Mon | Sep 26, 2022

Art and fiction connect at Olympia Gallery

Published:Thursday | July 14, 2022 | 12:10 AMMichael Reckord/Gleaner Writer
Master drummer Calvin Mitchell provided background music at the book launch and painting exhibition.
Master drummer Calvin Mitchell provided background music at the book launch and painting exhibition.
Art curator Gilou Bauer speaks at The Olympia Gallery.
Art curator Gilou Bauer speaks at The Olympia Gallery.
Author Ferdinand Dennis reads from his short story collection.
Author Ferdinand Dennis reads from his short story collection.
‘Summer 2015,’ one of the Cecil Cooper paintings on display at The Olympia Gallery.
‘Summer 2015,’ one of the Cecil Cooper paintings on display at The Olympia Gallery.
 Two photographs of Cecil Cooper were on display at The Olympia Gallery during the launch.
Two photographs of Cecil Cooper were on display at The Olympia Gallery during the launch.
 Art curator Gilou Bauer (left) and Rose Bennett-Cooper.
Art curator Gilou Bauer (left) and Rose Bennett-Cooper.
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On the face of it, the paintings of the late Cecil Cooper and the fiction of Ferdinand Dennis are unrelated. But the works of the two are featured together at the Olympia Gallery in Papine, St Andrew, and the creators both referred to as storytellers.

“This might be the first time such different stories are told,” Cooper’s widow and attorney-at–law Rose Bennett-Cooper told The Gleaner at a talk by Gilour Bauer, curator of the Cecil Cooper Scholarship Exhibition, and the Jamaican launch of Dennis’ short story collection, The Black and White Museum.

Bauer spoke generally about Cooper’s philosophy and work ethic, before giving a detailed analysis of 10 of his paintings. The University of the West Indies Professor Carolyn Cooper introduced Dennis. He then read excerpts from the book.

Bauer remembered Cooper, who died in September 2016, as multifaceted – a friend, teacher, artist, performer (actor and singer) – and a man of strong principles. He would work on one idea for a painting or set of paintings and stay with it until he felt he had developed it fully, she said. Believing that it was necessary for an artist to develop a large body of work, he did so himself to the extent that “he probably didn’t know how many finished work he had”.

The curator spoke of the challenges she faced in selecting and mounting the work for the exhibition. Cooper worked in many styles and wanted his art to function on different levels, Bauer said; and she wanted to fully represent Cooper, while keeping a balance of the various narratives his work explored. Happily, the multilayered physical layout of the gallery’s space helped, she revealed.

The formal launch of the foundation took place in June at the Olympia Gallery, with a keynote address by Prime Minister Andrew Holness. A statement from the foundation explained that its purpose was to provide a full scholarship annually to a final-year student at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, and also four to six bursaries for first-year students. The mission was “to assist the arts, culture, and those who study and work within the Jamaican art space”.

Obvious connection

Cooper, who obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in 1976 from the School of the Visual Arts in New York, was an early diploma student at the Jamaica School of Art. It is now a part of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, where for three decades Cooper taught painting, much of the time as head of the department.

Many in the audience might have seen the obvious connection between Cooper’s and Dennis’ domestic and social themes, as well as the similarities in their styles – how the themes are treated. The terms ‘magical realism’, usually associated with fiction, and ‘surrealism’, mostly used in describing art, could be used interchangeably for the men’s works. Cooper’s use of vibrant colours, the spins and swirls of his lines and his stylised representation of human faces and bodies have echoes in the fantastic twists and turns of Dennis’ plots.

Dennis read two excerpts from his collection of 15 stories, which was published by Hope Road Publishing. The first story, about a couple meeting in a café in a town square, is told from the man’s point of view. What appears to him to be a casual meeting leads to the two talking for hours, before the man is invited up to the woman’s apartment. But, to the man’s disappointment, it’s just to keep her company while she sleeps. She had been having nightmares, she tells him.

The book’s title story is about Papa Legba, the proprietor of a store which becomes popular when renamed The Black and White Museum. One section of it, called The Middle Passage, has numerous slavery artefacts and affects some people strangely: they leave speaking various African languages.

Dr Cooper said that the Kingston-born Dennis migrated to the United Kingdom when he was eight and has also written three novels and a travelogue, Back to Africa: A Journey. The collection was written over several decades, and a second collection is also taking quite a while to be published, she said.

Dennis studied at the University of Leicester and Birbeck College, University of London, and for a while taught sociology in Nigeria. He has been published in many newspapers and magazines and currently lives in London.

The lively drumming of master drummer Calvin Mitchell created a musical bridge between the main speakers. Sponsors of the reading and exhibition included the CHASE Fund and the UWI’s Department of Literatures in English.

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