A century ago the American artist Robert Henri wrote:
“There is nothing in all the world more beautiful than the nude human body. It is not only among artists, but among all people, that a greater appreciation and respect for the human body should develop. When we respect the nude we will no longer have any shame about it.”
In the Caribbean, carnival is culture and culture, at least here in Dominica, is classified as art. I question that last linkage, but let’s leave it be, for it gives me a slender qualification to say what I have to say on the subject of this commentary.
As an artist I have spent a lifetime depicting the beauty of the nude, and in particular, the beauty of the Afro-Caribbean female nude. From that perspective, let me try to differentiate between nude and lewd.
In the early 1980’s, I began the paintings and sculptures in my series, “Daughters of the Caribbean Sun”. My mission was to extol the beauty of the Afro-Caribbean woman, unadorned by foreign influences. To achieve my objective I had to go beyond Marcus Garvey’s plea to “take the kinks out of your mind, not out of your hair”.
The nude figure is less sexually provocative than one that is scantily dressed. After the initial shock of the nude, the eye takes in the beauty of the body as a whole rather than being drawn to the parts tantalisingly hidden in the name of decency. I know that this is something that many people have difficulty getting their head around, but it is a fact. If I wanted my models to look sexy, I’d put them in a bikini and have them pose seductively, hand on hip.
This is where sexual lewdness corrupts an otherwise innocent picture. But differentiating one from the other can be a delicate balancing act. And this applies not only to the artist and model; carnival participants are also vulnerable to misjudgment.
Let me make it clear, I am not advocating that we revert to a state of nudity but that we do not succumb to an overload of missionary zeal. After all, we are supposed to be the Nature Island of the Caribbean and what could be more natural than ourselves? A comment in my visitors’ book from a Carnival Queen contender reads: You have opened my eyes and mind to true beauty.
Incidentally, age need not destroy beauty. A profound nude by the French sculptor Rodin portrays a woman in her eighties.
My subjects are not professional models. They come from all walks of life, from college graduates with a Ph.D. to market vendors. What they have in common is an understanding of what I am trying to portray. Without exception they have all found the experience liberating and uplifting. It is the model’s task to inspire and they are proud of their contribution to the creative process.
Before I begin a painting, or when instructing a life class, I cite the words of advice given by a past master of the figure:
“Take the shoes from off thy feet, for the ground you are about to step upon is Holy Ground”.
Perhaps it behooves us all to heed those words.
Readers can find more paintings and sculptures in the series,Daughers of the Caribbean Sun, together with work in progress at: sculpturestudiodominica.blogspot.com