John Lyons: Some Considerations


Trinidadian-born John Lyons is, as celebrated in this timely exhibition, a painter, and a poet. This in some respects unassuming biographical detail affords us an important route into considering and understanding Lyons’ significance, importance, and meaningful cultural contributions. Trinidad and Tobago, located in the eastern Caribbean, is one of the region’s most culturally rich nations, home to significant and pivotal creative expressions, from carnival to soca (calypso music with elements of soul), to poetry and literature. Many decades ago, John established himself as an accomplished and energetic visual arts practitioner, very much in the vein of what I would refer to as the Caribbean Renaissance man, which is to say (in this instance) a person who not only has wide cultural interests but is also as proficient in the painting studio as he is in the realm of performance poetry. John’s Trinidadian upbringing is reflected in so many aspects of his creative practices. Though Trinidad has produced many accomplished artists and many fine poets, John is perhaps unique in the masterful and dexterous ways in which he has consistently made room in his life for both his painting and his poetry. Furthermore, he may have left Trinidad a lifetime ago, but as indicated by this exhibition, Trinidadian culture most assuredly not only travelled with him, but it was also embedded at the core of his practices as both a painter and a poet. As noted in the catalogue for The Caribbean Connection, an exhibition at Islington Arts Factory that brought together work by John and four other Caribbean-born artists (Frank Bowling, Bill Ming, Ronald Moody, and Aubrey Williams), John’s ‘work as an artist has been conditioned to a certain extent by his other role as poet and writer.’ It’s certainly the case that behind every one of his pictures is a poem.

I first met John many years ago, in the mid to late 1980s, in his then hometown of Manchester. I was at the time working on a large exhibition that became Black Art: Plotting the Course shown at several venues across the country, including Oldham Art Gallery. The curatorial premise of the exhibition was that there existed, throughout the country, a great many artists of different ages who were making work that demonstrated a pronounced yet versatile embrace of the Black figure, and the cultural and social narratives with which this work could be read. Although John was significantly older than most of the artists to whom I was drawn, I had no hesitation in including his work in the exhibition. Indeed, I was excited to do so. By the late 1980s ‘Black Art’ as a fiery, boisterous type of socially driven practice had become largely synonymous with a limited number of artists, such as Keith Piper and Donald Rodney. I believed though, that at least on occasion, a great many other artists created images that were every bit as socially and culturally strident and articulate, from Jaswinder Singh Purewal to Gurminder Sikand, from Mark Sealy to Paul Ogbonna. John’s work was right at home in this mix and represented a particular maturity.

His contribution to the exhibition, My Mother Earth is Black Like Me (1988, pastel on paper), remains, for me, a particularly wonderful example of his art. The title borrows from white journalist John Howard Griffin’s celebrated work of nonfiction Black Like Me (1961), in which he recounted his experiences of living under the guise of a Black person and traversing the racially treacherous terrain of the Deep South into which he had been born. 

My Mother Earth is Black Like Me is a beautifully reflective, contemplative work. It depicts a Black man, midway through emerging from, or possibly entering, a womb-like opening in the earth, the surrounding terrain resonating with associations that oscillate between the ominous and the wondrous. The unclothed figure is portrayed by John as if resting or contemplative, but seemingly at one with the earthly orifice that so ambiguously envelopes him. The drawing suggests varied and surprisingly conflicted sensibilities. Weariness, melancholia, meditation, reflection, resignation, apocalypse, ecology. These sensibilities are reinscribed by the haunting beauty of the work’s title. A profoundly lyrical, poetic, and expressive work, My Mother Earth is Black Like Me existed in marked but by no means unfruitful contrast and dialogue with much of the other work in Black Art: Plotting the Course. I only recently became aware of the extent to which the drawing compellingly encapsulated a line from ‘Every Wind in the River’, one of my favourite Taj Mahal songs. “I’m realisin’ where I’m at, is where I’m s’posed to be”.

“The pastel drawing, ‘My Mother Earth is Black Like Me’ was inspired by an experience of standing on a bare patch of garden earth at the back of a terraced house in Kensal Rise the morning after my arrival in the UK many years ago. An awareness, which can only be inadequately described as a ‘spiritual’ awakening, struck me: I have a human right to be here, to belong to this planet earth wherever I am. The painting is a visual metaphor accommodating a certain ambiguity: is the figure emerging from the earth, or gently returning it?” [John Lyons, 2018]

The above extracts are from “John Lyons: Carnivalesque – Some Considerations” catalogue essay for John Lyons: Carnivalesque, retrospective exhibition at the Whitworth, University of Manchester, 10 May - 25 August 2024. Pages 10 – 16.