The Art of Mali Olatunji: Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda

Mali Olatunji and Paget Henry (Hansib Publications Limited, Hartford, Hertfordshire, 2014)

33. Nelson Dockyard

Reviewed by Teodros Kiros

This remarkable book, which elegantly blends commentaries and interpretations of “painterly photographs”, as the authors dub their work, is a feast for the imagination and a fountain of aesthetic thought. The photographs are made and not merely seen. The photographs are not only precise imitations of the real but deep penetrations of it, in search of Truth—the truth of the imitations of imitations. Imagination and thought move together as Olatunji’s camera deciphers the world of objects and the perceiving humans by making us see what we could not see, smell or touch through the sensate body. The physical senses cannot make us see everything. The physical senses are too limited to go beyond the visible world to look for Truths. The painterly photographer draws from the complex world of his boyhood in Antigua and Barbuda in which his ancestors who were embedded in the African Spiritual world of Imperishable forces grounded him and introduced him to Jumbies (spiritual forces) who inhabited nature’s trees, barks, leaves and weeds. From this grounding he originates a unique aesthetic, which he called Woodism in concert with his painterly camera—a camera, primarily guided by spiritual lenses: the lenses of the jumbies. The camera itself is spiritualized and meticulously trained to see deeply into the texture, tone, color, mysteries and myths of the spiritual world. The jumbies map the journey and the painterly photographer engages his intuitions—as he calls them—as he sees, smells, and touches the external world of colors and forms. They summon him to make pictures as he surveys the beaches, colonial churches, hospitals, parks, dungeons and markets of Antigua and Barbuda—always presenting what is not present, manifesting the unmanifest, empowering the powerless, disclosing the repressed loneliness, despair and solitude of the human condition. The sensitive artist responds to the silent cries of nature and human beings in need of recognition and authentic representation. His spiritual perceptors are the gifts of the jumbies, which the artist uses in the service of the human condition.

The five senses are to the body as the jumbles are to the soul. The painterly camera begins to document what it sees with the physical senses. That is the first stage. At that stage the painterly photographer sees only that which can be seen by the naked, unspiritualized eye. The jumbies, however, see by going beyond the veil of the phenomenal world to the depth of the noumenal spheres of our spiritual existence. Only spiritual perceptors can see the noumenon. These are the perceptual lenses through which the painterly photographer sees deep into the spiritual world; the world of noumenon. The physical resources of the finite body cannot document the noumenal world. The jumbies inhabit the eyes of the painterly photographer and replenish his soul. He sees not through the eyes of the body but the eyes of the jumbies—the eyes of the soul.

Woodism is precisely the original method of making pictures in contrast to merely documenting the real which guides the painterly photographer’s new aesthetic; the aesthetic of making pictures by creating the real, as opposed to seeing the real, as if is an existent and completed real, ready to be seen.

The painterly photographer creates the real through the lenses of spiritual perceptors. He compels the physical perceptors to draw from their spiritual powers, from the hidden recesses of the jumbies who had once lived by relying on the physical senses, which now can engage the spiritual senses, which they encountered in death and now draw from them. Only the jumbies know the meaning of life and death, because they have once lived and also died. They have been to the other world and now they have returned to save us, the lost human beings. These spiritual powers know life because they have lived it and then know death and discover deathlessness. If we let them guide us, as the painterly photographer gently teaches, they can make us see what we have never seen before. They make present what would otherwise be absent if we try to penetrate the so-called real, the present as such by the contingent resources of the body.

Woodist Jumbie Aesthetics

Woodist Jumbie Aesthetic is a new Aesthetic form, which Olatunji originated and is the organizing aesthetic of a body of “multilayered photographic images of people, places or things”. Olatunji employs “the layering process…(1) to visually disfigure the general understanding of the Knower; (2) posit an exceptional conjecture that each image is a representation of one way that a jumbie could be seeing what is pictured in each photograph of a person, place, or thing” (p, 130)

For the rest of the review, I will use these principles as a guide and examine a few photographs and complement Paget Henry’s brilliant existential/phenomenological commentaries of some of the photographs.

Since I do not have the images in this review, I advise readers to examine the photographs themselves in light of what they say to me.

