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Aubrey Williams: Atlantic Fire at the Walker Art Gallery

Aubrey Williams. Quartet No. 11, Opus 122 (Shostakovich Series) 1981
Aubrey Williams. Quartet No. 11, Opus 122 (Shostakovich Series) 1981

This is an excellent new exhibition in the gallery which recently housed the Bridget Riley works. This is also visually stimulating with deep vibrant colours and amazing techniques and effects that can make some areas look blurred whilst others are crisp and figurative merges into abstract. One of my favourites is the one pictured here inspired by the music of Shostakovich, apparently he would play the music all day in the studio at full volume.

Williams has been relatively overlooked, his work should be seen more, I hope a great many visitors come along to the Walker to see the exhibition alongside all the other great artists in this national gallery.

I was fortunate to be able to record an interview with co-curators Reyahn King (Director of galleries at NML) and Dr Leon Wainwright (Senior Lecturer , History of Art & Design at Manchester Metropolitan University). They explain the works and the context of the exhibition far better than I could so have a listen.

There is also a very nice catalogue available.

Aubrey Williams: Atlantic Fire is the Walker Art Gallery’s contribution to Liverpool and the Black Atlantic, a city-wide season of exhibitions and events. The title of the season is taken from Paul Gilroy’s seminal book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), which describes black identity in Europe and America as an ongoing process of travel and exchange, and rails against nationalist cultural histories.

Liverpool and the Black Atlantic is a series of exhibitions and events that explores connections between cultures and continents. Partners include the Bluecoat, FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Metal, Walker Art Gallery, the International Slavery Museum and University of Liverpool.

Aubrey Williams: Atlantic Fire runs from 15 January to 11 April 2010 and seeks a new appraisal on the important works of the Guyanese-born artist. The exhibition comprises of 14 paintings that demonstrate the strength of Williams’ work and the coherence and consistency of his approach to painting.

The exhibition has been produced in partnership with the October Gallery, London and runs parallel with their exhibition, Aubrey Williams: Now and Coming Time from 4 February to 3 April 2010.

Aubrey Williams. Maya Matrix II (Olmec Maya Series) 1984
Aubrey Williams. Maya Matrix II (Olmec Maya Series) 1984

Williams’ global outlook and his readiness to question an assumed dichotomy of figurative and abstract art put him ahead of his time. Often featuring fragmented objects, intense natural colours, hints at musical counterpoint and dramatic spatial effects, Williams’ art resists definition. There were a range of influences on his work such as the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (Williams worked on his acclaimed Shostakovich series for over a decade); abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, and most importantly, the ancient indigenous cultures of Central and South America.

A defining part of Williams’ work, his interest in these cultures enabled him to assert an authentic Caribbean identity within a modern mainstream art world. As he put it:
“The act of painting, the act of daring to make art, the Arawak had a word for it and they called it Timehri… Now, Timehri to the Arawak means the mark of the hand of man…That is the word for art for me.”

As an individual Williams’ life and interests spanned the Black Atlantic and its universal themes, ideas and ideals. He was an early member of the Caribbean Artists Movement (1966-1972), concerned with forging independent cultural identities for new nations and for black British people.

Aubrey Williams: Atlantic Fire highlights the work of an artist who ignored definitions, even when this resulted in his work being misunderstood by art critics looking for pure abstract painting from a strongly European and American standpoint. The exhibition selection contributes to a reassessment of Williams as an important international artist who transcends the expectations of a nationalist, even chauvinist, art world.

Artist biography

Born in Georgetown, Guyana in 1926, Williams took up art early, painting and drawing from the age of five and a member of the Working People’s Art Class whilst still at school.

Later, as a trained agronomist, his work took him to the north-west rainforests of Guyana, where he lived for two years amongst the indigenous Warrau people, a period which proved to be highly significant to his work.

In 1952, at 26, Williams sailed to the UK, initially on six months paid leave, but after travelling extensively around Europe, he settled in London and began studying at St Martin’s School of Art.

From the early 1960s, Williams exhibited widely, winning awards and garnering high acclaim from the London art circuit. He won the only prize at the First Commonwealth Biennale of Abstract Art (1963) and the Commonwealth Prize for Painting (1965).

He exhibited and lectured extensively maintaining studios in London, Jamaica and Florida.

Williams is represented in many national collections including Tate, V&A, Arts Council and the Natural History Museum.