Karl Broodhagen: Hands of Clay

Barbadian scupltor Karl Broodhagen has chronicled an era by scuplting the people around him. He talks to Christopher Cozier about his life and work


Karl Broodhagen sat calmly in his studio, by the window, surrounded by his sculpture, records and documents.

I, by contrast, was anxious: for people of my generation, who grew up in the sixties in an atmosphere of Caribbean nationalism, Broodhagen was one of the big names that kept coming up, names that presided over the artistic landscape. Three decades later, the Caribbean still knows little about those names and their struggles as visual artists, and little has been written about their work. Society has “set them up” as “masters” in the fast-fading pantheon of nationalist pioneers, a title which they accept with varying degrees of comfort and discomfort, while anxieties about the “latest influences from abroad” constantly threaten to erode their reputations and accomplishments, their “contribution”.

But the man who opened the door of his home in Strathclyde, Barbados, seemed to view all that stuff as just another storm passing out there. Born in 1909, he has seen many trends and controversies come and go. He was a short, solid aged man of mixed origin: a Dutch name with Portuguese and African ancestry — a “real creole”, he said with a smile. He wore a sturdy belt around a waist that spoke of an active lifestyle centered around physical work. His hands dramatised the conversation as he talked. To emphasise a point, he would suddenly lean forward, with his eyes opened wide and eyebrows raised, expressing an urgency from which he would withdraw just as quickly.

The house was crammed with his work and the tools of his art and, in the yard, there’s evidence of his various other pursuits, like furniture repair. The garden at the back was thick with flowers and vegetables. Bending over to pick up a small container, Broodhagen remembered his Guyanese origins and mentioned how, as a boy, he had to pick up objects “differently” with extra care because of snakes.

Broodhagen comes from a Caribbean world to which his work remains committed. It was vividly evoked for me when his wife appeared and politely excused herself — she was heading out into town to do a few things. She wore a cotton frock with a floral pattern and a neat bonnet-like straw hat. Broodhagen’s subject matter and sensibility spring from a modest and challenging way of life in a small Caribbean island at a certain time in its history, the years leading towards national self-awareness and determination. It is a spirit that eludes the new generation of visual artists who contend with the brash and vicious structures that define our current idea of development and threaten to render his world quaint and genteel.

Broodhagen’s work asserts the strength of character of the individual in the aftermath of slavery, colonial and class discrimination. It was not an easy time; the artistic climate was uncultured and barren. A bust of a stern-faced white lady sits in his living room, and he tells the story of how he travelled all the way to Bathsheba in the old days and how she beat him down to half his original and ridiculously low price, and how the husband, trying to be decent, offered 75 per cent.

Broodhagen’s journey is typical of the Caribbean. He was born in Guyana in 1909, and came to Barbados in his teens with his mother, to whom he was particularly close, in 1924. She was working her way north, perhaps toward the United States. On what became an extended stopover in Barbados, she arranged for him to be apprenticed to a tailor. Few could afford to pursue the privilege of a secondary education.

Like everything young Karl set his mind to, he became quite accomplished at the trade. Nine years later, in 1933, his mother died. Karl already had the feeling that Barbados was his home. He vividly recalls his boxing days, and the names of the football clubs of the time: Everton, for whom he played, Spartans, Holburn and Empire, with their legendary social stratification and rivalry.

By 1940 he was married and he and his wife Eunice started a family a year later. Tailoring was his profession, but clay and plaster sculpture were his obsession; so when he started teaching it was easy to change direction. After an exhibition at the British Council in 1948, Karl received a scholarship to study at Goldsmith’s College in London, where in the early fifties, he received his formal training as a mature student.

Broodhagen’s contemporaries included Edna Manley in Jamaica, Carlisle Chang and Sybil Atteck in Trinidad. One of the things that characterises his work is his investment in the particular, in the individual; it is a vision quite distinct from the more generalised vantage point of Manley, whose figurative sculpture said more about the development and advancement of “the people” as an idea. Traditionally, the tendency has been to see the work of Edna Manley as the ultimate voice of Caribbean “struggle”; but the work of artists like Broodhagen forces a revaluation of that view. Broodhagen’s work is not that of a stylist or a theoretician: it represents a commitment to likeness and character in the purist sense. Casually skilful, even conventional at first glance, it is firmly focused, even radical, when perceived in its original context.

A comparison between Broodhagen’s bust of the Barbadian writer George Lamming as a “youth-man”— done in the mid-forties — and Manley’s Negro Aroused, produced ten years earlier, suggests that Manley expressed “negritude” in general terms while Broodhagen is interested in an individual’s strength of character. The handsome bust of Lamming bristles with power and internal ambition; like the dancehall artists of today, Broodhagen was “bigging up” his pals and people he respected or was drawn to.

Like Boscoe Holder of Trinidad, Broodhagen investigated and celebrated the particular beauty residing in people of colour — but not in any facile way. It was a discovery or assertion of the self, and it was about beauty beneath the surface. Busts like those of social worker and philanthropist John Beckles, or Dame Nita Barrow, done many years later, were clearly about the power of the individual voice and the individual presence in the social space.

The women that Broodhagen captured in his work were elegant. Apart from early busts of his wife, there were models like Verne and Bernadine, striking investigations of young, beautiful women with long, slender necks. There is a sense of ripeness and vigour in these works that is not merely sexual. They symbolise newness and possibility in the process of transformation from anonymity toward selfhood — it was the spirit of the time. Perhaps this is what brought the young writers Derek Walcott and George Lamming to his studio. How many artists in this part of the Caribbean can boast of having poems written about them and their work by such eminent names?

