Ronald Moody

Orchid Bird

1968

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Not on display

Artist
Ronald Moody 1900–1984
Medium
Plaster, resin, wood chips and acrylic sheet
Dimensions
Object: 1140 × 950 × 290 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Ronald Moody Trust 2019
Reference
T15350

Summary

Orchid Bird 1968 is a stylised polyester glass resin sculpture of a bird with a long beak and five crested plumes or horns sprouting from its head. It dates from a period in the artist’s career when he moved away from direct carving and experimented with a range of different media, most notably resin. It is one of a number of symbolic or fantastic bird sculptures that Moody made in the latter half of the 1960s and early 1970s – the first of which had been a commission in 1963 for an epidemiological research unit, and which was sited on the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies in Kingston on the artist’s birthplace of Jamaica. For the commission Moody had decided to create a sculpture on the subject of Savacou, a deity in Carib mythology who became a bird and later a star with control over thunder and north winds. In a later interview he discussed the genesis of the slightly later Orchid Bird and its rather looser symbolism: ‘This is an entirely made-up bird of course, because no bird has quite those horns and things. I was in Kew Gardens one day and I saw an orchid that had this kind of shape. I was so taken with it that I thought I’d use it. I decided I’d do it in the form of a bird.’ (From an interview with Sylvia Moore-Broeme of Nederland TV, 29 July 1977, notes provided by the Ronald Moody Trust.) Orchid Bird, however, also connects with Moody’s involvement with the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), founded in London in 1966 by the writers Edward (later Kamau) Brathwaite (born 1930), John La Rose (1927–2006) and Andrew Salkey (1928–95) as an organisation that over the next six years would draw together Caribbean artists and writers. Moody, as a prominent artist, was involved from the beginning, attending its first public meeting in March 1967 at the West Indian Students Centre in Earls Court as well as its first conference, held in September at the University of Kent. The following year Karl Jerry Craig (born 1936) organised an exhibition at the House of Commons in Westminster of six CAM artists, Ronald Moody among them; several artists had refused to be involved in the exhibition, given its location and sponsorship, and the legislation that had been passed by parliament that seemed hostile to Caribbean citizens. Orchid Bird was, however, included in the exhibition, and also subsequently in a CAM exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute in London in 1971, Caribbean Artists in England. It is also pertinent that the magazine of CAM, published between 1970 and 1980 in fifteen issues, took its title Savacou directly from the title of the first of Moody’s fantastic bird sculptures.

Moody was significant for being the first recognised Caribbean artist to settle in Britain (he had arrived in London in 1923 to study dentistry). His drive to become an artist was stimulated by his encounter with Egyptian sculpture in the British Museum; he is additionally important because he did not adopt a purely European aesthetic for his work, but one that fused Eastern philosophies with Caribbean and other cultures to create a hybrid modernist language. In 1938 Moody sent twelve major sculptures, including    the monumental carved wood head Midonz 1937 (Tate T13324), to the Harmon Foundation in the United States to be included in    the 1939 exhibition Contemporary Negro Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art    and the Dallas Museum of Art – a key event in the late Harlem Renaissance and for which Moody was one of the few artists from outside the United States to be included.

Despite such prominence, Moody was overlooked by the mainstream and, after 1930, was largely compelled to follow two professions – both as a dental surgeon and artist. Assessing his position, the artist and critic Rasheed Araeen made a telling comparison with his contemporary, the British sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986):

It is a strange coincidence that Henry Moore also visited the British Museum during the same time and was inspired by, among other things, pre-Columbian Mexican sculpture. There is a similarity between the thinking of Moody and Moore, who both use the human figures as their mode of expression. And yet they are different, not only in terms of their life experiences, and what their works signify, but also in their status. While the former is modest in ambition, knowing his (marginal) place in the colonial society, the later work of Henry Moore seems to relate to the milieu of the post-war imperial ambitions of the British state.
(In Hayward Gallery 1989, p.19.)

Further reading
Rasheed Araeen, The Other Story, Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1989.
Transforming the Crown, African, Asian & Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966–1996, exhibition catalogue, Studio Museum Harlem, New York 1997.
Cynthia Moody, The Works of Ronald Moody: Catalogue Raisonné, Bristol (unpublished) 1998.

Andrew Wilson         
November 2018

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