatunji’s interpretation of him through the jumbie’s eye. “The woodist brushes in this photograph are indeed quite historic and reflect Olatunji’s appreciation and admiration of the early Bird,” Henry writes, while at the same time commenting on the late leader’s polarizing effect and Olatunji’s later ambivalence.

Carnival is perhaps the most photographed Caribbean tableau, after beaches and sunsets, but Olatunji, ever the iconoclast, has but one Carnival image here, the revelers largely obscured save for peeks of colour, this obscuring perhaps reflecting Olatunji’s disenchantment with the festival that was once an artist’s dreamscape and is now basically, even Carnival lovers like myself have to agree, an over-priced, all-inclusive, alcohol-laden, commercially-hijacked party – with music still too sweet to resist.
And so, Henry writes, “This decline in the cultural creativity and significance of Carnival Olatunji sees as part of the larger crisis of post-colonial governance resulting from gaps in the leadership practices of our governing political and cultural elites.” And yet, as the writer reports, Olatunji recalled being delighted by this particular Carnival display, underscoring this section’s theme of ambivalence – he loves it, he loves it not, he loves it, he loves it not…

There is no ambivalence, however, about the Antigua Sugar Factory, a site of sugar production, and by extension occupation of Black lives back in the day. The factory is decayed and overlaid with a bark so thick and cracked the decay is magnified, and is, paradoxically, almost a thing of beauty. The past is being petrified.

Among the New York images, some of the most striking for me are Fire Beyond Brooklyn Bridge, with the placement of the wood approximating a sun flare backlighting one of the city’s more iconic images; City Hall, in which the seat of government is murky looking, hinting perhaps at the corruption and stasis that so often infects politics making it ineffectual; Petrification at Harlem, which rather than seeming frozen to me, has the effect of waves that for me calls to mind the name of another image in the book Antigua a-wash-way. Let’s see what Henry has to say about these images and how his insights gel with or prove ‘wrong’ my interpretation. Hmmm, bridge on fire, more “incendiary” than my interpretation; city hall rendered “stony, obstructed, and inaccessible”, yes, I can see that – I did not, however, see the “ghostly appearance … (of the woman) …walking away… with very uncertain results or unclear answers” until Henry, as guide on this journey, pointed her out; but I might have to agree to disagree with him that the water in the black and white Harlem image appears frozen though I can agree that it speaks to tension between nature and the urban landscape of the most (debatably) famous and infamous city in the world.

These New York images are great talk pieces, great for discussion, because of that, because they are so widely open to interpretation, because there’s a darkness to so many of them, e.g. A Shadowed Pathway in which the jumbie may or not be seeing a shadow of himself – but that’s just one interpretation.

Sometimes, every now and again, the woodiness is naturally occurring such as in View from My Harlem window, a beautiful picture of a New York street as seen through the leaves of a tree on what seems to be a quiet morning in Fall or, another favourite, the award winning Solitude in Fall, in which the trees line up in the distance in an image defined by its lines and mood; but more often they are chosen and imposed by the photographer to reshape the image into something otherworldly such as Central Park Strollers, a jigsaw of an image, or Mah in which a Twin Towers-like pairing of images is enswirled in the rich reddish-gold bark representing the mother of one of Olatunji’s friends. The latter is one of those images that makes a strong case for the description Henry favours “painterly photography”. He shares an anecdote in which the film developer, when Olatunji went to collect his images, “insisted to the end that this was a painting that had been photographed”, leading to the conclusion that “Mah is a very good example of the multiple ways in which Olatunji’s works are seen by different viewers, and thus also of the kinds of heated exchanges that they can produce.”

You will marvel at Olatunji’s mastery of his art form through simply beautiful vistas like Moments til Moonrise, and through images like A Jumbie at Moma in which the artist’s Antigua crashes in to the ‘hallowed’ spaces of Western high art, wherein we’re not seeing through the eyes of the jumbie but are observing the jumbie, a ghostly apparition, in this space. And if there’s any doubt that Olatunji is not an opportunistic photographer but is very deliberate about his images, you have only to read Henry break down of how this image came to be:

“To get the shadow of the man that represents the Jumbie, Olatunji found a very cooperative subject. The group standing in the corner was much larger before the photograph was tken. As some were departing, Olatunji asked this man to be a part of his photograph, but did not tell him that he would be providing this all-important shadow….Hanging on the wall to the left is, of course Picasso’s famous ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. This is the painting that has in its upper right hand corner the much discussed lady whose face reflects the iinfluences of the masks of the Fang people of Gabon.” None of this is accidental – up to and including the decision to locate this jumbie in a space occupied by one of the masters’ works, a work in particular that references Africa, which the Antiguan-born artist claims as his spiritual home from his style of dress to the name he owns.

Looking at Snow Play in Prospect Park, I think back to an earlier image, Labour Day at Fort James, and see intentionally or not an appreciation in the photographer if not the jumbie for the carefree joy and abandon of youth. The photographer was, of course, doing other things with this image, technical things that the writer admits went over his head, but whatever it is it makes for a beautiful winter wonderland in which there is a noticeable interplay of light and shadow on the snow.

