Che’s drum call heralds arrival for Caribbean artistic works

A report by Michael Mondezie for The Trinidad Express.

Che Lovelace is beating his own drum into modern art history.

Lovelace’s 2021 painting “Nyabinghi Drummers” has been added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Los Angeles, California, USA. The San Fernando-born artist is the first Trinidad and Tobago creative to be included in the museum’s world-famous contemporary art collection.

Lovelace, 52, says his painting hanging in the MOCA’s halls not only validates the consistency of his efforts over the past decade, but also indicates a new vested interest from international collectors in the region’s artistic works.

“The acquisition of my 2021 painting, ‘Nyabinghi Drummers’ can be seen as an acknowledgment of the work I’ve been doing over the last decade. But it also speaks to the fact that international art institutions and the art world in general is paying more attention to visual art made in this region,” Lovelace told the Kitcharee during an insightful online exchange on Thursday evening.

The son of acclaimed author Earl Lovelace says he hopes this “growing interest” brings more artists who live and work in the Caribbean into the “expanding global conversation on the arts”.

“This current diversifying that is happening within the art world, can be seen in contrast to the art world of 20 years ago or so, when everything to do with art at a certain level was concentrated uniquely around the traditional large art centres of developed cities like New York, London, and other European locations,” he reasoned.

Looking into the Caribbean mirror

While Caribbean art is becoming much more visible than in past decades, increased interest in the region’s visual expressions may be less about artistic initiative and more about a new culture of self-exploration in developed countries, Lovelace mused.

“There seems to be much more of a desire within developed countries to explore and acknowledge their own diverse populations, and as is the case in the US, to also acknowledge communities who have been making profound and important art for many decades without serious acknowledgment.

“So, this tendency has also led to an increasing interest in other normally marginalised global cultures. Within the art world I would say interest is seen mostly expressed towards artists of the Caribbean diaspora, rather than artists who live and work in the Caribbean, which makes quite a difference,” he explained.

Lovelace noted that many artists of Caribbean ancestry living outside the region not only create art about their heritage, but also works that reflect their everyday experiences. Similarly, he reasoned, it is equally important for Caribbean-based artists to contribute to the global conversation.

“While of course art from the Caribbean diaspora is important and is an integral part of the Caribbean experience through migration, to contribute to a global conversation while remaining firmly in place here in the Caribbean, is much more of a challenge. In that sense it makes the acknowledgment of any artistic practice coming directly from this region even more meaningful,” he posited.

“If a Trinidad and Tobago artist only locates his or her creative ceiling within this country then I feel there is a self-imposed short-sightedness that may affect the ultimate potential of the work a person is doing. With the world as connected as it is now, we have to take our endeavours seriously; because the ceiling for our achievements Is no longer limited by the fact of living in what seems like a far-removed island. I have always seen this island as my centre…it’s just a question of perspective.”

Discovering his own ‘douendom’

Lovelace credits his global artistic perspective to the teachings imparted by his mentor, the late master artist LeRoy Clarke. Clarke, who passed away on July 27, was “always there with brutal honesty and encouragement”, Lovelace said.

“Leroy was a close friend, a family friend and an artistic mentor. I have always seen myself as fiercely individual, at least in my own head, but there’s no denying that artists are nourished by other artists. It has always been that way,” he revealed.

Lovelace said as a young boy in the 70s he was awe struck by Clarke’s now world famous Douens exhibit. As his artistic mind grew Lovelace said he gained even deeper appreciation for the real meanings behind Clarke’s “strong geometric shapes, powerful pyramids, magical colours and web-like constructions”.

“The more I matured, the more I understood what he was about. He was all about seeing ourselves as big and as valuable as we can be. A great lesson he taught was to see our endeavours as part of the endeavours of humanity, not confined to just these shores. If I am honoured enough to be connected to any part of his legacy, it would be his insistence and seriousness about his artistic pursuits: it is something that I have adopted as part of my own way of being,” he said.

Interestingly, Lovelace says the circumstances of the ongoing Covid-19 global pandemic have given greater opportunities to artists outside of traditional creative hubs. With all interactions between artists and art galleries limited to virtual online meetings artists located in remote locations have had the same screen time with potential exhibitors as those that live in the same city, he said.

“Whether someone in New York was visiting an artist right down the street or visiting an artist here in Trinidad, we would be using the same Zoom platform to speak about our work and share what we were doing. A situation like that certainly benefits the far-reach-ing countries that normally seem quite isolated and outside the conversation,” Lovelace said.

Beyond the obvious changes to everyday routine the pandemic has also been a period of global introspection, Lovelace said.

“The change of pace was like holding up a mirror to ourselves, the entire world together, and maybe that’s a good thing. I feel that when I speak with people now, especially after the second more prolonged lockdown, they mostly express sentiments of having learned so much during this time.

“For many of us who live creative lives, despite everything, we kept working. The creative work sometimes becomes your saving grace. I’ve been really encouraged to see and listen to people who have had to reinvent, innovate, and generally think differently in order to survive this intact,” he said.

Those uninterrupted hours of “quiet and stillness” completing paintings years in the making have already begun to reap tangible benefits for Lovelace.

Apart from the MOCA inclusion he has also been invited to participate in the Independent Art Fair in New York in September. He credits his ongoing working relationship with the Various Small Fires (VSF) gallery in LA, who have been acting as his booking agent in the US.

“New York is a special place for me, as I have been travelling there and looking at art since the early 90s. So to have some of my own work up, with hopefully a little momentum behind it, feels like a springboard to move things forward. As I have been saying to friends… it really does feel like a new beginning,” Lovelace concluded.

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