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Aubrey Williams

Born, 1926 in Georgetown, Guyana. Died, 1990

From the catalogue Commonwealth Artists of Fame 1952 - 1977 (Commonwealth Art Gallery, London, 1 June - 3 July 1977):

“Born in Guyana where he was educated and entered the Civil Service. During his service he spent two years in the north west jungle of the country with the Warrau, a primitive Indian tribe, but continued to paint and draw. After returning to Georgetown he studied with De Winter and, later, with Burrowes, both noted Guyanses painters, and took part in the Working People’s Art Group. For some years Williams has lived in London where he settled after a period of travel in Europe, He studied for two years at St Martin’s School of Art, London. he has lectured at a number of university colleges and arts centres.

Aubrey Williams is one of the most famous and influential Caribbean artists. He has exhibited in London regularly since 1954, elsewhere in Britain and Europe, North and South America, the Caribbean and in Africa, most recently at the Lagos Festival of Arts. He has carried out a number of murals, notably those at Timehri Airport, Guyana and other others in Jamaica and the United States of America. In 1964 he won the Commonwealth Prize for Painting (London) and in 1970 his country awarded him the Golden Arrow of Achievement.”

When Aubrey Williams, the Guyana-born British painter had a major exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery in the summer of 1998, it was, perhaps, belated recognition for this artist, who had died some eight years earlier, on 27 April, 1990. Williams was born in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, in 1926. After settling in London in his late 20s, he enrolled at St Martin’s School of Art and soon thereafter, established a career as a prolific and widely exhibited artist. An active member of the Caribbean Artists Movement, Williams came to be closely associated with the presence of Caribbean art/artists in London and his work was featured in a very significant number of Caribbean art exhibitions.

A passionate believer in humanity’s art and culture in its many and varied forms, Williams was responsible for a substantial body of work and his paintings have found their way into a number of important collections, including that of the Arts Council. It might in some ways be difficult to characterise Williams’ work, as the work for which he is perhaps most known and celebrated contains both figurative and non-figurative elements. On the one hand, his paintings reflected his interests in such things as aboriginal South American culture, cosmology, and the music of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. On the other hand, his work also declared an interest in form, shape, colour and composition. As Guy Brett has noted “Williams’ paintings fluctuates between representational references and abstraction.”

Alongside such paintings there exists Williams’ sensitive and faithful renderings of bird life. The art critic Guy Brett is a longstanding admirer of Williams’ painting. In his concluding remarks in one of his essays on Williams, Brett cautions against the instinct to typecast Williams’ practice. “It may be futile to try to explain painting. But it is also true that merely to name a motif in Williams’ painting as ‘pre-Columbian’ or Mayan does not suggest the complicated life it leads in its changed form within his work, where it moves between past and present, between natural and artificial beauty, between excitement and warning. To grant Aubrey Williams’ paintings their enigma only awakens one to their links with the actual, contemporary world.”

In 1986, UK filmmaker Imruh Caesar made Mark of the Hand, a documentary that looks at the life and work of Williams, who as mentioned was a major force amongst Caribbean artists living and working in the UK during the second half of the 20th century. The film follows Williams as he leaves his home in London and returns to his native Guyana to restore one of his murals, located on an outside wall of the airport terminal building, be honoured for his contributions to art and culture by the Guyanese government, and make a journey deep into the country’s interior, to revisit the places and the people he knew before he left Guyana. As much as anything else, the film is a look at the consequences of relocation, migration, memory, return and the difficulties and disappointments that can come from these things. Further to this, Mark of the Hand gives us insights into Williams’ strikingly original practice as a painter whose work was frequently, but by no means exclusively, characterised by the range of figurative and non-figurative elements referred to earlier. The film was a pioneering work and to this day, sympathetic and sensitive documentary film studies of Black British artists, such as Mark of the Hand, remain a rarity. One hugely important aspect of the film is the exploration of Williams’ respect and fondness for the indigenous peoples of the Guyana interior. In this regard, the film positively complicates and challenges assumed notions of Caribbean identity.

