Home Arts It is now advertised by Tate Britain, but Windrush artist Aubrey Williams has never been recognized in life

It is now advertised by Tate Britain, but Windrush artist Aubrey Williams has never been recognized in life

by godlove4241
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Four years after the departure of the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948, Aubrey Williams sets foot in England.

Today, a room in Tate Britain is dedicated to Williams’ art, and he is remembered as a founding member of the influential Caribbean Artists’ Movement, the London group whose legacy is steeped in the canon of modern British art.

But, at 26, Williams arrived in London in exile, a man already branded by the British government.

He was born and raised on an island colonized by the British. He grew up in Georgetown, British Guiana, now Guyana, and showed artistic talent from an early age. His family attended the local church and Williams, before the age of ten, gained his first art mentor; an elderly Dutchman by the name of Mr De Winter who restored the religious paintings which hung in the church. Williams’ father showed De Winter one of his son’s first drawings – of a vulture eating a rat in the street in front of their house. The skill of the drawing convinced the restorer to employ the young boy as an informal apprentice.

Williams was the son of a civil servant and the eldest of seven children. British Guiana was a big producer of sugar which the British mix into their morning tea and Demerara which they mix into their cake batter. As a result, Williams, while still a teenager, began training as a farmer.

Aubrey Williams, Untitled1970 © Aubrey Williams Estate, Courtesy October Gallery

He loved his job; the natural beauty of Guyana was the source of its primitive art. In Third text, a published conversation between Williams and Indian artist Rasheed Araeen, Williams said of Guyana: “I was born into a world where there is a natural appreciation for excellence, and that has permeated all of society. It was up to the grassroots peasants of the country.

After graduating, he got a job as a field officer for the country’s agriculture department, where he was put to work in the sugar cane plantations on the east coast of the island. There, he began to rub shoulders with Indian workers brought, because of the British Empire, to work in the plantations of Guyana. Williams was fascinated by the skill the workers displayed in their work. “An Indian farmer made his rice paddies in a way that today we might call ‘artistic’,” he told Araeen. “His mud pit would be like a sculpture…they have their own deep concepts, behavioral patterns and iconography, which gave them tremendous insight to handle the environment beautifully.”

But the farmers he met were “manipulated by the estates, deceived and exploited”, he said, adding: “They were always alone, and there was no one to step in and help them”. And so Williams began to organise, encouraging the exploited sugar farmers he met through his work to demand more labor rights from the all-powerful British plantation owners.

“I was breaking the rules left, right and center,” Williams said. “I was fighting with the government for the farmers when I was a sugar cane officer. I became the arbiter-organizer of the sugar producers.

His actions were not well received and led to Williams receiving an assignment no one else wanted: he was sent to work in Hosororo, a small, isolated commune in the forested Barima-Waini region of northern Guyana. , on the west bank of the Aruka River – a world away from the urban conveniences of Georgetown. He was asked to work on an experimental crop development station, but instead immersed himself in the lives of the Warrau Native Americans, an indigenous group that lived, for centuries, in the rainforest.

Williams learned about the customs and rituals of the Warrau, later crediting the encounter as one of the most formative experiences of his life. Indeed, many of the ritual motifs that form the Warrau belief system can be seen in the works that now hang in Tate Britain.

To accompany the exhibition Aubrey Williams: Aware of the Future (until July 29) at the October Gallery in London, Polish curator Jakub Gawkowski writes of Williams: “It is to this meeting with the Warraus that Williams attributes his discovery of himself and his decision to devote his life in art.

After two years in Hosororo, Williams returned to a now independent Georgetown. Williams soon became involved with the People’s Progressive Party, an insurgent political party that sought to reject British colonialism and make Guyana its own state, free to determine its own future.

In Third text, Williams described Guyana as “a boiling cauldron”. He said: “Guyana was emerging from colonial slavery. It was the time when the seed of independence was beginning to sprout.

When Williams returned to Georgetown and continued his revolutionary policies, the government opened a file on him. Williams realized he had to leave Guyana for his own safety. And, in a dichotomous twist of fate, he realized his best way out of Guyana was on a boat to Britain, a country in need of immigrant labour.

Williams emigrated to Britain in 1952. In Third text, he remembers the racism he experienced on the street. “I came to a London where in the pub they were touching a black man for good luck,” he said. Shortly after arriving, he won a scholarship to study agricultural engineering at the University of Leicester. But, just as quickly, he dropped out of class. The continent of Europe, and all its art, called. Williams took advantage of her travels to learn about recent history and contemporary movements in modern art, visiting major museums in Italy and France. He even met Pablo Picasso, an experience he later described as deeply disappointing because the aging Spaniard failed to recognize the young Guyanese as “a fellow artist”.

Williams returned to London with the intention of pursuing his true calling. He got a job at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London and threw himself into the London art world. Two exhibitions, both at the Tate, left a deep impression: Modern art in the United States (1956) and New American Painting (1959) allowed him to see first-hand the works of a new generation of mostly American artists – Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Yves Kline – who together formed a movement known as the name of abstract expressionism.

During this period, Williams began an obsessive relationship with Dmitri Shostakovich and listened to the 20th-century Russian composer’s symphonies and string quartets while painting.

The work on display at the Tate today demonstrates Williams’ immersion in the theories of Abstract Expressionism, coupled with his deeply emotional connection to Shostakovich and the ancient beliefs of the Warrau Group, as well as to the bucolic forests of Guyana in which they lived in perfect harmony.

But how was it received?

Williams did not live a life of total obscurity. In 1963 he won first prize at the first Commonwealth Biennale of Abstract Art, a London-based exhibition which featured artists from Commonwealth countries, many of whom had settled in Britain during the previous decade. He later became a leading figure in the Caribbean artists movement, which operated in London between 1966 and 1972 and provided an outlet for the work of creatives from the Caribbean diaspora, including visual artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians such as Stuart Hall, Orlando Patterson. and Edward Kamau Brathwaite.

Write in the Camden New Journal ReviewAngela Cobbinah, the pioneering writer who primarily explored the stories of female artists from the African diaspora, said of the Caribbean Artists Movement: “It had a huge impact on Caribbean arts in Britain. artistic tendencies, while bridging the gap between West Indian migrants and those who came to be known as black Britons.

But Williams quickly began to fall out of favor. Major institutions politely but consistently passed up the opportunity to exhibit his work, and Williams, as a now mature artist, had to exhibit in fringe galleries with little traffic. He felt increasingly marginalized and isolated from the mainstream art world, working increasingly in private and with little hope of recognition.

Williams met Chili Hawes, the founder of October Gallery in London’s Holborn, in the early 1980s. With Hawes’ help, he began to gain recognition again. After a series of exhibitions at the October Gallery, he is represented in The other story, a group show at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. But, just as London institutions were waking up to the generational talent working within them, Williams faced a terminal cancer diagnosis. He died shortly after, in 1990.

Hawes was instrumental in Tate Britain’s recognition of Williams’ unique contribution to British art. His work was first included in the group exhibition Life Between the Islands: Caribbean-British Art of the 1950s in 2021/22.

But she continued the conversation with Tate and, after the recent change, Tate Britain now dedicates an entire room to Williams; title Aubrey Williams: Cosmological Abstractions, 1973–85, the exhibition consists of paintings created when the artist felt most desperate for an art world that remained cold to his talents; maybe because of his past.

For the troubled young artist who got off the boat in England as part of the Windrush generation, it’s a long overdue recognition.

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