“Art is something we do when we are no longer struggling to survive,” His Excellency the Governor Duncan Taylor said at the opening ceremony of the new National Gallery of the Cayman Islands.”
Art is a luxury, one which residents of the Cayman Islands are in a position to both admire and practice.
The fact that the Cayman Islands now has a dedicated facility for the National Gallery, with works by local artists on display, is testament to the progress the islands have made and the prosperity they now enjoy.
The new National Gallery explores and expands the scope of art through exhibitions while, for the first time, incorporating the educational aspect of the gallery’s work, all under the one roof, says director Natalie Urquhart.
“Students can come and visit the gallery and learn about the collection via one of the cross-curricular learning guides, then immediately enjoy a classroom discussion in the auditorium or an art class in the studio,” Natalie explains.
The main exhibition space features separate displays on each level. The lower gallery is a temporary exhibition space, where collections by local and international artists are shown for approximately three months at a time; the upper gallery houses exhibits from the Cayman’s National Collection.
It is fitting that the first exhibition to be featured in the lower gallery is a collection of works from Cayman’s premier artist, Bendel Hydes, who was a founding member of the National Gallery.
In this collection, Circumnavigating the Globe, Bendel takes an imaginary and spiritual journey around the world, with each 80 x 80 canvas representing 30 degrees of longitude. Each painting explores a destination within that longitude.
Because Bendel is a very abstract painter, Natalie explains, “it’s more a mood or an emotional reaction to a place, or the idea of a place, than trying to capture the place itself.”
The colours and motifs vary between bold, dramatic, even chaotic in some canvasses, to quite muted and harmonious in others. It is a style that Bendel has termed “luminous abstraction” and he says that the technique he uses is quite unique in the art world.
As a whole, the collection could be described as a symphony of colour and form, Natalie says.
Indeed, the background music that plays as one wanders through the softly-lit exhibition space complements the works on display.
“We think carefully about the music we want to play for every show. We’re creating a multi-sensory experience,” Natalie adds.
The upper gallery provides an exhibition space, for the first time, for works from Cayman’s National Collection. At present, around 55 pieces are on display and many of these will be rotated over the coming months.
The National Collection tells the story of the development of the visual arts in Cayman, and by extension, the recent history of the islands. It is a young collection, spanning just 40 years. Prior to that, little art was produced in Cayman.
The evolution of Cayman’s art scene parallels the evolution of the islands into a global financial centre and an upscale tourism destination.
There are a few surviving sketches by seafarers which date back to earlier times, says Natalie, but on the whole people were working hard to stay alive and had little time for such pleasures as drawing or painting.
It is interesting to note that the earliest pieces in the collection were by artists who came to Cayman from overseas. These people would have brought with them paints and materials that were unavailable on the islands. Their paintings were consequently inspired by their physical surroundings and tend to capture the beauty and charm they saw in the islands.
The Native Sons, a group of Caymanian artists which was formed in 1996, was in part a reaction to this, Natalie explains.
The corridor dedicated to these artists reveals a greater inclination for depicting local heritage and Cayman’s disappearing way of life, with paintings often featuring traditional activities such as catboat sailing and hunting for turtles.
In addition to paintings, the permanent collection features silver thatch work, sculptures, woodcarvings and some more “naïve art”, such as works by visionary artist Miss Lassie, a self-taught artist whose depictions of biblical scenes are almost child-like in their simplicity, but which form an important aspect of Caymanian heritage.
Outdoors, the Deutschebank Sculpture Garden constitutes a third exhibition space. The nine marble sculptures currently on display are by Korean/American artist David Jungquist, and are on loan to the National Gallery from board member Susan Olde.
“Susan was aware that we currently have no local outdoor sculptures in our collection and kindly offered to loan us works for the first outdoor exhibition,” says Natalie.
It will take time for the National Gallery to build up their own collection of sculptures as it is not a discipline in which Caymanian artists are trained, nor is it an art that can easily be self-taught.
For at least a year, however, visitors can wander among David Jungquist’s unique interpretations of Michaelangelo’s renowned sculpture of David.
“While beautiful works in themselves, they also serve as a platform for discussions about two great moments in art history,” adds Natalie, referring to David Jungquist’s fusion of classicism and surrealism.
Flexibility is essential to the design of the new facility, Natalie explains, and many areas of the new National Gallery can serve dual purposes, enabling the non-profit organisation to generate an income as well as ensuring the public feels it is a space in which they are always welcome.
The lawns have been designed so that marquees can be erected over these areas and the space rented out for weddings or similar events, with the small on-site coffee shop also able to double as a catering space after hours.
Similarly, the state-of-the-art Dart Auditorium serves as both a lecture theatre and screening room for the regular Cine Club and Art Flix evenings. The walls of the auditorium provide an additional exhibition space and there is always the possibility of using the space for conferences.
A small library stocked with books and journals on art and culture and an art studio complete the education centre. Many of the gallery’s educational programmes are now conducted there, in addition to continuing education programmes for adults. A fifth exhibition space, in the corridor leading to the art studio, features works by current students.
When the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands opened its doors to the public in February, it was the realisation of a dream for those who had been working towards this goal for more than 10 years.
Now, for the first time, the National Collection has a permanent home and the National Gallery’s activities are encompassed under one roof. It seems Natalie’s vision of a gallery that feels “alive” looks certain to become a reality.