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  • Writer's pictureSegolene Py

Interview with... Trinidadian painter Che Lovelace

On the occasion of his first solo show in London, I had the incredible chance to meet Trinidadian painter, Che Lovelace. Discover with me the details and intricate process of his practice, and the link it bears with Trinidadian culture.

'Day Always Comes' is on view at Corvi-Mora Gallery in London until 17th June.

Written Interview

Segolene Py: Could please present yourself in a few words for those who don’t know you.

Che Lovelace: My name is Che Lovelace I am a Trinidadian painter, and I make figurative paintings.

SP: You come from a creative family, with your father, Earl Lovelace, who is a writer. I was wondering how you started painting and how your family and surrounding helped you do that?

CL: I would say that I grew up around creative people because yes, my father is a well-known writer, in Trinidad and beyond, and although my mother is not an artist, she encouraged and nurtured our creativity as much as she could. So I was always around creative people from an early age through his circle of friends, a core group of artists etc. I can't say that I was always making art from a young age. I think I was more just around that world, listening and observing, and maybe something does bubble inside of oneself just being in that environment. It’s quite possible that I was influenced by that, but I actually didn't start drawing and doing anything artistic until later on when I was around 14 years old.

SP: It is already quite young.

CL: Yeah, it is I suppose, that is when everybody gets a chance to do art class. I had the chance to be in the class of an artist who was teaching then, Jackie Hinkson. He is a well-known artist from Trinidad most known for his watercolours, he also paints with oil, and does sculptures, and he is still practising now. I always credit him with being the person who gave me that little spark of interest in art, something I could pursue.

I have been working full time as an artist since leaving art school but I didn't show regularly. Hopefully I will get to show more often now.

SP: What are your inspirations?

CL: I feel like my personality, or my character if you would, is drawn to a wide range of things. That makes it both potentially interesting and difficult. I tend to be drawn to people, I'm also drawn to nature, to certain types of aesthetics. It’s just a very wide range of things that make me feel inspired or call me to attention. When you look at my work you’ll see a range of themes, of approaches and even how I paint is quite varied in terms of the surface or the techniques that I use. A big part of my journey has been to stay true to that initial feeling or instinct, which is to be open, to find a way to embrace many things and have them expressed in the work that I am doing. Not to narrow it down, but to keep it very broad. I see myself as an artist taking a broad view of my experience from being in Trinidad: the people I see there, the things we do, the places that I see, the plants that are around me. Those are the things that inform my work, it’s a wide field.

SP: Are there specific artists that inspire you?

CL: Mainly painters who have always evolved, who changed over time and have tackled new questions as they grow. In other artists, as in my own work, I have been interested in that moment just before figurative art gives way to abstraction. I can keep reliving this moment; it is a fertile place.

I’ve also been discovering and rediscovering many artists in my region who have informed or put something into my consciousness, which has to do with how I express or see Trinidad and the Caribbean through my work. In the end most of the styles you see in art are styles that are borrowed or coming from different places and regions internationally. A place like Trinidad is an amalgamation and layering of histories: European, African, Indian, Indigenous… so there is a lot of information always coming in. I feel like I have always tried to be open to all that information and see how it can develop instinctively or intuitively in my work. There’s also been a lot of rediscovering these artists who have tried to find a language to speak about being in the Caribbean. It is an engaging notion, one that I am still working out.

The Wild Garden, 2016-22. Courtesy of the Artist and Corvi-Mora gallery, London

SP: What is your process, how do you create?

CL: One of the things I am drawn to in making art is that it allows me to have multiple approaches in doing something. I get easily bored, for lack of a better word. I do lose interest in something if I am not challenging myself in terms of how I am making the work. I do not quite engage unless I can take chances and go to unknown places when I start and while I am working on a piece. I'm constantly trying to set up problems for myself to solve, and in solving those problems I discover something about making art and making paintings and about myself, it is an intuitive process. The knots and bolts is that most of the paintings start as modular panels that I sometimes separate. I can start with just playing with colours, pushing things around, being very loose and abstract about things without a clear idea of what it is going to become. I have always had a playful imagination, imagining things in clouds or in landscapes. It comes into influences one as an artist. If you play with abstract shapes, things are going to emerge, whether it is figurative or not, it may make one think of a certain light or a certain time of the day.

