By Dennison Moore
Sybil Atteck, Artist: A Brief Biography
by Helen Atteck & Keith Atteck
(HED ATTECK Publisher)
Sybil Atteck, a well-known Trinidadian painter and sculptor, was born in 1911 in Tableland, a small village of coffee and cacao plantations in the south-east of the island.
Her extensive artistic works, produced over several decades, are held in private collections and in art galleries at home and abroad.
She has been awarded the Chaconia Gold Medal for her work and honored posthumously by having her portrait placed on a Trinidad and Tobago stamp commemorating the Decade for Women.
Most Trinidadians, it is fair to say, have never set eyes on her productions, and if they know her at all, it is only by reputation.
So we owe a debt of gratitude to the authors of this little book for including in their biography her many beautifully reproduced specimens representative of the range of her artistic talent.
Of the quality of these specimens the reviewer, not being an artist, has nothing to say.
The biographical material in this book is presented in two essays: one dubbed the “Foreword” written by Helen Atteck, the other, a more substantial piece by Geoffrey MacLean who has an art gallery in Trinidad.
The material in these essays read like incidents in the life of Sybil Atteck such as where she was born, the schools she attended at home and abroad, and when and where she did the first showing of her artwork.
Such events are, of course, important elements of biography; they are to biography what the skeleton is to the body.
But they have to be fleshed out with information about the social, political and economic environment in which they have occurred.
And that is what is missing in these essays.
Missing as well in the comments on Sybil Atteck’s artistic productions and in her comments on her work is what she thought about the relation of creative art to social life.
Is the purpose of art to make people aware of their social environment so that they can change it? Or is the aim of art, art itself?
Sybil Atteck lived through many socio-political events in Trinidad such as the agitation for universal suffrage, the Butler riots, the Lend-Lease Act which saw the coming of the Americans to the island and the agitation for independence which predated Dr. Eric Williams’ involvement in that movement.
Yet there is nothing in the artwork presented in this volume that seems to pass judgement on those events; which suggests that Sybil Atteck believed that the aim of art is art itself.
But much more information is needed before such a view can be regarded as conclusive.
There is one assertion in Geoffrey MacLean’s essay that needs to be corrected. On page 9 he states that the Double Chaconia is the National Flower of Trinidad and Tobago. This flower was discovered by Sybil’s sister Grace in 1957 while she was walking with some friends in Blanchisseuse. The Double Chaconia is unique to Trinidad, but the Single Chaconia was chosen as the National Flower.
It is rather surprising that as a member of the committees established to design Trinidad and Tobago’s National Symbols and to choose the National Flower, Sybil Atteck did not press the claims of the Double Chaconia to that honour.
(Trinidad-born Dr. Dennison Moore is a former Chief of Staff of the Department of Multiculturalism and Citizenship Canada)