By Natalie Willis.
Thierry Lamare’s ‘The Liberal’ (2002) is one of those works in the National Collection that commands attention. This realistic depiction of one of Lamare’s muses, the force that was Joyce, is currently on view at the NAGB in the recent unveiling of our spring exhibitions, “Love, Loss and Life,” a retrospective featuring over 111 works by Lamare.
Joyce stands center stage and packs a lot of presence. She is almost confrontational with her arms folded as she looks straight at you, eyes meeting your gaze with a face that has a mouth set stern. It makes you think that perhaps she didn’t want you looking at her at all, but in growing to understand Lamare’s practice we know, he wasn’t quite one to just take a random snap of an out-islander and bring home that treasure from his expedition to render. No, he holds a certain kind of closeness with his subjects where they don’t become subjects at all but friends, comrades, and companions. As Ophelia–one of his other muses who (like Joyce) called Long Island home–became an ‘eternal’ part of his ‘art and heart,' Joyce is forever immortalised as one who touched his soul, and it shows in his work.
Lamare is French by birth but has spent the last 30 years devoting his time and creative efforts to inserting himself into the Bahamian narrative and finding a way to help us record and tell our stories with a sort of integrity that we often find ourselves dubious of for non-native Bahamians. Lamare is very much Bahamian and French, holding a dual sense of national identity to himself as both landscapes have so irrevocably shaped his life. Even before he could fully move here, half of his heart remained in the islands with his wife, Joie, and his care for the culture of the islands and its people is made clear in his almost dutiful practice and precision in presenting aspects of Family Island life.
Joyce, in all her commanding presence and the gravitas she holds, is not merely impressive because of how truthfully she has been rendered - to the eye and to what one would understand her personality to be - but also because such a strong work has been rendered in watercolour. As a medium, watercolour is associated with a sort of softness given its translucent quality, but here it is made bold, given depth, and the transparent quality is not so much in the paint as it is in his honest depiction of people. This can only be achieved by truly looking, and by truly getting to understand and know the person before you who you are attempting to immortalise in work. The medium inherently holds a sort of honesty - mistakes, pencil marks, all of your ‘working’ as it were, are laid bare with watercolour, and this feels conceptually sound given his personal and sincere methods for choosing subjects.
The work holds a certain sincerity that we often painfully find missing in those ‘transplants’ like Lamare who have come from elsewhere. We are not exoticised here, we are told in our truth and elevated. Devoting so much time and care to depicting ‘everyday’ people is an act that is as much political and sincere.
The title alone shows a sort of elevation. ‘The Liberal’ (2002) could be a liberal in terms of politics, regarding the notion of freedom, or even in terms of giving. Perhaps it is the sternness of her face that makes us able to think of her as some hardened, matriarchal politician. Perhaps it is the aura of strength she exudes, the strength someone can only attain by being tested and by living a harder life, that alludes to her ‘liberal’ quality of being someone with freedom - because perhaps this harder life is the cost of being ‘free’ in a sense, of living untouched by external forces other than nature when you live off the land. And perhaps she is liberal in the giving sense of the word because she is like so many black women in this country’s history, working and giving so much of themselves to everyone else. It often feels that Joyce as one of his muses rendered in so much detail and in such a variety of ways that we specifically feel that we know her in her individuality - as a stalwart, screw-faced woman - but she still feels like she could be any of us. And this is some of the magic in his work.
Though the current retrospective of his work holds only a careful selection of just over 100 works out of the body of at least 1500 in his creative career, Joyce is a recurring theme and her contrast of sternness in comparison to the sort of wind-beaten softness of Ophelia is telling of what the struggle of life in the Out Islands, in living the traditional Bahamian way off the land, can do to shape your life. Ophelia becomes the softest kind of leather - where life’s struggles have hit hard but left us with a suppleness that is unsurpassed, whereas Joyce becomes the resilient and hardened driftwood, worn smooth by the tide, hot sun, and salt.
We all know that traditional island life here, as so many of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents can attest to, can harden you or soften you in ways you just don’t quite get from anything else. The hardened, tough-as-nails Joyce becoming driftwood, like the frames Lamare makes which are so much a part of the work, makes us think that a little piece of her is really in all of the works he frames from this found wood on the shore.
Even though she nor Ophelia are present any longer, it is undeniable that their presence remains and reminds us that all forms of our strength and the way life here shapes us are not only valid but make us a force of strength or softness to reckon with.
Thierry Lamare’s retrospective, “Love, Loss and Life,” is on view at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas through September 10. As a reminder, the NAGB is open on Sundays from 12 p.m - 5 p.m. and all locals are welcomed to our Free Sundays.