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Sybil Atteck, Great woman artist

Published: 
Sunday, January 31, 2016
Bele, circa 1956 by Sybil Atteck.

The Art Society’s recent exhibition of works by Sybil Atteck—one of the society’s founders, its first secretary and a former president—put a spotlight on the question of greatness in art.

 In 1971, four years before the passing of Atteck, art historian Linda Nochlin wrote the essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? According to Nochlin, the title of the piece originated from her encounter with an art dealer who posed the question while sharing that he wanted to show women artists but could not find good ones. 

Nochlin argues that the question is founded on assumptions about what it takes to make art. It presumes a kind of thinking that focuses less on social shaping forces and instead promotes the idea that great art is created by someone (more often a white male) who carries a “mysterious power” or “genius.”

She lists such artists as Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock as those who would fall under the label of Great Artists—as those who would be regarded as possessing that “magical aura.” She adds that the question of great women artists should point to the social circumstances and institutions which affect art-making practice by women. 

Coupled with Nochlin’s argument is her suggestion of what making great art entails. She writes: “The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form, more or less dependent upon, or free from, given temporally-defined conventions, schemata or systems of notation, which have to be learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship or a long period of individual experimentation.”

Atteck’s place within T&T’s art history is characterised by greatness, not because there was a genius embedded within her, but rather because of her surmounting of certain social conditions, her appropriation of a visual language that boldly defied image-making conventions of the day and her attention to growth through her commitment to teaching, learning from others and testing various art media.

In the 1940s, Atteck’s bachelor’s degree education in fine art at the Washington University, Missouri, exposed her to abstract forms and expressionist approaches that influenced her work. She faced criticism within the local space, with her art being described as not having the aesthetic of T&T. 

What should local art look like? Which styles are acceptable in the local art market? Atteck pushed against the status quo, stirring debate about identity in pre-independence T&T, conversations that continue today. 

Later in the 60s, she was asked to produce murals for the Hilton hotel. In a biography of Atteck, her sister-in-law Helen explains that in order to fulfil the job of creating the work for the hotel, Sybil Atteck asked for sabbatical from teaching at a girls’ high school but “her request was denied.” 

Helen Atteck notes: “Sybil had the courage to resign her position in order to take on this challenge. It was a monumental task. She hired a carpenter to build a covered shed in her backyard with a long tray of the dimensions she reckoned she would need for one mural.”

Atteck not only saw to the building of a place for her own work, she was also instrumental in carving out a space for art in T&T as a founding member of the Trinidad Art Society.  Historian Geoffrey MacLean documents that the group met in Atteck’s living room. She gave art classes, facilitated exhibitions and is said to have influenced the work of Carlisle Chang, Willie Chen, Leo Glasgow and Nina Squires, among others.

The show at the Art Society, which closed on January 20, gave audiences a chance to see Atteck’s art, on loan from private and corporate collectors. Pieces on display showed a span of roughly four decades of art making. What was evident was her attention to experimenting with various techniques, from the frottage which defines the piece Caroni Swamp to the scumbling seen in The Rubber Tree. The work demonstrated her play with both two and three-dimensional form, indeed her capacity to work in watercolours, oil, clay and more. 

Atteck’s art also illustrated her sensitivity to how a mark on canvas interacts with a viewer. Her bold lines and shapes in such works as The Fishermen and Kings Wharf directly confront an audience, in contrast to her suggestion of form as in the piece The Balloon Seller, where the hint of a gate described with the whisper of brushstrokes lures the viewer in.

The exhibition gave insight to an artist courageously working out a language over time, showing a honing of skill. Atteck’s power is no mystery. Her greatness lies in her pioneering spirit and steadfastness.

More info

The Sybil Atteck: Iconic Artist, Trinidad and Tobago exhibition ran from January 11–20, 2016. It is the first in a series of events planned for the Art Society’s Legacy Project.

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