Son of Thunder: Ras Ishi

Barbados artist Ras Ishi has been steadily making his mark around the region and beyond. Nancy Rogers Yaeger went to find him in his studio

‘Black Orchids Two’ by Ras Ishi Butcher‘Lily of the Valley Four’ by Ras Ishi Butcher‘Predators’ by Ras Ishi ButcherItal Princess by Ras Ishi ButcherPhotograph by Eleanor ChandlerRas Itchi ButcherTellius Snagg by Ras Ishi Butcher

At the first Caribbean and Central American Biennial, held in Santo Domingo in 1992, 275 artists from 30 countries submitted 450 paintings. But one of the very few who walked away with the gold was a 33-year-old Barbadian, Ras Ishi Butcher.

It might have been a different story. He could have been practising law or teaching economics at a university, except for an epiphany. In fact, two epiphanies.

“At primary school, I painted a rose,” he explains. “It was framed and displayed. From that moment on, I loved art.”

The second event that radically changed his life also occurred at school. “In 1975, the elder Rasta Brethren from Jamaica visited our Modern High School under the auspices of one of the teachers there, who was very into black power. The brethren were called Youth Black Faith or Sons of Thunder. I immediately identified with their concept of ‘whole blackness’.”

After finishing school and making a false start as a law student, he decided he needed to “develop as a Rasta man and learn to support myself as a Rasta man. In those days the Christian society found it difficult to deal with Rastafarians, who were mostly young. There was a lot of social pressure against their way of life, and things like jobs and places to live were difficult . . . I qualified for lots of jobs, but because of being a Rasta man it was hard to get one. Since I had the time, I decided to do something I really love — draw and paint.”

At this point a man called Basil Jones, who was associated with the Barbados Arts Council, entered his life. “One day he saw me practising my drawings on the grounds at Codrington College, and invited me to the Arts Council. Jones taught a group of seven or eight of us, anyone who was interested in art. We would go every Thursday evening to the Council. Jones would set up a still life or get someone to pose for us. He taught me how to use the paints, shade and tone, composition. He showed me how I could improve my drawing. Because of him we learned to understand space, texture and perspective. It was rigorous training . . . Basil Jones is responsible for encouraging a lot of young people in art, especially the poor.”

Ishi set his sights on a course in the Fine Arts Division of the Barbados Community College. In order to finance the tuition and the art supplies, he worked in Barbados’s sugar-cane fields for two years. Perhaps that experience accounts for the steady stream of paintings of women working the land. Ital Princess (1986-7), Replenish (1988) and his recent Lilies series are good examples of the lyricism and emotional intensity Ishi brings to this subject.

The first public showing of Ras Ishi’s work was in 1981. He and a group of other young artists staged a sidewalk exhibit under the aegis of De Pam (De People Art Movement). In the following years he exhibited in group shows sponsored by the Arts Council.

In 1985 the Art Collection Foundation (ACF) staged its first competitive, juried art show. Artists responded to the project like bees around a honeycomb. Large cash awards were promised, and a wide audience was in prospect. There was an international jury selecting the works of art to be acquired for the nation.

Ishi won the coveted Berger Paints Award at that exhibition with his oil painting Variegation, a vibrant stylised landscape with figures. The prize and the painting attracted media and public interest, and led to new-found respect for his work. The artist was on his way.

Ishi’s star continued to rise. His work – often in company with that of his friend Ras Aykemi Ramsey – was exhibited at Sandy Lane Hotel, the Barbados Central Bank, the Museum of Modern Art of Latin America, and at the opening of the Caribe Gallery in Philadelphia.

But recognition is one thing, home sales are another. “Barbados is late coming to recognise art and the artist,” Ishi concedes. “Mostly the tourists admire my work, but not the general Barbadian public. They don’t buy. They will tell you ‘It’s a good piece of art’, but that doesn’t help if there’s no money. An artist can’t live on compliments. He has to eat.”

In 1988 came a pivotal two-day trip to New York City, with a full day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and another at the Museum of Modern Art. “Visiting galleries and seeing the works of art you’d only seen in books, well, it was amazing. There’s such a vast difference from the reproductions.” The work of Matisse and Bonnard was a particular revelation. “When you see the effects of light and colour Bonnard gets using very little paint and with a lot of canvas showing – something you can’t tell from a reproduction – it made me realise that artists have a lot of liberty. Before that I was looking at a smooth slick finish.”

Ishi calls himself a Fauvist, referring to the legendary exhibition in Paris by a group of artists, including Matisse and Braque, who “freed colour from its traditional role”. Their canvasses were simplified in design and so shockingly brilliant in colour that a critic described their creators as fauves (wild beasts).

In 1989 an exhibition at Queen’s Park Gallery hit Barbados like a bolt of lightning. Critic Ulric Rice wrote in the Nation: “Strong messages of protest, frustration, hope and spiritual orientation emanate from an exhibit entitled VEXX, mounted by three Barbadian artists . . . Social decay, the deadly menace of drug pushing and addiction, the struggle for economic survival, are all portrayed.”

