Vivacious and Vibrant, Vanita
Large in scale and rich in colour, Vanita Commisiong's paintings are a radiant celebration of Bajan life.
Words by Natasha Were.
Painted in vibrant hues with broad brushstrokes, Barbados based artist Vanita Commisiong's canvases are full of life and movement. From dancing women and carnival stilt men to fishermen on the beach and lush tropical foliage, each painting is exuberant and spirited, the subjects swirling and swaying to a silent rhythm.
Unless she has been commissioned to paint something specific, when she starts a new painting, Vanita often has no idea what the subject will be. She begins by using leftover paints to prime her canvases. She doesn’t sketch anything out first – she’s never been good at drawing, she says – but applies loose brushstrokes in different colours, then lets her intuition guide her.
“Once I’ve applied a wash of paint, I’ll sit back and look at it, and I’ll see forms and figures start to show up,” she explains. “The composition appears out of the paint.” “Painting is meditative for me. I might get lost in it for five, six, even ten hours at a time, and when I stop I am physically aching and broken from bending over the canvas, but I don’t notice while I am working.”
The daughter of East Indian immigrants, she recalls having her Indian horoscope read as a child, which suggested she would become an artist. Nobody took the prediction seriously, however, and at school she was not permitted to take O'Level art, as her drawing was not considered good enough. Instead, she went into retail and later studied accountancy.
It was an exhibition of Haitian art that rekindled her creative urges. Although she could ill afford it, she ended up purchasing four paintings one of which was by Claude Dambreville. “I just loved his work so I had to buy the paintings,” she recalls. “And when I looked at them, I thought, ‘I could do that’.”
Inspired, she joined an amateur painting group that met weekly and, although she received no formal training there, some of her work was exhibited in a local gallery and sold almost immediately. Vanita never looked back.
Although she has developed her own unique style - one that is vivacious and vibrantly coloured - the busy, populated scenes, where people are often viewed from behind, or their faces are undefined, have clear echoes of Dambreville’s work.
At first, Vanita worked from photos but, she says, besides the fact the result was too posed, she found that people didn’t always like being photographed – hence the tendency to paint them from the point of view of an unseen observer. And because it is their gestures, how they stand and move that fascinate her, their facial expressions are redundant.
Women in particular feature prominently in her extensive body of work. This, she believes, may be a subconscious expression of her own feminist tendencies. “Being brought up in a patriarchal household was not easy for someone like myself,” she muses.
“There was always this idea that I would become a housewife through an arranged marriage. But I didn’t, and I think this may be why these strong, proud women turn up on my canvasses.”
A hugely prolific artist, over the course of more than three decades has completed over a thousand paintings, most of them on canvases measuring four by five feet or more. As well as showing her own work alongside that of other local artists, in the three galleries she runs in Barbados, she has had exhibitions in Trinidad and England, and her paintings have found homes around the world. Now, for visitors who cannot fit her over-size originals in their luggage, she reproduces some of the most popular artwork on giclées, accessories and household items.
Although she has experimented with different paints and her style has evolved over the years, from canvases to beach totes, the sunny, buoyant quality of Vanita Commisiong's artwork is a constant. Whether it is people, places or activities that she renders in glorious Technicolour, it is her ability to capture that quintessential Caribbean zest for life that make her paintings such a joy to behold.
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