The Journal interviews some of the 67 artists who were honored recently by the National Gallery for their contribution to the gallery’s permanent collection.
Works created by Cayman’s artists tell the story of the islands’ unique identity through visual media, blending art and culture in a permanent collection at the National Gallery.
Gallery director Natalie Urquhart says Caymanian art speaks to the territory’s maritime heritage and to the changing realities of the growing country – from the mythic to the commonplace – as the islands define themselves in a rapidly changing world.
“Through color, canvas and multi-media, our artists use their unique position to explore our journey and to encourage dialogue surrounding it,” she says. “It’s important to draw attention to their efforts and to provide exposure for the enormous talent which the NGCI collection artists represent.”
Ms. Urquhart added that the inaugural induction event last month, honoring a total of 67 artists, was an opportunity to celebrate Cayman’s artists and to publicly honor their contribution, not only to the National Gallery’s collection, but also to the wider development of art in the Cayman Islands.
Some of the artists – and their stories – are featured here.
Chronicler of the Cayman Islands
Charles Long is probably one of the most prolific Caymanian artists of our time. His work has been described as a Caribbean version of the British painter L.S. Lowry, the “matchstick men” painter, who depicted ordinary scenes of life using simplistic images of everyday people.
Born in Nigeria, Long attended prep school in the U.K. and then did A-level art in Swaziland at a world college. He moved to the Cayman Islands more than 40 years ago when his father Athelstan Long was the last administrator (1968 – 1971) and first governor (1971 – 1972) of the islands. Now 95, his father still lives on island with his 93-year-old wife.
“I came to Cayman in 1968 and I liked the island from the start,” Long says. “The people were friendly and I loved the landscape. I have been painting ever since, but only full time in the last 10 years or so.”
Often called a chronicler of Cayman, Long shows the history of the islands through his art. At the National Gallery’s permanent collection, Long’s “Mr. Miller and his Ting,” painted around 1973, is an acrylic on Masonite.
“The painting was actually commissioned by Mitch Miller, who was a famous band leader from the United States,” Long says. Miller was head of artists and repertoire at Columbia Records and was a best-selling recording artist with a TV series, “Sing Along with Mitch” in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“Mitch is actually depicted in the VW in the painting,” Long says. “His family donated it back to the gallery when he died in 2010.”
Although figurative, Long’s work is not pure abstract.
“I like to paint a lot of figures, trees and the colors of the Cayman Islands,” he says. “And even though this painting was created in 1973, I think it’s still a recognizable landscape of George Town.”
These days, Long is regularly commissioned to paint pieces that include family members, their home or other well-known iconic landmarks of the Cayman Islands.
Emotions on canvas
Nasaria Suckoo Chollette, an artist and teacher whose “Sweet Ladu” painting is in the National Gallery’s permanent collection, paints from deep emotion.
“I have to be extremely happy, frustrated or in love with an idea in order to be able to create,” she says.
The name of her painting comes from an Indian dessert, a reference to Suckoo Chollette’s Indian heritage, while the imagery for the swirling colors of her painting came about from observing a student she taught. The Star of David painted in henna represents the star in the Rastafarian religion as well as the Jewish faith, Suckoo Chollette says, referring again to her Indian roots but also her interest in the broad spectrum of spirituality.
The student in question reminded the artist of herself.
“I became so impressed with the woman that she had become, so open to all sorts of music and art, I wanted not only to depict the changes in her body as she grew into womanhood, but also the very strong spiritual growth that I could see taking place,” she says. “We are close even though she isn’t my student now, and I’m actually godmother to her child.”
Suckoo Chollette says painting has helped her overcome her previous difficulty in connecting with women in general.
“I have a great relationship with women on canvas,” she says. “But I have few girlfriends and bond better with men, although I’ve come to love women through poetry, art and books and have reconnected with them through art.”
Suckoo Chollette likes to focus her artistic subject matter on women and children, and her work often speaks about issues affecting them, she says – in particular, spiritual growth and becoming a better person.
“I think that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day,” she says.
Going beyond realism
Al Ebanks is well known for his over-sized abstract artwork that draws the viewer in with an almost hypnotic feel. His piece at the National Gallery’s permanent collection is “A Child’s Gift” and was painted 13 years ago.
