Extract of an Interview with artist
James Isaiah Boodhoo
by Bruce Paddington
as part of the CCA/Banyan Project
6 December 2000
BP: A lot of people have tried to define what is your style. What is your style?
JIB: I don’t know if I have a style. My style is a mixture of a few things. I have not consciously set about to doing a style that is me. People recognize my paintings any way I do them. It’s because I have a style. They recognize it not only in subject matter, because people have painted those subject matters before, those subjects. It is not the location, people have done that before. It is not the kind of people I have in my paintings, people have done that before and they’re still doing it. It is something of a combination of things and the way I apply paint, and the colour I use and the combination. I don’t deliberately sit down and say “I’m going to make this a bright painting”. It’s my nature, I mean, you can’t keep me down, if I have to say something I’ll say it.
BP: How do you put down paint differently from other artists?
JIB: I don’t know. How do you speak differently from another person? You don’t know, your voice is your voice (smiles), you’re born with certain physical equipment to speak, and I wish I had a voice like yours, you know, like so many other people.
BP: But there seems to be a marriage between figurative and abstract.
JIB: Yes, there’s a fine line in between, and sometimes the pictures go a little to the figurative, and sometimes the pictures go a little to the abstract. Like this painting will turn out to be quite abstract, but it have references to the figure in it, and it all came about because two weeks ago, or three weeks ago, there was Kartik in Manzanilla, and it’s the most colourful thing. I mean, it’s like Carnival, Carnival is colourful, but there is a kind of colourful quality in this thing that has a conscious putting on of colour. Carnival as they say is colour, so we consciously put on clothes with colour, costumes or whatever. This is a thing where these people are on the beach, and the blue grey sea sometimes, the blue green sea, and the coconut trees, and in the middle of the whole area flags of all colours, and these people dressed in yellow and red. And they’re not dressed in yellow and red because they want to impress anybody and I like that.
BP: So how do you go about doing a painting?
JIB: Like this one, I had seen this thing and I thought I would do a number of pieces on this thing. Now, I have caught myself stuck in painting aspects of Indian life. That only started in 1982 with the Derek Walcott Sadhu of Couva. And when I was painting Sadhu of Couva, my wife would come and look and say “But why you painting all these Indian things, you think anybody interested in this thing? Indian people don’t buy art”, which is true, and I said “Well I don’t know, this is what the thing says and I want to…”. Look right now I have an Omeros by my bedside, and I have a feeling I’m going to go into Omeros as a series of paintings, because Walcott really excites me to paint. I don’t know of any other person, any other writer who makes me want to paint, and this is not a new thing, this started in 1962 when he published “In a Green Light”. So, I don’t let it worry me, I just paint. When I’m dead someone will sit down and write something and say “Well you know, he had this style or he had that style, or he was striving for this style, or he failed in this style”. That don’t mean no business, I couldn’t care less.
BP: Okay, so you get inspired, then you work on one painting, many paintings?
JIB: No, no, no, I’ll show you them in a while. I don’t have any one painting finished until I’m ready to have a show, more or less, because while I’m painting this one I’m watching at another one. You’ll see all the paintings there, not a single one is signed. I have about ten paintings, none is signed because I haven’t seen the final brush stroke yet. I will sit in that chair and watch them and when I make one final stroke, I’ll say okay and I’ll sign it
BP: I want to talk about your two significant shows: the Walcott show and the Caroni show. Let’s talk about the Walcott show first. You seemed to be trying to express in paint the same kind of visuals that Walcott was trying to express in words.
JIB: That’s very tough. It was a task I took and pal, I don’t know, it wasn’t easy, because too often it started to creep into an illustrating, you know, an illustration of a couple lines, and I had to stop, put it away and then go back to it another time, and try to get the essence of those lines, rather than an illustration of the thing. And then to get him, where is the image coming from? When he speaks about Maria Concepci_n, after I had started painting, I must’ve been painting for about five months and I couldn’t get Maria’s image. I wanted a bride, and this is so damn prophetic, it’s uncanny. About three o’clock one morning, there was the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana, and I got up to look at it, and from the first image of that woman in church I said “Jesus, this is my Maria Concepci_n”, because there was a red cross, the carpet in the aisle was red, it was a red cross, and she, from the angle of the camera, looked as though she was plastered in this cross, like she was painted on the cross, and I said, “But this is what Derek was talking about”. This woman was everything to this man, a religious symbol, a wife, a prostitute every damn thing, and so I said, “but, this is my Maria”, and I did the painting. I couldn’t wait ‘til daylight to do this painting, and I finished that painting in two days, Maria Concepci_n.