Image 13. Slapping Hand” introduces the viewer to acknowledge the existence of the real in a surreal form. It makes the invisible world of the real visible. The absent is made present in the form of physical hands which attempt to touch us when we fail to recognize its presence while we are too busily involved with the physical world. The jumbies announce that they are always present, warning us when we misbehave and pretend to be self-sufficient, complete beings, which we are not. We scream when we suddenly see them, unaware that the jumbies are lurking behind, humbling us, and reminding us of the invisible world of spirit.

Image 15: Labor Day at Fort James (05,97).

This photograph disfigures the realist representation of the real as a copy, which is precisely pictured. Olatunji is not taking a picture. He is making a picture through the aesthetic of distorting the real and emancipating the beach as the place to which the colonizers flock on their leather sandals to dry their white bodies. This beach belongs to the natives themselves. It is their abode, their place, to which they go after producing surplus values for their masters, to relax their black bodies. Black bodies are seen happily running, moving, sitting under shades, with the jumbies lurking in the back protecting them. This time they are not screaming away but moving closely to the invisible world hidden behind the blue sky, the mountains in the background and the beach house of the comfortable natives. The city is the background of the sandy beach and the sky is the roof. Many elements are combined into one. The free natives are at their own beach to which the colonizers are not welcome. This is home. The beach belongs to the natives. Natives are seen bathing in the ocean of freedom. This photograph is a revolutionary representation of the meaning of the native’s beach, his or her very own. They own their black bodies and exhibit them proudly.

Image 26: Eleven Thirty One Hurricane

A meditative gaze guides this photograph. The painterly photographer takes the camera to the depth of the invisible zone, from which the jumbies are looking at the surface zone of a calm and sunny day. Their eyes do not see calmness. They see a brewing storm ready to explode the seeming confidence of the colonizer’s church asserting it’s being, affirming its architerual firmness in the hands of modernity. The modern church is ever sure of its potency as the symbol of colonial power. The jumbies are laughing at this hubris and are threatening its very existence with the approaching hurricane, the symbol of real power: the power of the jumbies. The painterly photographer subtly juxtaposes confidence and fragility, the surface and the latent, the temporal and the permanent.

Image 27: Big Church in Decay (08-07)

The looming threat is finally realized in the form of what Henry correctly observes, “takes us inside the iconic church. In spite of its sturdy outer wall of concrete, inside the jumbie vision is one of decay… This decay has engulfed the entire inside, the floors, the pews, and all the way up to the roof” (p, 80).

Alienation and solace are brilliantly captured in the architectural landscapes of New York and London as well.

Image 45: Prospect Park

On the surface, the park appears to the physical eyes as a perfect rendition of the real. That is initially how the real seduces us, lulls as to sleep. The photographer has just taken an ordinary picture of a natural beauty. He has used the camera perfectly. Look closely, however. You will notice that woodist Aesthetic jumbie is at work when we move from the surface perfection of Image 45: Prospect Park Meteorite Craters (09-02). Here the calmness is again disfigured by the jumbies. Whereas the physical eyes see natural beauty, the eyes of the jumbies unravel a chaotic reality of impending doom, of dissonance as in the jazz renditions of Miles Davis in “So What.”

The green grass, the perfect sunshine, and the elegantly groomed trees in the background are now rudely interrupted by the insuperable chaos environing the scene. Chaos is hatching. The green meadow is not peaceful anymore. All the elements of nature are disturbed and the jumbies are embedded in the ones elegantly groomed trees. The trees lose their luster. The ground is now broken and being readied for Meteorite craters invading the natural environment.
Nature is barbarously attacked by the post-colonial technology.
The jumbies are protesting as their environment is being disfigured. The woodist aesthetic in now in full bloom, doing its work of deliberate disfiguring of the real.

Image 64: Moments Till Moonrise

This is a masterpiece toned down by a meditative gaze. It invites us to think with the painterly photographer. The camera is caving in to the chambers of the human heart. The photographer puts us in the solitude of inner peace, where the heart murmurs are faintly present and thought is falling and falling quietly. The sky is dark grey. Shades of luminous clouds are slowing down the hustle and bustle of urban life. The end of the busy day is reluctantly giving in to the gently entering quest for love, peace, solace and tranquility. The meditative gaze runs the show of everyday life. We are summoned to rest, to think about what we are doing.

