RAS ISHI BUTCHER
Non - Identified
An interview by James Carmichael
(for the Viva Magazine, No 3 summer 2000)
Ras Ishi Butcher,
he appears almost deferential at first glance,a slightly built man, the third of seven siblings born and raised in the island's rural parish of St. John where he still resides. All the neighbours - indeed, the entire populace - knows him as Ras Ishi, the most decorated and internationally recognised Barbadian visual artist receiving critical acclaim for his exhibitions in the Americas and Europe. On this day, however,this largely self-taught artist and teacher, who still considers himself a farmer, gazes intently at the canvasses adorning the walls of his tiny studio;it is a study of progression, emerging shapes and colours,probing lines.Ishi's preparing for an exhibition and seeks to redefine his style. The temporary solitude caused by the absence of his wife,currently studying music in Cuba, appears to focus Ishi on the task ahead.
Carmichael: You have been labelled a 'Rasta' artist, to what extent
does your religion influence your art?
Ishi: Tell me something, does anybody think of Picasso as a Catholic artist,
or Jose Bedia as a Shango artist? Nevertheless, there are Shango religious elements in
Bedia's work, obviously. ...Why, therefore, consider my religion some piece of exotica?
I am an artist first and foremost and,of course, the Rastafari influence was there from
school days. It helped me to look at life from a certain point of view,
it would be difficult to divorce my religion from my art.
A lot of my work is based on the Caribbean personality which fluctuates
depending on the strength and essence of the people, ranging between and
encompassing African, European and Asian. The defining and unifying word
for the Caribbean, however, is flamboyancy: Viv Richards masterfufly pulling
the ball through mid-wicket,the Jamaican dance hall queen aggressively gyrating,
the uproar of Carnival, Calypso, Cricket. We do things with an extra flair
but that flair is not nourished. We have been taught to be ashamed of it
and push it underground. Similarly, they want to put me in a box with a neat label.
My style can be anything. Sometimes my paintings do not even contain
classic Rasta elements like hair or the colours of gold and green.
Sometimes I just paint for the aesthetics of it, to please the senses;
some of my efforts, like those paintings in the "Non-identified series"
have no real classical Rastafari themes. I did that deliberately,
partially to defy the critics' efforts at categorising!
Carmichael: You have acknowledged Basil Jones as one of the important influences in your formative years, how did he nurture you and what other persons and influences were there?
Ishi: In Barbados, art was the plaything of tne privileged. There was a lot of segregation of art and artists: you had the 'gallery' artists, and then the rest who couldn't gain access to the art galleries, the 'sidewalk' artists. Come to think of it, the fine arts were not even considered a serious discipline: they did not even teach art back then at my high school.
A turning point back then, however, was when a Rastafarian was invited to come to my school to talk to the students. His appearance, rhythmic drum beating and way of speaking (he actually sounded like a Bible character) fascinated me no end. I became a Rastafari at that very moment and began to wear dreadlocks the minute I graduated from school, Those years, the seventies, were serious times: the black consciousness movement came along., the' masses began to claim the 'culture' thing as their own... nevertheless., wearing dreadlocks at that time guaranteed unemployment, so I joined DePam (De People Art Movement) and came under the .leadership of people like Omowale and Sundiata Stewart. My anger became my art, subliminal energy splashed on to the canvas. We used to go and display our work in the city,in the public buildings, or parliament yard and Bay street, because the established galleries didn't deal with us.Basil Jones came up in that era too. He taught us the full range: still life, charcoal; oils, water colours, tonal relationships, shading, perspective....;nothing done in a formal setting, but it was rigourous and gave me discipline. Internationally I have found the work of Leonardo da Vinci to be inspiring
in my early years, but I am inspired by all good art.
Carmichael: You once remarked "When I first started out...! was mainly into the more realistic approach..." however, your current style is often described as "non-representational" by critics, how has your style evolved over the years?
