Pastorale / David Zwirner / Hong Kong / Sep 14 – Oct 28, 2023 /
When Frank Walter was born in Antigua in 1926, the British had freed slaves on the island roughly 90 years before. Yet the wounds of humans owning humans had merely been scabbed over; the aches were persistent. Children and grandchildren of former slaves were part of a system of labour that still rhymed with the treatment of their forebears.
Case in point: 22 years later, Walter was the first black man to become a manager at the Antiguan Sugar Syndicate. He wanted to improve the industry and give his fellow Antiguans fair pay and better working conditions. It was not a smooth path, but Walter did everything he could to make his homeland a better place, including tolerating the bigotry of racial prejudice in England, Scotland and Germany when he sought to learn new ways to farm. It’s easy to imagine that, upon returning to Antigua, Walter’s act of putting that knowledge into practice picked at those wounds.
How do you love the one place you call home when every acre is loaded with agony from the past, the promise of a better future always slightly out of reach?
For Walter, one solution was to create – painting, writing and composing music. He lived alone in the bush, brushing oils onto any scrap surface within reach, like cardboard repurposed from mosquito coil or Polaroid film boxes, as well as sketchpad covers and photographs.
David Zwirner’s presentation of Walter’s paintings, Pastorale, featured more than 90 works by the polymath, many palm-sized or smaller. Walter painted Antigua’s natural landscape like he was writing love letters. He didn’t capture the majesty of green fields or the pristine blues of the sea, but instead shared the feeling of being there, on the hills or by the sea.
In these small scenes, we see the artist depicting himself floating off the coast, the sky tinged red as a hurricane approached. Or we see terracotta roof tiles in the distance, indicating just how far Walter was from the more bustling parts of Antigua. He occasionally took inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints, showing flowers blossoming on branches, leaves draping and transforming as seasons changed, dry to wet to dry again.
These oils don’t leave a strong visual impact. Their mark is more visceral, making the viewer imagine the caress of an ocean breeze or the fragrance of blooming hibiscuses, frangipanis and other wildflowers. A few scenes from European locales are interjected, with grazing sheep and lavender hills in Scotland peppered into the presentation.
Most of the artworks in Pastorale weren’t dated. The paintings are visual snippets of Walter’s observation from different corners of the island he called home. But beneath the brushstrokes was still a creeping discomfort. One work in the presentation was different from the rest: Introducing the New Breed (undated) consists of stencilled text on card stock that spells out the words of its title. When he was in Europe, racial discrimination made him feel alienated, while being at home in Antigua was a little too limiting, so Walter channelled his creativity into painting, poetry, music and other media. Perhaps the “new breed” was himself, or maybe the words referred to a next generation of young men and women who didn’t have to bear the same adversities as him.
Today, Antigua is vastly different from the island that Walter knew. Sugarcane is still cultivated and harvested, but more to produce ethanol than refine sugar. Tourism is now the main industry, with the island describing itself as “sun sea safe” as the Covid-19 pandemic tapered off, the line eventually replaced with the more evocative “the beach is just the beginning”.
But many of the scenes in Walter’s paintings can still be identified. Parts of Bailey Hill, located in the southeastern part of the island where he built his home and studio in the early 1990s, are relatively unchanged. Pastorale was as much an exhibition with pretty landscapes as it was a commentary on what it means to be home, through the lens of a man who never seemed fully satisfied with how far he was able to go.
Featured image: Installation view, Frank Walter : Pastorale, David Zwirner, Hong Kong, September 14—October 28, 2023. Courtesy David Zwirner.