There is something liberating about not having a plan when I start a work. Over the years I have been trying to discover how I can make a painting where the process is longer, that doesn’t go towards an image too quickly. Let the image emerge, let there be a certain interplay between the image and non-image and the physicality of the object itself. And all these things are as important as an image or a figure or even an idea of what I am doing. That kind of openness has been liberating, something I had to cultivate over time to make sure that it is part of my process. All the paintings I make now really try to include some aspect of play, and as I move forward I would introduce more drawing elements. Sometimes I might introduce harder shapes, and the painting starts to layer itself. The fact that I am working on panels as well is a big part of the process. The last several years, I have started to explore the idea that the paintings are made of 4 pieces that I want to recognise as separate pieces but at the same time, I am a painter that is making a single image. I'm not making a final fragmented image. The fragments always lead to one scene, it is not like a montage. From a very loose place they climb to another place to create a scene, and I am constantly layering ideas, one on top of the other until I feel like something has happened.

SP: I see in your studio that you usually paint while they are hanging on clamps. How does this happen?

CL: I tend to simply use tape at the back of them to hold them together. That allows me to also take the tape off and remove panels sometimes, switch them up with other ones I have in the studio. It is also part of that play with shapes. It allows me to be very malleable with how I lay out those panels. When I finish it is more elaborate, like you can see here. But yes in the studios it is boards that are clipped up, I am switching them around, changing paintings on the wall all the time. It is quite a dynamic process, I don't make one painting one by one, I make several paintings at the same time. There is a lot going on in the studio and then things start to emerge.

SP: You have a specific signature with the use of a 4-panel grid format. How did you get to create it and what does it mean to you?

CL: It was something that evolved with time, which is what I trust, things that I have lived with for a long time, and that I didn't realise I was living with, slowly became part of my methods and my consciousness about how I was approaching my work. It is a board that you find in Trinidad in various stationery stores. This particular one, people buy them to bind government books or files. This is why this type of board was shipped to Trinidad in large quantities. I first used it as a substitute for canvas and even for paper, to be more experimental. Sometimes it is nice to have a material that is accessible, and not as costly. It was also important that it was archival. I started using it for drawings and small paintings as one panel and with time, I started thinking of using several together. Maybe it was impulse that was always in my being, this idea of taking fragments and parts of things to join them. In the 1990s, after finishing art school and working in Trinidad for some time, I was making a body of work that I was not quite happy with. I started to cut them up as I was frustrated, but then I sew them back together. That became one of my first proper bodies of work. When I think about it and look at this work here I can see a similar impulse to bring fragments together, it has been in my work for a long time. But this particular material took some time to evolve and to look the way it looks now. Starting from simple experiments with single panels to joining them gave me a certain amount of freedom to switch, change and create a sort of staggered path to making a painting, not a straight process. It is always a sort of meandering process, which I really like. It is just how I prefer to make art. It does fit a lot with my personality at its core. There are so many metaphoric qualities to the idea of the quadrant: the seasons, the cross, the cardinal points. There is something about the balance of those four parts that attracts me. It is a lot and maybe over time I will unpack that but certainly the draw towards it for me is quite instinctive. The way it manifests itself as an aesthetic, the formal way it works creates a kind of tension, the surface is never a complete surface. It’s a broken surface that makes something complete. That push and pull of what is happening with the image is definitely intensified by the fact that these panels are separated and that I work on them in such a way. It has become the main identifying quality in my paintings.

SP: As you said, there is also a lot of texture in your painting. When you see them in real life it is just so different, compared to online where they look rather flat. For example I just realised as I stand in front of The Wild Garden that you also carve in the board. Do you use acrylic and oil pastel?

CL: I use acrylics and dried pigments which I sometimes add to the acrylics or acrylic binders, and that gives it a particular kind of matte, saturated quality.

