The Artist as Social Activist

The Artist as Social Activist


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



What I am trying to do is not art for art’s sake. There must be a social context



The Artist as Social ActivistGuyanese-Canadian Claire Carew Reminds Us We Are All “Somebodies”By Norman Faria

Claire Carew, born in Georgetown has been in Canada for over 30 years, sits in a coffee shop at Toronto’s Bloor and Runnymeade roads and gazes pensively at the Saturday morning passersby on the sidewalk.

“How is Guyana these days? I still try to keep abreast of what’s happening—when I see photos and stories of the Essequibo River and the sea by the seawall on the East Coast, Demerara , the old buildings in Georgetown, and the people, things like that still bring back memories…” she muses as she stirs her espresso.

Claire is presently teaching at the Humber Summit Middle School in the city’s west end. But she is also one of Toronto’s really fine, sensitive artists. She is one of the few who uses art to highlight pressing social issues especially involving Canada’s visible ethnic minorities and the struggles of those in the developing world for a better life. She has already done many acclaimed works, exhibiting them at exhibitions in the Canadian cities, Mexico and other countries.

She was brought to Canada by her mother Patricia when she was 11. Her father, Ronald Carew had come to Canada in the mid 1950s.

Mr. Carew, (otherwise known by his “call names” Tiger, Preacher and Lord Ronald back in then B.G.) had a remarkable working life, travelling to Vancouver in British Columbia province on the Pacific coast where he worked in the lumber industry , to Nova Scotia province on the Atlantic side and then to Hamilton in the province of Ontario where he was a steel worker.

Claire still remembers fondly her loving father sending first class tickets for herself, Mrs Carew, and sisters Vivvette, Corinne and Debbie to travel from Guyana to Canada in 1967. Luckily, they visited EXPO-1967, the world exhibition held in Montreal in that year, before moving on to their new home in Vancouver. Mrs. Carew is the “political one who gives me all the news hot off the press”, says Claire.

Claire went to secondary schools in the provinces where dad worked . Art, she explains, came to her “naturally”. A distant relative is renowned Guyanese novelist Jan Carew. In Toronto, she graduated from the Ontario College of Art and then did a B.A. in Fine Arts from the University of Guelph, also in Ontario province, where she was an outstanding student.. Last year, she completed her Masters of Art at Institututo Allende/ University Guanajuato in Mexico.

The exhibitions and overseas activity between 1988 and 2005 included a mural on a building in the Athens 2004 Olympiad complex.

The latter work, with the help of students from her school and the Gracedale Public School in Toronto and depicting as it did the unity and common aspirations of peoples worldwide, was typical of Claire’s outlook. Other works depict Canada’a indigenous peoples (The Amerindians of Canada) and other “people of colour” as she describes them. Characteristically, on the day of her interview she wore a sweatshirt with the image of the great Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo on front.

This social consciousness extends into other situations in civil rights, immigrant rights and developing world’s ongoing efforts for social reforms, better standard of living and democracy. She did a painting on the 1983 death of Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop ; among others, on the bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima in World II, on US civil rights leaders Paul Robeson, Dr.Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson.

Her “Artist’s Creed” on her website succinctly sums up her outlook: “I create art filled with cultural and historic imagery to uplift, heal and energize its viewers to take personal and political action”.

She further explains: “What I am trying to do is not art for art’s sake. There must be a social context. When Bishop was assassinated I tried to convey the pain I felt when he was killed. On my feelings on Hiroshima, I am very concerned about the question of peace. It is absurd for us to continue in our daily existence without ever considering that we are in danger, especially when we know what happened at Hiroshima and the Japanese people. Were they not somebodies, if I may use Jesse Jackson’s term?”

Among other world traveling, Claire attended the International Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow in the then Soviet Union in the 1980s as a delegate from the Partisan art gallery in Toronto.

Carew, who is of African, Amerindian (Arawak) and European descent, also works with Canadian Amerindian groups in addition to those of the wider Canadian people of all races.

Tellingly, her mural in Greece includes an Amerindian figure, in addition to a little pre-teen girl dressed, like she remembers, in a white dress and ponytails on a Sunday afternoon in Georgetown.

In Mexico, she spent a happy six month stay last year in the town of San Miguel de Allende, studying and painting. Her M.A. thesis at the University there was on aboriginal spirituality, or shamanism.

Out of that sojourn came several vibrant, incisive paintings, photographs and sculptures, “fusing”, as she relates, “ancient symbols and contemporary imagery”. Jan, who lived and worked in Mexico during the 1980s , wrote to her observing that “[Your] artistic imagination is fed and nourished by the Mexican experience”.

A soft spoken, beautiful woman in every sense of the word, Claire has her own distinctive artistic style. But there have been some influences. One notices some of (French painter) Paul Gauguin for example. Whom does she admire today ? What of other Canadian artists ? “I like the work of Canadians Norval Morrisseau and Arthur Shilling of the Ojibway nation and the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo.”

Readers may view some her work on her website Claire shows respect to all religions and spiritual beliefs from all over. At night, before retiring, she makes a point of following Jan’s advice and saying thanks for six special things which has happened to her, things which have given her inspiration, during the day.

Aside from the homework associated with her teaching and working on her paintings, she enjoys listening to the classics (jazz and others) on radio and writing poetry during her spare time in her modest semi-detached wall house in the traditional Portuguese/Italian district. in Toronto’s west end. . . .

“When you get back to Barbados I want you to send me some photos of that beach on Carlisle Bay you are always walking on. And when you go to Guyana also send me some from there. Tell my friends I haven’t forgotten the beauty of the land, smiles on people’s faces, the passionate discussion on politics. I haven’t forgotten the scent of the earth, the sounds of the water as I walk along the sea wall, the kisskadee whistle, the botanical gardens and the kissing bridge. I haven’t forgotten my dear land of Guyana…” she says as she bids me farewell outside the little coffee shop, still pensive to the end.



posted 19 November 2006

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update 19 February 2012




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