The medium and the message

As a painter and poet, Nasaria
Suckoo Chollette is guided by her muse. In fact, when she’s at her canvas in
her home studio, and the creative process is going smoothly, she’s compelled to
paint for hours – without eating or drinking – until her latest work is
complete.

“It’s not something I’m
particularly proud of or would necessarily recommend… I just get so wrapped
up in the story and images I’m trying to convey… that I can’t rest until I’m
finished,” she explained.

We have this conversation in The
Ritz-Carlton Gallery, across from three of her paintings featured in the Summer
101 exhibition. Hotel visitors inspect the artwork dotted on the walls and
several stop and comment about one of Ms Suckoo-Chollette’s pieces in
particular – Long Celia – but more of that later.

When asked how, in the case of her
abstracts, she knows when a painting is finished, she replies, “I paint not
because I find it relaxing or therapeutic but because I’m compelled to when an
idea or an image is fixed in my imagination and I feel I have something to say,
she said.

“I know when to put the brushes
down… It’s like a light goes off and the energy that was running through me
dissipates and I get myself back and can get on with rest of my life.”

Not tied to any one style, Ms
Suckoo-Chollette nevertheless favours abstracts, which allows her a “broader,
less restrictive path when it comes to illustrating a painting’s narrative”.

These days the painter identifies
herself as one whose subject matter takes up a woman’s perspective. “We’ve so
many stories to tell and viewpoints to bring across… Some do this in the
pulpit, in the office… my path is through painting.”

Unlike painting a pot of flowers or
a seascape, the artist can only paint when she feels “an emotional connection
between” her “subject matter. That’s when its most rewarding,” she said.

I asked despite making a living
from it, whether it’s hard to sell some of the pieces she is very attached to.
Her response was immediate and unfiltered, 

“The only painting I’ve regretted
parting with is The Women Have Become the Truth, Madiba,” painted during the
harrowing post apartheid testimony of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings.
Madiba is Xhosa for grandfather, an honourific used by many South Africans. (It
is also the name of the clan of Nelson Mandela, who was a staunch advocate of
the inquiries.)

The expressionistic piece, which
showed at the Native Sons 2005 exhibition, caused a stir and was subsequently
snapped up by the National Gallery.

“It really struck me, while
watching the hearings, that it tended to be the women, those left behind, as
survivors, who were the witness bearers of their dead loved ones and their children
traumatised by so much violence,” she said.

“So why not borrow the painting
from the gallery and make a copy?” I ask.

“Even though I’ve been given a
photo of it, I couldn’t re-create it. It’s not the same,” said the artist. “Why
I sold it to the National Gallery when I got an offer for far more from a
private collector was because it was more important to me that it be seen by a
lot of people, than it be enjoyed by a few,” she said.

A Rastafarian living in a
predominantly Christian country and of Afro-Indian heritage, Ms
Suckoo-Chollette is comfortable with the duality in her life but reserves her
right to question and to use her voice in her work. That duty is behind her
painting Long Celia, which is arrestingly tranquil, yet nevertheless contains a
troubling cameo of Cayman’s slave owning past.

“Long Celia was an African slave
living in  Grand Cayman,” said the
artist. She by all accounts was a courageous woman who spoke out for individual
freedoms and the coming of emancipation and was pilloried for it. Her trial was
held in the Old Court House, the current home of the National Museum of the
Cayman Islands and records show that she was “lashed about the body for having
questioned the status quo.”

Described as the most significant
slave trial recorded in the Cayman Islands, Long Celia’s story not only
inspired the painter, but also was earlier chosen as the name of Cayman’s only
refuge for victimised women.

With her stock rising, helped no
doubt by the uniqueness of her paintings and the healthy prices they command,
Nasaria Suckoo-Chollette is now forging links with galleries overseas
interested in a small island painter who tackles big subjects on canvasses of
all sizes.

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