The Breath, 2022. Courtesy of the Artist and Corvi-Mora Gallery, London

SP: It’s impressive. When I was looking at The Breath it looked like you were using oil sticks on some parts of it.

CL: I'm glad I can get an effect like that without actually using it. I am also interested in the fact that the paint can take on different appearances, that it doesn't have to look the same or to be consistent. I like the inconsistency of how a surface can look like. When you look at it some parts might be smooth some parts might be rough, some parts transparent, or opaque and they all live together in this little space.

SP: In your practice, you have worked from still lives, interior, to today figurative. In those figurative paintings, you use performance to paint movements. I understand this is also a reference to Carnival, we can see this especially in this one titled Street Dance with the blue characters reminding of the Blue Devils character or Practicing Drummer with the musician in the foreground.

CL: I am involved in aspects of the Carnival both as a masquerader, and a performer…and a organiser actually. Trinidad is a place where people are quite theatrical. We act things out. I guess that is part of the masquerade culture in Carnival. Part of that has rubbed off into my work clearly. Before this body of work or even before working in this manner with the panels, around the late 90s early 2000’s, I was making small performances, as little bits of poetry with the body. I was photographing or filming these actions and using that material to inform paintings, inform more static works. That process has stayed in my practice since then. I tend to use the body as a tool to draw out certain characteristics and nuances in poses, how the body looks and what it does. I am familiar with that culture coming from Carnival and performing, using the body in that way. I have tried to bring it in my paintings and use it as a tool. I found it adds a new dimension to making figures, it becomes a more intimate process. I can really internalise the poses and the shapes that the body makes, and act them out myself instead of seeking it out in someone. It brings me closer to what I am trying to do with the body. That has been a very useful way of working, which I find ties very much to Trinidad and how we operate there. It is good to have something close to home that informs my paintings and hopefully gives it something fresh that I would not have found in another place. Something that is very Trinidadian that is informing my work. It is about how you make something that is closer to your experience.

Street Dance, 2016-22. Courtesy of the Artist and Corvie-Mora Gallery, London

SP: I was curious about your experience. Carnival is very important, more than just a party, important historically speaking. The one in Trinidad is one of the biggest in the Caribbean. I was wondering what Carnival means to you.

CL: Carnival is an important phenomenon, you could call it a festival. It is so ladened with our own cultural, social, and historical experience. That plays out many aspects of who we are as Caribbean people, and there are many layers to that: the whole culture of resistance which is at the base of Carnival, the Canboulay, the push against enslavement and the celebration of the body, the ownership of the body. These are the themes of Carnival from the inception, and they still play themselves out today. Of course I am naturally drawn to that narrative but by large Carnival is an inclusive and expressive space. And those are the aspects that I find most important from a social and creative perspective because it allows one to create within it. One can bring costumes, ideas to this platform, and it is open for that, so it should be used as such. My relationship with Carnival is one that is embedded in the idea of expressing yourself, the inclusiveness and freedom of that process. In that way it works parallel to my painting process which I hope to keep free and expressive.

SP: You have used the same words to describe your process and Carnival.

CL: Yes exactly, so there are definitely some similarities. Being inclusive and expressive are the most important aspects for me as well as the historical narrative of Carnival, which is very much tied to it’s identity. It is a great snapshot of Trinidadian culture. A lot of things are intertwined in that space. Too many for us to cover in this interview, but it is something that can be researched and looked at. For me it is a place of creativity and invention, and expression with the body. The overall energy of Carnival is one of reinvention, subversion, play, satire, and beauty. I have also been very involved in opening day of Carnival, called J’Ouvert (literally ‘opening day’), as I run a J’ouvert band called Friends for the Road. During J’ouvert we put mud and colours on our skins as the sun comes up. It is very ritualistic, liberating and brings people together. It is a sort of communal feeling when you are participating in an event like that, and where you are moving in the streets together. The thing about mobility and the movement in carnival expressions is also unique. It is not surprising to see how it gets into what I am painting, and even how I am painting it.

