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Swallow Sings Calypso: Voices of Freedom

The connotations of the idea of ‘carnival’ are a surfeit of paradoxes: joy and resistance; pleasure and violence; striking individual display and collective pride ; African and indigenous roots and European, Christian influence. It has therefore been a very rich vehicle for artistic and political expression, particularly for those originally from the Caribbean. This has been recently attested by Hew Locke’s brilliant The Procession at the Tate Britain, and now the Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso exhibition at Kettle’s Yard. It is worth saying that of the three main British-Caribbean artists shown, only Errol Lloyd and Paul Dash make carnival their main subject – John Lyons is a Neo-Expressionist with mostly quite different concerns – and that some of the older paintings they are put ‘in conversation’ with have nothing noticeably to do with carnival at all. However, almost all the works on do aim for that exhilarating, possibly even dangerous intoxication which catches the carnival spirit.

( Notting Hill Carnival IIC, Errol Lloyd, 1988 )

Of the three, Paul Dash, placed in the same room as the pre-1900 work, seems the strongest by a long way. It can be nerve-wracking when a living artist is placed next to the Great and Dead – the contrast can be humiliating – but Dash more than stands up for himself, indeed he puts several of the older offerings to shame. His paintings investigate, with great subtlety and variety, the interchange between the individual and the communal in carnival, and the possibility (of Bacchanalian abandon and communal joy) and threat (of loss of any moral restraint or sense of self) the latter can bring. He does so with an apparently simple technique, most of his paintings using scratched-out straight lines of brown ink in blocks of three or four, on a shifting surface which is sometimes coloured and sometimes composed of whites, browns and greys, to delineate the carnival celebrants, as well as to make up his background. In these paintings individual figures shift in and out of focus, merging sometimes, as in Dancers Masquerade at the Sambadrome, with the collective to form a great snaking mass of energy and power – which nevertheless leaves one, almost priest-like figure at the bottom in the centre, arms spread and head bowed as if to control the whole thing – and sometimes, and somewhat more ambiguously, with the sky itself. In Night Revellers Gather for the Parade, the vaulting ink lines cover the bent, blocky bodies of the revellers and leap upwards into an oblivion of more densely-hatched ink above. Here the force of the intersecting curves both expresses a joyful, anarchic anticipation and seems to paper over the tiredness of the bodies, their oppressive weight.

(The Obeahwoman Scrap Book of Spells, John Lyons, 2003)

Although most of the other work in this room is not as fine as this – the Pieter Breughel the Younger lacks the veiled strangeness common in his father – there are a couple of pieces which do get to the ambivalences expressed by Dash. One of Goya’s nightmarish etchings from Los Caprichos show a possible source of Dash’s dash, or his hatching, and also the differences between them; where Goya uses hatching exclusively to show the intrusion of chaos and irrationality into the world in the form of the bizarre demon’s wing, Dash’s hatch both creates and destroys form, sustains and dissolves. Dürer’s woodcut of The Torch Dance at Ausburg, made for a book intended to celebrate the Emperor Maximillian I, has a trace of the uncanny too, which as so often with him is difficult to pinpoint. I think it is in the unnatural stillness of the central crowned woman and the strict regularity of the gridded floor, counterpoised to the flowery line of the knights’ costumes, the hatchings thudding in from the right, and the way the torch-bearers seem to create a sort of stage-setting for the dance. The mixture of movement and inertia creates a curiously ritualistic effect, as if that central woman is to be sacrificed, but, as with Dash, there is no overt grotesquery.

(The Torch Dance at Augsburg, Albrecht Dürer, 16th century)

The same cannot quite be said for John Lyons, nor do he or Errol Lloyd come off quite so well in the battle with older artists, this time mostly post-1900. Lyons seems to have absorbed rather too much of one Great Figure in particular: Francis Bacon. His Eloi, Eloi, a crucifixion in the older artist’s characteristic muddy pinks (I told you the carnival theme was a bit of a stretch) is Bacon inflated to comic-book scale, complete with mannerisms such as a screaming divine face and bird-like chest. It suffers with comparison to Graham Sutherland’s deflated Bacon in The Deposition, where Christ is reduced to pitiful strip of grey flesh. Some of the other painting is not tightly conceived enough to create the lurid, shocking effects it is searching for, although the woodcuts are really excellent and The Obeawoman Scrap Book of Spells does convey the fishlike slipperiness of the body, and how, as Lyons puts it, ‘nothing is ever what it appears to be’. Lloyd seems to have the opposite aim, to show that everything is what it is, and depicts carnival-goers in all their regalia with an exactness that teeters on the edge of banality and sometimes falls in. However, his large composition Notting Hill Carnival IIC, a rectangle of panels depicting revellers alongside some squares of matte blue, red and yellow, does show a quietly rigorous concern for moments of stillness in the excitement, which allow Black people to turn and confront the viewer, and to say simply ‘we are here’, that this is an occasion of pride and celebration. That quiet but vigorous affirmation is a fine summary of this exhibition as a whole.

(Dancers Masquerade at the Sambadrome, Paul Dash, 2015)

Text and all photos by Hari Collins

Paint like the Swallow Sings Calypso is running at Kettle's Yard from 12 November 2022 until 19 February 2023 and is open between 11am and 5pm. More information about the exhibit is available here:


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