Warrior Art: LeRoy Clarke

Artist LeRoy Clark has spent 25 years on a Caribbean epic which charts man's spiritual growth from the depths to the heights

Acrylic on paper (1988, 24×18 ins). Photograph courtesy Aquarela GalleriesDe Meeting (1981, oil on canvas, 82×58 ins). Photograph courtesy Aquarela GalleriesDe Woman (1976, oil on Canvas, 62×76 ins). Courtesy the collection of Clayton Gibbs, Trinidad. Photograph by Aquarela GalleriesDetail from Rape (1982, oil on  canvas, 96 x 78 ins). Photograph by Aquarela GalleriesDetail from Rape (1982, oil on canvas, 96×78 ins). Photograph courtesy Aquarela GalleriesLabyrinth of Yet in Wait (1990, oil on canvas, 50.5 x 72 ins). Photograph by Aquarela GalleriesLeRoy Clarke:”Where I and my God Dwell”. Photograph by Sean DrakesLeRoy Clarke. Photograph by Sean DrakesLeRoy in studio. Photograph by Sean DrakesTowards the Apotheosis of El Tucuche (1989, oil on canvas, 60×90 ins). Photograph courtesy Aquarela Galleries

On Old Year’s Night 1970, in the fading hours of the turbulent sixties, LeRoy Clarke made himself a solemn promise: that he would spend the rest of his life producing an epic sequence of work called The Poet.

It would be a vast collection of paintings, drawings and poems, using the artist and his journey through experience as a symbol of human growth and development.

The work has turned out to be far more extensive and complex than even LeRoy Clarke envisaged. Just as the climber finds that the summit has a way of receding, so LeRoy Clarke found that he had embarked on an odyssey, a slow and painful ascent from dry plains to mountain peaks, with no obvious end.

The first movement of The Poet, Fragments of a Spiritual, occupied the early seventies. Then came a phase called Douens, which involved over 250 paintings, ranging from six or seven inches square up to 12 feet, plus three or four hundred drawings and a book of poems which, in the time-honoured way of Caribbean artists, LeRoy carried down from New York to sell himself from bookshop to bookshop.

The images were spiky, twisted, full of conflict. Douens are the sad, playful characters of Trinidad and Tobago folklore, the children who died before they were baptised and whose feet point backwards. LeRoy saw in them a symbol of “the plight of third world peoples under the tutelage of conquerors. I had begun to see us after all these years as giddy and lost people.”

That idea is central to Clarke’s work. With an agenda set from outside – their language, their leisure, their thought, their images – people fail to keep a grasp on who they are. By failing to grasp their dilemma and fight their way out of it, people come to accept their condition and become self-oppressors.

The image of the douens, the lost souls, was powerful: people began to bewail douendom. “They say – O God, boy, the douendom. For me that’s an achievement.” Other figures from the shadows of the folk imagination were recast too: the dehumanising soucouyant, the sucker of blood; the beckoning La Diablesse, the Mama d’reau. It was a radical way of relating old and familiar insights and images to the turbulent society of the late 20th century Caribbean.

For some years after he returned to Trinidad from New York in the early seventies, LeRoy Clarke pursued this vision of the douens in public, thundering like an Old Testament prophet against unrighteousness. It was done with a searing and painful honesty and rigour. Nothing escaped his scorn: other artists, writers, the theatre, Carnival, soca – nothing was sacred except the responsibility to see clearly, to tell the truth, and to grow. “I am talking to people who understand douendom,” he wrote, “and are fighting to get out of it. It’s my testimony: me O Lord, my voice.” It was a memorable period.

But LeRoy knew all too well that he could not spend the rest of his life berating the kingdom of the douens. “You can become enraged, but all these things have to take place, the grabbing, till the grabbing is lost.” Till the fever passes.

