black ishi
Ras Akyemi and Ras Ishi
by Rupert Roopnaraine
The time is ripe for a fresh assessment of the work of Akyem and Ishi, Ras Akyem-I Ramsay and Ras Ishi Butcher, to give them their proper names. Our assessment and theirs. Some sixteen years have passed since that visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York where they were confronted for the first time by the work of the Abstract Expressionists, a direct experience of paintings they had so far seen only in books. The experience was overwhelming. They were thrilled by the boldness of the content to be sure; but above all, by the dimensions and intimidating scale of the canvases and the use of pigment as statement. The way forward was clear. Returning to Barbados in 1988, they mounted a small exhibition at the museum, made enough money to buy a little house on church land in the countryside by Codrington College that would be the studio and the foco. It was here, in the first hours, that Akyem and Ishi bonded in brotherhood and came to know and share in the daily struggles for survival imposed by the conditions and their choice of profession. They had seen the work of the contemporary painters and understood the ideas they were dealing with. They knew that the philosophical notions they wanted to express could be expressed in paint. They were more than ever determined to break with the habits and conventions they saw around them in Barbados. "We conceptualized all these directions to establish art in Barbados as a serious visionary type of profession and to take it up full time. Most artists in Barbados," Akyem says wryly, "work on weekends. They have other crops." They set up as outsiders, beyond the pale of polite society, and went about the business of subversion. Like guerrilla activity everywhere, the key requirement was seriousness: discipline, sacrifice, boldness, mobility, and social passion. As they worked on the canvases that would burst upon the Barbadian viewing public a few months later in the notorious Vexx Exhibition of 1989, they learned these lessons, as the saying goes, the hard way. Oversized paintings called for more paint than they had money to buy. At a low moment, they chose paint over food. It was a decision whose memory has stayed with them and refreshed them over the years. It was the line in the sand. It is little wonder that the theme of the artist in society has run like a bright golden thread through their work It is what continues to unite them across their differences, this sacred commitment to a life of art and the celebration of artistic activity as a value in itself. That and a rootedness in the soil and streets of their native island.

       Since those days of the first skirmishes in Bridgetown, they have shown work in Florence, Santo Domingo, Curacao, Washington, Paris, Madrid, Havana, and London, where they each had two pieces of work within the exhibition, Contemporary Art from Barbados, at the Gallery in Cork Street in 1997. The previous year, they were both awarded Gold Medals at the Santo Domingo Bienale. I first came to know their work in 1995 when I was invited to write the catalogue essays for the solo exhibitions they held that year at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society: Ishi's Isolation and Akyem' s Art Animal #X. I had spoken then of what isolation meant for Ishi: the necessary condition not only of the artist struggling to create in a hostile environment but also of the human person, marooned in a world of uncertainty and shifting relations, driven to a continuously renewed search for wholeness, for the integrity of being in the world. The paintings I had before me then spoke of desolation and its transcendence in a highly personalized idiom with an unerring sense of composition and of the orchestration of colour. Notwithstanding such public themes as the plantation legacy of domination and exploitation, Ishi's was more than anything else a journey inward. He has always been the most subjective and almost quietist of painters. Not so Akyem, for whom the great public themes left little room for private exploration. Not for him the simple agricultural worker in a field, leaning on her hoe amid the shoots and tendrils, but the noise of the battle of Cannae amid the skulls and bones and fallen pillars of the empire. Studies of Hannibal, Moses, Daniel, Christ, Mary Magdalene, at once historical personages and embodiments of the great universal themes of art: martyrdom, sacrifice, heroism, vengeance, and the collision of cultures on a world scale. The personal and idiosyncratic entered only at the tip of the brush. The handling of paint as a statement in itself, with objects energized by the marks of the brush. The painterliness is the message. It is another point of convergence between Akyem and Ishi, this exhilaration in the initial mark. Akyem calls it the "primal energy." It is the mark that precede reflection and analysis, coming as it does from the initial, nervous impulse, the spark of the primordial brain. As the formal and thematic divergences between their paintings become more and more pronounced, it is worth saying that common to them both is the force of the emotional state induced by an idea and its rendering on to the canvas, rather than the elaboration of the idea in a literary form.

