Standing aloof under the shelter provided by the wooden terrace of Johnno’s in Sandy Ground, Lydia cuts the perfect figure of quotidian serenity that characterizes island life. Indeed, that she has asked me to meet her here, on a day when we both know the restaurant will be closed, is oddly relevant: for she has become an integral part of the community at Sandy Ground, most at ease when the stretch of land between the pond and the sea is not swarmed with visitors.
Not that this happened overnight. Lydia arrived in Anguilla 25 years ago, after spending some time in the French Caribbean – specifically in the Breton outpost of Les Saintes and in the more cosmopolitan Saint Martin. “But even in 1984,” she tells me, “Saint Martin was developed: Grand Case was charming with its open houses and overall friendliness, but Marigot was already developed – I never got to see Marigot in its full splendor.” So starts a story that has long been incorporated in the fold of island folklore: Lydia and her partner at the time, Henri, arrived in Anguilla one day with the sole purpose of catching a cargo boat to the Dominican Republic the following day. “Have you ever seen that boat?” she asks me, as I smile in disbelief. “Neither has anyone else,” she acknowledges.
So Lydia found herself by mistake in an island where there was close to nothing. “The first day, there was a cargo boat and a lot of activity on the harbor. I didn’t like it. We stayed at Lake’s guesthouse and came back the following day looking for the boat to the Dominican Republic.” Needless to say, there was no boat to be found. But what Lydia did find was the overwhelming beauty that she had overlooked the day before. In a way, her work since has consisted in a recreation of that very same experience of confrontation with and discovery of the beautiful where it’s least expected (amid the unremarkable, or the plain ugly).
Whatever else her painting might be, Lydia’s art is unmistakable. The peculiar manipulation of proportions together with the ensuing sense of (distorted) perspective found in her paintings are not only decidedly her own, but have permeated the local establishment to such degree that they have become emblematic of Anguilla. “There are certain things that come to the eye in Anguilla: small things that become big just because they are so powerful,” she explains, as she struggles to define that je ne sais quoi she finds in island scenes. “Sometimes your vision has to be microscopic in Anguilla, sometimes you have to change the way you look at things. But eventually Anguilla forces its beauty on you – even against the will of the people!”
However, one thing is what you see, and another thing altogether different is what you communicate. And for Lydia Séméria, the painter, the most direct and efficient medium of communication is color: the rest is only the shapes she chooses (“discovers,” she might say) as vehicles to carry the real force of her proposition. “Painting is not about the technique – this you can learn, this you can perfect. But painting is about what you communicate”, she tells me, as she explains the special aspect of reciprocity involved in her creative process. “When I paint, there is a conversation between me and the canvas – colors speak to me, they call one another to create a harmony in the canvas, regardless of what you see in real life.”
This harmony is perhaps what best describes the retrospective exhibition that Lydia is hosting at the Devonish Art Gallery on the West End Road of Anguilla until the 18th of July. A wide selection of paintings spanning the last ten years of her career, this exhibition could be seen as a homage to the power of color and the devotion Lydia feels towards it. On the wake of her departure to new challenges in England, this display is certain to provide the visitor with a wonderful insight into the career of one of Anguilla’s most singular resident artists, particularly if you catch her at the gallery during her scheduled hosting sessions every Friday and Saturday for the duration of the show.
Looking ahead at the challenges that lie in her future, Lydia remains unfazed: “I have been a painter all my life – I know I can paint. I don’t think anything will change, not even my palette!” Maybe if you constantly change the way you look at things, you don’t really need to change the way you paint them. Maybe. But the time for variables in Lydia’s career is past. “I have lived an absolutely free life in Anguilla. I have worked hard and I have fulfilled my responsibilities but I have never been forced to do what I didn’t want to do.” This freedom has come at an expense: the inevitably small platform offered by Anguilla has meant a similarly small audience. “There is only so much success you can have here, and for me, right now, I feel the time has come for recognition.” Lydia’s expectations are not modest: she plans to get what she wants in five years, which is what some call “instant success.” The jury is out as to whether the world is discerning enough (whether it’s “ready”) to embrace the art of Lydia Séméria. Regardless of the outcome, her work will continue to advocate for the supremacy of color. Take a walk by Devonish Art Gallery and allow yourself to be compelled!
PUBLISHED BY THE OUT ‘N ABOUT SUPPLEMENT OF THE DAILY HERALD, SINT MAARTEN ON JULY 2, 2009.