Graeme Mortimer Evelyn is a man of many parts: he is a critically acclaimed multimedia visual artist, an accomplished jazz musician and, now, co-curator of the RWA (Royal West of England Academy) landmark UK 2016 exhibition Jamaican Pulse: art and politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora—showcasing the most exciting, emerging and established contemporary Jamaican and Jamaican-diaspora artists.
His own varied body of work has commentated on cultural and social identity, politics and languages. His work has been displayed and collected in Princeton University Center for African American Studies, NJ, Cornell University NY, Kensington Palace, The Royal Commonwealth Society, Gloucester Cathedral and St Stephen’s Church in Bristol and the Jamaican High Commission for London 2012, amongst many other venues.
Evelyn has developed a reputation for creating work that is situated in municipal buildings and places of worship, work that subverts these settings and philosophies. He is keen to point out, “It is subversion with consent, working in close partnership with the institutions that have commissioned me.”
His intention is that his art acts as a catalyst— attracting new audiences to seek alternative dialogues and challenging questions, enabling a democratisation of public spaces. Despite this reputation Evelyn’s beliefs are greatly influenced by his Buddhist practice, which is obvious once you meet him in his measured approach to life and work.
“Being a practising Buddhist since 1997 has made me realise that I can choose to use the talent that I have to create lasting value and change.” Many of his commissioned projects engage contested histories and heritage, which has often required detailed archival research and an acute sensitivity to collective social issues and ideas.
This process is challenging and thought provoking for both artist and audience, causing them to question the essence of what brings people into a conversation with a work of contemporary art. I was fortunate enough to spend time with Graeme Evelyn to explore the process of researching and creating a few of his works: the Stations of the Cross which was exhibited for Lent in Gloucester Cathedral, which gained national UK recognition on Channel 4 TV news because of its power to inspire interfaith dialogue; the permanent large-scale contemporary altarpiece, Reconciliation Reredos created for the historically significant medieval St Stephen’s Church, Bristol and the critically acclaimed site-specific installation, Call and Responses–The Odyssey of the Moor, commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Collection Trust, exhibited within the Queen’s State apartments at Kensington Palace. This project is a contemporary response to John Van Nost’s Bust of a Moor, originally commissioned by William III in (1688). The Bust of the Moor is the oldest artifact in Kensington Palace and is considered one of the top 100 of the British Crown’s sculptural objects.
Even though Evelyn is immensely honoured by being commissioned to create a work for Kensington Palace and the Royal Collection, it is the Reconciliation Reredos that has particular significance for him. This work has established him as the first ever artist of Caribbean descent to complete such a commission in Europe.
“I knew that once this work was installed, because of the rules within the High Anglican Church regarding permanent additions to their medieval spaces, the Reconciliation Reredos would remain at St Stephen’s for a minimum 200 years. It was a very daunting responsibility. Everything changes when you realise your art is going to be on permanent display, within a sacred space. It’s no longer ephemeral, just there for a two-week or month-long exhibition, then gone, out of sight, only to be replaced by another image.’’
He continued, “It has to resonate, engage and represent with people in 200 years’ time and all the years before. The built environment surrounding the church could change completely. Christianity could change in 200 years’ time, but this historically important medieval building and its altarpiece will endeavour to remain and it will be another visual testament to the history of reconciliation.”
Softly spoken and good-looking in a Jean-Michel Basquiat sort of way, Evelyn is a second-generation Jamaican. His journey to the Royal Palace from a Luton council estate via Cambridge, India, Bristol, London and Jamaica is extraordinary. His first degree was in business and marketing at the behest of his parents who ran a very successful mobile catering business before returning to Jamaica when he was 18. He then followed his childhood calling of being an artist and went to study at Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge where he graduated in graphic fine art. He has been a professional musician longer than a practising visual artist.
“I have been studying Pan-Caribbean percussion since I was a child which set the wheels in motion to express myself: the sights and sounds of the Caribbean via its rhythms had and still have a tremendous influence on me. Soca, salsa, plena, bomba, rumba, merengue, calypso, mento, reggae, each one has its own oral history and colours attributed to the music and graphical associations. This has undoubtedly influenced the colours and imagery I use.’’