       And then there was Cuba. From Bridgetown to Havana is a journey across an ocean of difference. The two years they spent at the Instituto Superior de Arte, 1995-97, taught new lessons but did not erase old ones. It was a refresher course in seriousness. It seems to have had a more profound impact on Ishi, and not only as a painter. It is well known that his interest in available materials was driven by the conditions of scarcity in Cuba where oil paints were not easily available. And it was always more than a technical matter of learning to work with different materials. Ishi speaks of having had to "adjust [his] whole psyche in terms of relating to materials": "In Cuba there is a limitation on achieving certain things even to work with so we had to work with those things that were available to accommodate new expressions in terms of new experiences with both work and all of life. "[Italics mine]. It was, he says, "an evolutionary period for me in terms of my whole being and not just painting, because painting is not just painting." When he returned to Barbados, he began to utilize found objects, acrylics, watercolours, pencil and ink, charcoal: "Although I had all of those facilities before, Cuba awakened all those responses within me." In Cuba he learned to translate his feelings into the materials in his surroundings. For both Akyem and Ishi, it was an affirmation to find themselves in a society where art was valued and artists treated with the respect due to cultural and intellectual workers. Among their more conservatively minded Cuban colleagues, they battled to get their idiom understood and accepted. At the Instituto Superior, they found the attention to the classical art tradition burdensome, though the experience left its mark and opened up a vocabulary of contestation and irony.

       Much of the work in the present exhibition of New Paintings, in terms of theme and style, was foreshadowed in the exhibition held at the Kirby Gallery in 1998, soon after they returned to Barbados,"Havana, antes y despues. Ishi's figure paintings, Hacker, Blazing I, Elevation, and Geek continue the exploration of the solitary geometricized figures dwarfing their surroundings that began with the Non ID versions of 1998. The use of the inset little squares with their painted skull, elegantly disposed, will develop into the tiles (or leaves) of the Diario Secreto and the panels of the Tribute to Broodhagen and Unknown. The mixed media constructions in the Non ID\patch series anticipate the grids and manipulation of texture in the current work. Guilty as always of a multiplicity of styles and modes of presentation, all of real fluency, Akyem' s themes remain constant: sacrifice and betrayal, the strategies of survival, the oppression of Graeco-Roman civilization, the African diasporic experience. For Akyem, as for his revered Basquiat, in the words of bell hooks, "colonization of the black body is marked by the anguish of abandonment, estrangement, dismemberment and death." The image of the black boxer Jack Johnson (Moby Dick, Scarred) carries the burden of these conceptions. Akyem's boxer, any more than Basquiat's Jack Johnson (1982) and Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson) (1982), is no mere celebration of black culture. "Appearing always in these paintings as half-formed or somehow mutilated, the black male body becomes, iconographically, a sign of lack and absence. This image of incompleteness mirrors those in works that more explicitly critique white imperialism." (bell hooks). In the paintings of this exhibition, Toxic, ...and a mule and the diptych Horsemen and Chariots continue these explorations in a language Akyem has made his own and refine over the years


The first striking thing about Ishi's new paintings is their austere and quite classical unity. It is a unity of form and presentation that flows from a singleness of purpose and a mind that radiates from a still centre. The work is a marvel of self-containment.