BP: I can see Schooner Flight maybe being a little easy, but Star Apple Kingdom that must be…….
JIB: Star Apple Kingdom, I couldn’t make. I did one painting that I had considered successful, it’s the line which says, “A black flowing river of women with their elliptical basins”. That was the best painting for that Star Apple Kingdom, it was one of the best paintings of the show. The rest of it, I toyed around with a star apple, and I went and get star apple fruits and cut them across, you know, with the white milk and the black seed, and the green skin or the purple skin, and the leaves that looked like dipped in brass, you know. And so, I did a number of paintings with abstractions from the star apple.
BP: Were the most successful ones based on the Sadhu of Couva?
JIB: No, not at all. Sadhu of Couva had about three good paintings, only were three very good out of about twelve. I did about twenty, and I selected twelve, and out of the twelve, I think they probably had three good paintings. The Schooner Flight had the best of the paintings, because there are so many images, and Walcott paints in words so effectively that you could paint it, you don’t have to use too much brains to paint that.
BP: This was more obviously an Afro Caribbean people in this. Was this new for you?
JIB: No Sir, I grew up in that, I went to a Roman Catholic school. In my village 90% of them were people of non Indian name, ‘cause they don’t build Catholic school in Indian areas. And then my old man had a shop in another African village sort of thing, 90% of them, so all my cricket friends, go and swim in the river, play marbles and I never saw any difference. I slept in their beds, I mean, we really had a great time growing up. It never occurred to me that it is an African image, that it’s an Indian image. The Sadhu of Couva pushed me into looking more closely, the first time in my life I painted a cane, a scene of a cane field, was when I started doing the Sadhu of Couva. I’d never seen a cane field ‘til I was fifteen years old. We don’t have cane fields in Sangre Grande, you see a cane growing by his mother house, and when the time come for Carnival somebody cut it and play sailor, with the cane (laughs).
BP: So the Caroni series then was in many ways, I don’t know if it’s a return to your Indianess or a discovery of your Indianess?
JIB: No, it was something that was there all the time. It was something that was awakened by the Sadhu of Couva, really, really stirred strongly by the Sadhu of Couva, and I suddenly thought, you know, when I was a young artist, in order to sell a painting, if you painted city scenes with people sitting on a bench in the savannah, or Carnival characters, or belair, or bongo or stick fight, then you’re painting, ‘cause that was the culture of Trinidad. The people who bought pictures were not Trinidadians, they were expatriates, and they wanted to go back to talk about a cultural thing, they know that this is part of Trinidad’s culture, you know, a man drinking a coconut. But to paint an Indian scene? Nobody outside Trinidad knew there was one Indian man living in Trinidad, Bajans didn’t know that they have Indian people living in Trinidad. I’m not making fun. I met an American dentist in Barbados, living there for eighteen years, he bought a house, comes down for winter. He saw me and asked me if I come from India. This man is an American man from Boston. I started to explain to him what Trinidad was like, he wants to come down here, he never come, eighteen years living in Barbados, never came to Trinidad. So he came down to Trinidad and he saw it and went back to Barbados with his mouth open. He had eaten doubles, he had eaten aloo pie, he had gone down to Penal. I mean, he couldn’t believe this is Trinidad, so different from Barbados, he had never heard of or seen all these flags going up, and all these people, and he just put on the radio and think he was somewhere in India. This is something strange to him, foreign to him. The image of Trinidad, outside Trinidad was an image of Africans living in this little island.
So I started to look, I say “But what the hell! This needs expression”. People need to paint up their painting seriously, not as a tourist item, and if tourists want to buy it, good, and if they don’t want to buy it, it’s not a problem, I’m expressing myself, and that’s how it went.
BP: You did a lot of research before you did your paintings?
JIB: No man, I grew up in the thing.
BP: You didn’t go into the countryside and take photographs?
JIB: Oh yes, oh Lord, yes, of course, of course. You drive and stop on the highway and say, “Lord, look how these things are looking”. Up to now, if I have a sketch book or a camera, or I don’t have anything, I would just slow down and watch this hill, because you see, I grew up with a lot of trees around me, and suddenly there are miles and miles of no trees, and rolling hills and cane looking like a meadow or something, and that is a new vision. Sometimes they look like the South Downs in England, you know, where you have trees growing and the hedgerows and things.
BP: But the Divali pictures, the gazals and so on, these are all from memory?
JIB: Memory and experience man, that’s experience.
