The Tobago Icon Museum (Luise Kimme) in Bethel is an inspiration for young Tobagonian artists and a unique attraction for local and international visitors. It is the home and workshop of the German-born Kimme and features artwork from her 30-year love affair with Tobago. Pat Ganase recommends a visit.
Luise Kimme came from Germany to the Caribbean in the late 1970s. She had fallen in love with the distinctive sensuous Tobagonian features and followed her heart to Tobago. It was a turning point in her life. She had grown tired of the contemporary abstract art of Europe, the environment in which she was expected to work after her studies in prestigious art colleges in Germany and London; she was at that time a Professor at Dusseldorf Academy (a post which she occupied until 2002).
Tobago revitalised her and she turned her back on the trends of the modern art world to follow a completely new track in sculpting larger than life figures of ordinary folk in wood. Through her art, the Tobago folk, with their typical poses and gestures, are immortalised in heroic statues and busts and wall pieces. She became well-known to the village as the woman on the bicycle.
Kimme’s house on the ridge between Mt Irvine and Bethel started as a one-room workshop in which she worked on massive logs, some local and some imported from Germany. A tiny woman, she had tremendous strength in her arms to wield the massive hammer and chisel or chainsaw. She installed the block and tackle pulley system to raise her logs in place, and would mount a ladder to reach the tops of her sculpture.
The house that now stands as Kimme’s Museum grew, as rooms were added around the workshop. The imposing castle that today houses the museum is decorated with deities – mainly from the Orisha pantheon – on the outside. Inside, we see phases of Kimme as the complete artist. She was accomplished in drawing and painting, and many of her small sketches and artworks are collected in one room. Her art pieces included needlework when she was not strong enough for the chisel or chainsaw.
Kimme loved the fretwork decorating many older houses of the colonial era. However, once she became adept at the jigsaw, her depictions could not be restricted to the stylised patterns of architectural fretwork. And she created lovely free-form panels with graceful human gestures. You can view such a line of dancers framing a balcony at the museum; study how she evokes the movement and flair in these flat but sculptural shapes.
Her iconic pieces, however, are the heroic wood sculptures, always a few feet taller than ordinary. She crafted calypsonians, mothers and children and handsome men, in lifelike colourful garb. She loved and accentuated the traits defining personalities and character: One series presented creatures of TT myth: Soucouyant, Papa Bois and Mama de l’eau.
Throughout her life, Kimme worried about the durability of her work in wood. She was acutely aware of the ravages of the tropics even on hardwoods: moulds and fungus and invisible boring insects. She was determined to preserve as many of her sculptures as possible by casting them in bronze. She travelled to Cuba where she learned mould-making and bronze casting. She met many artists, one of which, Dunieski Lora Pileta, worked with her. In the museum, there’s a room of Kimme’s “tiny sculptures” which she made while practising bronze casting. Dancers and deities are among the figures she portrayed.
She encouraged Dunieski to return with her to Tobago to set up a kiln and foundry in order to convert her wooden sculptures to bronze. Luise Kimme died in April 2013 before this process could begin. Since then, her sister Ilse has taken over Kimme’s estate, allowing it to be preserved as a Tobago museum. Dunieski has been employed as the curator; and together they are working to complete the transformation of Kimme’s Tobago folk to bronze.
Luise Kimme’s journal of her early years in Tobago, 1981-1983, was published in the book, Chacalaca. It’s another name for the noisy native bird also called cockrico. This book is full of Kimme’s first impressions of Tobago and Tobagonians, with many drawings and illustrations. Other books featuring photographs of her sculptures have also been published. Her work has been shown in Germany, TT and Cuba.
The Tobago Library Services has arranged for children’s tours of the Kimme Museum. Otherwise, public visiting hours are 10am to 2pm on Sundays.