Beyond the anger of confronting the douens came the personal challenge that is familiar to any serious religion or philosophy: coming through the negative to the positive. A third phase of The Poet began with a new symbol: Trinidad’s second highest mountain, El Tucuche. LeRoy had climbed the steep slopes of El Tucuche while working on Douens, and it became for him a symbol of self-realisation, self-fulfilment, the summit towards which man’s journey points.

“My thing from long time has been – to close my eyes to the distractions, move into an authentic gear, where me and my God dwell. When I finish painting, I defy you to find the error. If you see it, I smile, but I know.” Back in Trinidad since the early seventies, Clarke has been mapping that dwelling-place.

LeRoy Clarke was born on 7 November 1938 in Gonzales, whose narrow streets wind up the hillside behind Belmont in Port of Spain. His father was a cooper on the waterfront. The first of nine children, LeRoy is still known as “Big B” (“l’m an authority figure from the old school”).

If his tempestuous nature reflects his Scorpio birth-sign, his Gonzales upbringing surely shaped him as an artist. The area “behind the bridge” in Port of Spain has been home to the urban working class since the last century, producing scores of artists, musicians and steelbandsmen. For LeRoy, Gonzales was an area “wrought with mystery”. There were silk cotton trees “well known for their mystic powers”. The hillsides of Escalier Lands, below Desperadoes’ panyard, were a land of mango trees and gru-gru boeuf, guava and cashew, kite-flying and butterfly-hunting; a nearby East Indian village with its tapia houses, Hindu ceremonies and Hosay celebrations exposed the young LeRoy vividly to other vital aspects of Trinidad’s mixed culture.

He drew from early childhood, trying “to see and go deeper than the surface”, using slate and chalk at first. Apart from one lesson in perspective from a leading artist of the time, Alpheus Charles, LeRoy was self-taught. His imagination was nurtured by the poet and playwright Derek Walcott, who was doing his early work with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in the sixties. “To a large extent he was my mentor. What I was feeling, I used to see him manifest. I’d run from school just to be there.”

In 1962 LeRoy held his first exhibition, sold his first painting for TT$15, and exhibited at the National Independence Exhibition, being described as “one of the most promising young artists”. For several years he worked as a teacher in nearby John John — “part of the ritual initiation”. But it was after his first solo exhibition in 1965 that a definite direction began to emerge.

In 1967 he left Trinidad for New York, following the woman who would become his first wife, but also to go to “the centre of the world. Everybody came to New York: the good, the bad, the indifferent. And I thought, if I’m to fight the enemy, I think I should take the battle to him.

He settled first in the Bronx, but was uncomfortable in a predominantly Puerto Rican community and joined the West Indian community in Brooklyn, “to be among a more African-centred people”. He set to work, painting on crocus bags on the floor of his apartment. His work was well received at a 1968 exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem; he was part of the 100 Years of American Art exhibition in Philadelphia, where one of his pieces sold for the princely sum of $475, and embarked on a series of one-man shows.

The days were given over to painting and writing, and he worked an evening shift processing cheques in a bank.

In 1971 the Studio Museum offered him a job as programme coordinator/artist-in-residence, and he stayed there till 1974: “it was a terrific experience. I was on fire and didn’t care about anything or anybody. I wanted to be the man I dreamed of, and nothing was too much for me to sacrifice – my first wife left.”

By this time, The Poet was beginning to take shape. At the Studio, he worked on Fragments of a Spiritual, the first movement, excited by his vision of “a people fallen from grace”, by Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth”. By 1973 Fragments had given birth to the second movement, Douens, and LeRoy left the Studio Museum to come home.

Today, LeRoy Clarke stalks Port of Spain with the air of a patriarch. He lives on a steep hillside overlooking the Cascade valley, with the city below and the Gulf of Paria in the distance, the ridge high enough for the wind to keep hot afternoons cool. Huge unfinished canvases lean against the walls of every room, even the corridors: overpowering images of transfiguration, transcendence. The big front room, hanging over the hillside, is open, light, airy, presided over by groups of African carvings, masks and sculptures. Africa is never far away; Clarke is closely involved with Yoruba belief, a “child of Ogun and Yemanja“. The artist may be prodigal with his canvases, but the space he works in is neat, controlled, ordered.

