Art ancestors

A reading list

When does the art history of the Caribbean properly begin? In the thirteenth century, with the oldest surviving wood and stone carvings made by the Taíno of the Greater Antilles? Circa 1515, with the enigmatic Taíno object known as the Beaded Zemi (now in a museum in Italy) — partly carved, partly woven, made from Caribbean seeds, shells, and cotton, European glass beads, and a fragment of African rhinoceros horn — an exemplary creole object almost avant la lettre? In the eighteenth century, when artists born in the Antilles and trained in the European classical tradition began producing portraits and religious works? Or in the early twentieth, when — urged by movements towards political self-determination and cultural nationalism, as much as by international Modernism — artists began to experiment with form and subject to more closely represent their lived experience of the Caribbean, and a recognisably indigenous visual language emerged?

Any of these moments offers a possible genesis-point. Caribbean (and Caribbeanist) art historians have largely and understandably concentrated their attention on the “modern” period — which began earlier in the Hispanic Caribbean, later in the rest of the region — and on contemporary artists in particular. But in a few Caribbean territories, specific native-born artists of the early to mid-nineteenth century have come to be seen — or at least argued for — as founding figures, after a fashion, of their respective national art histories. These near contemporaries, rooted socially and culturally in their home territories but informed artistically by the European tradition, were witnesses to the final days of plantation slavery or the early post-Emancipation decades. Each is a crux of the ongoing debate about how to define Caribbean art.

Gerrit Schouten, born in Suriname in 1779, was the son of a Dutch government official with a local reputation for his satirical poems and essays, and his coloured wife, herself descended from a free black family. The younger Schouten was a mostly self-taught artist, a gifted draughtsman, and his able botanical drawings are preserved in museums on three continents. But he is best known for his miniature dioramas: quirky three-dimensional scenes made from painted papier mâché, cloth, and natural materials, depicting the city of Paramaribo, various plantation landscapes, and “typical” scenes in Amerindian and enslaved African settlements.

These little masterpieces of perspectival foreshortening, which convey both depth and distance in their shallow frames, were intended for sale to colonial officials and other worthies — a superior kind of souvenir, less predictable than, say, a topographical watercolour. Most of the surviving dioramas are now in Europe, but three, dating to the 1830s, belong to the Suriname Museum, and were recently the highlights of an exhibition celebrating their restoration. The catalogue, Gerrit Schouten: Met Meesterhand Vervaardigd (2008) — the title translates roughly as “crafted by a master” — is a slim but well-illustrated volume, analysing the ethnographic detail recorded in the museum’s Schoutens. More amply, Kijkkasten uit Suriname: De diorama’s van Gerrit Schouten (also 2008), by the Dutch art historian Clazien Medendorp, reproduces twenty-seven of Schouten’s “box sculptures.” A pair of 3-D glasses tucked into the book, for viewing specially printed images, permits the illusion of immediate presence.

The dioramas’ jaunty and slightly weird vitality is what probably strikes most ordinary viewers, more than the historical information they preserve. The same may be true of another important body of work created at roughly the same time at the other end of the Caribbean, in Jamaica. The hand-coloured lithographs of Isaac Mendes Belisario’s Sketches of Character (1837) depict both costumed masqueraders at the Christmas-season Jonkonnu celebrations in Kingston and characteristic tradespeople of the town — a milkwoman, a chimneysweep, a flower-seller. The Jonkonnu images in particular have been reproduced so often — on stamps, postcards, posters, and the like — that they are probably more familiar to the average Jamaican than the live Jonkonnu performances that have (tenuously) survived to the present day.

Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and His Worlds (2007; reviewed in the February 2008 CRB), a six-hundred-page heavyweight volume that accompanied an exhibition at Yale University, reproduces the Sketches of Character at two thirds their original folio size. Essays by a luminary cast of scholars and curators examine these and other works by Belisario and his contemporaries in the context of the major social upheavals that convulsed Jamaican society in the period immediately before and after Emancipation in 1834. But the book steps gingerly around the biography of Belisario himself, of whom relatively little is known.

Jackie Ranston has been rather braver, tackling the life as much as the works in Belisario: Sketches of Character, a hefty and extravagantly illustrated tome published in 2008. She has combed through numerous public and private archives to assemble every scrap of surviving data about the artist and his immediate family — here are his grandfather’s financial records, maps of locations where various generations of Belisarios travelled or settled, family trees, and insights into the everyday lives of property- and slave-owners in late eighteenth-century Jamaica (where Belisario was born in 1795 into a Jewish family). If, in the end, after four hundred pages, the reader still has only a hazy notion of Belisario the man — his motives, desires, dreams — that says less about Ranston’s patient research and more about history’s unbridgeable gaps.

Jean-Michel Cazabon is similarly enigmatic. The son of prosperous free coloured migrants from Martinique and Guadeloupe, he was born in south Trinidad in 1813, and sent to Europe to be educated — first at a public school in England, then in Paris, where he trained as an artist. As his biographer Geoffrey MacLean explains in Cazabon: An Illustrated Biography of Trinidad’s Nineteenth- Century Painter (1986), he lived and worked in France and Italy for a decade before returning to Trinidad in 1848 and establishing himself as a society painter and art teacher. Almost right away, he had the great good fortune to attract the friendship of the colony’s new governor, Lord Harris, remembered to this day as a vigorous reformer. Cazabon accompanied Harris on his tours of the island and painted a series of over forty watercolours and oils — landscapes, mostly — which the governor eventually took back to England. These are documented in MacLean’s Cazabon: The Harris Collection (1999). But — as with Belisario — Cazabon left relatively few personal documents, no one knows what he looked like, and first-hand accounts of his personality are rare.

Which is why the scant references to the artist in The Letters of Margaret Mann (2008), edited by Danielle Delon, are of special interest to Cazabonophiles. Mann, the wife of an English army engineer posted to Trinidad from 1847 to 1851, was an enthusiastic watercolourist, who took drawing and painting lessons with none other than Monsieur Cazabon. She was not exactly overawed by her tutor, even if he was the governor’s favourite. “He is a man of very narrow mind,” Mann wrote to her mother, “and is extremely conceited, but capable of what I expect from him” — faintish praise, though a month later she wrote that under his instruction she was “progressing very rapidly,” and when the Manns left Trinidad they took an album of “views” — reproduced as an appendix to the Letters — believed to include works by Cazabon.

In his later life, when commissions dried up, Cazabon had trouble making ends meet, but the story goes that when he died of heart failure in 1888 he was working at his easel. Whether or not you agree to call him Trinidad’s first major artist, surely you can admire his professional persistence.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2009