Collection

Aubrey Williams (1926 - 1990)

Chatto III (1984)

Oil on canvas
height: 96.5cm
width: 127cm
Painting

Donated by Stuart Jolly 2010

1-2010

Aubrey Williams’ Archaeological Art, Empire and the Olmec Colossal Head

Aubrey Williams’ Chatto III is a striking representation of pre-Columbian art in oil on canvas. A disembodied head peers back at the viewer with an expression that seems to hold a mixture of bewilderment and loss. While Williams captures the stone-grey, basalt structure of an Olmec ‘colossal head’,(1) an iconic type of pre-Columbian sculpture, he also portrays fragility in its features. The slightly downturned mouth and doleful eyes might be read as Williams’ gloss on the loss of indigenous culture throughout the Americas. Alternatively, the head’s otherworldly gaze might be read as something far more existential: man’s confrontation with place and time, akin perhaps to Heideigger’s notion of in-der-welt-sein (“being-in-the-world”).

Ultimately, the head is mysterious, an artefact from a pre-Columbian world which seems impenetrable to the modern viewer. There are two frameworks here: Williams’, and a pre-Columbian one. Chatto III is a representation of a representation in which any sense of the originary purpose behind the Olmec sculpture eludes us. Perhaps the beauty of Williams’ painting, then, is to be found in its sense of awe? The colossal artefact brings to mind the bust of the Egyptian pharaoh, Ramesses II, whose Greek name, Ozymandias, forms the title of Shelley’s famous sonnet. Shelley’s oft-cited line serves as an appropriate compliment to Williams’ work: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

On the one hand, Shelley’s poem emphasizes the notion that time is the great leveller of empires and tyrants alike; on the other, it celebrates the endurance of art through time. In many respects, Williams’ Chatto III, seems to bear a similar relationship with the Olmec head. Whether Williams also invites the viewer to read an anti-imperial message in Chatto III is debatable. It is the artwork, moulded by sculptor’s or sculptors’ hands, that arguably receives the greatest homage.

Certainly, the rise and fall of empires would not have been lost on Williams. Born a British colonial subject in Georgetown, British Guiana, in 1926, he left the colony at the height of its independence movement in 1952 for London. Like many Caribbean artists of his generation, Williams no doubt saw the move as a necessary step in his own career progression. Having lived for two years with indigenous tribes people in Guyana, an encounter which he claimed altered his view of art indelibly, his love of indigenous culture nevertheless remained a constant touchstone in his work —a touchstone which went against the grain of certain spheres of Modernist and Postmodernist visual art. As a lecturer in American literature, with a particular interest in Caribbean art and culture generally, I cannot but help admire Williams’ tenacity and fascination with archaeology. To some extent, the archaeologist can serve as an apt metaphor for the scholar, a digger in search of new discoveries. It is Williams’ love of bold colour and this profoundly subterranean pursuit that brings a healthy earthiness to his work, keeping it in touch with the world in a way that makes it neither wholly abstract, nor utterly prosaic.

1. The Olmec civilization developed from 1500BC in the tropical lowlands of what are now the Gulf Coast states of Veracruz and Tabasco in present-day Mexico. The Olmec are often considered to be the ‘mother culture’ of Mesoamerica, developing the calendars later used by the Maya and Aztecs.

(Text commissioned by ESCALA for the exhibition Connecting through Collecting: 20 Years of Art from Latin America at the University of Essex, 2014)

Jak Peake, 2014


Chatto III is a late oil on canvas work by Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams. It was painted in 1984 as part of his Olmec-Maya series, in which the artist took inspiration from the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica. The painting is a representation of an Olmec Colossal Head, an iconic type of monumental pre-Columbian sculpture, and one of the earliest examples of portraiture from the Americas. Here, the giant grey stone head with its close-fitting headdress is rendered solidly and naturalistically on the right of the composition against an atmospheric background of ochre, red, green and white tones. The facial expression is serious, if not anxious, and Williams has used the texture of the canvas to pick out highlights on the stone’s surface, suggesting the accumulation of lichen and weathering occurring in the millennia since its creation.

Monumental stone sculpture is a hallmark of the Olmec culture, which thrived in the Southern Gulf Coast area of Mexico from around 1450-400 BC. Seventeen individual Colossal Heads exist at Tres Zapotes, La Venta, San Lorenzo, and Cobata, and are thought to represent prominent people, possibly dead rulers. They were carved in volcanic basalt using stone tools, range from 1.47m to 3.4m in height and weigh between 6 and 50 tons. It is estimated to have taken hundreds of persons several months to transport each block from its source in the Tuxtla mountains to its final destination.

In paintings such as Night and the Olmec of 1983, and an untitled oil from 1970, Williams had used Colossal Head I from La Venta as his source, whereas Chatto III is based on Colossal Head I from San Lorenzo, although the artist never visited Mexico but would have known the sculptures from photographs. As little is known about the individual represented, it is unlikely a particular identification is relevant to reading the piece. Generally, Williams viewed the decline of civilizations such the Olmec and the Maya as instructive to 20th century humankind, regarding them as symbolic of the self-destructive consequences of warfare and environmental over- exploitation. Indeed, the artist’s use of the Colossal Head motif, a representation of power, may have been intended as a meditation on the waxing and waning of political and spiritual authority.

However, the incorporation of the iconic and totemic forms of pre-Columbian art, a consistent feature of William’s paintings, was not merely premonitory, but a means of paying tribute to the history of native American artistic achievement. Since the Olmec were often referred to as a mother culture for other Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Maya, Williams may have viewed the Colossal Heads as symbolizing of the birth of American art, just as George Bataille regarded the cave paintings of Lascaux within the European context.

The 19th century excavator of the first Colossal Head claimed its flattened facial features were Ethiopian and evidence of a prehistoric African presence in the Americas. Although rejected by modern Mesoamerican scholars, the theory has continued to attract interest. William’s choice of name, a reference to the Spanish word chato meaning ‘flat’ or ‘snub-nosed’, alludes to this misidentification and the Colossal Head’s potential as representing ancient American and African ancestors. Although a Guyanese of mainly African descent, Williams spoke proudly of ‘Carib blood’ on his mothers’ side. Thus Chatto III could be understood both as portrait of Williams’ own mixed ancestry and within the context of a former British colony such as Guyana, built on the use of African slave labour, as a reminder of the processes of colonization that generated the cultural encounters from which he and his art emerged. The painting also appears in the opening scenes of The Mark of the Hand, Imruh Bakari’s 1986 documentary about the artist.

Ian Dudley

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