Strathclyde, where Broodhagen lives, was once the bastion of urban white or light-skinned Barbadian aloofness and separateness. It’s deeply ironic that the house is filled with busts of individuals who transformed Barbadian society. No, Broodhagen said dismissively, he had not always lived there; his son in Canada got the property for him about 12 years ago; he did not want to talk about his previous home, “the other place” as he called it.

At home, Broodhagen is surrounded by polychromed plaster and clay busts. Almost everyone with a role in the development of modern Barbadian society is represented, both those whom he sought out and those who sought him out. In societies like ours, with their casual disregard of history, this studio, full of presences, is as alarming as it is unique.

Among those who found their way to Broodhagen’s studio were Frank Collymore, the Barbadian writer/scholar and renowned editor of the literary magazine Bim, which launched many a Caribbean literary career, and Major Noot, an Englishman who was the headmaster of Combermere School. They persuaded Broodhagen to teach there and build an art department and curriculum, a task he began in 1947 and continued until recently.

In the early days, Barbadians looked at him with much suspicion. Artists were presumably mad, or at least suspect. But Broodhagen’s reputation as a teacher endeared him to thousands of Barbadians who gained their introduction to art through him. His obsession as a teacher was with drawing from nature — his studio is filled with his own drawings and those of his students from over the years. Out of it came two publications. Character Studies from my Sketch Book contains linear observations from the fifties into the seventies: people reading, sleeping, market women, studies of the way people wore hats, facial characteristics. The other series consists of drawings of a son, Vincent, who died of pneumonia at about a year and a half.

Another son, Virgil, lives in Canada as an architect, and was once his father’s assistant at home and student at school. Over the last 28 years Virgil and Karl have exhibited together at the Pelican Gallery in Bridgetown, displaying both figurative genre drawing and paintings.

I found it interesting that he still had so much of his own work in his possession. It said something about the absence of institutional structures and patronage, the artist still carrying the heavy responsibility of guarding his story and his creation. Much of the work is in clay and plaster rather than bronze or copper, which also suggests a kind of fragility.

But there is nothing fragile about Broodhagen’s major public work. Driving along Barbados’s main highway, it would be impossible to miss the larger-than-life Slave in Revolt, popularly referred to as “Bussa” after the leader of one of the many slave revolts. The statue lunges upward as if from a submissive and crouched position from the Barbadian landscape toward the sky. Muscular yet uncomfortable, the figure exists alone and abandoned, screaming as if in relief, or perhaps in outrage with his chains broken but yet still around his wrists.

Since its installation in 1986, Bajans have been confused by “Bussa.” Some remain affronted or embarrassed by it; others understand its contemporary implications. The statue challenges the repackaging of Barbadian visions of history and development in a tourist culture; it is a stark reminder of deeper, older realities.

Controversy has always followed Broodhagen. One concerned government official insisted that Bussa had to be given a nice pair of boxer shorts so as to conform to traditional ideas of decency. On a recent visit to Barbados, Fidel Castro laid a wreath at the foot of the statue in celebration of emancipation, and complimented the artist on the work.

A similar statue was supposed to have been placed in Guyana, but discussions with the then President Forbes Burnham and poet Martin Carter ended when someone expressed an interest in an abstract interpretation of the subject. “So why you talking to me?” Broodhagen asked. As far as he was concerned, if abstraction was required, they could bring a large granite stone from the interior and install that instead

Another of Broodhagen’s large public works, an uncompromising and uncomfortable portrait of Grantley Adams, the engineer of Barbadian nationalism, caused some concern because the head appeared too big, almost like a caricature. Some felt that a national hero should not be depicted with his head leering forward from a bent-over frame. Broodhagen dismissed this with a characteristic frown and turn of the head: he did Adams as he was, this was Adams’s posture in later years and was characteristic of the man “as we knew him”.

These large-scale works are particularly expressive and can function as symbols of the Barbadian historical and social drama. The freed slave is lunging into the space; the politician is bent over, peering out at the world with an observant, discerning and stern countenance. There is a sense of humanity remaining intact, of conquering limitations, or of bending beneath responsibility and burden. My favourite image of Broodhagen is one in which the artist himself is seen putting the finishing touches with delicate care to the giant head of the Adams statue in England, at the foundry where the work was cast.

In the long run, it is Broodhagen’s blunt figurative modernity that will characterise the value of his work in Caribbean terms.

In the artist’s private collection are some startling portraits done with a direct early modernist efficiency: one is of Nina Squires, the Trinidadian painter; another is of a young East Indian girl, Habza. Both were done in the 50s and can stand up to most figuration being done at that time. As in the studies of Verne and Bernadine, the idea of a kind of Caribbean person is immediately recognisable, regardless of ethnicity.

This is not to say that there was no ideological thrust to Broodhagen’s work, or that it did not shift with the times. Even his forays into ideas of beauty and the opposite sex were often driven by an idea of African or non-European beauty; certain kinds of almost Asian-looking eyes, necks and pouted lips were concerns that affected his choice of models. Some of his works also reveal an interest in hair styles and the shapes that they created: plaits and braids became a popular theme.

There were times in which Broodhagen experimented with expressionism, with an ideological simplification based on these concerns. For some it represented his coming out, as if to say that he was expressing something more direct and “rootsy”; but it is debatable whether these works represent anything more than an experimental shift as opposed to a “return” or an “arrival”.

For me, the key to the work is Broodhagen’s perception and skill in bringing life to his material, and in capturing the character of individual people in a way that defines a particular moment in the history of our sense of our selves. One is left to wonder what would have happened if fate had allowed his mother to continue her journey to the north.