Aubrey Williams

Tribal Mark II


Not on display

Aubrey Williams 1926–1990
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 762 × 1015 mm
frame: 974 × 1227 × 65 mm
Purchased 2011


Tribal Mark II 1961 is an oil painting on canvas by the artist Aubrey Williams and is characteristic of the painterly language that the artist was exploring through the late 1950s and early 1960s. A group of bone-like glyphs (somewhere between a pictogram and an ideogram) that resemble human or animal forms are set against an area of lighter ground in the centre of the painting, while the top left and bottom right corners are in deep shadow. The forms of the glyphs relate closely to those that make up the composition of Williams’s Death and the Conquistador 1959 (Tate T13341), which in turn recalls paintings by Jackson Pollock of the mid-1940s. Pollock was a significant influence on Williams, who would have seen examples of his early works – especially Pasiphaë 1943 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Gothic 1944 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) – the previous year at the Pollock exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London. However, the very different isolation of the glyphs in Tribal Mark II between two darker areas of paint that contrast areas of emptiness with areas of painterly incident suggests a partial response to the work of Franz Kline, another influence on Williams.

Williams’s concern with texture and matter revealed through the painted surface also suggests pictorial concerns that are more easily identified as European, reflecting especially Michel Tapié’s elaboration of ‘art autre’ (‘art of another kind’) and the context of an involvement by both British artists and architects in the ramifications of art brut. Added to such a pictorial rhetoric, Williams’s positioning of his paintings in terms of a submerged subject links his work with that of Matta, and was an approach that he found confirmed in the paintings of Arshile Gorky, as he admitted later: ‘Gorky fitted in some way with my own perception which was basically informed by the pre-Columbian Indian iconography of Guyana’ (quoted in Rasheed Araeen, ‘Excerpts from Conversation with Aubrey Williams’, in October Gallery and Walker Art Gallery 2010, p.20). Williams’s painting of this period is exemplary for its profound engagement with developments in abstraction, both among his contemporaries in London and on the continent and in America, which he then synthesised into a particularly personal language born of his experience and memory of his native Guyanese cultural history.

For Williams, working in London at a time when existential angst was being reformed through painterly acts by many artists, ‘the crux of the matter is that inherent in my work … has been the human predicament, especially with regard to the Guyanese situation’ (quoted in Whitechapel Art Gallery 1998, p.24). Williams presented this subject in an objectively visceral manner, relishing the materiality of the paint and the manner of its application to create his bone-like images. The critic Guy Brett, writing about Williams’s artistic position, suggested that his work has ‘to be considered in three different contexts: that of Guyana, that of the Guyanese and West Indian “diaspora” in Britain, and that of British society’ (quoted in Whitechapel Art Gallery 1998, p.24).

However, the roots of the imagery Williams used also have their basis in his experiences as an agricultural field officer in Guyana in the late 1940s. Between 1947 and 1949 he was posted at an agricultural station in North Guyana where he came into contact with the Warrau tribe, learned their language, observed their customs and rituals, and recorded their stories. This experience was later to define both the subject and form of his paintings and his motivation as an artist. He later stated that it was as a result of this that he started to understand ‘how man makes things according to his own image … at once the creation of something that has never been in the world before – and yet nothing really new, just a re-arrangement’ (quoted in Whitechapel Art Gallery 1998, p.25). The image that he struck upon was a bone-like claw or glyph, which he described as a ‘strange, very tense, slightly violent shape coming in somewhere. It has haunted me all my life and I don’t understand it; a subconscious thing coming out’ (quoted in Whitechapel Art Gallery 1998, p.25). The glyph can be approached as a threatening image of strength or violence (akin in some respects to the act of painting itself), but also as something that might be left behind after an act of violence, the tortured and wounded body reflecting the ‘human predicament’ in its most general sense. Yet for the Guyanese poet Kamau Braithwaite, Williams’s glyphs related to something quite specific: they are for him ‘the door, the porte cabesse or central pole, down which the gods often descend into the tonelle during Vodun worship’ (quoted in Whitechapel Art Gallery 1998, p.25). Williams’s achievement in this painting was, through the elaboration of abstraction, to create a true synthesis of cultural coding, open both to specific and more generalised (if still culturally specific) readings.

Further reading
Aubrey Williams, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1998.
Aubrey Williams, exhibition catalogue, October Gallery, London, and Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool 2010.

Andrew Wilson
September 2010

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Display caption

   Williams was born in 1926 in what was then British Guiana, to middle class parents of African and Carib heritage. He studied art from a young age but made a living as a government agricultural field officer. Regarded as too supportive of independent sugar growers, he was moved to a remote station in the north-west, living amongst the Warrau people. Their art and cosmology, especially their ancestral petroglyphs – rock carvings providing instructions such as how to live sustainably within the forest – would later have a profound impact on his painting. ‘I have to thank the Warrau people now for my work as an artist’, he said.

Gallery label, January 2022

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