CREATIVE SPACE is a series spotlighting local (Antiguan and Barbudan/Caribbean) art and culture. As a brand, it dates back to 2009, published exclusively in LIAT’s inflight magazine. It was revamped in 2018 and syndicated as of 2019 on Antiguanice.com. Its publishing partner, as of 2020, is the Daily Observer newspaper. It has its first print run in the paper every other Wednesday, with the online extended edition running here on the blog. It continues to expand across other media platforms (e.g. AntiguanWriter on YouTube). CREATIVE SPACE is created, owned, and written by Joanne C. Hillhouse – Antiguan-Barbudan/Caribbean author, journalist, producer, and freelance writer, editor, and trainer.
Here’s a link to the issue as it appeared on Wednesday 29th September 2021 in the Daily Observer: CREATIVE SPACE MAO
Below is the extended online edition (not a duplicate of the edition with publishing partner Observer Media) with extras.
CREATIVE SPACE #21 OF 2021 – FROM OVALS, ANTIGUA TO THE CENTER OF THE MODERN ART WORLD
How familiar are you with Manhattan-based Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) and its 630,000 plus square footage of exhibition space? How about Mali Adelaja Olatunji of Ovals, Antigua, who worked there as fine arts photographer for at least two decades capturing high quality photographs of art displayed at the renowned gallery.
Flipping through the MoMa book with its 1070 illustrations, a small sample of works displayed since MoMa opened its doors in 1929, I find a who’s who, what’s what of art. These range from cover image Henri Matisse’s ‘Memory of Oceania’ to Paul Gauguin’s ‘The Moon and the Earth’ to Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Hospital Corridor at Saint Remy’ which are among the more than 109 images captured by Olatunji, on display in this thick tome – and only a fraction of the works (by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Wilfredo Lam, Paul Cezanne, et al) he would have captured in his time at MoMa.
He had graduated and was working another gig, when he saw the notice for a job as an assistant lab tech at MoMa, applied, went for the interview, and walked out with a job as assistant photographer – a position higher than the advertised position. That he is knowledgeable was not in question then and, as he has only continued to ascend, is not in question now. Yet, Olatunji’s been back and forthing between Antigua and New York since retiring from MoMa, offering to give back to Antigua-Barbuda by passing on his knowledge – an offer not really received.
In 2015, he published a book, The Art of Mali Olatunji: Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda (co-authored with Brown University professor, also of Antigua, Paget Henry). In it, he explores a philosophical idea he coined called jumbie-ism and his original aesthetic known as woodism, a synthesis achieved through the in-camera layering of images (a place, person, or activity under textures of woods, leaves, or flowers). When the images had a showing at Brown, the website described it as seeing “through ‘the eyes’ of a jumbie or a departed soul”. It reflects a very Caribbean-magical-realist sense (of the times in which Olatunji grew up) that jumbies are among us, especially in trees. In that sense, is Olatunji’s woodist jumbie aesthetic any less credible than any other art movement – surrealism, impressionism, cubism, et al – for being homegrown?
Fusion Magazine said, “This remarkable book… is a feast for the imagination and a fountain of aesthetic thought. The photographs are made and not merely seen. The photographs are not only precise imitations of the real but deep penetrations of it, in search of Truth—the truth of the imitations of imitations.”
Woodism – how it works – the master photographer takes a picture of the subject, then, with the same film, takes a picture of the other image (in one instance dirt dug up in a nearby park without letting the park wardens see, to layer over a street scene at 6th and 47th), layering in camera. The choice of what to layer over what, Olatunji said, is mostly instinct. While he has full handle of the technique, there’s a fair amount of instinct involved in the actual rendering of the image. “I have no control over that. I don’t even try to think I can, but I will try to manifest it.”
A museum fine arts photographer is responsible for taking and making accessible high quality photographs of collections, exhibits, research, and public events for a wide spectrum of uses, including books, magazines, including newspapers, other publications, photographic archives, and the Web site.
To have someone credited in this role in an institution of the status of MoMa with one of the widest modern art collections in the world is no small thing. Olatunji feels understandable pride in his achievement – “me good boy”.
He explained how much control he had over the recording of these famous images. “They send the word to the Museum studio and me make the entire decision for the image.” And capturing these images (much like restoring them) is no simple point and click operation.
Mali makes the point that he doesn’t take images, he makes them; and it’s not hard to hear the wistfulness in his voice when he reinforces that his intention in returning home was (and remains) to work with artists in Antigua and Barbuda.
This is a photo Mali took of me in New York (reading Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy) – Note how I’m almost disappearing in to the tree. The version of this image that appears in Mali’s book has this to an even more heightened degree, as the image is much more textured due to the woodist layering. It’s quite ghostly.
I singled out some of the MoMa art images captured by Mali in the article but I thought I’d mention some of the images. Since I can’t mention all 1000 plus, I’ll mention some of my faves.
Okay, I mentioned the Gauguin ‘The Moon and the Earth’ before but did you know it is based on a Tahitian legend; he moved to the Pacific island in 1890 from Europe. It is oil on burlap and is part of the Lillie P Bliss Collection at MoMa.
There is also Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’, 1889 – oil on canvas – acquired through the Lillie P Bliss bequest; Henri Rousseau’s ‘The Sleeping Gypsy’, 1897 – oil on canvas – a gift of Mrs. Simon Guggenheim; Andre Derain’s ‘Bathers’, 1907– oil on canvas – from the William S Paley and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller funds; Salvador Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’, 1931 – oil on canvas – given anonymously; Wilfredo Lam’s ‘The Jungle’, 1943 – gouache on paper mounted on canvas – from the Inter-American Fund; Roy Lichtenstein ‘Drowning Girl’, 1963 – oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas – from the Philip Johnson Fund and a gift of Mr and Mrs Bagley Wright; and Pablo Picasso’s ‘Sleeping Peasants’, 1919 – tempera watercolor and pencil on paper – from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund.
I found the story of three patrons coming together and hiring a young art school graduate to curate a modern gallery that has come to be a premiere gallery, building its collection over time through a combination of donations, art loans, and purchases from contributed funds, and of course commercial museum activities like events and print sales, to be quite interesting. I know we don’t have the resources of even a Depression era America, but do we have any resources or inclination in Antigua and Barbuda for a national art gallery project? More importantly, do we have the “enlightened patronage and imaginative leadership” to quote the MoMa book?
I wrote about Mali’s book in 2015 when it came out. Here’s the link.
I wrote a review for The Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books. Here’s the link.
It’s perhaps no surprise that this artistic innovation of Olatunji’s is so steeped in honouring the ancestors (a jumbie is a spirit that has crossed over) considering the considerable influence of Mama. A Mama-ism, you don’t try to do your best, you try to do it the best it can be done. This informs his commitment to doing things the right way (measure twice, cut once; look ahead) – something he can be a stickler about.
If you would like to be featured in a future CREATIVE SPACE or to pay for a (web only) sponsored post (on jhohadli.wordpress.com exclusively), BOOSTing your BRAND while boosting Antigua-Barbuda Art and Culture, contact Joanne.
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