        To begin with the figure paintings, which is where he began so many years ago. Unlike the early paintings, such as the Lily of the Valley series, where the figure or group of figures were placed in a specific location, in a field, with plants and leaves and flowers, the figures of Plantocracy, Hacker, Blazing I, Elevation and Geek are figures within a pictorial space. References to the visual world as we know it are as sparse as plants in the dry season. They are very graphic with concentration on the outline that in some cases is an incised outline on the encrusted background builtup with its mixture of acrylic and sand. The picture plane is flat, emphasizing its two-dimensional nature, with a play of space with produced by the clean incised lines of a grid containing the image. Ishi calls it his "life line". The line of the grid as well as the line describing the figures was created through a technical process where Ishi used string and glue to delineate the figures, then built up the paint all around it. When the painting was finished he pulled the string out, leaving the very sharp incised lines. In Elevation and Standing Upright, the string is still embedded in the paint. The figures have an elemental quality. The clean incised line describing the figures is very simple, without any thickness or variation to give them a substantive quality. It is a descriptive wandering line that quickly describes the figure, with no fuss or embellishment.Only a graphic purity that gives to these paintings their classical quality. Only the realistically drawn female agricultural worker in Plantocracy harks back to the early women in the fields. The somewhat melancholic figures, towers of solitude, of Hacker, Blazing I, Elevation and Geek are geometric, armless and made up of rectangular shapes that create the figure. No fingers and toes, but, except for Hacker, always eyes, bright red in Blazing I and Standing Upright, the latter with its rhythmical, organic figure recalling the cave drawings of South and North Africa. The exploration of male sexuality fmds its most direct expression in Standing Upright. In the encrusted white band at the top of the picture, a strange kind of sperm, with ribs, to visually rhyme with the barbed wire that is a recurrent image, Ishi' s symbol of the plantation, and with the crown of thorns. Three squares of drawings, elegantly disposed to secure and finish the composition. In the top left, a curious face in profile, vaguely Cretan, drawn in pencil directly on to the canvas, an indication of his interest in abstracting figurative elements from the visual history of Western Europe and incorporating them into the picture. Just below the centre, nearer to the blood-red, erect penis, a dancing girl and her shadow, derived from cave drawings. The third square in the bottom left of the picture is blank, its only mark Ishi's signature. Akyem: "The figure flows like water, in a continuous movement." There are no hands and sprouting fingers to interfere with the pure linear motion.

