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Painting in the dark

Roberta Stoddart exhibits Indigo works of art
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Clean Sweep by Roberta Stoddart.

A colour can define a time in your life, an emotional or psychological state. You might see red, for example, or feel blue. For Jamaican artist Roberta Stoddart, her new oil paintings have emerged from a deep, dark hue of extreme sorrow: indigo. Indigo is the name of her new exhibition. This pigment permeates her art in both literal and symbolic ways. Stoddart has long had an affinity with indigo in her creative practice. “I don’t use black paint. What is used is a colour that looks like black at first glance but is not. It is the colour indigo. Unlike black, indigo is warmer. It even has a soothing quality,” she explained. 


With her latest body of work, she embraces the richness of indigo fully, not only as a strong visual component of her pieces but also as the tone and texture of a journey through the pain of the loss of a loved one. Two years ago, Stoddart began a number of paintings—using photographs as reference points—of people on the streets of east Port-of-Spain.“In 2000, I did a show on vagrancy titled Seamless Spaces. Now, I wanted to do a series on people who are working. People who have amazing faith despite being beaten down by poverty or mental health problems,” she said. Within that period, however, she learned of the death of Ma Lou, who had worked as her family’s helper in Jamaica for 45 years. This news triggered a different direction for her image making. “I was working on a painting of the bottom of Calvary Hill and I couldn’t finish it. Instead, I began working from an intuitive place, expressing my feelings of grief,” she said. 
It is the first time her solo exhibition has manifested in a shift and splitting of visual content. The result is a collection of paintings characterised by two strands. 


Street life portraits
In one group of images, Stoddart offers detailed, intimate and moving portraits of people found in the environs of the Lucky Jordan Recreation Club, at the corner of Prince and George streets. In one piece, she paints a pumpkin carrier and, in another, she renders the Prince Street bread man, who has been working at the same location for 20 years. In the painting entitled Clean Sweep, Stoddart situates the viewer within the gritty, busy city. The enduring spirit of the people saturates the atmosphere. A man leans in so that his weight helps to propel a load of goods and in the foreground Stoddart presents a sweeper—a man standing firmly with his broom. His job is to brush away any trash near the vendors’ stalls. Stoddart shows him taking a moment to read a newspaper, which she uses to allude to a sweeping away of money by government officials. She skillfully addresses ideas of the daily politics of existence and the play of power that can be found in the contexts of the informal streets and the suit-and-tie office. In her King Bolo painting, a sinewy man carries a large piece of plywood. Stoddart contrasts his strength with the tough-looking object he holds, the coarsened surface of an oil drum, the rough exterior of a building and a pavement worn by trampling feet. With these works, Stoddart paints candid stories and intricate scenarios.


Cosmic elements: Ma Lou
In a second grouping of images, she shares visions of sky, land and water—cosmic elements in the alchemy of life. In the painting Wish Upon a Star, celestial bodies shine with a gleam that changes from bright to faint. Along with vistas of the cosmos, Stoddart includes other motifs. Among them are paintings of children with their skulls exposed. She explains these works in her exhibition catalogue: they are “the ‘Lost Children’ of alcoholic families—some of whom I grew up with, some of whom have passed from this earth in tragic and sad circumstances, far too young.” The visuals in this second segment of the collection deal closely with ideas of death, creation, transformation, self-searching and healing. They come more directly from Stoddart’s efforts to work through her bereavement by way of the language of visual art. These images may seem at variance with her paintings of the people of east Port-of-Spain. What bridges the two series of works is Stoddart’s portrait painting of Ma Lou. With careful, loving, paintbrush strokes, she presents Ma Lou at rest. The piece serves as an open-casket memorial in which Ma Lou is portrayed as one of many heavenly bodies in the firmament.


Painting from the heart
Despite their different orientations, the two strands of images in Stoddart’s new work come from her gut. They are heartfelt. “The art scene says you must have big ideas but the heart has the best ideas. If I use the intellect—my thoughts—and I don’t bring my heart and my feelings into the work then I am only including part of me,” she said. Stoddart is no stranger to the art arena. She is a key figure in the landscape of Caribbean art—someone who has and continues to create work that resonates with her experiences. She has exhibited in the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe. Her art also appears in numerous publications. She is the recipient of a Peoples’ Choice prize in France and a Life of Jamaica Art Scholarship. In 1999, she moved to Trinidad and has been making her art here since then. Stoddart’s most recent works constitute a brilliant creative light that has come out of the darkness. “To be fully human,” she said, “we need to hold a tremendous amount of sorrow and a great deal of joy. Indigo affirms that there is a place for the dark.”


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