A Force of Nature – Al Ebanks
An exuberant creator who embodies the very best of sculpture, fashion design, architecture, interior design, and abstraction, Cayman’s own Native Son, Al Ebanks, is an artistic chameleon. He paints what he knows, and he knows what he paints, driven by the sheer tenacity of an artist compelled by an inner calling to march to his own beat. With a keen eye for colour, a heart set on creating, and a spirit grounded in both passion and rebellion, the artist’s quiet confidence in the organic gift of his artwork is an utmost force of nature.
Words by Georgia Austin.
Upon entering the white-washed walls of Al Ebanks’ minimalist Shedden Road home-studio – a space that embodies the ultimate form of abstraction in its rejection of structure – the outside world dwindles away as time ceases to matter. Worlds away from George Town’s bustling heartbeat, all points of focus push inwards, inspiring introspective contemplation. Vast canvases grace the walls displaying explosive colour and muted monochrome, as sculptures adorn every surface – a testament to the prolific nature of Ebanks’ work. Featuring works diverse and eclectic, the open-plan room boasts a dazzling recollection of former Premier, Alden Mclaughlin, jumping in the carnival (Kingfish), a larger-than-life tryptic of an iguana emerging from the depths of mottled brushstrokes (Iguana Park), and a painting tracing the sombre monochromes of modern migratory multitudes through an abstracted Middle Passage, questioning What Holds Us Together? Settled amidst this spectacle, one notion becomes glaringly obvious: Al Ebanks is born to create.
Recalling games of pick-up jacks and spinning gigs and inspired by the island’s natural environment, Ebanks’ artwork speaks to the spirit of a formative Caymanian childhood spent right, capturing the joy, resilience, and harmony with the outdoors that Caribbean culture inspires. The humble beginnings of Ebanks’ artistic journey began auspiciously in this very location, at a family Christmas gift exchange. A children’s painting kit gifted to one of his seven siblings caught the youthful eye of Ebanks and, in his words, ‘the rest is history.’ His very first experiences of creation and colour theory stoked a fire that had – until that moment – lain dormant within his boyish heart.
That fire has fuelled his creative process through the years, through sleepless nights hunched over colossal canvases covering the entire floor of his studio or working small-scale clay sculptures that fit delicately in the palm of a hand. And when that fire turned physical, burning his workshop and the ancestral breadfruit tree, he did not panic; he did not despair nor make futile efforts to dampen the flames. Al Ebanks stood back and photographed the blaze and billowing smoke as the fire brigade ventured into the flames. Even amidst a crisis that wreaked destruction, his instinct for creation prevailed.
As a founding member of the Native Sons in 1996, Ebanks is adamant that his work reaches beyond the realm of merely boats and coconuts. He explores Cayman’s history and present through an anti-linear lens, relishing the subjective viewer response to his creations. Care is taken not to impose personal meaning onto any piece, as he allows for the gentle emergence of the viewer’s deeply personal interpretation to bring unique life to his artwork. Permanently exhibited in the National Gallery, Ebanks’ main oeuvre centres around Caribbean culture and experience. Most recently designing an elegant gown for the upcoming Miss Cayman pageant, Ebanks yet again shows unbridled talent in all areas of expression, detailing a stunning collection of clothing boasting Caymanian influences such as wattle and daub textured fabric and a signature three-star pattern to represent Cayman’s island trifecta. His thatch rope installation entitled What Holds Us Together, featured in the 2019 Cross Currents Biennial, serves as a prelude to his 2021 submission in the Reimagined Futures exhibition. The towering polystyrene and fibreglass structure, likewise titled What Holds Us Together, reimagines the movement and twists of rope in the rounded curves and loose tangles, as it simultaneously questions, both personally and politically, the ties between people.
Despite his renegade spirit, Ebanks remains a profoundly introspective thinker and never shies from challenging notions of politics, race, and injustice. His series Wasted harks to an environmental conscience acutely aware of the alarming rate at which our oceans are being destroyed. In a masterful marriage of medium and message, Ebanks incorporates artistic waste – dried paint scraps, paint tubes, and water containers – into pieces such as Turtle Back and Wasted adding unique texture and weaving eco-consciousness into his creation.
Ebanks’ wide-ranging skillset has transported him globally, with exhibitions in the Griffin Gallery in Chicago, a solo show at the Jackie Gleason Theatre in Miami, and perhaps most notably to Tuscany with the National Gallery’s Artists Away grant in 2004. There, he studied the lost-wax technique of bronze sculpture alongside fellow Caymanian artist Horacio Esteban.
In 2007 he was commissioned by the Cayman Islands Government to create a sculpture to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the women’s right to vote. The statue, which depicts two generations of women climbing a staircase, reaching forward with a globe and a letter in hand, is displayed in the heart of George Town in Heroes Square. Stylistically, this sculpture moves away from the abstraction that typically characterises Ebanks’ artwork. Yet, thematically, women continue to be an inspiration to him, perhaps an appreciation of his mother who raised him, his sister whose gift started it all and the Caymanian women who historically kept the home fires burning whilst maritime men took to the seas.
In his journey of artistic evolution, there is no end in sight. Ebanks will forever be emergent, constantly exploring and revealing the mysterious depths of the self. Ebanks draws us into another full circle – a new revolution of evolution – and proves time and time again that his exploratory style, unparalleled talent and thrill for creating is genuinely ‘beyond the box’. In his surrendering of objective control, Ebanks imbues his artwork with a life of its own, allowing each creation to fill the vast depths of possibility that abstraction compels. Subsequently, each piece stirs with vivacious energy and wakes a nurturing space whereby form and meaning can freely emerge. And just as the lion materialises from his early work Off Spring (1990) and Ebanks’ face surfaces from his self-portrait Remnants of the Artist (2016), the nascent spirit of this Native Son emerges from the wild and unrivalled scope of his imagination.
To view more of Al Ebanks artwork:
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