At the end of the 19th century, French painter Paul Gauguin sailed to tropical Tahiti to escape corrupting civilization -- only to find that it had already beaten him there.
Inspired by Gauguin's sun-drenched canvases, Jamaican painter Gilda Sharpe Etteh arrived in America a century later and began creating pictures that transformed drab modernity into a riotous carnival of Caribbean color.
The work that emerged could be described as the fruit of a century-long confrontation between European primitivism and African-American modernism. It is a postmodern art of the New World in all its glorious diversity.
Etteh's recent canvases, which go on display today in the Fox Building at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, retell the ancient creation story of the Bible in the language of Caribbean folklore and myth.
"Myths are stories that contain powerful truths," Etteh says in her lilting Jamaican accent. "For me, all art is a form of mythmaking, and making a painting is a powerful metaphor or symbol of the artist as creator."
The canvases that make up Etteh's creation series fall into three groups devoted to the various stages in the biblical account of creation: the separation of the sun, moon and stars; the creation of Adam and Eve; and, finally, humanity's fall and expulsion from Paradise.
Some of the works are diptychs or triptychs -- a single image or group of images spread over two or three separate canvases that comprise a single unified whole.
It is a style that recalls the intense devotional intensity of Medieval altarpieces but that speaks in a thoroughly modern visual idiom reminiscent of Matisse and Gauguin himself.
"For a long time when I was a kid, I thought Jamaica was a Garden of Eden," Etteh recalls of her native land. "It was so beautiful, the colors were so brilliant, and the mountains and ocean seemed so vast."
That childhood vision is recapitulated in the centerpiece of Etteh's creation series, a huge triptych titled "The Garden of Eden," which shows a seaside landscape bursting with abundance, energy and joy.
The picture is a catalog of Caribbean folklore. There is, for example, a fetus attached to a tree by its umbilical cord, a reference to the island practice of burying the newborn's "navel string" under a tree so the child will grow wise as the tree matures.
Etteh's personal mythology is also represented. A domineering rooster chasing a harried hen is a recurring image in her paintings, symbolizing men's subjugation of women and their unrelenting efforts to maintain an unjust hierarchy.
The picture's biblical subject is instantly recognizable in Etteh's depiction of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, the latter complete with slithering serpent and tempting fruit.
The Tree of Knowledge, Etteh says, is based on a particular tree native to Jamaica known for its ability to regenerate from a single leaf.
In each painting of the series, Etteh adopts such modernist conventions as shallow picture space, distorted forms and unexpected color transpositions -- red skies, yellow stars -- to intensify the traditional biblical images.
Her style is both abstract and masterfully concrete -- a poetic rendering of myth through symbols that continually transcend their conventional meanings.
Pub Date: 7/23/98