We're ready for you now, Mr. Hydes
Forty-five years after his inaugural exhibition at The Royal Palms Hotel, Grand Cayman, a career-defining retrospective of outsider-artist, Bendel Hydes’ life’s work at The National Gallery for the Cayman Islands, sees the native son embraced as the founding father of contemporary Caymanian art.
Words by Juliet Austin. Photos courtesy of the Cayman Islands National Gallery.
It seems fitting that Bendel Hydes, a seafarer’s son, should have his collection of over four hundred paintings arrive back on the shores of his homeland by container ship. Born and raised in West Bay, Grand Cayman in the 1950s, Hydes moved to New York, living for 27 years in what he describes as a self-imposed exile in order, “to create a personal identity that incorporated a broad strongly defined set of experiences.” His proud homecoming, celebrated in a retrospective at Cayman’s National Gallery, is recognition, arguably long overdue, that Bendel Hydes is not only Cayman’s foremost contemporary artist but one of significant international clout.
Yet, success was not easily won. Son of Captain Shelby and Jane Hydes, and the second of six siblings, Hydes was a sensitive child whose artistic yearnings immediately set him apart. Despite an idyllic childhood spent flying kites, playing marbles and wandering barefoot, Cayman’s small population, lack of artistic tradition or formal art education heightened his sense of isolation in a country that was, simply, not ready for his progressive ways.
Despite his myopia, which long-time collector, John Hurlstone, suggests, “bestowed him with a gift of seeing the world differently,” the artist’s sister recalls, “He was an artist from 6-years-old.” By 17, he had won Cayman’s inaugural art competition, using acrylics and watercolours to capture traditional scenes like the charming cottage featured in Mr. Bibi’s House (1969). As well as educating himself via correspondence course, he sought the tutelage of Ed Oliver, a resident American artist, who encouraged painting en plain air, and fostered in him a strong appreciation for the natural world. Voyages to sea with his father gave him a life-long fascination with water, a motif that resonates throughout his work. Surrounded by endless ocean, he was enthralled by the colours of the depths; mesmerised by their power, volatility and symbolism. It was a year-long stay, however, with an aunt in New Orleans that ‘opened the world to him,’ changing the trajectory of his life. Exposed for the first time to museums, galleries, exhibitions and a vibrant carnival culture, the possibility of life beyond Cayman’s sheltered shores became tangible; a way to seek out intellectual peers, artistic stimulation and the acceptance he craved.
He reflects, “The soul of an artist is very vulnerable and can easily be silenced in a community that is primarily dominated by a business ethos.”
Keen to escape the constraints of small island life, in 1972, Hydes became the first Caymanian to study fine art overseas, embarking on an art foundation course at Liverpool College of Art in England, and later pursuing a degree at Canterbury College of Art. He states, “I was absorbed with my subconscious being in the hope that, by the time I reached the larger developed world, I would have evolved some sort of armour within which my real spirit could reside.” Sadly, despite being the sole applicant with an acceptance letter, Hydes was denied a government scholarship, as art was considered lacking meaningful application to Cayman society.
Absorbing the nihilistic nature of Dadaism, the European avant-garde, Surrealism and American Pop Art, the young artist struggled to assimilate the “tremendous purity” of his upbringing with his quest for identity amongst new, more worldly peers whom, he felt, came already “full of cultural ideas.” By contrast, Hydes felt alienated, a blank canvas upon which he experimented prolifically, dredging memories in his longing to discover new ways of seeing and to secure a palpable identity.
Transferring to Clark University in Massachusetts, USA, in 1974, Hydes finally received a scholarship, changing his major to International Relations and Philosophy while furthering his artistic pursuits, taking commissions for portraits and sketching continuously around campus. Awarded a BA in 1976 he returned home the following year to an island in flux as other recently returned university graduates pushed for greater intellectual freedom of expression. Co-founding the Inn Theatre, Harquail Cultural Centre and Cayman’s first art gallery, Hydes’ wrote probing newspaper articles, produced playbills and, as the retrospective poignantly illustrates, wrote poetry journals revealing his innermost contemplations. Ever-searching, ever-conflicted, some paintings from this period are signed using the enigmatic pseudonym ‘Jahote,’ perhaps differentiating commercial endeavours from what he viewed as the ‘real’ work of an artist in the becoming.
