Wednesday 23 October 2013


The characters in Bernard Hoyes’ paintings do get around. Fresh from “dancing off the canvas” onto the stage in the United States, the iconic figures are once again in the spotlight, but this time in the historical centre of Florence, Italy.

Bernard Hoyes with his artwork. (Photo by A. McKenzie)
The city’s Gallery Mentana is displaying the works by the Jamaican-born, U.S.-based Hoyes in two shows: “International Independence”, which opened last month, and “Light and Matter”, which begins Nov. 2.

The shows focus on contemporary visual arts, including photography, mixed media and sculpture, by artists from around the world. Hoyes, whose works are instantly recognizable, is representing a distinct cultural aspect of the Caribbean.

“It’s an honor to be invited to Italy,” he says. “It fills my heart to know that Jamaican imagery, rooted in traditional African perspective, is embraced around the world.

“As a young boy growing up on the island, I never imagined that art would open so many doors for me.  But it’s proved to be a magical portal and a gateway to adventure,” he adds.

In Italy, Hoyes is exhibiting from his “Ribbons Series” and “Revival” collections, both known for their tapestry of colour and depictions of African-based spirituality. In fact, the first thing that one notices about Hoyes’ work is the artist’s bold use of colour, as swathes of red, yellow and green liven his canvases.

From canvas to stage
The second thing is the sense of movement; Hoyes’ subjects are usually dancing, swaying as they pray, beating drums or waving their arms in praise. So it’s little wonder they get to “travel around”.

Just months ago in California, his subjects made the leap from the canvas to the stage, when Hoyes produced "Seven Paintings", a seven-act play based on his artwork and celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence from Britain.

With huge video projections of the paintings forming a backdrop, 40 performers told the story of a young woman born in the church who wants to be become a dancer but who finally comes to terms with her destiny, as a healer.

The performers included 12 dancers who seemed either to emerge from or to enter the seven paintings as the story unfolded to drumbeats from the Kabasa Drum Ensemble and music from a tambourine-shaking choir, The Tambourine Chorus.

Now, the characters have returned to the canvas in Italy, but their vibration and light are already being noticed. It’s all these elements – light, colour, movement and mysterious stories – that have gained Hoyes a dedicated following. Collectors of his work over the years include celebrities such as talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and singer Natalie Cole, but he’s expanding his reach beyond the United States and the Caribbean.

A scene from "Seven Paintings"
Besides Italy, Hoyes has exhibited in Germany and The Netherlands (“Dancing into the Light”), in addition to a well-documented trip he made to China where he produced a nine-foot-high granite sculpture of a bluefin tuna, with the aid of local craftsmen.

Most of his inspiration, however, comes from his childhood in Jamaica and especially his experiences in the Revival Church. There he was a front-pew witness to the worship by the robed and turbaned congregation, to the intense spiritualism and to the practice of public baptism. The dancing and the singing in the church left a lasting impression on Hoyes.

“My grandmother was a deacon in the church, and she raised me until I was eight,” he says. “She didn’t believe in formal education, so what I learned came mostly from her and the church.”

Born in Kingston and raised in a house behind the city’s General Penitentiary, Hoyes often went to buy bread at the prison bakery for his grandmother or did other odd jobs for her as she prepared for her religious duties. He didn’t attend a proper school until he went to live with his mother when he was eight years old.

“I was so far behind by then that I still had trouble learning numbers and the alphabet,” he recalls. By age 12, he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue with school, so his mother enrolled him in a cabinet-making course and he got exposed to carving and sculpture. During those years he met the famous artist Edna Manley, mother of the late Jamaican politician Michael Manley.

Artful redemption
“She challenged me to come to classes on Saturdays, and there I really developed an appreciation and skill for sculpture,” Hoyes says.

He thought his future lay in this direction in Jamaica, but when he was 15 years old, he suddenly received a passport and heard from his mother that he was going to live with his father in Brooklyn, New York. Up until then, Hoyes had never met his Dad or even seen a photo of him.

He discovered that he also had a brother and a sister in the United States, and he soon found himself at Thomas Jefferson High School, where “nobody noticed” that he couldn’t read. Hoyes’ father was a stern disciplinarian which meant he had to attend school, but luckily for him the school had a teacher who recognized his artistic talent.

This led to a scholarship to study with professional artists in Vermont one summer, and the participants were so impressed with his work that they invited him to continue his education there. He began attending Vermont Academy, an elite secondary school that offered very academic subjects and great sports, but no art.

“The teachers took me under their wing and refused to let me fail,” Hoyes says. “After I rebelled a little bit at the curriculum, they even started to let me do art after class instead of sports.”

An instructor came from another school to give the course, which some of Hoyes’ friends also joined, and “suddenly the academy had an art group,” he recalls.

Artwork by Bernard Hoyes
When Hoyes graduated, he decided to go west (to the California College of Arts and Crafts) although he barely had any money to support himself. He slept in a sleeping bag on the campus grounds until a janitor offered him a room.

“This was the Sixties so you could always get a sandwich, and you could hitchhike to wherever you wanted to go,” he says, with his hearty laugh.

After graduating from college, Hoyes says he “played around with being an artist” until he returned to Jamaica in 1978 and was shocked by what he saw. The country was going through a turbulent time, rife with political violence. One night police kicked in the door of the house where Hoyes was staying with his mother and sister, claiming that they looking for guns. When Hoyes complained, he received a rifle-butt blow to the head.

“That was sobering,” he says quietly. He returned to California, living homeless on Venice Beach, but he was more serious about his art. With the works he sold, he managed to buy a house in a better neighbourhood in Kingston for his mother.

His paintings began to increase in value, but things really took off in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when the artwork was chosen for the backdrop in some episodes of The Cosby Show and was also used in a storyline for A Different World. This exposure heightened his profile and then he got further help from a fairy godmother – in the form of Oprah Winfrey.

Hoyes' art hits the stage.
The talk-show host decided to buy some of his paintings for her collection, and her choice generated enormous interest in Hoyes’ work. But some unwelcome attention also came from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) who thought it was strange that Hoyes suddenly went from a struggling artist to selling his work for big bucks. They audited him, and a significant amount of his new income had to be used to pay a tax lawyer and an accountant. To make things worse, that was also the year his mother died.

With his life being shaken up, Hoyes threw himself into his work after going to Jamaica for his mother’s burial service. His experiences enriched the art he was producing, and the sense of spiritualism, of reaching for a purpose, is evident in all his later works.

“What I try to do is travel the road, to spiritualism, nationalism, identity,” he says. “I want people to be a part of it. My art says Africa, Europe, Asia and that’s what the Caribbean is.” - A.M.

(Parts of the interview with Hoyes were previously published in Everybody's Magazine. Photos provided by the artist, unless specified. )

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