SP: I can see it, and with your use of colour and the way you represent the bodies in your work. It all makes sense when you are talking about carnival like you just did.

Have you ever been to another Carnival?

CL: I just came back from carnival in Jamaica actually, it was my first time there. I have been to London here, I have also been to Labour Day Carnival Brooklyn, in Martinique, St Lucia… I have seen variations of it, what is telling is that anywhere that carnival travels to it seems to take hold, not just in the Caribbean diaspora community but it also becomes a platform for other people. It is a platform that works well in a diverse space where people can bring different aspects of their selves into one arena.

Practicing Drummer, 2022. Courtesy of the Artist and Corvi-Mora Gallery, London

SP: I wanted to talk about people you have worked with in Trinidad. And I came upon a video where I saw you were working with Will Smith about 10 years ago.

CL: Yes, he works with a very close childhood friend of mine, and he started to come to Trinidad with him. Will Smith is a curious person, interested in learning new things. We had a good rapport when he was there and one of the things we did was that same method where I work with the body and build an idea through a movement or performance. I suggested we could work on a painting together, using him as the body. I asked him what movement he would perform that I could capture. I think at the time he had just done that film where he played Mohammed Ali and his idea was to perform as a boxer. Based on the actions and film captured of these movements where he performed as a boxer I was able to make a couple of paintings. I was working on canvas in those days and they now belong to a friend of mine.

SP: There is also someone else, an established artist today who used to live in Trinidad, Peter Doig, and you did StudioFilmClub together.

CL: Yes, that was a wonderful time for all of us. We were several artists, all working in a building in the centre of Port of Spain in an industrial zone. We started showing films on Thursday evenings and because we were working in the studio it was easy to be consistent about it. We spent time in the studio and every Thursday we would choose a film and send out email invites. People started coming and it turned into a nice project that was ongoing for quite a few years. It was one of the defining memories from that period being in the studio. It was communal, and rarely have I had the opportunity to have experiences where I am that close to a group of artists over such a long period of time. It certainly hasn't happened since for me and may not again because I tend to work solitary. I am very thankful for that time. Peter made quite a few posters for Thursday evenings.

Copyright courtesy of Frieze and the Artist

SP: It’s really great to organise such an event, as it was free it’s great for the community and makes it accessible. I think it’s a good time to talk then about the artistic community in Trinidad. Do you think you have a role in your community?

CL: First of all, I think everybody has a role in a community. I don't think that because I am an artist I have a role automatically but more as someone who is, and has been, pursuing endeavours that are sometimes difficult and outside the frame of what is encouraged. A lot of people may have a difficult time seeing it as a viable way of living, or pursuing it as a vocation, especially in a conservative place. While there is a lot of creativity happening, deciding to live as an artist or a creative person has always been a difficult path, as most people know, that is in any part of the world, and it is no different in Trinidad. So in a way my role, although I don't quite see it as a role but rather an example, is of somebody who pursued something that they have felt strongly about and have just chipped away at it. That in itself is hopefully a contribution to the space. I have also always been very involved in the community in one way or the other. As I said earlier, painting is a very solitary pursuit, so I have tried to counterbalance that with things that are more communal. I am quite interested in music and bringing people together through sound. My work in Carnival with the J’ouvert has always been there as well as other projects and collaborations that I do. Recently I have been collaborating on a project called Selectors where we invite guests to share 20 songs that define them. These are projects that I like because they are interactive and bring me out of the studio. I am also a teacher at the University of the West Indies (Trinidad) for about 7 years now, so I keep abreast with younger people and what they are doing. I do enjoy interacting with them and being able to share what I can about my work. I have always seen myself as a practitioner rather than a lecturer, so I tend to interact with them rather as someone who practises art, not just speaks about it.

SP: Do you think that as an artist in Trinidad it is possible to grow there, instead of seeking outside?

