Martin Kennedy, the author of the recently published and hardback ‘Art in Seychelles: Then and Now’ speaks to Absolute Seychelles about the story behind his highly-acclaimed book and we take an in depth look at the artists within that have shaped the island’s art scene throughout the years.

“People were talking about the need to produce a book about art in Seychelles when I first arrived here in 1997 and I was told that this idea had been discussed for at least twenty years before that.”

However, despite all the talk the project remained unrealised until Arterial Network Seychelles, under the direction of artist George Camille, decided to publish the first definitive volume on the history, development and current state of the visual arts in the Seychelles.

Arterial canvassed its members, many of whom are working artists, and placed ‘calls to action’ in the national press, inviting artists to contact the organisation and express an interest in being included in the book. Martin Kennedy was asked to write it, based on his prior experience of writing catalogues and features on many Seychellois artists, as well as his international experience, mainly gleaned in the areas of UK gallery and school art education programmes.

A core team was quickly assembled. Design and layout was undertaken by local company Silkwater Graphics and principal photography by French/Seychellois Laurent Levy. Finally the Seychelles Pension Fund came on board with the financial assistance required to realise the project.

The template for the book is simple. The ‘then’ section explores the development of visual art through sketches of the principal protagonists, commencing with the work of the emancipated slave Billy King and moving on to chart the topography of (mainly) painting and drawing through three categories of artists; the deceased, the transient and the lapsed. The ‘now’ section is significantly more substantial, taking up almost 85% of the publication. Kennedy explains:

“This was to establish the book as primarily a contemporary project. Each of the artists featured is currently producing art in Seychelles and every one of them is present in their own words as well as through the images of their work. There is my own critical contribution in each case but for me the more interesting aspect of this book is hearing the individual voices of the artists as they speak about their work and their lives.”

With almost 80 artists featured across the two sections of the book, it is hard to single out individuals for particular attention, however Absolute took special note of the work of brother and sister Alyssa and Tristan Adams, both successful and prolific artists and, interestingly, the children of Michael and Heather Adams. Michael is recognised as the ‘father’ of contemporary art in Seychelles and his unique figurative paintings and prints represent to many residents and visitors the essential visual iconography of the country.

Alyssa and Tristan have followed in Michael’s footsteps insofar as their art is a passionate, lyrical response to the natural environment of Seychelles. The styles of the two artists are very different, not only one from the other but also when compared to the work of their father. Alyssa’s paintings are intensely busy; her (often) limited palette compositions respond to the insane congestion of the tropical forest, where growth is a fight for survival and light is the ultimate objective. The artist gets in close to her subjects, working directly en plein air, getting to know their gnarled and tangled beauty; “I superimpose decorative motifs onto what are essentially representational landscapes” the artist says, “Although I paint directly from nature I get lost in whimsy. I am a brush seamstress.”

Tristan prefers to work at a greater distance from his subjects. We see fantastic and surreal islands comprised of piles of smooth granitic forms; churning and gurning oceans, and skies full of bruised clouds teeming with interest. The artist’s compositions often allow the sky full prominence. “The main difference” he says “between painting the sky and the ocean is that the ocean is so fast moving in fluid motion – whereas the sky seems to me to be retreating in slow motion.”

Absolute were also struck by the powerful paintings of Zsaklin Miklos, originally from Budapest but now happily settled in the Seychelles, whose work also frequently responds to the local environment. Her sharp and tight technicolour interpretations can be labelled ‘stylised realism’. They are sensual yet graphic – a hard synergy to pull off – and there is tranquility and excitement, harmony and conflict. Miklos transcends the reality she is depicting, at times simplifying its forms and exaggerating its natural palette.

“My intention is to open up my thoughts on the complexity of how our environment affects the personal development of those who interact with it. ”

Miklos also creates vivid (and accurate) portraits, mostly of her Seychelles contemporaries. These are Fauvist in essence, with non naturalistic colours deployed with careful abandon. The subjects – all instantly and effortlessly recognisable regardless of the liberties taken with skin tones – are both with us and apart from us. They appear alien, their faces comprised of intuitively rendered building blocks of matt colour. The artist refers to a quest to accentuate the effect of light on form, in this case the human face, with the outcome presenting “the consequence of an intensified subject.”

All three artists represent a fresh and open approach to figurative painting in Seychelles; they push the boundaries of representation, constantly working out within a gymnasium of paint.

This desire to move forwards and explore new forms of expression is present throughout the contemporary section of the book. Leon Radegonde’s work is at the forefront of a redefinition of how and why art is made in Seychelles. Radegonde, a co-exhibitor at the last two Venice Biennales, creates archival fusions of found objects and unconventional mark-making processes.

“I age, sew, tease, rust, tear, stain, burn, glue, mend and paste. I use burnt engine oil, shoe polish, hot iron, charcoal and red earth colouring as my essential working tools.”

Radegonde’s creations range from tiny assemblages on board to huge swaying tapestries. The palette is invariably sombre, with the artist having described too much colour as ‘parasitic’.

Much is made of the so-called ‘tourist trap’, whereby artists create compromised representational work (think palm trees skirting a beach) in order to put food on the family table. Back to the author:

“Secondary aims for this book include improving the lot of our working artists. The book provides contact details for each one of them so that a reader, having identified work that he or she likes, can pick up the ‘phone and talk to the artist about purchasing art directly. Additionally Arterial Network hopes to devote some of the money generated through book sales to provide small grants for artists; to say in effect – look, take three months from your market-oriented work and make art from your soul. We will take care of your expenses and at the end we will stage an exhibition of the work you have made in the Eden gallery.”

This symbiotic relationship between the book, the gallery and related projects (a selling virtual gallery is planned for later this year) is core to the work of Arterial Network Seychelles.

“Everything that we do should be mutually complementary” Kennedy concludes, “and should reflect the fact that we exist to support the arts in Seychelles. We are not and have never been simply a talking shop. We make things happen. This publication is but one example.”