The artist of Carriacou

When Canute Caliste died ten years ago, he was Carriacou’s most celebrated artist. His “naive” paintings record everyday life in his island, says James Ferguson, with a touch of the magical

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

I cannot really claim to be an art collector. Most of the images that decorate our house are reproductions of one sort or another, usually mass-produced to advertise an exhibition. There are a couple of Haitian paintings and a metal wall sculpture made from an oil drum by the great Haitian artist Serge Jolimeau. But pride of place — in my view, if not in everyone else’s — goes to a small painting depicting a seascape with four spouting whales watched by three diminutive figures in a small boat, whom I take to be whalers. Mysteriously titled This is Canone in Carriacou WI 1990, it is also initialled CC: the trademark signature of Canute Caliste.

The picture is, to put it mildly, unusually lacking in perspective and sophistication. The figures, human and animal, are cartoonish, the colours vibrant and un-nuanced, the composition child-like. This may be why children like the painting, while adults can dismiss it as “naïve” or worse. It is also for all these reasons that I love the painting — for its simplicity, exuberance, and immediacy. For some years, I assumed that Canone was a place in or near Carriacou. Curtis Jacobs, the Trinidad-born expert on Grenadian history, recently suggested Canouan, one of the nearby Grenadines, a misspelling on the artist’s part.

Canute Caliste, who died ten years ago in November 2005, at the ripe old age of ninety-one, was rightly not famed for his spelling. According to his UK Guardian obituarist Peter Mason, Caliste’s work was “discovered” in the 1970s by the American art dealer Jim Rudin, who suggested that he provide a short explanatory commentary on each painting. “Caliste took to the idea, and his scribbled jottings, full of spelling mistakes and bad syntax — ‘Lovers coartin’, ‘general hurspetal in Grenada’ — became one of his endearing trademarks.” Wordsmith he may not have been, but Caliste was to become an unlikely artistic phenomenon.

Born in the fishing village of L’Esterre in Carriacou, the beautiful thirteen-square-mile sister island of Grenada, on 15 July, 1914, Caliste was of West African (Ibo) descent. He left school early to help his parents, working as a sailor, shipbuilder, and carpenter. At the age of nine (versions of the story vary) he apparently encountered a mermaid — a figure that would recur in his paintings — who advised him to live by the precepts of the Bible and follow his artistic instincts. Painting, on pieces of wood or hardboard, was at first a hobby, until a Catholic nun working in Carriacou in the late 1960s saw some of Caliste’s work and suggested selling pieces to the tiny island’s infrequent tourists.

Encouraged by modest commercial success, the self-taught artist became prolific (he could “knock out twenty paintings in a day in his prime,” writes Peter Mason), and quality did not always keep up with quantity. What was important, though, was the way Caliste noted and recorded everyday events on his native island — landscapes, boat-building, fishing, and public gatherings such as Carnival. To this he added religious topics (including an infamous Last Supper with fifteen disciples), images of Big Drum — the West African dance and music that accompany funerals and other community rites of passage — and, of course, mermaids. When Grenada was invaded by the United States in October 1983, he produced vivid images of oversized airplanes and circling warships.

What was remarkable about Caliste’s work (apart from how big it rapidly became) was the way those everyday scenes were transformed by his imagination into something that was often surreal or magical. In one picture, for instance, Jesus Christ is seen ascending to heaven while a group of white-clad disciples watch from what looks like a beach in Carriacou. Caliste rarely left his birthplace (he did occasionally travel to Grenada), and so the island became the visual backdrop for his flights of fancy, whether religious — he was a devout Catholic — political, or simply based on local life.

 

By the 1980s, the idiosyncratic painter of Carriacou had become something of a celebrity, visited not only by tourists but also by art dealers, who could leave his ramshackle studio with a clutch of paintings bought at a very reasonable rate. In 1989, Macmillan published a collection of his work, edited by Lora Berg, and this further enhanced his celebrity status as sort of Caribbean L.S. Lowry. He also became known as a musician, playing the violin in the archaic quadrille style.

Caliste was prolific not only as a painter. Peter Mason remarks that much of the money he made went on supporting twenty-two children and some one hundred grandchildren (“he was fond of keeping much younger girlfriends, and would be happy to supply them with various material needs”). Curtis Jacobs recalls meeting Caliste in Carriacou in 1999. “He was tallish, very dark, with a somewhat gangling sort of physical appearance, with a very pronounced what is called ‘knock-kneed’ look . . . He spoke mainly in Carriacou creole.” Jacobs continues: “Yes, I would agree he was somewhat eccentric. Well, he was an artist. He had an eye for the ladies, even at an advanced age! But he loved to paint.”

Not everyone, it has to be admitted, loves Caliste’s work as much as he loved creating it. Peter Mason quotes Jim Rudin: “People used to walk into my gallery and their eyes would nearly always fall on his work. Then they’d either say they were the best things I had in the gallery or ask me how I could exhibit such junk.” It was difficult to define exactly what the paintings were in terms of genre: naïve, primitivist, minimalist? Curtis Jacobs sums up the value of the work fairly:

Canute was what I think is called an intuitive artist. He was not formally trained, so he did not conform to the canons of painting, including perspective. As an artist, Canute recorded the world around him: boat-building and boat launchings; he recorded the folklore of the people, particularly the African cultural retentions . . . His work and the perspective of Carriacou will remain as a permanent record of the period.

So it was that Canute Caliste lived a full and exceedingly productive life on the island of Carriacou, which he in turn captured forever in vibrant colours. I was gratified to learn while reading about him that Queen Elizabeth II allegedly owns one of Caliste’s canvases — so maybe visitors will now view my painting of whales and whalers in a different light.