“The painting originally hung in the Kensington Gallery that was established at the time,” he says. “Growing up with my mother and seven siblings, the painting was an attempt to capture the maternal feeling of nurturing and breast-feeding, an ‘in the womb’ type of feeling. In addition, I painted this piece at a time when I was transitioning from the single life into a relationship.”
Family and home life have always been inspirations for Ebanks, as well as the Cayman Islands as a whole, but his approach to art has always been quite different from the mainstream.
“In high school they teach you to paint within the lines, but that was too structured thinking for me,” he says. “My rebellious mind wanted to think outside the box even though most people in this community expected an artist to paint realistically. I painted realistically for a while, but it was torture. I wanted to go beyond.”
Inspired by artists such as Picasso and Van Gogh, Ebanks says for some reason his artistic vision has always been in abstract, even though his work is inspired by the islands that surround him.
In a similar vein, artist and teacher Mark Frazer, who has been sculpting and painting for 40 years, says he has also been motivated to create art by what he sees every day. His sculpture in bronzed copper and mixed media of a local woman shopping on a bike, housed at the National Gallery’s permanent collection, is typical of the work he has produced over the years.
“I’m just inspired by everyday scenes. For example, I saw a guy cycling on his back wheel while carrying his front wheel, so I had to make a sculpture out of it,” he says. “Likewise, I spotted someone wearing a plastic bag over their head to protect themselves from the rain, which also created the theme for another sculpture.”
Frazer also enjoys working in ceramics, creating horses inspired from his observations of the artist Edgar Degas.
In pursuit of culture
Wray Banker’s humorous take on life is depicted throughout his work, though there is always an underlying serious message that speaks to Cayman’s culture, a rally cry to ensure that this culture is constantly identified and maintained.
“Oh! Ma Toe. Dis fa whelks? Series No 5,” on display in the National Gallery’s permanent collection, is a large-scale piece that started as a giant sketch on brown paper.
“I was known as the paper bag boy at school,” Banker says. “I like painting on brown paper as it’s a good contrast to the white and black painting and is different from the usual color palette chosen by artists. I really wanted to get away from canvas. With the brown paper, I succumbed to the straightforwardness of it.”
Banker says he likes painting humorous work in Caymanian settings.
“I created this painting in 1996, and I wanted to make sure the Caymanian dialect was included in the piece, hence the title is part of the painting. At that time we didn’t seem to celebrate our Caymanian accent, preferring instead to speak with some kind of American twang. I wanted to celebrate how we normally spoke and take out the unease that we seemed to have with our language,” he explains.
Banker is perhaps best known for his iconic “Milo” series, a Warhol-esque study of the famous malt beverage-mix powder.
“It was something I had wanted to do for a long time. Something contemporary and modern. I wanted to go to the lowest common denominator, something that’s on the table every day, something that we generally dismiss, to show that we have culture to those who say we don’t, and that there is a richness and variation to culture, even at breakfast.”
Education through art
The inaugural NGCI Collection Induction evening was sponsored by gallery board member Susan A. Olde, who has a long-standing interest in art and was always very academically involved in the arts. Originally from Canada, she has lived in the Cayman Islands for the past 21 years.
“I became involved with the National Gallery through a friend, Helen Harquail, who invited me to be involved. Both of us had a lot of vision for the gallery, but it’s not enough just to put up a gallery. Part of the involvement is to speak to the cultural and artistic heritage of the Cayman Islands.”
Mrs. Olde believes that artistic expression needs to be embraced and encouraged.
“The evening recognizes the unsung art heroes. It’s important to recognize Cayman’s cultural and artistic heritage and to create inspiration for young people to be part of a group of champions.”
To this end, the permanent collection has begun to play an important part in the school curriculum for Cayman’s young people. Speaking with regard to collections-based education, Urquhart explains that the gallery launched its Active Learning Session schools program in 2013, funded by Dart, and this continues to develop.
The sessions “use the permanent national collection as a stimulus, encouraging pupils to explore and investigate the art on display,” she explains. In addition to developing an understanding of the art and culture of the Cayman Islands, she says, they also link to topics in the national curriculum, such as literacy, numeracy, science and social studies.
“They have been developed by NGCI in close collaboration with the curriculum policy advisers at the Ministry of Education,” she adds.
Viewed within the historical, cultural and educational context, the National Gallery’s permanent collection continues to be a significant asset for the islands, artists, educators and curators agree.