Twenty miles out of town is another home. At Aripo, in Trinidad’s northern range, Clarke bought a parcel of land on a former cocoa estate which he has made into a sanctuary, under Trinidad’s highest peak, the Heights of Aripo. There, he works late into the night, but carries the big canvases back to town, away from the damp, to work on details.

The dense bush is alive with chattering birds, but has a profound stillness; a clear mountain stream runs beside the track. Orisha prayer flags stand in a mass of flaming crotons which almost conceal the house, a simple wooden structure on two levels built into the steep gradient. You enter at the bottom, climb to the upper level and emerge through the back door of the studio into a garden; flowering Hawaiian torch, ginger lilies and balisier cluster around the door. The house is austere, with basic wooden tables and benches; from the hammock in the gallery you can see through the vegetation to the heights above and the hummingbirds below.

Down the steep path and across the track are the old cocoa pod hatching beds, where the caretaker is now growing hot peppers and Spanish thyme; beyond them, a pair of black and white goats I graze beside a run with chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. The silence and strength of the surrounding forest echo the space and depth of the canvases. LeRoy works here two or three days at a time, in oils, on a large wooden table or with a canvas propped up against a wall or even on the floor.

By the time LeRoy had moved on from the douens and was working on El Tucuche, the seed of something else was already growing in his mind. He felt scared: this was his life’s work, after all, and you can’t finish your life’s work in your forties and wonder what else to do. But beyond the summit of El Tucuche lay the even higher peak of Aripo, and this began to take on new symbolic meaning.

So an even bigger scheme began to emerge. Now we look down at the douens from a great height. Think of a pyramid, with two feet at the bases. Fragments of a Spiritual under the left foot, Douens under the right foot. Above them, the gradual rise, past the swamp and the ruin towards the perfection of self.

The pyramid acquires two shoulders, as The Poet develops new phases. In De Maze: A Single Line to My Soul deals with man’s choices and the decision to overcome distraction. One of the paintings – Under It All, I All Right – shows the poet understress, beset by drugs and confusion and dreadness, but looking into a clear pool, which could be his tears, and the reflection is pure, the face is clear.

On the opposite shoulder, Eye Am is affirmation and increasing clarity. “You say to your superior self, I am the Best, I am ready to arrive in my other self, to leave behind the ordinariness and the trollness, the opinionated confusions of the douens.”

In Utterance the series records the awed stammer of the poet as he glimpses the possibility of perfection. The structure acquires a head: El Tucuche Approaching Apotheosis: The Divining of Man. Man looks across from El Tucuche from his new height, and sees what is higher still. Aripo. He is stunned by what he sees: a brief, ecstatic vision of unity.

LeRoy maintains that this has been the most successful phase of The Poet so far, in terms of public response: In Forming the Form. “It’s the most abstract, no forms to offend you. People like the blues and greens and reds.” Out of that grew yet another phase or movement, Pantheon, the phase of transcendence, which starts to reinterpret reality through new eyes.

So the three movements of The Poet have already become seven, and heaven only knows where the epic will lead to next. The artist is still in his mid-fifties and as prolific and possessed as ever, despite the enormous energy he puts out. Pantheon, for example, had generated 15 to 18 huge canvases, two of them 12-footers, by early 1994.

It’s doubtful whether anybody except the artist has a clear overview of the mass of work produced in the last 25 years, or even whether there is a space that can house it. Nobody has kept records or charted the odyssey as it progressed. It is an epic waiting to be described.

“One does not set off to do an epic,” LeRoy says. “The epic catches up with you. The work is long enough and grand enough and has the substance to be an epic.” Perhaps this is the first truly Caribbean epic, using only Caribbean symbolism and reference points. LeRoy is insistent on validation at home in the Caribbean, not by any outside authority; on seeking our own language, our own imagery, our own frame of reference, if we are in any way serious about growth and identity.

