Introspective Jamaican artist, Stafford Schliefer, paints a life of colour, motion and meaning.
Masai Warriors (1983), oil and collage on cotton.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1939, self-taught artist Stafford Schliefer’s gentle smile is somewhat at odds with the intense nature of a lifetime spent exploring the vagaries of the Caribbean condition conjured up in exuberant colour, translucence, movement and gesture from his hilltop Wayside Studio in St. Andrew, Jamaica. Likening the compulsion toward artistic expression to the need to draw breath, he cuts a figure of quite some repute on regional and international art scenes as he has for near-on four decades. A solitary artist, he stands, encircled by paints and canvases and a passion for communicating the warts-and-all truth of the universal experience: a visual storyteller, depicting lively vignettes of modern-day Jamaican life infused with the complex cultural history of his heartland.
Into the Plantation (2003), acrylic on canvas.
Yet, once upon a time, Schliefer touted his wares in the tourist street markets of Kingston and Montego Bay. Inspired by artist and friend, Lester Gunter, at twenty-eight, he underwent “a conversion,” turning what his parents considered his indulgence into life as a professional artist. Travelling the globe as a seaman on tourist liners in his formative years, he keenly observed the nuances of the black diaspora and the socio-political climates in which people co-existed. Translating his perceptions into emotionally-charged works that explored recurring themes such as slavery, violence, celebration and tradition, he created lasting connections with viewers, using the language of art as a vehicle to convey messages of compassion and truth. He muses, “In many ways, my works are motivated by the intensity of suffering in our society – the accumulated need; to overcome this, motivates me most of all….”
Thematically diverse, Schliefer’s distinct expressionistic style and versatility gained him kudos amongst art critics and collectors alike, moving his paintings off the streets and onto the walls of prestigious galleries and museums across Jamaica. But, it was his 1969 inaugural exhibition at The Jamaica Festival of Fine Arts that catapulted him beyond the provincial boundaries of Jamaica’s shores as far afield as Canada, the United States and Germany. Resonating with a number of high profile private and corporate collectors, his paintings are now contained in exhibitions the world over, most notably in the Papal Collection in Rome and that of former South African president, Nelson Mandela.
Sonatina From Pumpkin Vendor (1989), oil on canvas.
Re-creating the essence of simple moments using layers of colour and textured brushstrokes of different sizes, Schliefer’s genius captures spontaneity of form and motion while hinting at subliminal mood and emotion. On permanent display at the entrance to the National Gallery of Jamaica, his magnum opus, Sonatina from Pumpkin Vendor, captures the instant of impact of a pumpkin hitting the ground. Exploding, splintered shards of flesh burst from the canvas, their intense colour amplified by the plain blue background. “I was shopping in the marketplace,” he recalls. “A woman vendor was segmenting her pumpkins. Something about the rhythmic quality of this process optically appealed to me.”
Pieta (2008), acrylic on canvas.
In a twist on the Crucifixion of Christ, Kingston Pieta supersedes what Schliefer calls, “the traditional hackneyed ploy” of Man’s inhumanity to Man, choosing rather to explore the power of maternal protection embodied in Mother Mary’s desire to rescue her ‘beloved’ out of harm’s way. “Poetically, her pity is transmitted to the two supportive, rescuing Jamaican ghetto females, wresting their embattled, wounded warrior out of further harm’s way,” he explains.
Sisters Eating Fruit (1997), acrylic on canvas.
Giving prominence to the dark, elongated figures of Masai Warriors, the unadorned background avoids distraction, drawing the eye toward the powerful elegance of the tribes-people: stoic in their bearing; custodians of the land. Equally, Sisters Eating Fruit presents a striking visual, juxtaposing the impoverishment of the subjects with the richness of Caribbean life. Conceived, somewhat arbitrarily, after observing elongated cracks in a fence through which could be seen flashes of corrugated zinc, Schliefer’s diaphanous brushstrokes, his mastery of colour, demonstrate an adroit distillation of mood.
Mango Tree Dare Devils (2011), acrylic on linen.
Channeling the carefree spirit of his boyhood, the humorous appeal of Mango Tree Daredevils captivates: boys risk life and limb, climbing to reckless heights to gather caches of sweet, sunkissed fruit. The sure-footed agility and cavalier adeptness of the daredevils seems tangible as their movements become extensions of the tree itself.
Sometimes representational, sometimes abstract, Schliefer’s oeuvre is, he says, “Somewhat akin to surrealist philosophy… to be interpreted with the mind’s eye, rather than by the actuality of physical involvement.” A master of transcending the literality of canvas, his empathic renderings contain a duality that resonates deep within the viewer’s scope; not just mirror to a world, but possessed by a power that lies somewhere in the vast beyond.