A Conversation with St Lucia’s ‘Gregorias’
By DAVID CAVE
When I left St. Lucia in 1999, I left several things unresolved and undone. In my haste to move to Trinidad I did not bid farewell to one of my lifelong mentors on the Helen of the West Indies, Dunstan St. Omer. I had been well-acquainted with the St. Omer clan since I was about nine years old, spending countless hours with his sons, Alwyn, the eldest, and Luigi, who would go on to become my Art teacher at St. Mary’s College.
One would have had to grow up in St. Lucia, as I had, to fully appreciate the idea that Dunstan St. Omer, affectionately referred to by Derek Walcott as “Gregorias, Apilo”, is not just a man or an artist but a St. Lucian institution of Art. For his art, he has received the greatest honours bestowed by his people and others including the St. Lucia Cross, the highest order of his country, a Doctor of Letters from the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica in 2009 and a Knighthood from the Queen of England in 2010. As a human being, his manner and candour exude the unique attributes of the proud and honourable St. Lucian.
It took years, but recently I was finally able to muster the courage to ask Dunstan St. Omer, about his work as an artist, especially in a place like St. Lucia which is a mere 238 square miles to Trinidad’s 1,980 square miles.
Dunstan St. Omer, like Derek Walcott, was deeply influenced by the St. Lucian artist, Harold Simmons, who encouraged them both, as young secondary schoolboys in the 1940s, to paint the environment around them instead of relying on European imagery and art theory. From early in his career, St. Omer made the break, moving away from what he saw as a “European” emphasis on black and grey in the creation of shadows, choosing instead to create shade using the deep blues, greens and browns of his unique palette.
On the surface, his subject matter seems traditional: he focused on landscapes, portraiture and Roman Catholic iconography. But along with the predominantly representational comes a certain, almost inexplicable boldness and thickness to his forms and outlines, conveying a sense of rawness, freedom and uninhibited expression. This artist, it seems, has no time to waste on pointless minutiae.
It was this urge for independence that encouraged Dunstan to move beyond the a la mode Cubism of early 20th Century Modern Art.
“For me, Cubism was too restrictive. It dealt strictly with form while I was focusing on light. I wanted to take my painting beyond a fad and develop a conversation or dialogue between the colours,” said St Omer.
Therefore, in addition to form, St. Omer also felt that it was appropriate to impose his personal play with light. He started breaking up the beams of radiance into bold, intersecting, geometric forms. Walcott, with his uncanny wit and mastery of words christened St Omer’s technique ‘Prismism’.
In the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, St. Omer got married and engaged the struggle to raise a family through his Art. In moments of difficulty, he found himself turning to a hugh power for help. And as he did so, he faced the paradox of praying to a white God as a devout Roman Catholic and being a man of African lineage.
His solution was to transform the Virgin Mary into the “Black Madonna” and the other saints into Africans.
He explained: “If God is my Father and Mary is my Mother and I am Black, shouldn’t God and Mother Mary be Black as well?”
This was the impetus that drove St. Omer to be, as Derek Walcott said in his collection of poems Another Life, a Black Greek, Black Giotto, and Black Mosaccio.
In 1973, Dunstan St. Omer was commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church to paint the wall behind the altar of the Church of the Holy Family in Roseau, St. Lucia. He recalls that the priest could only offer EC$300 for the entire project, a relatively modest sum, even in those days, for painting an 800-square foot mural. Nevertheless, the artist accepted. For St. Omer, this painting facilitated catharsis. He was able to fuse his ‘Prismism’ with his stance on Roman Catholic iconography. St. Omer painted the mural with such passion and fervour that he completed the entire project within one week.
I have always yearned to ask an artist what was taking place in their mind at the precise moment a masterpiece is completed; when the final stroke is made but the paint is still wet. Facing this question about his mural, St Omer paused before responding in a measured and dignified tone, “At that moment I felt that for the first time, Black People have entered Heaven”.
Ever since that moment in 1973 St. Omer has become even more determined and resolute in pursuing his Afrocentric visual representation of Roman Catholicism in St. Lucia which, in responding to a human need, makes his Art universal. For him, while his Art is inspired by a personal St. Lucian experience, it is applicable and relevant beyond St. Lucia. This point was recognised in the late 1980s when Pope John Paul II recognised St. Omer’s contribution to Roman Catholicism upon the completion of the more monumental interior of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Castries, the capital of St. Lucia.
One accolade after another has followed in the decades since.
Today, in the twilight of his career, the Honourable Sir Dunstan St. Omer has no regrets. “When I was young, many said that I wasn’t going to make it. I was going to be a beggar in the street. All I can say is that I am grateful to have been recognised by all of the right people, at the right time.”
St. Omer is one of the few artists, not only in St. Lucia, but throughout the Caribbean who has accomplished one of the most difficult tasks: visually representing his homeland in a manner that is immediately accessible on many levels. When you see his art, regardless of whether it is a portrait, landscape or religious depiction, you see St. Lucia. One can only understand the true depth of this experience by viewing the work in its native setting.
The island of St. Lucia, despite its diminutive size, is infinitely complex with its deep-rooted Roman Catholicism and unique fusion of Africa, French and English cultures. The intricacy is reflected in St. Omer the artist, whose work is a perpetual quest to assert a St. Lucian and therefore Caribbean identity in the world of Art
St Omer sums up his career as “a silent revolution”. One might add, by a silent artist, for although he held the high profile job of editor of St. Lucia’s most popular newspaper, The Voice in the 70s, St Omer has never cultivated the loud swagger of some artists. Instead, he has been content to let his art do the talking and express the energy so well-contained in himself.
It is an inexhaustible energy. Now in his eighties, Dunstan St Omer’s creative stream continues to flow as silently and as deeply as ever, as he pursues his quest to perfect a St Lucian art so true that it resonates with the world.