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Review: The Wisdom Tree at Leeds Art Gallery

Photograph of Charmaine Watkiss in her studio, May 2017 During open Studios. Thames Side Studios. Photograph taken by Michael Ohajuru.

Review: The Wisdom Tree at Leeds Art Gallery  By visual artist and maker Sandra Whyles

London-based artist Charmaine Watkiss’s solo exhibition, The Wisdom Tree, is a fitting sight at Leeds Art Gallery particularly as it forms part of the Jamaica Society Leeds’ Out of Many Festival celebrating 60 years of Jamaican independence.

The exhibition is dominated by largescale works in pencil, graphite powder, silver wax, acrylic and ink on white paper. There are also smaller artworks as well as personal sketchbooks showing the artist’s developmental and making processes. Her palette is quiet, yet the details embody great power telling stories of strength, nurturing, resistance, and resilience. On first viewing the full-length figures, some singular, some in groups, would appear be self-portraits as the artist uses her own image as representation, but if you linger and examine deeper you will realise they are not about the artist alone. The drawings reveal to the viewer their narratives and resonate at a cognitive, emotional and spiritual level if the viewer can decode or understand the layered symbolism present in each work

A footwear designer in her previous incarnation, Charmaine, who is of Jamaican descent, uses her design senses and skills in her drawings to clothe the figures in narratives that tell of the past and present which aims to inform the future, highlighting a cyclical timeline present in many African belief systems. It is interesting that any colours in the works are on the body adornments, clothing and surrounds and not on the figures themselves which remain in greyscale pencil. While the stories are not new – they come from research about African and Caribbean ancestry, they come from the mothers and grandmothers, the media legislation that has direct impact on the lives of immigrants – there is an inherent ‘knowing’. They are memories and facts that are often hidden, undervalued, forgotten, or ignored. These are art works that place women of African descent at the centre, recognising their worth in a society that too often maligns, leaving them on the fringe or out of the picture entirely, no matter their social standing, the children they have nurtured, their achievements, or status.

The composition in some of the works could remind one of Frida Kahlo but Charmaine’s work can be added to a line of mainstream women artists of African/African Caribbean heritage who have centred black women in their art challenging the canon. Maud Sulter, Lorna Simpson and Sonia Boyce, to name a few, have brought the stories of African and Caribbean women to a wider audience through contemporary visual arts.

These drawings reflect the journeys, struggles and staying power of women of African heritage within a too often hostile environment. The gallery wording includes that ‘the drawings transcend ethnic and time boundaries’. That may be true however one thing is clear, it will speak to all women of Caribbean and African heritage who go to see this beautiful and thoughtful work.

The Wisdom Tree at Leeds Art Gallery is part of the Jamaica Society Leeds Out of Many Festival and runs until 30 October 2022. Admission is free.


For Out of Many Festival press queries please contact PR manager Samantha Walker at samwalkernews@hotmail.co.uk or 07824 667362