The Stations of the Cross was his first major work. “In that period, I had a bite-the-bullet moment and had to make choice whether I wanted to be a full time artist or a musician. If it worked out, I decided, I would have to go with the art. It was a tough call! It seems I chose wisely. As musicians say, one good gig, leads to another, and I was approached to create the altarpiece for St Stephen’s.’’
When he was creating the Reconciliation Reredos, he intentionally went out of his way to base the altarpiece design and drawing style on reimagining Caribbean masquerade in the 23rd century. All of that exploration can be viewed in the piece: flags of the Commonwealth, multicultural references that could be Indian, African or Asian.
He wanted to represent the Caribbean and its connection to the church in the port and its reconciliation to its involvement with the slave trade. Because every ship including every slaver (slave ships) that left Bristol port for nearly three centuries bound to Africa and the Caribbean, were blessed by the priest for a safe, profitable and bountiful journey from the period altarpiece of St Stephen’s, Bristol’s harbour church.
For Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics of Jamaica and the Diaspora, Evelyn has taken a hiatus from doing institutional projects, concentrating on his curatorial responsibilities with his Berlin-based exhibition co-curator Kat Anderson. This is a UK landmark project by the Royal West of England Academy in partnership with the Jamaican high commission (UK) and is supported by the Arts Council of England. The timing for such an ambitious exhibition seems on point when Jamaican art is receiving growing international acclaim.
Evelyn explains, “I would say this, as a drummer, Jamaica for me, remains one of the world’s most prominent cultural heartbeats. Its arts, culture, and music in particular, have been internationally celebrated, producing some of the world’s most enduring subcultures far away from its Kingston origins. However, perhaps lesser known to a UK audience is Jamaica’s visual arts and the exhibition and events will showcase the exciting diversity of Jamaican art, presenting contemporary artwork alongside key works from Jamaican art history.’’
Evelyn is “very excited by the future legacy this exhibition will take, even if to inspire a new audience and sustained growing interest and appreciation of all the incredible Caribbean and diaspora artists.’’ He said, “I believe, more so now then ever before, that 21st-century Caribbean visual art has an important and powerful global voice to be heard in our contemporary world… and it’s ready.”
He is also concentrating on a new body of work entitled, Inward Gaze, Outward Focus, exploring automatic experimental drawing and relief sculpture created through his condition of synaesthesia— music presents to him as abstracted colours, shapes or forms. “This body of work will include visualizing solo improvisations of prominent UK and US jazz musicians, many of whom I have the joy and privilege to play with in the contemporary big band, The Human
Revolution Orchestra, made up with some of the very finest British and American jazz pioneers.” Synaesthesia has been with him since he can remember. “Sometimes it is said that it is brought on by a trauma that affects the person to such a degree that it affects one of their senses. In my case the sense affected was my speech. I had a profound stutter and was very withdrawn because of that, so I guess my reaction to sound and music became more acute. It became so acute that I could visualise it.’’
Evelyn added, “When I am able to close my eyes and hear sound, audio music especially, I visualise shapes, movements and forms—it’s very graphic.’’ For others with synesthesia, music may produce a sense of smell or they may see just colour.
Eveyln learnt of the condition relatively recently because he assumed that everyone visualised music in that way. He did not realise it was unique to a small number of people. “I couldn’t in a way do without the use of the condition, especially for drawing. I have always used music and sound to make art. Hence the use of compiling musical playlists to inform and inspire whenever I’m working on any major project.’’
The SEÑALES project is another exciting development from his study of sound, music and oral history, combining experimental new tech drawing, sculpture and installation, in collaboration with virtuoso world music and Latin jazz pianist Alex Wilson and Venezuelan master percussionist Edwin Sanz on a journey that “unearths the constantly evolving Afro-Venezuelan musical traditions using groundbreaking contemporary art and technology.’’
All of this ultimately fuels the passion and love for Jamaica. While he juggle projects and pursues new lines of inquiry with new bodies of artwork, his ultimate aim is to complete the building of his permanent art studio /workshop residence in Oracabessa, St Mary, Jamaica and gradually, step by step, to create an “international cultural exchange centre of the arts’’ using sustainable materials.
Evelyn sums up his goal like this: “I have to create value and change the best way I can, why not contribute in a beautiful part of the world?”