ART - PALETTE OF ISLANDS - Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides

Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)


From petroglyphs to performance art, ancient Amerindian ceramics to a modern creole Carnival, the Lesser Antilles motivate a wide range of artistic endeavors.

People have been inspired by the beauty of the islands and their natural surroundings for thousands of years. The greens of the forests, the blues of the sea, the reds and yellows of the flowers conspire to create a palette of color that assaults and pleases the senses in equal measure. The first artists in the islands were the Amerindians, who scratched their drawings on rocks by rivers or on the walls of caves thousands of years ago. Many are clearly representative of their gods and religious symbols, but the meaning of others is less clear.


Arawak petroglyph known as the Carib stone, Trinidad.

Werner Forman Archive

Later arrivals brought the technology for making ceramics, which allowed greater possibilities for artistic expression. The earliest pottery found has a red background with white paint picking out a simple design. Some 1,400 years ago, however, the style changed with a new influx of migrants. The Ostionoid culture incised their pottery and used less painted decoration. By the time Columbus arrived, they were creating religious artifacts such as zemi, or spirit stones, as well as distinctive polychrome and incised pottery styles. Vessels were made with lugs shaped like human or animal heads molded onto the rim of vessels and they developed fine ground stone and shell work. Their legacy continues today principally in Dominica, where the Kalinago still make traditional, intricately woven baskets and mats and carved calabash bowls.


Handmade baskets, Dominica.


Colonial art

As with literature, art during the colonial days of slavery was a European activity, out of reach of the majority who toiled the soil with little time for creative expression. Colonial visitors replicated what they saw, a utopian vision of well-tended plantations with masters and slaves living contentedly off the fat of the land. The illiterate slaves, however, could not wield a pen to describe their lives, let alone afford a paintbrush and paints to depict the harsh reality of their existence.

Early 20th-century art

It was only in the 1920s that notable artists started to emerge from the Caribbean and these often catered to the taste in Europe for “primitive” cultures, following in the steps of Paul Gauguin’s artistic paradise. The political awakening of the population with the rise of the trade-union movement, the birth of political parties, the growth of a culturally nationalist middle class, and eventual independence had a huge impact on intellectual and artistic life in the islands. These trends took place at the same time as the “new negro” philosophies of the Harlem Renaissance took the US by storm in the 1930s.

For the first time, art was taught in schools, talented students went on to art college and some managed to follow their dream of devoting their lives to art, either at home or abroad, or both. The blockade during World War II had an impact on the French islands, in particular, with several French artists and writers stranded there for the duration and nothing better to do than set up painting and sculpture workshops open to all. This was the time when Aimé Césaire and others were developing their literary ideas on “négritude,” challenging the status quo, denouncing European colonial racism and defending Afro-Caribbean identity. The cultural complexity of the region, the emergence from slavery and dependency, the Amerindian and African heritage, and the presence of European and North American itinerant artists have all influenced the islands’ diversity.

The combination of pressures and influences meant that early Caribbean art was a hodgepodge of styles, although local themes were increasingly explored as part of the creole communities’ desire for autonomy. Some artists stuck with the rigorous discipline of traditional figure and landscape painting, putting down on canvas the world around them. Some experimented with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting styles while others delved into the spiritual matters of African art and sculptors attempted Art Deco forms.


Aimé Césaire, French poet and former mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique.


Arts and crafts

Running in parallel with these artistic developments, there was a growth in creativity by artisans and craftsmen, self-taught artists whose work is more directly related to traditional and spiritual African art, as seen in their use of patterning and color. Techniques were also similar, particularly in the case of carvings and the methods of selecting, honing, drying, and polishing woods, and these sculptures often had medicinal and spiritual meanings bound up in Afro-Christian religions such as Obeah, Santería, the Rastafari movement, and Vodou.

Late 20th century art

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of political turbulence in the islands, with the rise of Black Power, the Cuban Revolution, and US-backed dictatorships a backdrop for the increasing clamor for independence. Some Caribbean artists who had been trained abroad became disillusioned with small-island art movements, abandoning the local vernacular in favor of a more international modern style, while others concentrated even more on their African roots and African imagery. Identity became a key issue as artists explored their links with the African diaspora and their feelings of alienation. Racial and class awareness under the guise of political allegory challenged Western styles and values to become a platform for contemporary Afro-Caribbean art.

Tumelo Mosaka, curator at the Brooklyn Museum (NY) writes: “Today, consistent throughout most islands is the division between mainstream artist movements more closely related to European stylistic trends and often rooted in national development, and self-taught artists whose art works reflect ritual preoccupations related to spiritual movements such as Revivalism, Santería and Vodou and less exposure to art movements abroad. More recently, contemporary artists influenced by post-modernism’s concerns with identity have found ways to fuse both forms, resulting in art that appear peculiarly unique to their Caribbean experience”.

Contemporary art scene

Today, the Lesser Antilles are home to a wide range of artists, whose studios are often open to the public and whose work is widely exhibited. Some artists were born in the islands, some are foreigners attracted to the lifestyle and the inspiration. Some are self-taught, others are graduates of art schools at home or abroad. All forms of art can be found, from figurative to Naïve or symbolic, together with graphic design, installation art, and performance art. Carnival is the prime example of popular artistic expression, bringing together all strands of the arts with colonial and African heritage.


St Lucia’s Llewellyn Xavier is known for his collages.

Courtesy Llewellyn Xavier

LeRoy Clarke (b. 1938, in Trinidad) is that island’s “Master Artist” and figurehead of Afro-Caribbean art. A prolific, self-taught artist and poet, his first major body of work, called “Fragments of a Spiritual,” was an epic personal, ethnic, and cultural narrative, reconstructing the spiritual dimension in the aftermath of slavery and colonialism, through post-colonial turbulence and political disillusionment. He is known for his huge, complex and layered paintings, full of symbolism and social allegory, and his work is exhibited at the National Museum and Art Gallery, Trinidad; The Studio Museum of Harlem, New York; the Royal Victoria Institute of Trinidad; and the National Collection of Jamaica, as well as in many private collections. One of his recent exhibitions, presenting his 110 acrylic drawings, “Eye Hayti... Cries... Everywhere,” was held in 2015 at the National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain (

Llewellyn Xavier OBE (b. 1945, St Lucia) is known for his collages, his most important work being a collection of recycled materials called “Global Council for the Restoration of the Earth’s Environment,”1993, which included signatures from leading environmentalists and conservationists.

More recently, a conceptual work of art entitled “Environment Fragile,” calls attention to the destruction of the environment. The works in the series are made from recycled cardboard, representing the destruction of the forests; industrial paint, representing the end of the world’s resources; and gold, symbolizing the preciousness of the environment. Xavier was awarded an OBE in 2004 for his contribution to art in the British Commonwealth (