Those interested in the historical development of fine art in the Cayman Islands are currently in for a treat. The National Gallery recently unveiled its latest exhibition, “Our Story of Art,” which chronicles artistic endeavors from the 1960s to the present day through the works of 50 local artists.
Cayman’s art scene appears vibrant and busy, with entities such as the Visual Arts Society and the National Gallery encouraging artistic flow, and a multitude of hotels, coffee shops and other venues around the island willing to showcase local art.
But this has not always been the case.
In the 1970s, young aspiring Caymanian artist Bendel Hydes was unable to acquire even the simplest of artist’s materials to help him release his burgeoning passion.
“From the time I was very young, I realized that I would have to leave Cayman in order to succeed as an artist,” says Hydes, now an established and successful artist based in New York.
Hydes says that local art teacher, the late Ed Oliver, helped guide him in his early artistic endeavors. Hydes took it upon himself at age 13 to take a correspondence course in art, enabling him to pass his art GCSE at that age without an art teacher.
“For me, art was just something I did, but as I started exploring it, I realized there was a nobility and history behind it, which drove me to explore it even further. While taking the correspondence course, however, I could not acquire even the simplest drafting or watercolor set anywhere in Cayman. I went to Kirk Plaza at the time, where the manager knew my family, and asked him to order the art supplies for me. He declined to do so on the grounds that ‘he would be stuck with materials that would never sell!’ He was right!”
Hydes was perhaps the first Caymanian to study fine art abroad, and since 1982 he has lived and worked in New York City. A prolific artist, he has exhibited all around the world and is a co-founder of the Cayman Islands National Gallery and the Cayman National Cultural Foundation. He has gone on to become one of the most exciting artists of his era and is featured in the National Gallery’s “Our Story of Art” exhibition, with his “Yellow Leaves” oil on canvas painting, which dates to 1988 and is a highlight of the show.
Even though he resides in New York, his Caymanian heritage is still very much a part of who he is as a painter.
“One of the most distinctive features of being from an island is the unique characteristics it imbues one with. My Caymanian heritage has influenced me greatly in that my work is a product of having grown up surrounded by water, which influenced me even as a child. My first mature work dealt with sand; now for many years, my liquid veils of color are a complete manifestation of that watery world as well as a reflection of my obsession with geography and the ‘character of place’ found in my work,” he says.
Contemporary art scene
Natalie Urquhart is the curator of the show and the National Gallery’s director. She articulates how Cayman’s art scene has developed to where it is today: “This growing interest in the visual arts is concurrent with the increasing number of artists currently practicing, which exceeds that of any time in our past,” she says. “Many of these artists are articulating a uniquely Caymanian experience through their work and striving to express their location within 21st century Caymanian society.”
Contemporary art forms such as installation, photography and assemblage have become as common as more traditional media of painting and sculpture, and these are being executed with an increased clarity and confidence, she says.
“Bendel Hydes addresses his position as a Caymanian diaspora artist living between two diverse communities through a purely abstract visual language. Wray Banker uses installation and often humorous graphic sketches to comment on traditional Caymanian heritage. Kaitlyn Elphinstone’s work addresses her environmental concerns by meticulously ‘wrapping’ seed pods and other found natural objects, while Davin Ebanks’s glass sculptures reference his maritime heritage in a wholly contemporary format, to give but a few examples,” she says.
A way to go
It’s Hydes’s view, however, that Cayman’s art scene exists to please tourists.
“It always has and always will until the island achieves a coherent identity,” he says. “It was one of the main reasons why I left! Being a small island, however, this outlook is both sociologically and economically necessary, as so much of the islands’ livelihood depend on tourism. Artists there must balance this need to produce imitation works that sell with serious experimental work aimed at the human soul.”
Urquhart acknowledges that much still needs to be done if this current momentum is to continue.
“One of the primary impediments to the development of the visual arts has been the lack of primary- and tertiary-level arts education, trained museum/gallery staff, support for critical dialogue about fine art, and set policies and procedures for visual arts development that are directed by an informed cultural policy,” she explains.
She says these challenges are not unique to the Cayman Islands, but they need adequate attention and support by both the public and private sector, and soon.
“With the continuing development of an informed, professional infrastructure, the arts community looks forward to a bright future with growing opportunities and increased support.”
“Our Story of Art” runs until Feb. 13, 2014.