This struggle is as vivid to him as the battle of good and evil is to an exorcist. For the douendom has deepened: “we are now more enslaved than we were 40 years ago. People have not found a way to prepare themselves to face the onslaught of a changing world.” The high hopes of independence were disappointed. He cites the neglect of agriculture: “No young people are moving towards the land. You become a void. You tend the land, the land prospers, and the energy from the land prospering will support pride, belief in our space. But now land is just property. Once, the land was yours even if you didn’t own it. You had a spiritual deed that linked you to the land. That birthright has gone. We are more impoverished, we do not have a sovereign space.

There’s no mistaking a LeRoy Clarke canvas: the size, the richness, the inimitable style, the recurrence of the basic symbols. LeRoy insists that his work is obeah, a deliberate evocation of untainted African energy and spirituality, both he claims – erased from modern consciousness.

“I paint with an intention for revolution. Every stroke of my painting is a suggestion of destroying the enemies of humanity, particularly African humanity. I paint for enlightenment, to bring us closer to parting the darkness and opening up the way to our origins. If I were a medicine man involved in herbs I’d be doing a similar thing. In earlier periods there were obvious mutilations of the psyche, obvious attacks in terms of reducing the African man’s pride and dignity. But now the tools are extremely sophisticated, wiping out all African sensibility. If you lack a sensibility, then you’re completely open house. I’m terrified of the new weapons being used.”

Derek Walcott, the Nobel prize-winning St Lucian poet, once said of LcRoy’s work, “LeRoy does not suffer from influence.” Certainly, LeRoy doesn’t see his work as the product of other influences. “I live in the world, but I’m not of it. I eat up everybody.” He dislikes comparisons with other Caribbean painters, feeling affinity only with the almost mystic Guyanese writer Wilson Harris. “He’s like a mentor in terms of his bravery and courage. He’s not as iconoclastic as me: he’s building a universal mansion, whereas I’m building my mansion.” Another acceptable comparison is with the Trinidad and Tobago calypsonian Shadow. “My painting is revolution, it’s not about pretending at making you happy. The only artist I know doing the same thing in terms of art is Shadow.”

But there have been signposts along the way. As a teenager, LeRoy was excited by the classics – da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Durer, Constable, Turner; a more recent enthusiasm is the American water-colourist Winslow Homer. Alf Codallo’s folklore series excited him. He admires Haitian painters of the forties and fifties (they have a sense of themselves), the muralists of Mexico, the meticulousness of Carlisle Chang.

He also singles out anthropologist J.D. Elder, the late C.L.R. James, Guyanese painter Phillip Moore, actor Errol Jones, dancer and choreographer Beryl McBurnie. “For me, these are enduring totems that evidence the unique artistic Caribbean mind.”

Images of the female figure abound. LeRoy’s first exhibition, Labour of Love, was about women and children. But fashionable controversies about gender equality simply irritate Clarke. “They miss the point of showing the differences. Hello, I am woman, I don’t want to be like anyone else. Women are trapped in a reactionary mode. They seek the privilege of men, not their own privilege. They are reacting to what men do. They should establish themselves, as men do. Then there can be a marriage of the two entities, the two seeking out individual selves from the other. To create the third person, the bond. You and I together make the Bond, the Us.”

So a new imagery infuses recent canvases. Instead of spiky, conflicting figures – the individualistic, survival mode of a canvas like Labyrinth of Yet in Wait – in The BondeThe Brotherhood of It two profiles engage each other, overlap, and the two eyes overlapping make a third face, an Us.

It echoes the fundamental vision of LeRoy’s epic, working through fragmentation towards wholeness. His inner certainty about this floods into every conversation, every encounter, every piece of work. The paintings and poems of The Poet fit together like fragments of one vast canvas, an apocalyptic vision scorching their creator’s mind.