       The four geometricized, square-headed figures are increasingly encroached on by the small tile pictures, a few in, Blazing I and Geek enough in Elevation and Hacker to force the figure away from the centre of the picture. The looming melancholic figure of the artist is displaced by the performance of artistic activity itself,which increasing becomes the subject of the paintings to follow. There is a movement within this group of figure paintings towards the Diario Secreto where the figures are eliminated and the small tile drawings and paintings constitute the whole painting. The first leaves of the painter's journal intime are to be found here in these transitional figure paintings. Blank pages inviting engagement, pauses for reflection as the viewer moves in and away from the picture, and the artist moves in and out of his imagination. Line drawings etched into the heavily encrusted surface, producing a clean incise value impossible to achieve with charcoal or a brush mark, drawings of the ubiquitous chattel house, of landscapes, and butterflies, spiders, lizards, mushrooms, ganja plants; classical portraits in pencil, a Michaelangelo here, a Leonardo there, a head of Socrates, all lightly veiled over, images drawn from the classical tradition and imposed; a figure from a Greek vase; representations in the style of paintings he has already done, and recurring throughout,a haunting leitmotif, the pencil portrait of a beautiful woman, her eyes, her mouth, her hair tumbling around her face. The Diario Secreto is a mosaic of the images of the private life, and a visual record of the artist's daily labour. Its point of departure is domestic.The subjects of the artist are all around him: his studio, his cat,his lamp, the plants sprouting in the garden,the landscape beyond. Each panel, or leaf of the diary, is enclosed by hard, incise parameters that contain the elements of the drawing or painting; yet the elements themselves are very active. The activity within and among the individual leaves of the diary is stabilized by the broad, flat areas, the mass of black and white. Some of the activity is subliminal, suggesting hidden codes, as befits a secret diary. In many places, the glued string remains embedded, as do the nails that have not been pulled away to leave the nail mark behind. There is a tactile quality these paintings and the feel of the materials he has mastered.the lessons of Cuba have served well.This time ,oil paints are ruled out not because they are not available,but because the fumes would be harmful to his little children. And throughout these images of privacy, the play of space. Ishi: "I wanted to deal with my society instead of dealing with the universal world. I wanted to deal with my personal society first then I could start with things broad, 'cause if I start small, I could expand. So I start to deal with space within space. That is what I deal with a lot, the hard edges to confine me. Within a given space, there are more spaces. And space is not only dealt with withinside that dimension but also in a kind of realistic space, an abstractional space, a space in terms of dealing with the medium itself. So I was trying to deal with space within all dimensions, within one work. A whole different spatial atmosphere." The Diario Secreto,with its pencil drawn classical images and remembered Barbadian country side ,is Ishi's rumination on the Cuban years, its artistic,intellectual and emotional adventures. In the 9-panelled Legacy of Broodhagen, the artist turns away from his private preoccupation~and explorations and employs the language and technique of the Diario Secreto to pay homage to a respected elder. The Michelangelo portrait from the Sistine Chapel is at the centre of the central panel, placing Broodie in the classical tradition of sculpture. The marks and their variations recur from panel to panel, each "nailed" to a wall bearing the remains and fragments of messages, framing the picture. This is no sacred surface. For all that, these are austere paintings. The high chromatic paintings of Isolation have been left behind: here black and white in alternation, and earth tones: "I need people to realize that it is not only colours that can make a good painting, but dealing with the compositional effect of a painting. The robust way you organize a painting is very empowering. It is not just the colour, the outer coating, but the structure that makes a work strong. The outer coating is just to sweeten you up. A lot of these works is graphic, very graphic. To show that an artist is not just painterly, but that the graphic-ness is important to being a good artist." To turn from the quietly centred world of Ishi to the restless, high energy paintings of Akyem is to move from an ordered garden into a seething rainforest, a place of primordial memory and menace and startling flashes of beauty seen through the murk of trees. Akyem has evolved not one, but many languages. We are in familiar territory: expressionistic brush work, images from a personalized iconography built up over the years, the use of graffiti as much for composition as for content. There is a certain refinement in the handling of paint, inevitable when the paint itself is the subject in passages of pure painterliness: the splashes, blobs and masses of paint in Art Animal #X bear witness, as do the gorgeous stems and blooms that ironically adorn the plantation of ...and a mule and the lower right hand quadrant of Toxic with its marks of dripping paint.

       In the Mule painting, centred on the role and place of the black plantation worker, a tension develops between the flatness of the lower right quadrant and the gesture toward space in the creation of the horizon. Above the horizon line there is a curious pictorial space of a different kind of flatness that makes the top right hand quadrant look like a different painting not at ease with the rest of the picture. Akyem is aiming at that total integration of the pictorial surface where, even though different areas are going to be differently treated, the end result is a totality. As in Art Animal #X that brings together in one painting the various stylistic devices and concerns that Akyem has dealt with over the years. Very bold and high contrast, the dark areas stark against the lighter, the painting is held together by the brush work that also secures the theme. It is a permanent theme of Akyem's, the artist in the act of painting. It is a frenzied moment. In the magic space, a painting is in progress. The rendering of the hands and feet is strong and assured. Arms outstretched, spliff in one hand and brushes in the other, the artist is the crucified one. His crown of laurel is a crown of thorns. The high contrast and chromatic intensity create a visual paradox: the most somber and sacred of acts in a colourful language. In Mule, the seduction of colour draws the viewer in to the world behind the glory of flowers: he is the mule that is his settlement, carrying the memory of his transfer or the hope to escape. The face of Europe, marble hard, rules over all.

