Trinidad and Tobago artist and freelance photographer Gabriella Wyke, 26, was always clear about her life’s purpose and she knew art played a big part in it.
Following her purpose led her to become TT’s first winner of the Boynes Emerging Artist Award. The award was founded in 2019 and is dedicated to emerging artists, globally.
TT artist Chantal Boynes is its founder.
Wyke won the competition’s sixth edition with her photo Fill the Streets. The monochromatic photo shows a young girl stooping in front of a lit candle and observing its light. Other lit candles are seen in a blurred background.
The photo emerged out of vigils held for the late Keithisha Cudjoe. Cudjoe’s body was found on February 1. She had been missing since January 24. The photo was taken the day after Cudjoe’s body was found.
“There were some messages floating around on social media that there would be a vigil. Because I went to previous vigils for Andrea Bharatt, Ashanti Riley and others, I really wanted to be there for her as well.
“But when I arrived at the Queen’s Park Savannah – which was the advertised location – I was very underwhelmed just because of the turn out,” Wyke said.
She wanted to give the same energy to Cudjoe as she had done for the other women. About 20 people attended the vigil, and the little girl in the photo was with her mother who knew Cudjoe personally.
“I wanted to capture that moment. This was particularly eye-opening for me; the mom brought her little girl to the vigil. You wouldn’t usually see children at things like that. If there is a wake or a funeral, you would rarely see parents bring their children to things like that because they want to keep them in that innocent phase.
“But she was at the vigil with her mom and I am not sure she knew exactly what was going on. To me, I said, ‘This is no way she should be spending her night with her mother. She should be at home talking about what they are going to be doing the next day. She should be looking forward to just having fun but, unfortunately, at a young age, she is experiencing what it is like to go to a vigil like this.'”
Seeing the child look at the candle took Wyke’s mind to a place where she realised that this is the girl’s future.
“Keithisha was 21. That is still very young. I was like, ‘This is no way for a girl to look forward to her future. This cannot become a normal thing,’” she said.
And so she used the image to tell that story.
The image symbolises the effect gender-based violence has on all women, not just young or older women but also girls, Wyke said.
“Young girls are also affected even if they cannot articulate what is happening, they are also affected.”
Wyke said the subject of her photo is going to have the experience with her forever and no one knows how it is going to affect her.
The photo is also part of her wider Her Voice project which began in 2021.
When she started the project she did not know if women were going to show up.
Wyke’s website says, “The Her Voice project is about her for her. Following the abductions and murders of Andrea Bharatt, Ashanti Riley and many other women in TT, citizens from across the nation have demonstrated their frustration with the way gender-based violence is handled in the country.
“The Her Voice Project will aim to amplify the voices of women, their concerns and ideas.”
Wyke said she sought to have a wide cross section of women and so asked for basic information. The women were also given the choice to share their stories of gender-based violence or not, she said.
Wyke also got parental consent for under-aged young women who wished to participate.
Women accepted Wyke’s call and came out in their numbers, more than even she expected.
Her photo and projects fall within Wyke’s personal philosophic view of how she practises her art.
“I have always believed there is more to life as an artist than just making work for leisure – which is fine,” she said.
But her perspective on what art can really do, changed when she attended the Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta, Georgia, US, to study for a degree in photography in 2017.
“It was where I really started to get into the meat of who I was as a person and as an artist.”
There, she met people who used their art for different reasons. She said during her classes and conversations with professors and colleagues she noticed “art can reach so much more.”
Wyke was still in Atlanta when George Floyd was murdered. His murder ignited global protests.
“In TT, although there is racism, it is not as loud as if you were in the US, itself. I am of African descent and most of my family members are black. It was very heartbreaking to know that people are judged because of the colour of their skin,” she said.
This was nonsensical to Wyke, who was raised by a father she considers to be the best in the world.
Her father, Darnley Wyke, raised her to be strong, independent and to stand for integrity.
“He is also a man of honour I look up to daily and will always look up to,” she said. She has also had great support from her mother Elizabeth Wyke.
Floyd’s murder led Wyke to tell a different story. That different story is being told in the form of her ongoing project called The Letter – in which she shows positive, homely images of black men.
“In another sense I wanted to show how black men really live. They go to the gym, they go the barber shop, they take care of their families, they are upstanding citizens just like anybody else,” she said.
Wyke did not want to be a contributor to showing images that trigger trauma.
“Within this field of work, showing images of trauma could be some kind of fetish for people,” she said.
There is an over consumption of violence and, as a photographer, she does not want to contribute to that, she added.
Wyke said she is not looking for popularity or what is trending.
“Issues never stop. Trends might begin and stop but issues like these they never end.”
With the Her Voice project, she aims to tell the stories of women and get their messages out in a package that empowers.
Wyke plans to enter more competitions as it is a way for her to expose her work and stay active.
“Connecting with communities like the Boynes Emerging Artist have definitely helped me, to not just get exposure for myself as an artist but take the story a lot further. I will continue to apply to a lot of different opportunities.”
The Diego Martin freelance photographer also has her own business called Gifts from Gab Studios Ltd. It is an art-based business which provides a variety of services including photography, videography, graphic design and painting.
It’s no surprise that Wyke is encouraging people to follow their purpose.
“I believe everyone in this world has a purpose and that purpose is very essential to what we do.”
“Do not let anyone discourage from your purpose. In this field of work, I have met a lot of different negative comments from people like teachers who you think would encourage you. Thankfully, I have a great support system in my family and community. They have seen my passion, my talent and have nurtured it.
“She said that is not the same for everyone. I would say if that is not your portion. If you do not have that community, there are communities out there that are willing to support you like the Boynes Emerging Artist Award, locally and internationally.”
Wyke won the award and a three-month artist residency at Nocefresca Residency programme, Sardinia, Italy.
The Boynes Award is an international, artist-run competition created to support, promote, and connect with emerging artists worldwide. Boynes is a Trinidadian artist from St Ann’s who created the award out of frustration with the prizes being awarded in international competitions.
Boynes had previously told Newsday in March that while her award was created by a Trinidadian, she does not receive many regional or local submissions.
“I have said multiple times that I am from the Caribbean, but I still don’t think it has clicked for people, even here in Trinidad. Because it is an international award, I don’t think it registers that I’m right here.”
In the release, Boynes said she was excited to announce that this year’s winner was from Trinidad.
“Since the conception of the Boynes Emerging Artist Award in 2019 by a fellow Trinbagonian artist, the growing community has seen winners and finalists hail from all around the world including the USA, UK, China, Mexico, Peru, Australia, Nigeria, and Iraq. Wyke is the first artist from the twin-island republic to be awarded first place and the second artist from the Caribbean to place in the top three across editions.
“Wyke’s work documents the alarming surge of violent acts against women in TT that she has personally witnessed in her generation and creates a platform to incite more conversations on gender-based violence with hopes of sparking a change in society.”