City dwellers are called upon to rest their busy minds, and think quietly. We are waited upon by the jumbies. They are calling us, but we are not listening. They are waiting for us, but we are not visiting. Only the painterly photographer answers their summons, and they in turn herald his name, and make him see deeply.

I will end the review with elaborate reflections on the photographs of Antigua and Barbuda Again.

Image 98: Antigua: A wash away

In this photograph the painterly photographer is weeping for the beautiful Antigua. The camera travels to the sandy beaches, which were celebrated in his early images of the island, as natives were winding down from the suffocating menace of the cranes of colonial modernity. Antiguans and Barbudans, the small places of great writers and scientists who were once fiercely resisting colonial penetration by asserting their values and practice their African roots, are now challenged to see anew. The trees, the barks, the leaves and the weeds are embodied by jumbies looking on as the barbaric “cultural volcano” is sweeping away their African roots, and washing away their minds, their values and norms, preserved against the brutalities of slavery.

The painterly photographer is releasing tears of disappointment as the twin islands are being intruded upon by the agendas of post-coloniality. “Which way Antigua and Barbuda? Which way my beloved country?” seems to say the thinker-photographer.

Image 99: Downward flow of Spirituality and Health

The thinker-dreamer paints on as he makes pictures of “The Downward Flow of Spirituality and Health”. The colonial churches and hospitals, the presumed harbingers of spiritual health, are not immune to the threatening lava, which will soon wash them away. Nothing is safe anymore. The cultural volcano of decay and catastrophe is on the way. The downward flow of spirituality is flowing on the roofs of the islands. The jumbies are angry about the carnal, the temporal. They want to instill spiritual health. They see impending doom on the islands, short of their direct intervention to save the islands from themselves to arrest bodily contamination by new spiritualties of health, of cleanliness.

Image 102: Antigua: A stranded Turtle is a powerful symbol of trapped islands, stranded between the freedom of the past and the fast paced decay of its values and norms. The photographer is now a spiritually conscious analyst of ecological damage. He makes pictures through the sensibility of the jumbies who are attempting to the save the island nations from losing their turtles, the symbol of the nation. Through the stranded turtles, the meditative photographer is subtly opening the eyes of the nation to wake up from the deep slumbers of sleep and protect the nation from deadly pollutions, which are about to engulf the nation as it imitates western post-colonial modernity. A stranded Turtle is a metaphor of critical consciousness blended with a call for actionality on the part of the leaders of the nation.

This call for action is further buttressed in Image 103: Encroaching on the Environment. Again, the critically conscious photographer, along with the Jumbies, is asking for ending the encroachment of the natural beauty of the nation. The jumbies are screaming from the trees, as they witness destruction of sacred places. The artist gives us a vision of the small boats of the past, sailing on the calm waters, which are now being displaced by the massive ships of the post-colonial era, further fortified by the intrusion of the tourist industry, as Henry sharply observes. (P, 121)

Image 106: Monica in Green is symbolized by an African female beauty clad in the emancipatory color of Green, symbolizing, what Henry poetically calls, “cultural renewal.“ The critical analyst of the nation’s conditions turns his painterly eyes towards hope informed by political economy and points toward the way out. The beautiful Monica Matthew, the elegant Mrs. Mitzi Allen (Image 108) and her husband, Mr. Howard Allen (Image 109) are powerful symbols of committed islanders determined to participate in the reconstruction of the nation. They return home and participate in national reconstruction, conscious of the nation’s past and the nation’s future. They are giving signs of cultural rejuvenation and appealing to the Jumbies to save the nation and retrieve the remnants of what is left of the island and propel the winds of modernity to fly towards the south and away from the north.

These visionaries, including the humble Paget Henry, are the living voices of hope and determination. They are the living examples of the “Return to the Source”. It is fitting that this review ends with the prophetic fire of Paget Henry, who writes, “This spirituality has consistently taken the form of an awareness of an all encompassing presence of infinite creativity that is far beyond the grasp of human intelligence. Also, we have seen the manner in which he came to terms with the reality of bodily death via the presence of his jumbie or the spiritual part of himself[…] “Praying for the Nation” is a 1986 picture of our master artist portraying his awareness of this all-encompassing higher intelligence and his deeply felt need to communicate with it on behalf of his homeland. (P, 126)