Ishi: Here we go with labels again... ? 'Non-representational' you say? It's not so much category as outlook on life; when I was younger, I used to do a lot more actual painting, and spend more time correcting my mistakes! Back then
perhaps I was more actively militant, as you can see in the 'Vexx' series. Now; it's more about being reflective; that doesn't mean the spontaneity is gone, it's just a different kind of spontaneity. Sometimes I will see something that appeals to me and carry that image in my head for an entire year before committing it to canvas, but it will still burst forth with exuberance, immediacy. Sometimes, as
you are painting one image, other images in your head which have been lying dormant suddenly struggle to emerge too, one image frees the others and they instill a fever in you 'till you deal with all of them. Right now, for my next exhibition, I am pushing a new idea on an old theme: Nostalgia. It seems as if my fellow Barbadians are all getting all misty-eyed about the good old days...so I am going to be nostalgic too. However,my depiction of nostalgia will be to show just how confining it can be to return to those alleged good old days, because it is very difficult to recreate anything exactly as it really was. The process of going back leads to too many conventions and controls which can hinder creative development. If there is one thing, however, which. is the Ras Ishi trademark, it is a good line and structure to convey certain tensions and emotions.
Carmichael: So what was it like going against the grain and establishing yourself?
Ishi: It was uphill but inspiring. Ras Akyem, (an artist and good friend of mine)
,...we used to get all sorts of art books, we would reason and philosophise together, experimenting with and mastering techniques, sometimes going off separately but always reuniting for it was (and is) the same journey. We were almost schizophrenic in our energy levels back then. When Akyem came back from an art scholarship in Jamaica in 1981, I was just beginning to make it on the local scene.it wasn't however, until 1985, that we made the first breakthrough. I remember there was an exhibition with a grand prize of us $1,000.
That sort of money back then for an art competition was unheard of! More importantly,it was a chance for national exposure. For the first time in Barbados, a Rastafari artist -Brother Akyem - copped the first prize with his piece "King David',and I held on to win one of the prizes with my "Variegation". We held an exhibition shortly afterwards called "Personal Views" in 1986. More people began to hear about us and we had the good luck to meet a certain Ferdinando Illanerelli who gave us our first taste of international exposure, sponsoring our travels and giving us a chance to see the works of the maestros like Matisse up close and personal. Although this may sound boastful, Akyem and I
also realised that the quality of our work would stand up to international scrutiny. Our next effort was the 'Vexx' exhibition, then I did a solo exhibition, 'Isolation'(1995); all that was satisfying...but even more satisfying was receiving the gold medal at the first Biennial of Painting in Santo Domingo in 1992 and then again in 1996. That gave me some vital regional and international recognition.
Carmichael: Being a full-time artist in a small island community must be a difficult proposition, how do you cope?
Ishi: I don't really cope. The thing is that I have got to paint, even if it drives I to poverty, I cannot help it. It is as if being a cultural ambassador automatically means financial martyrdom, surviving on the fringe. Such are the ways of Babylon, the status quo. There is this silly idea that good artist equals hungry artist. It is frustrating but the frustration and aggression drives you on, and makes you paint, it is a circle. There is no internal joy like creating a piece of work, there are 'super-real' experiences, you feel triggered, far above an orgasm. People see me from afar and say "Like you don't worry about nutten [nothing]". They don't know about the internal battles, between light and shade, life and death. You live with a constant dream of making it, and it remains a 'constant dream. You feel pressured to live up to the projections, almost to become part of the status quo. Look around you, do I live in conditions that denote success?
Carmichael: What is next on the agenda for Ras Ishi? Where do you see your evolution as an artist taking you?
Ishi: As I said before, Akyem and I are planning a show together this year, this exhibition will be another foundational one for
us and we will try to establish that Barbadian art has come of age. This work will be for the Barbadian public, to drag them out of their nostalgia. It is time they learn, learn to think. A society that does not recognise and acknowledge its thinkers will
inevitably end up in decadence. It's not only science, because science and art are the same thing. Barbados is an academic society based upon structure, which kills creativity. You must learn to float and break rules, if you have too much structure,
there will be revolt - aggression is bred from too much enclosure.