BP: You don’t go and sketch on location?
JIB: Nah, I don’t draw any human figure from going and study it. I spent four years learning how to draw the human figure in all form, old, young and middle aged, naked, clothed, all how, bending down, standing up, twisting, you know, so I could draw the human figure without looking at it, in any pose. Sometimes, I check myself, sometimes I look at me and bend my elbow, if I want to get a little thing here (points to elbow), or something that I’m not so sure. And you will see it underneath the painting, sometimes the painting covers the drawing you know, ‘cause I don’t let one overpower the other, depending on what I want in it.
BP: I’m just thinking of the detail, like in that painting “Gazal, Song of Love”, you have a lot of intricate detail, the sort of jewellery, the sort of colours.
JIB: Well, I mean, you grew up with that you know. My mother had all this thing hanging around her neck, and all this thing on her arms, and my grandmother I think, around her ankles, and had a ring in her nose in front here (points between nostrils) you know. My mother wore ohrni, the veil, ‘til she died, you know, and this was not too many years ago.
BP: When you’re working on your paintings, do you allow other people to see it and make comments and so on?
JIB: Oh yes. Once you go to art school, you lose all embarrassment, because you have around you about ten other students, and all of them mouth big, you know. Each one will come and say, “What you’re trying to do there?” and make you explain what you’re doing, and pull each other’s legs, you know, so that you lose your self consciousness of sitting down and drawing or painting. That’s a very, very important experience.
BP: But I see you more of a solitary artist.
JIB: Well, because we have never in the Art Society had group painting expeditions, which would’ve been a great thing.
BP: You mean when the artists would go out together and …..
JIB: Go out together and do some drawing. I tried to do it with a few people. Alfred Codallo and myself and a mutual friend called Dr. Bynoe, Quintin Bynoe, we used to go away and we’d spend weekends down in the Government house. He was a travelling officer, a doctor for the Regiment and the Police and whatever, and we used to go spend time in the Government houses in Cedros, and Toco, and Caledonia Island and Mayaro, you know the Government houses, Government rest houses, and we would paint. But I would paint very few paintings on the spot. I have completed very few paintings on the spot, most paintings I’ve done on location, I’d come home and finish them or work on them some more.
BP: But the Caroni series was almost completely done in the studio.
JIB: In the studio, with sketches, sketches of the landscape, to put behind the people, to know how to set them up.
BP: Why do you think that Caroni series has been so successful?
JIB: Because I think there was a spirit to it, a certain coherent vision. It wasn’t a picking a subject here and picking a subject there. It was a time when after the Sadhu, I was thinking and working on these Indian themes, and then suddenly it dawned on me what I’m doing is really painting the Indian people, in their mythology, and their religion, and their culture, and their lifestyle and their labours. And I gave it the name Caroni, because it was such a nice name, a fitting name, you know.
BP: But you never lived in Caroni?
JIB: No, never spent a night in Caroni in my life (chuckles). It’s the spirit of Caroni.
BP: So you don’t see the Caroni series as being a new Indianized…..
JIB: No, no, no. I can’t be more Indianized than I am, you know. What do you want me to do? (In an Indian accent) (laughs). (Unclear)
BP: From a thematic point of view, you say you have been, I don’t know if the word is, stuck, but you have been concentrating on Indian themes.
JIB: You see, I try to get away from it you know. After my Caroni series, I tried to get away, I said, “Look, let me look at something else”. But looking at something else, somehow the Indian fella keeps coming out in the painting, I couldn’t get rid of it, and I am not going to fight it. Painting is like writing, you’re in the river and the current is going this way, don’t try to swim up this way, (Points in opposite direction) you wouldn’t reach far, you know. You have to take it with the current and go down and enjoy the swim, and the passage of time, and enjoy the life you’re living, and speak true to your spirit, your conscious and your skill. That’s what I’m doing.
BP: It’s interesting that Walcott has also discovered the Indian in Trinidad…..
JIB: Exactly, because we have a same spirit. We have the same spirit. If you are sensitive and you grow up in this country, and you cannot love calypso or love steel band, or enjoy a bongo at somebody’s wake, or go to an Indian thing and listen to some people sit down there singing their hearts out, with no microphone or nothing, just for fun, or at Caura riverside, fellas carry instruments and sit under the bamboo patch, and they sing to their hearts content while somebody cooking curry, and they’re happy, you know. If you can’t enjoy all those facets, then you’re not a Trinidadian. I don’t know what you are, but you’re not a Trinidadian.