Karl Broodhagen was a pioneering Barbadian artist who changed the face of international art in Barbados forever. Until the late 1950’s Barbados was relatively closed to international art. However, thanks to Karl Broodhagen, and artists like him, the Barbados art scene started to open its doors to outside influences.
Born in Guyana in 1909, Broodhagen was in his teens when he came to Barbados with his mother. Broodhagen initially worked as a successful tailor, and this role initiated his deep understanding of the human form, which would later manifest itself in his work as a sculptor. Broodhagen started sculpting, painting and creating, focusing on individuals’ characters. It is his realistic portrayal of each individual that makes his work so engaging.
He was prolific, filling his home with work, leaning it against every surface. He sought out the people he wanted to capture, but people also came to him including many people of note. Among them were Frank Collymore, the Barbadian writer and editor of the renowned literary magazine Bim and Major Noot, an Englishman who was the headmaster of Combermere School.
In the 1940’s art was still perceived as subversive and odd in the Caribbean; it was rarely taught in the schools. These men encouraged Broodhagen not only to teach at the prestigious establishment of Combermere, but to build an art department and curriculum from scratch. He began in 1947 and continued on and off for the next fifty years.
One of his breaks was a year in England. In 1948, Broodhagen exhibited at the British Council, which led him to win a scholarship in 1952 to Goldsmith’s College in London. In these years, the Caribbean still saw the drawing of nudes as socially unacceptable, another reason why Broodhagen focused so much on the people inside the bodies.
Suddenly he had access to professional tuition, life drawing and all the influences, trends and movements of the international art world. Broodhagen’s style leapt forward. From working indirectly with the human form, he now gained a better understanding of the body and the sensuousness of lines.
Still he used the individual as inspiration, the key and basis of everything he created. Unlike some other artists who used social and political messages as the starting point for their sculptures, ending with pieces that told a social story perfectly, but not the individual’s, Broodhagen was the opposite.
He searched for the person inside the skin and traced that person’s true character in his work. While that could be seen as conventional in some cultures, for a Bajan it was very special.
He found his idea of beauty in people of colour, many of his models had braided hair, pouty lips and big eyes and these themes were often picked up through his work. But his art was equally about beauty beneath the surface.
As writer and artist Christopher Cozier extrapolates, “Busts like those of social worker and philanthropist John Beckles or Dame Nita Barrow….were clearly about the power of the individual voice and the individual presence in the social space.”
Broodhagen’s work dots the Barbadian landscape, but his most famous work forms a major landmark in Barbados. Nicknamed “Bussa” by Barbadians, the famous slave who inspired a revolt against slavery in Barbados in 1816, this statue towers in an attitude of sudden freedom. Officially named “Slave in Revolt“, it was unveiled at St Barnabas, St Michael in 1985 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of slave emancipation in the British colonies.
He has also sculpted busts of other famous Barbadians such as Dame Nita Barrow, Prince Cave and Sir Grantley Adams. Some have criticised the last as his head is seemingly disproportionately large and he’s slightly stooped, but the artist simply said, that’s how we knew him. He was drawing the individual exactly how he was.
Up until the 1970’s and perhaps beyond, the status of an artist in Barbados was constantly fluctuating; it was surrounded by an atmosphere of anxiety on the artist’s part.
On the one hand they were national heroes because they often had political and social messages behind their art, it often contained narratives of heritage and the island, and they become known overseas.
On the other they were in constant fear of foreign influences and being seen as primitive by the outside world. They were frightened for their reputations. The decades during the middle of the twentieth century were a time of big change and uncertainty.
All this was irrelevant to Broodhagen. Born in 1909, he had seen so much and had such strength of character that it passed him by as a storm out to sea.
But this artist had seen many storms. His political and social influences originated from a time before Barbados attained full national self-awareness. He was working in a time recovering from slavery, colonial and class discrimination, a time when personal individuality had been fought for and in name won, but the transition was very gradual. This environment simply encouraged him in his quest for personal individualism.
Karl Broodhagen stands out not only as a talented sculptor and artist, but also as a champion for the individual. He was an important leader and teacher.