Nevertheless, prompted by the desire for intellectual growth and reinvention, in 1981, Hydes felt compelled to leave Cayman’s shores again. Drawn by the dynamism and creative non-conformity of New York’s downtown art scene, he embraced a spirit of discovery, truth and enlightenment, in 1987 moving into a 2,200 sq. ft. loft in Tribeca that became his home and studio for nearly three decades. Aligning himself with Caribbean writers who, “exiled themselves to other countries in the hope of gaining the world,” Hydes embarked on larger-scale works, influenced by Abstract Expressionism, assemblage artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and the incomparable Andy Warhol. He explains, “The less you have to root you to your soil, the more philosophical space you have to accept the influences of others.”
While the 1980s brought a burgeoning preoccupation with an abstraction of form, colour and symbolism, Hydes’ aesthetic still appeared representational, as in Breadfruit (Tropical Plant series, 1984). Ever the outsider, his, “existential search for meaning and self-knowledge,” led to the continued distillation of his inexorable ties to home – his “anguish of separation.” Experimenting with collage, the application of raw, vernacular materials like coconut husk and sand applied using traditional rabbit-skin glue imbued paintings with fresh textural detail as seen in The Mariner, 1982, while evocative mark-making – including drips, paint spots, brush hairs and even his own eyelashes – and layered oil washes as seen in Gulfstream, 1989, denoted the emergence of his signature style.
Nebulous, intellectual, politically-conscious and complex in nature, Hydes’ paintings evolved into, what William Helfrecht, Collections Coordinator at Cayman’s National Gallery, describes as, “floating images evoking a sense of dream-like reverie… parting the ethereal veil of perception to reveal fathomless depths.” Defying characterisation, abstract forms, colour, biomorphic shapes, metaphor and symbol examine themes from isolation and belonging, memory and identity to topography and sense of place. Hydes conjures such enigmatic depths through multiple translucent diluted oil washes, resulting in a vaporous quality achieved by working horizontally on the floor – pouring, dripping and directing the flow with brushes, sponges and cloths. Coined ‘luminescent abstraction’, the technique produces transcendental “emotional after images,” that speak to the heart of the viewer. Captured in his Circumnavigating the Globe paintings, 2008-10, Hydes saw art as an investment in the personal, “bridging the gap between not knowing and knowing”; giving viewers the chance to think “into the unknown.”
From inauspicious beginnings, the shy boy from the ‘islands that time forgot’ has exhibited regionally and internationally across the United States, United Kingdom and Europe to the Dominican Republic, Brazil and beyond. Hydes’ distinguished career includes collective, solo and travelling exhibitions at London’s prestigious Commonwealth Institute, 1986, the Center for African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C., 1993, Gallerie de la Tour in France and the 23rd International Bienal de Sao Paulo, Brazil. His works feature in influential publications including the A-Z of Caribbean Art and Caribbean Visions: Contemporary Painting and Sculpture. Receiving the Leibovitz Art Award in 1985 and the prestigious Pollock-Kraser Foundation Grant in 2002, he went on, in 2004, to become Cayman’s cultural attaché to the United States – a role he performed unofficially for years prior.
At his celebrated homecoming, it is clear that long gone are the days of struggle and toil. Fêted as one of its own, life has come full circle, with Cayman society finally recognising the man of stature that is Bendel Hydes: visionary, pioneer and artist of distinction. After years in exile, through the medium of the gallery’s retrospective, his people are welcoming back their native son, acknowledging his artistic legacy and putting him firmly on the map. Their message is loud and proud: “We’re ready for you now, Mr. Hydes.”
The Bendel Hydes Catalogue is available at the National Gallery Gift Shop
Click here to view the Cayman Islands National Gallery's virtual tour of the Bendel Hydes exhibition, 'Retrospective.'
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