Broadway, Times Square, these are all covered, literally under the jumbie’s gaze but it’s the second image of Brooklyn Bridge, in which the fire has burned out, the colour of the wood like fading embers or the warm tones of sunset over the scene. The post script to this chapter is the photographer’s cheeky meeting of London and New York in which he lays a scene from one space space over a moment from the other, to prove his mastery of his medium and his control over his narrative.

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“Image 69: A Tree Grows in Broadway” from The Art of Mali Olatunji Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda by Mali Olatunji and Paget Henry.

It is clear that Olatunji felt fired up on landing in England, the one-time ‘Mother’ of so much of the world including his homeland Antigua. The beauty of the parks clearly captivating him and the jumbie gazes on them almost affectionately, appreciative of the way nature resists being pushed out by industry – unlike New York where he lived for many years. The iconic sites are there Nelson’s Statue, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Parliament Square, River Thames (a beautiful image), Big Ben all blocked by the swirling, cracked, jaundiced and jaded eye of the jumbie. One of the more interesting series centres on Big Ben, on the artist’s effort to rob Big Ben of its bigness, it’s iconicity, its arrogant demand that the world run on its time – and if you’re thinking Big Ben is a stand-in for Mother England herself and the jumbie working her voodoo via the photographer’s hand is all of Africa’s displaced children, I would venture you’re not far off. That’s certainly my read of it as the artist progressively ages the image, so that it seems to decay and whither to stillness under the jumbie’s gaze. Of the final image, Big Ben stopped, Henry writes, “It has been largely silenced as decay has turned to petrification – a deadening that has encased Big Ben in photographic stone…(calling) to mind the complete erasure of the cathedral in our Big Church series.” This is one of those moments where the presence of Henry as guide is critical in making key connections – because here is one of those moments that this book is more than just a pretty coffee table book, more than just a technical exploration for photographers interested in a new technique, a moment where the book is, in fact, decisive, emphatic commentary on the African experience in relation to England and, more broadly, Western powers. Politics is at play here in many ways, in the case of this series notably in the commentary implicit in the images of parliament darkened by bark as though covered in smog and in the protests which declare ‘Capitalism isn’t working’ which meet with the jumbie’s and the photographer’s approval. On a purely aesthetic note, Big Ben stopped and in fact the series of three of the iconic clock is among the more beautiful and, sorry, Mali, painterly images in the book.

We return to Antigua with the jumbie, with the photographer, and their spirit is not at ease – evident in the flow of wood grain over the image of the Holy Family Catholic cathedral and Mount St. John Medical Centre in Downward Flow of Spirituality and Health, the dark and foreboding shadow over shadow of The Ship of State, in the roughness of the bark over the harbor view in Storm of Corruption – no ambivalence there. Jumbie and photographer are angry and that anger turns in on itself to depression and despair as they look at the ships in the harbor, for instance – the kind of thing that makes those invested in cruise tourism’s debatable offerings salivate – and see instead of beauty the Encroaching on the Environment and Pollution!

It is not a happy ending though Henry attempts to make it so with the inclusion of images that for the most part don’t fit the woodist aesthetic, images which he said represent hope – portraits of artists. One of those artists and the only one of four portraits seen through the jumbie’s eye is the one of me, shot in New York, reading Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy.

I’ve stared for long minutes at this image, trying to understand what the jumbie sees when she looks at me because though the image is positioned to represent hope, the dappled grain has an odd effect – where there might be hope, but also uncertainty and concern. The other woodist images in this section are of Olatunji’s son at play, and the jumbie does seem hopeful looking on this image, and the master artist in prayerful pose, and though his face seems at rest the swirl of textures around him suggest he is not quite at peace – and given the images that have come before, who can blame him. It is also at odds with the sense those of us who think of Olatunji less as the fall on your knees in prayer type and more of the get up and fight type. If it were a story being told, this would seem a bit of a pat ending – which is not intended as a swipe against the writer, who does a good job throughout of bringing context to the work – but of the underlying tension between the spirit of the artist and the ordering of the writer.

But the artist gets the last word, re-focussing the reader on his intent – and it is here that we get a deeper sense of the technical innovation and philosophical searching guiding this work; his respect for his elders and for the unseen, for his culture and his people, for process, for intentionality – moving beyond taking pictures to making pictures. And reading this section one can’t help thinking what a shame it is that he is not being used in some way here in Antigua and Barbuda to teach master classes in photography, yes, but also in so many of the concepts the book explores, which can perhaps be summed up as who are we – who we be. It is a soul searching sort of work. And perhaps it started as is suggested at one point as the artist tried to grapple with aging and death, with loss without losing hope; but it has evolved in to more than that – a documentary of a life, a commentary on space/s and history, and a probing at, yes, who we be.

Beautiful as the gallery is that follows, it could have, perhaps should have, ended with this final word from the artist. But since the gallery is there can I just end by commenting on the beauty in stolen slice of life moments like Boys at Sea, still life images like sugar apple and pupa, and additional woodist works like Autumn in Connecticut – a series that leaves a lasting image of a master artist, the master well earned, in full command of the language of his art and in the crafting of it.

As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, Fish Outta Water, and forthcoming With Grace). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.

All images are from The Art of Mali Olatunji and are the artist’s copyright; do not re-use in any way without permission.

 

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