CL: A small place sometimes tends to think in a narrow way. However, Trinidad has always had connection with the outside world. We have a great tradition in literature and music, so we have examples of how much scope we can explore as creative people. We always had good examples. I think people just have to take themselves a bit more seriously sometimes and not see Trinidad as your ceiling, rather see yourself as a participant in the world. This is something that I have always felt very quietly, without speaking about it a lot. I have just felt like I am part of Trinidad but I am also part of the world, so whatever I am saying automatically is being said to the world. I am based in Trinidad using my experience there to speak about my own sense of myself and my humanity, who I am, and hopefully it reflects the humanity that I see around me. Really once a community understands that what it is saying is not an internal dialogue only, then it has the potential to become bigger and more relevant not only to itself, but to outside as well. The more I look into the place that I am from, what I see around me and what I experience, the more I grow outside of that place too. I think the same is possible with a culture or society. Certainly there has to be ways for this kind of thinking to happen: initiatives, support, dialogue, organisation… And yes, some of these things are sometimes lacking in a place like Trinidad, but certainly they can happen. Because once things start, who knows where it can go. So let’s keep our fingers crossed.

SP: I agree with what you said, and I have been thinking recently about this kind of contradictory way of thinking that the way to be seen is to go outside, instead of building locally. This is why I asked this question; it would be good to know or to have something local to encourage people there in the first place.

CL: I understand what you mean. I think the two things coexist because I am just as much present as an artist in Trinidad as I am an artist here sitting in London and showing my work here. I tend to always present my work in Trinidad in whatever context, I try to have a dialogue about it. It feeds several situations and I think anyone working in Trinidad can very much be rooted there and still be relevant somewhere else. What you are saying also has to do with that sense of validation which sometimes a small place looks for, in order to come to terms with itself, and see it’s worth. Sometimes it feels like you need a larger validation than your own community. I see it in a broader way: I see it as artists wanting to communicate, they want to say something about something. But I agree with you that sometimes smaller places neglect their own context and developing in that context, in favour of trying to make it somewhere else. I don't think that is healthy. One has to try to be generous and have the desire to build the space that you are working in and the local, to maybe achieve a feeling of fulfilment as a living person in a that space. The two things do coexist in my eyes, the inside and the outside. Like I said, I tried to find ways for me to operate in both spaces. Because I am operating here now doesn't mean I am going to operate less in Trinidad, or do less things, if anything, I can do more.

Che Lovelace, 'Day Always Comes', Exhibition View. Courtesy of Corvi-Mora Gallery, London

SP: I think you are a wonderful example, you’ve shown in LA, New York, Seoul. You have been around the world! And this is your first solo show here in London, how do you feel about that?

CL: It's the start of a new journey. I feel great, I feel excited about it. It's been a good moment since Covid, a lot of things have happened. I will always remember that as a marker now for the rest of my life. One of the things that happened during Covid was the centre of activity spreading in a different way, because even the big places were closed down just as much as smaller places. People interacted through digital means and it put everybody on the same playing field. A zoom interview or studio visit looks the same whether I was in Trinidad or whether somebody was here. It was the same platform. So the whole idea of having to go somewhere or being close to the centre to have opportunities got equalised during that time. I think that worked in my favour, and in the favour of people who operate in peripheral spaces because all of the sudden we’re doing the same kind of studio visit that everybody else did. That worked positively for me and gave people a chance to see what I was doing. It kind of led to this moment so it is an exciting time. I also see this as a beginning, a start of something new. I’m really happy to be here.

While I come from a completely different generation, I feel like the digital age has been a big part of how my work has moved around space, how people have seen it on digital platforms which have become, in a way, a platform where you have your own voice. It could be small, or it could be big, but it is yours. It's a projection of yourself, not second hand information or through any other means and I like that. I feel that it is an opportunity to present your tone. People have seen that and felt that in what I have been presenting . Now, I would like people to look at the actual object. As we know, the act of looking at painting is visceral. It's the next stage, to see something in real life rather than on a screen, that is what I am hoping for.


Che Lovelace


Corvi-Mora Gallery

1A Kempsford Rd,

London SE11 4NU


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