       In Atlantic (Middle Passage), or the crossing of the souls, the colour is subdued and almost dingy to conjure the whole sense and smell of the ocean. It is a dump of humanity, this African holocaust, and speaks of human atrocities everywhere. Out of the heap of skulls the spirit is projected into the one who survives, the one who holds the ancestral memory that gives the sense of belonging and reassurance. It is a tale of survival and resistance with allusions to Charon and the river Lethe. In the technical handling of the congestion, in the use of the heavy black outline and the greyed palette, the painting recalls the work of the Cuban master, Portocarrero. Other monochromatic works are Fetish, Buruing House and Dark Angel II. The figure falling through space in Burning House holds tight to the key of the burning house. The house that is the hold on existence, the sense of belonging and ownership. For Akyem, it is also the state of the African in the Diaspora, this holding on to the key of the burning house that is the holding to values of a collapsing civilization as the world turns upside down. In the composition, the burning house is on the man's ribcage because the house that is burning is also the loss of the woman who has gone. The man falling through space is the crisis of the male at the collapse of relationships. And he is Icarus who dared to fly into the sun. There is an unresolved tension in the picture been the severely delineated figure and the free expressionistic treatment of the background and the space into which the body is falling. The concretization of the figure seems in conflict with the ethereality of space. The actual rendering of the paint has a certain flatness to it, a lack of volume, that works against the idea of a body falling through space. This is an important question for Akyem because he depends so much on the quality of the brush mark and of the painted surface. Nothing is unresolved in Fetish, his latest variation of the theme of martyrdom. The delineation and rendering of the figure, the grimace of the mouth, the knowing skull, the graffiti words pork and tar to speak of the commodification of the black body in contemporary Western society, all these elements of form and theme are held together and energized by the marks of the brush. The struggle and the pain are expressed through the action of the brush. It is Akyem' s great strength, this infusion of emotion into the pigment itself. It is no ordinary pain, but a poetic pain, and a personal melancholy. It is a fight to the death against death. It is the crucifixion of the race and stands for the struggle of all oppressed people. In the pair of Dark Angel paintings, he is the avenger, scourge of the unrighteous, the toxic; and he is the god of Egyptian theology, Maat, she of the scale of justice and her head-dress of two feathers, weighing the soul against a feather. In Dark Angels are flying down to earth on a wondrous timeless machine, a kind of unicycle with a propeller for spokes. The detritus of empires litters the earth. Crushing the serpent of vice, -- the serpent is also deceit and wisdom, death and life -- he comes bearing an offering, a thistle of thorns with a dried leaf or hot pepper, a symbol of the unease in uncertain times. He is also the god of rebirth and renewal, the love and wrath of God. He is the ancestral spirit come down to bring order into the chaos of the fallen world. In the less chromatic Dark Angel II, he is Maat, the goddess of judgment, scales at the ready. A feather is in suspension, floating down above a scale. His robe is decorated with hearts and crosses, for chance and fairness. There is a play of space in the picture, with the bird in the bottom left side and the bone in the bottom right existing on a different plane, suggesting depth. But below the horizon line, the flatness collapses the sense of space and the bird is flying into a brown wall. It is a kind of visual ambiguity, a play of contradiction and wit.

       Two painters, two ways of seeing, sharing a destiny and a long journey. They differ in temperament but not in the fundamentals of belief Ishi has found a place of repose, confident in his ability to paint anything he wants to paint in any medium he chooses. For him, these paintings are an important achievement, his arrival as a serious artist, a true professional. They are in the end about perfection. Of the image, of the means and of the self. Akyem is the painter's painter, an artist of abundant gifts and a restless mind always on the lookout for the sudden distraction, another direction, other possibilities. He is excited by every new feeling and ignited by some. There is an opinion among those who know him best that his centre is too mobile,that he is too distractable.Not for him the containment of the circle with its still center. Instead the lure of the tangent.And the glory of the risk.
9 March 2004 Rock Dondo Barbados.
Rupert Roopnaraine


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