As one of our most popular and prolific Seychellois painters celebrates his golden birthday with another spectacular exhibition, TONY MATHIOT looks back at his incredibly eventful career…
Fish. Fish paralysed in an explosion of psychedelic colours. Ichthyoid shimmers of crimson red. Squirming fish. Motionless fish. Wisps of churning blue twisting into pisciform pretzels. Shaping, unshaping, reshaping. So, what is this – shall I call it – ‘piscatorial affinity’?
‘It became my artistic identity, right from the outset’. He tells me, ‘with idiosyncratic glee. ‘Up to now, I must have painted hundreds of fish’.
Up to now. He means during these last thirty years, because as he turns 50, he will be celebrating thirty years as an artist. That’s no small feat for the boy from Mont Buxton.
Nigel Leonard Henri was born on Thursday 15th June 1967 at Greenwich, in the uplands of Mont Buxton. He is the fifth child in a family of seven children. The year he was born, Seychelles was going through the turbulence of political awakening. It was a year of protest marches, strikes and political rallies. It was the year when the first General Election was held based on the First Colonial Constitution of Seychelles. After attending primary education at English River School, he pursued his secondary education at Cascade because his parents had to move house. By then, Nigel had already proven that he had a flair for drawing – at national level. He was constantly the enviable winner of the Radio drawing competition ‘Ekoute e Desinen’ which was hosted by Douglas Cedras (1950 – 2014).
After completing his National Youth Service years (1984 – 1985) he enrolled at the Seychelles Polytechnic in the Department of Art and Design – where he clinched the coveted President’s cup for the Best Art and Design Student, as well as the overall Best Student of the Polytechnic for the year 1988! Now, that’s definitely no mean feat! Yes, he did it with flying colours!
His professional journey to the world of art began at the National Institute for Education where he earned a Diploma for Education, following which, he spent about 9 months teaching Art at the National Youth Service Institution and at various schools on Mahé. It was in 1992 that Nigel Henri held his first solo exhibition of cartoon depictions of the Seychellois Social realism. It was at the Carnegie Hall that he made his debut. His pictorial satire of the Creole Society quickly gained him national popularity. He was then 25 years old. That same year, in a bid to bring the community of local artists together, he helped to form and promote the Association of Visual Arts (Ava), of which he was elected Chairman in 1997.
‘Being an artist myself, I was confident that I could earn my livelihood with my painting’. He tells me. He speaks with equanimity and composure, with exquisite aplomb, one could say. In the same manner that he executes his brush strokes.
‘So regarding other artists’ He explains. ‘There was a need to have an association that would have a concern for the welfare of artists. The creative side of art as well as the commercial potential of art. An artist, a painter, a sculptor has to be able to earn revenue from his art. It is his profession. He has to live from it. Ava gave member artists opportunities to attend workshops and to hold exhibition overseas’.
In 1989, Nigel left Seychelles to study at Sussex University, Great Britain where he obtained a BA in Education, specializing in Art. It was there that he met his German wife, Kirstine. They came back to Seychelles where he was given a teaching post at the School of Art and Design, and she was employed at Nature Seychelles. Besides spending two years in East Germany, his wife’s homeland, Nigel would spend 17 years in his teaching profession during which time he became one of the most reknowned Seychellois artists on the local scene. It seemed that at one point, everybody wanted to have a Nigel Henri acrylic on canvass on his wall. Even 5 – star tourist establishments vye for his artworks. He was once a residential artist at the Banyan Tree resort at Intendance. Northholme Hotel, La Briz Silhouette resort and Hunt Deltel have commissioned works from him.
He confided to me that ‘Long before even I was that popular, Barclays Bank commissioned me to design T-shirts for the staff’. Now that’s cool! I bet you didn’t know that!
