Posted in Debate, Sex in Caribbean Art by Adele Todd on August 17, 2007

1960 playboy Marilyn Monroe

When I was growing up my father had a collection of Playboy magazines. I remember one day hearing on television that nude magazines were against the law. I was very worried that my father would be carted off to jail. I had looked through these magazines and I found the women more beautiful than lewd. This aside, I began to wonder about the whole idea of what constituted vulgar and what was art. On the one hand, it seemed simple, anything where the woman did not seem to be clearly splayed open for the world to see, completely exposed, could be considered not grossly bad taste.

However the pendulum swings back and forth on that one, as today artists such as Iranian artist Mona Hatoum and British artist Cecily Brown have used porn imagery to dramatic effect, almost neutralizing it.

In my research of the first art collective in Trinidad and Tobago, I understand that Hugh Stollmeyer attempted to draw and paint nudes, and in the repressed climate of turn of the early 20th century, his work was looked upon with suspicion and derision. Sadly, this continued up to recently at the only technical college on the island, when a huge debate was made over whether the model used could and should show her naked breasts to the students. The concern had nothing to do with the art students, but with students from other departments who it was believed, may get wind of the act and prove too curious.
This all seems pretty quaint when we also know that children are documenting themselves having sex with their friends and sending these small films to each other. With all of this going on, where does art stand?

LeRoy Clarke’s exhibition, 2005 (detail)

The artist LeRoy Clarke has endeavoured to explore such imagery of women with titles like ‘fruit of the womb’. He works in abstractions with deep lines and colour. His women are reduced to heavily lined bulbous shapes and jagged lines. There is also the work of Noel Vocrosson, Boscoe Holder and Stuart Hahn, who have looked at the traditional female form and sexualized her by giving her a life bigger than the clichés of the kerchief and the subtle pose.

How have these artists managed this? They have done this by re-examining traditional art poses of women and by carefully bringing something more to their observation of women in costume.

Of the three artists, the first two have stayed closest to tradition. However they have attempted to use colour and light in ways that mark their work as a style specific to them. Mr Holder in particular has attempted to give his female figures a lengthened grace, akin to Mannerism of the earl 1700’s.

His paintings of men however, is where his work truly showed a breaking away from this expectant, pretty, court painting as it revealed subtle and not so subtle sexual under and overtones, seen, but undiscussed.

The non disclosure of the homosexuality in these works is a tragedy in West Indian Art, as by ignoring the obvious, we have lost opportunities to expand and explore emotional states that deserve discussion and understanding. Yet this is not surprising, the Caribbean attitude has always been to keep quite about the things that concern us most and are not easily explained away.

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