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Getting under his skin
It’s just coincidence that Kenwyn Murray’s exhibit of portraits should show up at the same time that conversations about identity are circling the globe.
Murray’s likely to shrug if you ask him about it. His preoccupations in this work are less with what the work seems to be about; a striking collection of lovingly rendered portraits of Trinidadians of African descent, than it is about what it means to be black.
In his own case, he’s wrestling with what it means to be black and creative in T&T, which is enough to occupy a lifetime.
The paintings reveal their own very specific truth. The artist works with a range of attractive subjects, some of them people I’ve met, but even when the faces aren’t classically pretty, he illustrates them as he sees them, glowing with a beauty that spans his chosen range of lush browns.
Beneath those brushstrokes is a luxuriating love for a people he sees far too little in the mainstream media. Quiet, thoughtful individuals whose eyes, rendered in pigment, fix the casual viewer and demand serious consideration.
“All of the work speaks to the idea of skin,” he says at his home and workspace near Trincity.
“Particularly black skin. I look at the news and when I see people arrested for crime, they all look the same. There is such a high volume of imagery portraying black people as criminals.”
“I’m really trying to connect the idea of blackness with spirituality. Our governments in the Caribbean have an opportunity to show the world what it means to live in black skin in joy, but they don’t do that.”
Behind him is a painting in progress, one of several propped on stacked beverage cases.
There are nine people in the image, clustered in a very traditional family grouping. In his gentle detailing of each face is a concern with character that seems to be building as he adds layers of paint.
Some of the faces seem more finished than others, as if he were more certain about their owners, others seem ghostly, more sketch lines and canvas than representations of people.
Murray works from photographs as well as paintings, but he takes some time to come to terms with each work, walking away from it and returning to bring new perspective and understanding to the brush strokes.
This particular work has been in progress since January, and he smiles gratefully as he recollects the clients.
“They have been very patient with me,” he said.
Portrait commissions represent much of his income as an artist, along with his work at the Carnival Arts Programme at UWI.
The works are cheap at his current prices, but as attractive as they are, they are only half of what he’s showing in Portrait of an Angel.
His other works are more deliberate investigations of what it means to, well, be him in the world.
These paintings may also be portraits featuring the likenesses of his friends and family, but they are illustrations masquerading as portraits, investigating issues of pride, nobility, heritage and the soul’s beauty.
Quite different aspects of those ideas arise in the pieces I Am Here and Sagaboy Parading, featuring King Sailor Ralph Dyette.
In I am here, Amanda McIntyre wears wings and a fitted white dress bearing a 3-canal and a cocoyea broom that the artist is still detailing. Her smile is ironic, her eyes intense, her intent unmistakeable. Prepare to be swept aside, the image suggests, I’m not here to play.
The portrait of Dyette is almost journalistic, capturing one of the performer’s signature moves, a calculated dance move meant to look like a stumbling sway. The masman’s face is wry and knowing, a combination of amusement, assurance and absolute confidence.
Kenwyn Murray began drawing at the age of two and encouraged by his parents, he continued with the craft into his A Levels, where he began mapping out a strategy to become a professional artist.
Things didn’t work out.
“I had a partial scholarship,” he recalls, “but it wasn’t nearly enough.”
Murray admits to being terribly naive in his understanding of the ways of the art world.
“I really thought that you got a scholarship when people saw the work you were doing and decided to reward you,” he said with a rueful smile.
“It wasn't until I went to Trinity College and later at UWI that I began to understand the kind of systems I had to work through and milestones you need to hit before making your way.”
He got close though, and would begin his studies abroad after the summer of 2001, but after 9/11, the funding for the course he planned to do was cut.
It was at Trinity that he met art teacher Patrick Roberts and began to understand Carnival as an art form.
That led to ten years at the UWI Carnival Studies programme where he teaches while pursuing an MPhil with a focus on Carnival.
“There are so many separations between the way we consume art,” Murray said.
“Dance, painting, costuming and music were all one.”
Portrait of an Angel is less the exhibit of a polished collection of work (several of the pieces on show are unfinished) than it is a stake in ground of presence for Kenwyn Murray as an artist.
“Last year I began to really pursue this work as a career,” he said.
“This is the thing I have to make a serious play for, and I’ve put so much into other people’s projects. You have to find the money; you have to find the energy.”
“Yes, you could paint,” he remembers asking himself, “but what does that mean? Can you build your life around it? Does your work have an impact on anyone’s life?”
To answer those questions, Kenwyn Murray has gone all in with Portrait of an Angel.
“My training,” he admits, “is more classical, but I’m continuously impressed with what young people do with their work, how they put it out there. I’m still trying to catch up with that.”
The show lays all his work on the line, showing intent, approach and process. It’s less a collection about achievement than it is a benchmark of progress.
I am here, it says. This is what I’m thinking; this is where I’m going.
It’s going to be interesting to see where Kenwyn Murray ends up.
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