This post was first published by Gyal In A Gallery and reposted with kind permission on Bajan Art.
Makemba Kunle hails from Barataria in Trinidad and Tobago. He is the Artist-in-Residence and Creative Director of the Studio 66 Art Support Community in Barataria, Trinidad. He has been painting for almost 50 years.
In his artwork, Kunle constantly searches for an authentic voice. He acknowledges that this is “very, very difficult in societies that have been colonized.” Still, he absorbs all the influences passed on to him. “The colonization is also part of me…and I accept it. I’m someone who is just trying to be normal but always resisting the constructs that keeping hanging on that are passed to me. I know that I am mixed up. But in all of that, there is a voice that has to be authentic.”
Work by Makemba Kunle
There was a wide variety of work on display. Most of it was acrylic or oil on canvas, but there were some paintings of cloth, prints, and drawings available. However, all of it featured Kunle’s distinctive vision. Almost everything had intricate textured details over swirling layered backgrounds.
A Current in Time
Looking at “A Current in Time”, I was strongly reminded of the famous Chi Rho page from the Book of Kells. Tiny geometrical details almost covered the canvas. But the swirling underlayer peeked through, giving the feeling that you were seeing something secret. At first, the whole image simply seemed pretty. After a minute, I realised it was people poling boats down a river.
When I realised that, my perspective changed. To me, the image looked like a heat map, in a way. It showed the subject, but it did not show the everyday view. This looked like the scene might like if you were on a higher plane of existence and could see the way the universe was made. A little odd, but true.
Lara Promenade Revisited
I noticed this effect in “Lara Promenade Revisited.” When I first saw this piece, I thought it was a glowing painting of a church interior. It had the strong Gothic lines and the impression of vibrant souls walking through it. Then I looked at the title. The card politely informed me that the painting depicted the Brian Lara Promenade in Port-of-Spain.
I imagine the promenade is lovely. However, I found it hard to believe it was quite so radiant. In a chat with the artist, I discovered that this was deliberate. “It can become a place where people can go and find succor, can go and find serenity, comfort, and so on… it’s what Trinidad could be. I like to do a lot of paintings with that kind of vision.”
In some of these paintings, it all became too much. There were too many details to look at. Some did not have the same clear spaces as the others. And of course, they all did look very trippy. Sometimes it overwhelms. But if you stop to linger over each one individually, you find many things to admire.
That was the paintings. But it was his drawings that really spoke to me. Each drawing featured bold, precise marks. Like his paintings, layers upon layers, marks upon marks, build up until there is a complete whole. Yet the drawings mostly have a sense of raw unhindered joy that that the paintings seem to lack.
I particularly enjoyed “Flying”. The image seemed to show the shadow of a plane over the ground. Yet even within the shadow there seemed to be other images. I caught the glimpse of a face, the edges of buildings, the lines of trees. And over it all, the shadow of the airplane, soaring above it all.
And in the Artist’s Words
At the opening, I sat down with Makemba Kunle for a few minutes and got an impromptu interview.
I really love the drawings. Do you mind telling me about them?
Drawings are what I do…I always walk with a book to draw and I have several books full up. I believe in the drawing because the drawing brings out discipline. I like to draw with the pen because when you mark, it can’t erase, so you have to study how to use that mark to make the successful drawing. Not only that, but I’m able to extend my imagination in the drawing, because it’s free. I love drawing.
Sometimes, from the drawings, I get ideas for the paintings. But in terms of when I say, when I do a painting, I has several ideas in it at the same time.
What sorts of ideas?
The topics are everyday topics. Like a calypsonian, I paint about what’s going on in the country, my love, my family, the environment around me, things that might be on the news.
That’s a lot of ideas.
Yeah. In terms of when I say, when I do a painting, it has several ideas in it at the same time. They might represent a lot of who I am today.
I come out from the days of black power. I was involved in it, in the marches, in the speeches, in doing everything. There was a revolutionary period in the seventies, and I come out of that. And with that, the whole thing about anti-colonialism, and finding an identity. Especially with me ancestors from Africa.
But that also took me a little further. Because in the identification of meself, Africa is not enough. I’m a universal being. And even as a universal being, here, that is also not enough because I’m a cosmic being. We’re all part of a big cosmos.
So these paintings, these come out. They’re grounded in where I am, where I live, in my own environment, everything starts there. But from there, you get all these different ideas.
That painting on the wall [gestures to “Waves and Particles”] life is encapsulated in that. It have carnival. People jumping up. If I turn it, you would see that it is people in procession moving in a band. Everyone in their own space. Everybody together, but everybody in their own space with their own colours and so on. Everybody just made up of atoms, molecules, one jumping from one to the next. And also, it’s planets in the air. It’s sperm moving toward the—what do they call it—ova. I try to describe unity there, and a moment.
I could talk a lot about many things—no, because I done talk too much—but everything is there in each one. People would call it multi-layered. It is multi-layered, as we are all multi-layered.
Verdict on “In Between Worlds” by Makemba Kunle
“In Between Worlds” was an accurate title for this show. Looking at each of the paintings, I felt as though I got a glimpse into some kind of higher state of being. On the top, you could see the skeleton structure of the everyday world, shown by intricate detailing. But underneath, the vibrant underlayers suggested another layer to reality. In addition, it was wonderful to see this theme reflected and echoed and changed throughout the entire show. It’s definitely worth taking a trip up to Speightstown to view.
“In Between Worlds”, a solo show by Makemba Kunle, will be at the Gallery of Caribbean Art from 15 July to 10 August 2017. To find out more information, call the Gallery of Caribbean Art at +1 (246) 419-0858, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Gallery of Caribbean Art website or Facebook page.
Interview edited for clarity and length.
Please note that this article was corrected on July 26, 2017 at 11:40 a.m. The piece “Waves and Particles” was incorrectly listed as “Cosmic Being”. The name has been updated.