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Omowale Stewart – The colour of our culture


Omowale Stewart – The colour of our culture

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THE NATIONAL CULTURAL Foundation and the Board of the National Art Gallery  staged an exhibition, entitled ART-SPEAK of Omowale Stewart’s work, at the Errol Waldron Building, which is part of the University of the West Indies Medical School in Jemmotts Lane, St Michael. It was to celebrate his contribution to the development of the arts in Barbados in the post-Independence period.

The show ART-SPEAK s not a retrospective, but curator Janice Whittle captures the versatility of Stewart in the variety of media he has explored. The works date from the 1980s.

It may seem unconventional to have staged this art exhibit in a medical school (I certainly was surprised that the space was there, set back as it is from the road) and yet was able to hold so many works of art. However, with the country in need of more spaces to show visual art, there is something quite lovely to have young doctors – future healers of the mind and body – sharing space with an exhibit that celebrates the mind of one man and the bodies of our people.

Bodies, especially women’s bodies, are a major part of Omowale’s contemplation. There is a lot of warmth and sensuousness in the way he lovingly renders one woman in the 1980 painting Tante. The same elements are there again in a new work from 2016 called Makeda.

But, more than just luscious bodies, Omawale captures the individual looks of these women and gives the viewer some suggestion of their personalities. In the second room Whittle has placed the sketches of Stewart together with portraits he has done in oil pastel, ink and watercolour. Here again Stewart gives each portrait a real sensitivity and the lines have a lot of tonal power.

The differences between the sketches and paintings from the 1980 and 1990s, and the most recent work, are in the brushstrokes. The lines around the women are stronger, more permanent, setting them apart from the background.

Whittle in her statement about the show said: “There is a danger when the symbolic element takes over and the women entirely lose their individuality.”

I believe that the women have become archetypal in some of these new works, as Omowale seems to be focused on our culture writ large. He is focused here on our heritage, not nostalgia for a time gone, but an attempt to focus the viewers on the energy of a city market, bemused looks and laughter of our children and echoes of our African heritage which still exist in our faces, our body language and our energy.

This is not surprising as Stewart and his twin brother, the artist Sundiata Stewart, were drawn from their schooldays to research Barbadian history, particularly exploring our African heritage. It is all there to be seen in this exhibition work, fitting at this time, for the 50th anniversary of Independence.

There are some paintings focusing on our heritage that are less successful such as three acrylic paintings of cricketers from 2005 that are weak. Luckily they are the exception rather than the rule.

Full disclosure here readers, I have sat on the judging panel with Omowale for Crop Over mas for the last four years and while we are not close friends, we are friendly and I have respect for his work as a painter and mas man. I say this here not only for transparency but also because visitors to the show would have seen in the catalogue for the exhibition a lot of his Crop Over designs.

It is a shame that the physical costumes were not there as well. Walking around the space of the exhibit one feels that it would have been lovely to see his decades of costumes together, as they directly speak to his commentary on, and compassion for our heritage. I invite the National Cultural Foundation to consider a future exhibit like this.