Vanita Gopwani Comissiong
Arguably one of the most prolific and certainly one of the most vivacious artists in Barbados to date is Vanita Gopwani Comissiong.
As a child her most precious posessions consisted of all types of paper, coloured pencils and felt pens, but at school she was not encouraged to pursue in the direction of art so Vanita embraced the academic and went on to study accounting. However she couldn’t quite get the art bug out from under her skin and finally returned to painting in the early '90s by joining the Newcomers art group organised by Indrani Whittingham. In 1991, her first year exhibiting at the National Independence Festival of Creative Arts (NIFCA), Vanita was awarded 2 gold, a silver and a bronze medal. Vanita is very much a straight shooter, when asked her why she left accounting entirely and didn’t keep it as a fall back she said without hesitation, “I hated it”. In this same definitive mind-set she set off to become a mainstay in the local art industry.
In 1994 Vanita began an Associate of Arts degree at The Barbados Community College which she completed in 1996 whereupon she became the curator of the Kirby Gallery until 1999. Meanwhile, she continued to create her own work, much inspired by Haitian painters, in particular Claude Daumberville and exhibited her work alongside fellow Barbadian artists David Alleyne and Ann Dodson in 1998 and 1999 respectively. In 1999, after leaving The Kirby Gallery to focus purely on producing work, her images began to be picked up for commercial use and her paintings were featured on the cover of the Ins and Outs of Barbados Magazine as well as the Australian Caribbean Destination Magazine and the Clico calendar. In 2001 Vanita, along with Paola Baldi went to Paris to exhibit in the Salon Des Independents and was featured for a short time in London at Gallery on the Green.
It seems as though 2001 was an astounding year for Vanita as she opened her first gallery at a west coast restaurant. The restaurateurs wanted art for their walls and between them and Vanita they decided to use the wall-space as a gallery, hence the name, “On The Wall”. Vanita created the gallery as a compilation of her own work as well as various other local artists. The gallery’s success was profound and in 2004 Vanita acted on an opportunity to open a stand alone art and craft gallery at the Earthworks Complex in St. Thomas and in 2006 at the newly relocated Champers Restaurant on the South Coast.
Vanita takes her painting and her galleries very seriously and feels that the artists she features ought to feel the same way. In regards to this she only features art by long-standing, well-established, full-time local artists, not hobby artists who will produce work one week and not the next. Vanita tries very hard to feature local artist, as she feels there are enough other galleries featuring regional and international art and that our local artists deserve the limelight. There are however exceptions, and will probably always be, as in the case of the very talented Trinidadian artist, the late Boscoe Holder whose work are now collector items, and the very talented Martin Superville who has seemingly continued in this genre. When you go into one of her galleries you know that what you’ll see is quality work by highly-respected artists.
Pertaining to her own paintings, Vanita is a very passionate artist who believes in the intrinsic power of a canvas. Although she starts by applying multiple layers of saturated primary colours she says the images “just turn up, I never know what’s going to be there. When I paint, I just zone out and I think the world could go by and I wouldn’t even know. It’s meditative.” Vanita’s inspiration comes from selling her work quickly, “being extremely prolific I never fall in love with my own work and am happy to sell it quickly just so I can start another” it’s important to her that each piece go to a good home and she believes that each painting has a specific owner, “there’s a painting for everybody, when you do a painting it already knows who the owner is and it just finds the right person”. In the essence of the magical quality associated with Caribbean women for so long Vanita reports on many a case where she’ll go into her meditative state and create a painting and upon completion a client will call and ask if she has anything that’s exactly what she’s just finished working on. Perhaps it’s that Vanita has such a wide repeat-client base that she’s become somewhat psychic in regards to their artistic needs, maybe the world is just a magical place.
Her paintings are a visual feast of colour and depict local cultural scenes, from women in the cane fields, market scenes, stilt-walkers, portraiture and so on. Vanita has been criticized for her depiction of women as labourers but somewhat of a feminist herself she says, “I try to empower my ladies with strength, solidity and vigor. Women have in this island been the backbone of the economy and although I am accused of painting them as manual workers I do so mainly to show their resilience, faith and dignity.”
2010 brings a new adventure for this effervescent artist; Vanita is launching a local product line which will feature her images on stationary, calendars, pens, t-shirts, and towels among other things as well as increasing her line of metal work and creating her very first coffee table book, showcasing her work throughout the years. The line will be called ‘Very Vanita’ and will be available by summer 2010. The product line will give Vanita an opportunity to re-produce her most popular images in various media whilst freeing her up to take her painting in a new direction, address new subject matter and continue her lifelong experimentation with colour.
When asked how long it takes her to produce a painting, Vanita quickly responds, “20 years, it has taken me 20 years to paint” she feels that art ought not be judged on how long it takes to produce but rather on the talent it takes to produce, and by the emotion it evokes. Her greatest compliment to date has been when clients tell her that her work makes them happy, it must be an amazing feeling to know that doing what you love brings other people so much joy. Vanita says that she can “spend 12 hours at a time conversing with my canvas” and I’m sure there’s a multitude of people who earnestly hope that she continues to do just that.