A Pioneering Barbadian Artist’s Dilemma

Bajan Art TeamBajan Art Editorials

A chance visit to Queen’s Park Gallery in Pelican Village proved to be a truly enlightening one. Walking into the gallery I was pulled to the left by a small well framed painting by artist Campbell Skeete that seems to be created by a primary school child. I wondered to myself what about this naive painting would justify the investment in such an expensive frame? My speculation only grew as I took a cursory glance around the gallery to be greeted by similar paintings and what I could only describe as miniature ornaments. I didn’t realise that I was about to be truly humbled while being taught an interesting piece of Barbadian art history.

I actually almost forgot to query the show with the Curator. Only because the discussion turned to the art market in Barbados that the Curator sited the Artist Campbell Skeete as we discussed the different types of persons who by art. I was just making the point from my limited experience that in addition to your typical art collector they are persons who would gladly invest healthy sums in the purchase of Barbadian art just because it matched their couch! An extreme example no doubt but I was told the 80 year old Skeete who was trained at the prestigious Art Students League no less in painting, sculpture and photography bold direct style was deliberate to satisfy a particular type of customer. On his return to Barbados he targeted the fledgling tourism market that was influenced by Haitian art and sought out this style of work from islanders in the Caribbean. In fact, he was one of the first to setup shop in Pelican Village and remained there until 2011—a true pioneer. He was quick to recognise that opportunity and capitalise on it.
By now I was fully caught up in the art history lesson and we moved around the gallery discussing some of the other works on display. One of the first pieces we looked at were some vastly different miniature sculptures. One was a plaster bust of a Young Prince Philip which clearly shows Skeete’s ability and sensitivity as a sculptor. Another bust on show was a wooden miniature of John F. Kennedy also richly detailed. The piece leaves no doubt as to my earlier assertion.

In contrast to these busts where brightly coloured plaster figurines mentioned earlier rendered in the naive style depicting characters and scenes from Barbadian life at the time such as hawkers, harbour police the bus stand and villages. These where clearly for the tourists and I am told they sold well over the years.
I couldn’t help but notice that these miniature works where displayed as if on sale rather than as works of art. I took this to be a homage to his shop and one could get a true sense of what tourists would have seen over 50 years ago.

The answer to the question of the expensive looking frame was an intriguing one. Campbell Skeete would actually buy imported mass produced paintings and paint over them. This would obviously save him time and money in terms of production. Also, whether this was deliberate or by accident he made his works even more acceptable to his target market by using frames that where generic and in homes everywhere, thereby increasing the chance of a purchase. Remember, most tourists are not art collectors and most likely would like their purchase to fit in with their living areas so they can talk about it to their friends.
After an interesting discussion of the artists work the burning question of his dilemma was raised. Why would a well trained artist with obvious skill and ability choose to only to mass produce art? I am told his reply to that question was simple, because the tourists wanted it. I was also told that he was being coy at the times as he is secretive by nature.

I am sure there are those who would want to criticise Skeete for not being true to his art myself included, but on reflection simply put— he had to eat. Giving it more thought I also realised that Skeete did something that in my opinion needs to be done a lot more in today’s Barbadian art market. He identified a market segment and targeted it. They might not have been serious art collectors that would have appreciated the full extent of his ability but they proved lucrative enough to have supported him for over 40 years. What is critical here is that it was a non traditional market segment. Identifying and tapping into these types of customer bases will be necessary in order to grow the Barbadian art market. The business side of art cannot or should not be ignored, just read up on Jeff Koons or Damien Hurst.

Some might further argue that the powers that be are to blame for not developing our art market and any other myriad of good reasons. Again let’s look at Skeete. What did he do? He identified a segment, took advantage of market conditions i.e Pelican Village opening and created artwork to meet that demand. In other words he did it practically by himself. I would not dispute the advantage that was created by the government’s developmental input. I am crediting his initiative. In fact his approach and that of others like him can still be seen used by other artists in Pelican Village today who also target the tourist market.

Taking a look at the other half of the dilemma where as artists we need to be true to our creative vision. I had to ask myself how did he suppress that need? After discussing his work with the Curator I would theorise he didn’t. Certain aspects of Skeete’s work especially his paintings at first glance appear to be just mass produced. When actually, they have subtle elements that speak to real artistic expression and I even go as far as to say a definite language. While the show did not chronicle his work over a number of years to prove this, I could see his creative side speak in elements such as the way he rendered boats and composed roads and streets. I felt he took the self imposed limitation of style and did what any true artist would do— use it creatively. It could be said I am reaching but I suggest you go to the show and examine the works on display for yourself. In support of this assertion here is a part of the gallery write up on Skeete,

The Artist’s work presents his view of Barbados in the sixties with its traditions and people. In the paintings we see symbolic references to the Tree of Life in the road system linking the houses together. The Harbour Policemen souvenir figurines, who are dressed as sailors, no longer exist as a branch of the local force. The brightly coloured vendors and musicians on the plaques are in contrast to the pristine whites of the policemen. All of the works in the exhibition are original works of Art. There are no prints.Dean Emeritus Richard Aschenbrand of Columbia College of Art and Design in Ohio

Another point to be considered the the current historical value of the work on display the price of which in no way reflects thier value. They represent a major part of the development of the art market in Barbados. There will always be differing views on of the contribution made by Artists like Campbell Skeete, however we contents that good or bad his story and body of work is of historical value to Barbados and should be recognised as such.