Al Akong: drawing from memory

Artist Al Akong sketches his favourite images of a life spent in the Caribbean

Illustration by Al Akong

Today, at 72, I am back where my life started, in the as-yet-unspoilt northeast corner of Trinidad, rounding off my life. I work two hectares of land, living with my insect friends and an apiary of Africanised bees.

Every morning I get out of bed remembering vividly the dreams I had during a restless sleep, from a hectic, often overworked day. My dreams centre on the outdoors, sometimes on things I always longed for, but secretly feared; pleasant dreams of being able to fly, hovering above our tropical landscape. Some take me outside Trinidad, to Tobago, Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent, Martinique, and other places in our Caribbean that I was once intimate with. I start the day glad to be alive, and in the Caribbean, where I always did belong.

In my younger days I was a loner, a hardcore nature man, and a landscape artist. I had learnt to be a good draughtsman at the Camberwell Art School in London; I graduated to doing a stint as a quick sketch-portrait artist around London’s National Portrait Gallery.

However, after less than two years in cold, bleak London, I couldn’t take the pressure any more. Can you imagine what it is like for a Caribbean youngster, getting up on mornings and not seeing coconut or banana trees, or hearing the roar of the sea? With a tidy sum of money I had saved up from my job in London, and earnings as a pavement artist, I started an escapist’s life as one of the most footloose youngsters you could encounter, on a boat taking West Indian immigrants back home.

I dropped off at St Kitts. From there I hitch-hiked my way down the islands to Trinidad, sampling a vagabond-style life, like a man just released from a long prison sentence. I lived outdoors, never spending a night or day in guesthouses or hotels, relishing day-long hikes.

When I got too tired walking the sunny countryside I would rest, and do drawings of anything exciting; a group of banana or coconut trees, boats on a beach, a cosy-looking old house. I did them in pen and ink – where you can’t use an eraser. I had learnt drawing that way at Camberwell, and how to execute ten-minute sketches of people’s faces. In telling about my Caribbean experiences, what I can’t do with words, I do with pen-and-ink drawings, which are really an extension of my handwriting.

I cherished the clear swift-running rivers of Dominica, and the formidable blue and rugged mountains. Then there were the silent and distant leeward coasts of the other northern Antilles, where the water is abyss-deep even at the shorelines. That’s why I still dream of my favourite islands today.

Back in Trinidad, I had to get real and work for my living again, and I visited Tobago when I could not escape to the northern Antilles. I have roamed about and made endless landscape drawings in Tobago, even living off those drawings by selling them to tourists.

At one time I lived for ten months back in Dominica, with the Caribs at Salibia. I fished with them in the sea, and went illegally to Guadeloupe and the Saints, sending back drawings that sold in an art gallery in Trinidad.

After a time you end up being so intimate with your subjects, with nature and the outdoors, that you can then sit in the comfort of an indoor studio, and with sheer imagination and memory create a landscape: a picture of a tree, an old house, or a beach scene. Now, tourists and lovers of the Caribbean travel with cameras so they can take exotic pictures back with them, but they invariably wish they could paint or draw. In my days there were no camcorders or cell phones with cameras. So the demand for drawings of Caribbean landscapes, done from imagination and memory in the comfort of my bedroom studio in Port of Spain, helped keep me alive.