LeRoy Clarke - Master Artist, National Icon, Honorary Fellow of the University of Trinidad and Tobago, Chief Ifa’ Oje’ Won Yomi Abiodun, Honorary Doctor of Letters (UTT)
LeRoy Clarke was born in Belmont, Port of Spain on 7th November 1938. Considered to be one of Trinidad and Tobago’s finest contemporary artists; in 1998, he was the first to be conferred the title Master Artist by The National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago.
Following in a list of local community awards such as the prestigious Sylvester Williams’ 2000, presented by The Emancipation Support Committee of Trinidad and Tobago; in 2003 he was acclaimed a National Icon, presented by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. Also in 2003, he was a distinguished guest of The President of The Republic of Suriname for Carifesta VIII; in their recognition of achievers in that year, Trinidad Hilton confirmed him as Icon, a National Living Treasure. He was further garlanded, by N.A.E.A.P, The National Association for the Empowerment of African People, with the Achievement of Excellence Award.
However, the crowning event came when he was awarded a “Staff of Eldership” and Chieftaincy Title in the Orisha community by the Ile’ Eko Shango/Oshun Mil’osa (I.E.S.O.M.) during the sixth annual Shango/Oshun Rain Festival in 2005; the title reads: Chief Ifa’ Oje’ Won Yomi Abiodun of Trinidad and Tobago. Also in that year he was made an Honorary Fellow of the University of Trinidad and Tobago and in December of 2008 received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University.
Self-taught, Clarke’s prowess as a visual artist grew from a compunction to “see and, to go deeper than surfaces allowed” as he used his life experiences to shape the worldview to which he, as artist champions today.
His hometown, Gonzales, “Behind De Bridge” was his training ground. He was nurtured in the security of community; his study was as casual as play, a hobby, he states, from which he has not really awaken! The rituals of Shango Yard, Hindu Ceremonies, Hosay Celebrations, Shouter Baptists, and Pan exposed his impressionable mind to the varying dimensions of the cultural mix of Trinidad and have proven to be fundamental to the integrity of his Art.
A man of many talents, this former schoolteacher was also a lead singer in a popular singing, group THE BEAMERS (1958-65) and, was seriously involved in the theatre community. He was an early member of The Trinidad Theatre Workshop, where he earned a fine reputation as its Stage Manager and Set Designer. Visual art however was what put Clarke above the rest. At 27 he held his first solo exhibition titled “A Labour of Love” at the Bank of Nova Scotia, Independence Square, Port of Spain. That accent will distinguish the careful deliberations in his oeuvre of fifty years.
A sojourn in the United States from the 16th December 1967 to 1980 helped to broaden his experience and set him on the path to greatness. During his stay in the United States, Clarke was the first Artist-In-Residence at the Studio Museum of Harlem 1972-1974.
A proficient writer he has contributed many essays on issues of national importance and is the author and publisher of five books: TASTE OF ENDLESS FRUIT (1972); DOUENS (1976); EYEING DE WORD - Love Poems For Ettylene (2004) and the Cinderella edition of DE DISTANCE IS HERE, The El Tucuche Poems 1984-2007, (2007) and SECRET INSECT OF A BIRD DEEP IN ME, WANTING TO FLY (2008) a chronicle of his drawings (pen and ink) from the 1960’s to 2008.
In 1972, he had his first One-man exhibition in New York’ Studio Museum in Harlem. That series of paintings was called FRAGMENTS OF A SPIRITUAL. The Trinidad Art Society with assistance from the Government brought the exhibition to Trinidad; it created quite a stir at the St. Mary’s Centenary Hall where it was on display.
Back in New York after the success of “FRAGMENTS…” Clarke is reported saying that he was so overwhelmed that he chose to take a rest by revisiting the folklore of Trinidad & Tobago. As he puts it, he simply wanted to re-write and re-draw the characters that fascinated him most of his life. That adventure changed in intensity when he began to draw them, “not as Alf Codallo saw them as Anancy stories but rather as cognitive symbols that could alert social conscience.”
Soon enough, “…he was initiating them as surrogate agents in the critical, but more psychological engagement in the debates on change.” That shift of paradigm unsuspectingly set him on a personal quest of self-discovery where he hoped that his life would reflect his birthing community as a whole and its identical role in building a Society – World! He declared that he would dedicate his life to rising to the highest form of expression in that of fully “languaging” himself – Man as Poet!
With FRAGMENTS OF A SPIRITUAL (1968-1972) and DOUENS (1973-1976) completed and shown both in the USA and at home, he was immersed sufficiently in the idea that the vista before him begged epic challenge. Today, both as painter and, writer he is already hailed by some who have followed his work, now forty-seven years in the making, as the region’s first epic Poet!
His life experiences quite evidence the substance that has shaped and informed his philosophy –OBEAH. Fearlessly unorthodox, he continues to be serious about the role art plays in the critical aspects of developing a society and about “His Calling” to be a “Pointerman, pointing the way to O-be-ah-man-ness!” He strives to his “El Tucuchean ideal” all the while uttering:
“Who will rechart the ruin,
Who will piece it together
In its beginning
Who will utter the cipher?
…A new Poet,
One who claims neither name nor roof
Who will sacrifice chid or field
Who will utter words like nails,
Stripped from his own fingers…
Eye press on hard on myself alone!”