Four years ago, in September 2012, I had the honor and pleasure to meet in person the Jamaican artist Cecil Cooper at one of his exhibitions in Kingston, Jamaica. His breathtaking paintings impressed me from the moment I walked into the gallery, seeing first of all the painting “What’s her secret”. On September 15, 2016, just over a week after he was conferred with Jamaica’s fifth highest honour, the Order of Distinction (Commander Class), at a special investiture ceremony at King’s House, Cecil passed away at the age of 70.
Cecil Cooper was a renowned Jamaican – a celebrated artist, educator, and tenor – born in Hanover. In 1966, he became one of the first graduates of the full-time diploma of the Jamaica School of Art (now the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts). He was taught by artists such as Barrington Watson and Albert Huie and gravitated to a style of painting known as expressive realism.
Prof. Carolyn Cooper wrote a wonderful article about him for the Jamaica Gleaner, “Cecil Cooper’s unfinished legacy” Jamaica Gleaner. With her blessings, I lay below her article.
Carolyn Cooper | Cecil Cooper’s unfinished legacy
This Friday, Cecil Cooper will celebrate his 70th birthday in fine style at the Olympia Gallery with an exhibition of his paintings.
In 1967, almost 50 years ago, Cooper’s first one-man show was held at the Gallery of the Contemporary Jamaican Artists’ Association. He was then a very recent graduate of the Jamaica School of Art where, from 1962 to 1966, he studied with some of Jamaica’s most illustrious artists, including Barrington Watson, Karl Parboosingh, Vernal Reuben and Milton Harley.
He distinguished himself as the top student in the painting department.
Cecil Cooper, also a very talented singer, received a Jamaican Government scholarship in 1970 to study music in New York. There, he changed his mind and his artistic direction. He decided to enrol in the Art Students League where he was taught by the African-American painter Norman Lewis. Born in Harlem of Bermudan parents, Lewis was at first a figurative painter. His work later became increasingly abstract.
At the Jamaica School of Art, Cecil Cooper had mastered realism. The grand landscapes of his youth in rural Jamaica provided models for his early work. Now, in New York, he was beginning to explore new ways of seeing the world and his place in it. Cooper enrolled in the School of Visual Arts at a time of political upheaval in America. Black Power excited his imagination. Abstract expressionism became his medium for representing the black body in all its alluring complexity.
Though art critics often claim European origins for abstract art, a very good case can be made for African roots. Nkiru Nzegwu, a professor of art history and African studies at the State University of New York, Binghampton, emphatically argues that “European artists at the turn of the twentieth century learned the principle of abstraction and the philosophy of transcending reality from Africa”.
From a quite similar perspective, Senegalese art critic Babacar M’Bow defines Cecil Cooper’s body of work as an expression of African aesthetics. He argues that, “The challenge faced by critics engaging Cooper’s work resides in the use of Euro-American literacy to read his visual text.”
M’Bow proposes an alternative angle from which to view Cecil Cooper’s paintings – escape from the plantation and its ‘great house’ art forms into the hills with the Maroons.
From a Caribbean perspective, art historian Petrine Archer Straw observes that “Cecil Cooper’s talents were not restricted to the visual arts and … his talents as a classical musician exposed him to European forms also.”
Indeed, over the last five decades, Cooper’s paintings have consistently manifested an arresting fusion of European and African elements. This is an enduring characteristic of his artistic practice.
Familiar images in Cecil Cooper’s paintings are geometric masks that both conceal and reveal the human face. Then there are those bodies joined together as if in a perpetual Middle Passage posture. An early work such as Warriors (1980) embodies fierce resistance, the militant faces overlapping in a tightly knit brotherhood. This powerful image of community is also seen in many of Cooper’s later works.
Rites of Spring uses intertwining female faces to create a sensuous sisterhood. And there is also a hint of the female body as a musical instrument to be played with precision and sensitivity.
The 2015 painting Devotion sustains the image of fertility with the inclusion of a fish, a sign of pregnancy in Jamaican folk culture. In other paintings, the female body is presented as delicious fruit and flowers.
GENERATIONS OF STUDENTS
Understandably, music is a favourite theme in Cooper’s work as seen in the titles of some of the paintings from his 2012 solo exhibition: To Music (1 and 2), Adagio, Interlude, and Reverie.
The latter painting suggests both meanings of the word: reverie as a state of daydreaming in which one becomes lost in thought; and also an instrumental piece that conjures up a dreamlike state of mind or an introspective mood.
Cecil Cooper’s canvasses both large and small convey the breadth and depth of his artistic vision. For more than five decades, he has been creating works of art that distil the essence of his philosophy of family, community, nation and diaspora. And it is this grand sense of vision and mission that allowed him in his capacity as head of the painting department at the former Jamaica School of Art to inspire so many generations of students from across the Caribbean to develop their talents.
For three decades, Cecil Cooper provided intellectual leadership at the School of Art, as he earlier did as a teacher at the Calabar High School from 1966-1970.
In formal retirement from the classroom, Cecil Cooper continues to teach through the magnificent works in this 70th birthday exhibition. And he continues to learn. This is how he puts it: “The worst thing that can happen to an artist is when you believe you have achieved your maximum potential. It is that thing that you are always chasing … . Hopefully, you never catch it. So that gives you a reason to get up tomorrow.” Give thanks for all the tomorrows of Cecil Cooper’s unfinished legacy!
Carolyn Cooper is an international consultant on culture and development. She is the author of two influential books, Noises In the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture; and Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture At Large. She is the editor of the award-winning Global Reggae. She currently teaches at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, where she is a professor of literary and cultural studies.