Roberta Stoddart: painting from life

Sharon Millar speaks to Jamaican artist Roberta Stoddart and admires her ability to find beauty in the uncommon and forgotten

Roberta Stoddart. Photograph by Abigail HadeedStray Mongrels and White Negroes, 2006. Photograph courtesy Abigail Hadeed

On the morning that we meet in her airy studio, Jamaican artist Roberta Stoddart is at home in her space, surrounded by her beloved dogs. I notice her quiet hands almost immediately. Such little calm things to have birthed such an extensive canon; a canon that has earned her a reputation as a master of her craft.

Born in 1963, Stoddart moved to Trinidad in 1999, for personal and professional reasons, bringing with her almost a decade of experience in both solo and group exhibitions. She has been a recipient of the Life of Jamaica Art Scholarship and has a diploma in art from the Queensland College of Art and a postgraduate diploma from the Sydney College of Arts. She has exhibited extensively throughout the region (five solo shows in Trinidad and Jamaica), Latin America and Switzerland.

Stoddart’s art is not to be glanced at lightly. It gets under your skin with haunting and disturbing images. Attention to detail, incandescent use of light, and arresting subject matter are all reasons to put her at the forefront of Caribbean art.

But it is her relentless pursuit of beauty in the face of isolation, suffering and pain that has made her shine. Stoddart has stepped way out of her crease and has turned to the region’s tortured past for fodder.

This pursuit of beauty even in the repulsive is all part of her struggle to create from an internal sense of truth. A statement she wrote in 1998 says in part: “My paintings are often symbolic and allegorical, attempting to explore lived experiences of both an autobiographical and social nature.”

Painting as a white Creole Caribbean artist on themes such as isolation, slavery and belonging has exposed her to the scepticism of critics who question the legitimacy of her addressing these topics. In a region scarred by slavery and colonialism, this is the unavoidable pitfall of many artistic endeavours. To do this is to be very brave.

But it is also what makes her work so critical. The ability to stare unflinchingly into the abyss and pull salvation from its depths is her linchpin. In exploring her own pln the post-colonial world, she explores themes such as “white cockroach” and addresses her sense of isolation in her homeland.

“I forgot myself in the crushing collision of several traumatic histories, in which perpetrators and victims regularly switched roles…Deep inside I felt like Bronte’s Bertha, Rhys’ ‘White Cockroach’ and Cliff’s ‘Madwoman in the Backroom.’”

Much of the work is uncomfortable to behold, a jarring balance of beauty and pain. In God’s Bride (1996), the eerie juxtaposition of ghostly children, bones, and a fantastical bride/madonna, all set within the pastoral landscape of a churchyard, makes for a curiously timeless piece that incorporates both past and present.

By 2006, Divine Bride epitomises her personal journey to acceptance, her spiritual awakening. Stoddart sees her work as sacred and is constantly working at healing through compassion.

Her later paintings incorporate many images of redemption and she talks repeatedly of the power of transcendence. Her work among the vagrant population of Trinidad as well as albino communities ruffles the surface of perfection and forces the viewer to see the beauty that lies beyond the obvious.

It would be simplistic to define and limit Stoddart as seeking other outcasts. Her craft has taken her beyond that point and her work seems to be more focused now on ripping the veil of illusion.

The establishment of a powerful iconography was apparent in her early work. By using references such as shells, bones, skeletons and butterflies, elements of the sea, sky, night and day, and settings such as churchyards and graveyards, ships and sealed bottles, she fashions an eloquent language that encompasses the living, the dead, untold stories, and the myths that lie below the surface.

November 2007 saw the launch of her most recent body of work, In the Flesh, in an exhibition at the National Museum, which also served to launch her book Roberta Stoddart: The Storyteller. Produced by her longtime colleague, award-winning Trinidadian photographer Abigail Hadeed, it is a meticulous record of selected work from 1991 to the present. It follows an earlier publication, Seamless Spaces.

In The Storyteller, slides and images are reproduced with a perfectionist’s eye. In the introduction, the poet Richard Olver talks about the differences between the new and the older pieces:

This beautiful rawness is captured perfectly in Stray Mongrels and White Negroes (2006). It is a bold move in a society that prides itself on beauty. The powerful image of the albino signals an attempt to explore concepts of exile and disconnection and, ultimately, acceptance. And this is the paradox of Stoddart’s work: beauty in the uncommon, in the shunned, in the forgotten.