In New Work by British-Jamaican Artist Hurvin Anderson, the Personal is Political
David Alm
4 November 2016

New work by Hurvin Anderson — Foreign Body, now on display at the Michael Werner Gallery in New York City — attempts to bridge oceans, both literal and figurative.

The British-born artist, now 51, has long investigated his Jamaican roots through his art. But where Anderson’s earlier work tended, by and large, to be representational, the 18 pieces that comprise the New York show veer toward varying degrees of abstraction, with some consisting of little more than brightly colored squares against mono- or two-toned backgrounds.

Such abstraction allows for highly personal engagements with work that, Anderson says, are primarily about his own identity and experience as a West Indian Briton with a foothold in both his forebears’ country and the UK, where his parents emigrated before he was born. Growing up in the central English city of Birmingham, which has a sizable Caribbean community, the artist became particularly interested in local barbershops.

At those barbershops, he says, you always see portraits of the same black icons: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Marley and the Jamaican activist and author Marcus Garvey, whose influence on the next generation of civil rights leaders of the 1950s and ’60s can hardly be overstated. For Anderson, the portraits provided a link between Jamaica — its complex history of colonialism, slavery and political struggle — and a country that, when West Indians began emigrating there, saw them as “a problem.”

Hence the more representational of Anderson’s new work, like the one pictured above. Other pieces in the show, such as “B.H.B.,” at the top, also take their inspiration from barbershops, but as pure abstractions, they allow for myriad other associations as well. They may recall Jamaican shantytowns juxtaposed with an azure Caribbean sea, a cityscape flattened into two dimensions against a field of pink or an overt marriage of English and Jamaican urban environments.

Other works are more personal for the artist, though even those make a political statement. A pair of “climbing tree” paintings depict children obscured by foliage and fruit, and at first glance they appear almost identical.

But the difference is significant: One is a mango tree, native to Jamaica; the other a pear, native to the UK. Anderson says the works were inspired by a trip to Jamaica in 2006 and seeing children there climbing mango trees to pluck the fruit, reminding him of his brother “scrumping for apples” as a child. “He was just a kid doing what felt normal,” Anderson says.

Anderson is quick to note, however, that he had no desire to “fool the viewer” into thinking it’s one tree — any more than his is trying to pretend that Birmingham is Jamaica, and vice versa. “These are two different spaces,” he says, “trying to come together.”