“What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks in that self-reflective meta way. Well, an art exhibition by the UWI Creative Arts Centre final-year students at Medulla Art Gallery has invaded my mind and preoccupied my thoughts.
Although all of the works display the young artists’ creative process as a journey of healing, Timothy Somai’s paintings startled me and provoked deep and ongoing reflection about the current state of our society.
At first glance, the pleasingly familiar Caribbean pastel colour palette brings to mind the nice, modest well-tended homes of communities for which we feel a happy nostalgia. Somai backlights his paintings of houses and streets with a flat, impressionistic style reminiscent of Edward Hopper – an intentional capturing of a moment in time. Or of Jackie Hinkson, in the choice of the everyday familiar: the wooden slats, galvanized roofs, the little white curls of burglarproofing and the geometrical fretwork cut-outs that are suddenly a little too bright – almost neon.
Then as I turned to see the back of these lovely unframed canvases perched on their pedestals, there was something scrawled, but the words seemed a bit blurred, encased in a comic-book-like bubble. Then they came into focus: “Ah lucky to have not been murdered today!”
I stopped cold. My pores raised. The dream shattered, the delightful emotional nostalgia trampled. Now I had to hurry and look at the reverse side of all the paintings: “The taxi dropped me straight home today …Untouched”; “Ah did not have to hide in the bathroom during ah break in today.”
This young Timothy Somai has fashioned a painful and visceral barb that explodes the pervasive physical and mental tension of living with the possibility of murder every day. He has juxtaposed beauty and familiarity in form and colour with the verbal and neuronal brutality of fear.
I want these children, born in the 2000s, to feel safe. I have to ask myself what I can do, what can we do together as a society to create a safe space?
The paintings reminded me that safe spaces are simultaneously mental and physical.
The power of all good art is in asking the hard questions about how we are living and being; the hard questions for which there are no easy answers. Timothy Somai’s paintings make the viewer cringe by deconstructing habitual responses to pretty pictures and revealing the dark rawness of real introspection and reflection.