Ishi, one of the three, says that in addition to protesting the lack of gallery space in Barbados, this was an attempt to shift people’s attention to what art really is and to react to social change. “The public found the works disturbing socially and artistically because they were done in a brutal form.” Indeed, some members of the public became so roiled up at a later exhibit called Seven Artists, Seven Studios that some of his and Aykemi’s canvasses were slashed.

There was no precedent for an artist in Ishi’s family. His mother is a seamstress, his father a tailor. He liked to watch his mother sew when he was little, and was fascinated by colour and fabric. Neither parent encouraged him to pursue his interest in art, but he is quick to acknowledge their financial support and their patience for his chosen path. His mother still calls him by his Christian name, Winslow.

Ras’s studio is in the basement of his mother’s house, a trim, attractive wood and stone house on a hill overlooking the Atlantic on Barbados’s dramatic east coast. There, surrounded by flowers and fruit trees – lime, plum, golden apple, cherry – and with a breathtaking view outside the door, Ishi paints with demonic energy.

“I started working out of my bedroom, but after a while the canvasses were crowding me out, so my parents dug up the basement for me.” For a long time the space remained unenclosed, with no walls on three sides, at the mercy of the sea air, the moisture and erosion of a tropical climate.

The studio is spartan. Ishi sleeps on a pad on the floor, surrounded by sketches and oils. Art books and tubes of paint are scattered everywhere. At night he works under a single, naked bulb. “I work a lot at night. Mostly drawings, because when I try to mix colours, the bugs interfere.” Gradually walls and windows have been added, and in 1992 the luxury of a refrigerator and stove.

Architect Mervyn Awon, designer of several large public buildings in Barbados and a discriminating art collector, observes: “The art scene is waking up. The number of artists who have something meaningful to say is few, but they are beginning to produce meaningful work. There’s great hope for the future.”

Awon first became aware of Ras Ishi when a piece of his was brought to the Art Collection Foundation. “At that time he had not found his means of expression. He was into his ‘graffiti’ style. Both he and Aykemi had fallen under the spell of Jean Michel Basquet” (the Haitian-American who was the darling of the New York art scene in the mid eighties and died in his late twenties of a drug overdose).

Barbados’s National Cultural Foundation (NCF) asked Awon to help select work to be sent to the 1992 Biennial in Santo Domingo. “The NCF offered no transport to artists wanting to enter, which left me with pieces of art I could carry on a bus,” Ishi recalls. “Everyone was in the same boat. The judges did not like what they saw, and decided to visit the artists in their studios.” Awon was one of the two judges who carne to see him.

“I went to Ishi’s home,” Awon remembers, “and found a piece called Hills and Valleys which he had not submitted. That piece was indicative to me of the area in which he was most fluent. He submitted it and won first prize.”

Not without problems, though. “Only two of the six artists chosen by the judges could afford to go,” Ishi says, “Ashanti Trotman and Ras Aykemi, and Aykemi had to beg for the fare. I told him, ‘Go collect the medal for me ‘cuz I can’t go.’ I just had this feeling that I would win.”

After Ishi captured that prize, Awon believes, “he recognised where his strength lay. He started producing a series of these paintings – like Barbadian icons, women working in the fields, that sort of thing.” Awon thinks Ishi’s work “is beginning to mature now, becoming more settled and lyrical than when he was attempting the graffiti pieces.”

Normally soft-spoken and good-humoured, Ishi refuses to turn the other cheek when a matter of principle is involved. A hassle with the ACF last year over a copyright proviso resulted in some of the island’s top artists mounting a separate exhibit in an empty retail space in Bridgetown which they called Salon des Refusés after its famous French predecessor. It split the art community apart and left some bruised feelings in its wake. Also last year, Ishi captured another major gold, the first prize in the big travelling Carib Art show that opened in Curaçao.

As 1994 began, Ishi was concentrating all his energies on the upcoming Cuban Biennale being held in May, believing it to be “the most important exhibition in the Caribbean” and the Cubans the region’s most serious artists. “When we exhibit against other nations like Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba and Puerto Rico,” he says, “all big guns in art, it’s only been the last three or four years that Barbados has been able to hold its own.”

In Cuba, Ras Ishi will have 15 metres of wall space to cover. He plans to take six paintings, which suits him perfectly since he works better on a large scale. Scale is important in competition, he believes. “It demands that you see it, even if it isn’t a good work . . . The most important artists are working large.” One huge canvas, already completed, is called Tender Plant. Using a palette that blends lemon yellow, violet cobalt and permanent green light, the figures of two women dominate. It is a powerful piece, immediately involving the viewer.

“I will never be a professional artist if I stay here in Barbados,” Ishi says. “We don’t have the sort of art history that the Spanish and French-speaking Caribbean have . . . The artists from there are stronger than ours because of a historical tradition.”

It’s an understandable stance. He feels like the proverbial prophet without honour, since the honours and recognition have come mainly from beyond the coral parameters of Barbados. But he is still young: whatever the future holds, he will not escape the penetrating brilliance of the Caribbean light as it touches skin, fabric, the flora and fauna of his birthplace. Some day he will surely come to the same conclusion as his Caribbean compatriot Derek Walcott: “The place held all I needed of paradise.”