Williams’ posthumous Whitechapel exhibition was organised in collaboration with inIVA, the institute of International Visual Arts. Notwithstanding the substantial nature of this bringing together of paintings produced over several decades, Williams arguably still does not occupy a significant position in the declared history of British post-war painting. Williams himself recounted the despondency he felt upon realizing that his position in the British art world was perhaps more marginal than he would have liked. “But then, after two years all my shows were ignored. I began to ask myself what was wrong with me, what was wrong with my work. For the next five years I was in a terrible confusion. You know, I thought I had hit the level which would see me through both economically and respectably as a recognised artist in the British community.”

A substantial obituary on Aubrey Williams, appeared in The Independent, Tuesday 1 May 1999. In it, Brett revisited a number of the sentiments and ideas he has expressed, about Williams and his art, in other texts that were previously published.  Though the piece was written some two-plus decades ago, the extent to which Williams has posthumously been incorporated into the British art world is striking. Wrote Brett, “There is as yet no work by Williams in the Tate Gallery. Historical and artistic changes we have been living through in the past 40 years have still not sunk into the national psyche. There has never yet been the opportunity to compare directly the abstract paintings produced by Williams with those of his fellow “English” artists working at the same time and in the same place, like Victor Pasmore, Alan Davie, Peter Lanyon or Patrick Heron.”

Since Brett wrote those words, the Tate has acquired several works by Williams, and he has been the subject of several major exhibitions.

Brett concluded his obituary with, “The global ecological crisis was something he felt deeply. It was always coming up in his conversation: he would often take off and describe a bird, or the quality of the air in the rain forest, with inimitable precision and poetry. But he was not a doom merchant.  He had, equally strongly, a sense of possibility and of danger. In this the painting and the person were one.”

In marked contrast to texts about Williams written during his lifetime, posthumous texts on the artist have grown ever more bulky. (See for example, Leon Wainwright’s Aubrey Williams: A Painter in the Aftermath of Painting, Wasafiri, issue no. 59, Autumn 2009, pp. 65 – 79,)

The first Guy Brett quote comes from his essay in the Whitechapel catalogue. The second quote, from his Introduction, in the catalogue, Aubrey Williams, exhibition at Shibuya Tokyu Plaza, Japan, 1988, unpaginated. The Williams quote is from the entry on him in The Other Story catalogue and was in turn taken from Rasheed Araeen, Conversation with Aubrey Williams, Third Text, No. 2, London, Winter 1987-88.

Aubrey Williams’ work was included in the landmark exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain, Hayward Gallery, London, 1989. His work was included in the book Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain. A detail of a painting by Williams, Shostakovich Series: Quartet No. 15, Opus 144, 1981, oil on canvas, 132 x 208 cm,  adorned the cover of Discrepant Abstraction, copublished by inIVA and MIT Press, 2006. A reproduction of the whole painting appeared on the back cover of the same volume. Inside, Williams was one of two Guyana-born artists discussed by Kobena Mercer in his essay, Black Atlantic Abstraction: Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling. Williams’ work is extensively discussed and illustrated in this text. A reproduction of one of Williams’ paintings - Maya Sun (II), 1984 also embellished Quantum Ghosts: An Interview With Wilson Harris, by Nathaniel Mackey,in this publication.

Williams’s work, Supernova, 1975, was reproduced and discussed in Art in the Caribbean: an introduction, by Anne Walmsley and Stanley Greaves, in collaboration with Christopher Cozier, New Beacon Books, 2011.

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click to show details of The Other Story - exhibition guide

»  The Other Story - exhibition guide

Exhibition guide relating to an exhibition, 1989

click to show details of The Other Story - Manchester invitation

»  The Other Story - Manchester invitation

Invite relating to an exhibition, 1990

click to show details of The Other Story - Wolverhampton invitation

»  The Other Story - Wolverhampton invitation

Invite relating to an exhibition, 1990

click to show details of Third Text: The Other Story

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Journal relating to an exhibition, 1989

click to show details of Transforming the Crown

»  Transforming the Crown

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»  Appointment With Six

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»  Cornerhouse

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Manchester, United Kingdom

»  The New Art Gallery Walsall

Walsall, United Kingdom

»  Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Wolverhampton, United Kingdom