I bet you’ve seen a Nigel Henri painting somewhere without knowing it. At Eden Island? In the arrival lounge of the Seychelles International Airport? At Four Seasons Resort? In an office somewhere in Unity House? On Praslin? On La Digue? Or it could have been in some other country? Well, you wouldn’t know – because our Nigel is one of those unpretentious and unassuming successful Seychellois artists whose artistic scope extends beyond, way beyond the local tourism market. Seeing Nigel having his usual 9 a.m nicotine break outside his small artist shop, The Palette, at the Carrefour des Arts, you wouldn’t know of his accomplishments and inspirations. And yet the boy from Mont Buxton has got loads to brag about. Well, may I enlighten you –
It’s true that Nigel, or shall I rather say, Henri (since it is customary to address an artist distingué by his surname) has made fish a continually recurring theme in his paintings. However, many of his chefs’ d’Oeuvre have naught to do with marine life. Like his social scenes paintings or his collection of Ton Pa’s paintings, showing the legendary traditional musician’s face at various angles. Ton Pa was the alias of Jacob Marie (1904 – 1994).
Perhaps, when the history of art in Seychelles is written, the first decade of the New Millenium will be known as the Henri Period. It was preceded by the most unlikely of art projects that a Seychellois artist could be requested to do – to paint a beatle!
In August of 1999, whilst teaching at the School of Art and Design, Henri went to Germany where he painted a Volkswagen Beatle with marine motifs. The car was auctioned with the proceeds going to charity. In April of 2002, he was invited to go to Germany again to paint this time, a bear! Well, a hug two-metre Teddy bear. This was in the context of a UNICEF (United National Children Fund) project which had started in 2000, when artists from 180 member states gathered to each decorate a two-metre bear with colours and motifs that are identifiable with their particular country. Guess what Henri painted on his Teddy bear?!
The bears toured countries across the globe ‘as friends and ambassadors’ for Berlin promoting peace freedom and international understanding – the motto of the United Buddy Bears being ‘we have to get to know each other better’. The bears were auctioned with the proceeds going to UNICEF and child relief organisations. In 2006, Henri travelled again to Germany to paint yet another bear. If you watched the ceremony of the opening match for the 2006 Football World Cup which was held in Berlin from 15th November to 1st December 2006, you must have seen the United Beaks of the world doing a full circle of the 73-seat Olympiastadion. Henri’s bear was among them.
2002 was also the year that Henri set up his own graphic design consultancy. It was also the year that the First Triennial of Contemporary Art of the Indian Ocean was held at Bell Village; Flic en Flac Mauritius. Henri was among three Seychellois artists (Colbert Nourrice and Egbert Marday) who participated. Henri displayed three paintings entitled ‘Exist’ ‘Current’ and ‘Gush’ Exist was sold to a Mauritian buyer and the other two were sold here from August 1st to 3rd of 2003, he held an exhibition at the Coral Strand Hotel. It comprised of some 50 paintings. The exhibition was to commemorate the 20th year (1983 – 2003) of his career.
‘Every decade is a milestone in my career’ he tells me ‘and a major exhibition expressed the significance of that miles tone. It enables me to make a personal estimate of what I have accomplished during the 10-year period’.
In 2007, Henri had a joint exhibition with a British painter, John Roberts at Carrefour des Arts called ‘A World Apart Exhibition’. His display consisted of collage works using copies of archival documents on slavery whereas his partner’s showed people in the Contemporary context hence the title ‘Worlds Apart’. Between them they displayed some 25 pieces of art work. Such collaborative project served to place the contrasting representation in juxtaposition, thus emphasising the individual display of each artist by reconciling the antithesis between the two.
That same year, Henri was invited to Jakarta, Indonesia for the ‘Cop 13’, and environmental conference for the express purpose of doing a painting in the presence of the United Nation Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon and the Indonesian President, Susito Yudhoyono. The canvas was auctioned (the price is secret) and the money given to the people of Bandar Aceh who were worst affected by the 2004 tsunami. Henri even designed the ushers’ uniforms for the occasion.
‘That was a big thing’ he recalls gleefully. ‘Here I was amidst all those world leaders, commanding so much attention. It was overwhelming. It was fun’.
And ‘your’ presence was a privilege to them, Henri. We wonder where is that painting you did? In whose home is it being kept? How many pairs of eyes have seen it? Is it still owned by the original buyer? And you who created it, does it bother you not knowing? A singer never loses possession of his song, but an artist, a painter, has to part with his creation.
In 2009, Henri had a Solo exhibition in Beijing, China from 4th September to 13th September. Many of his paintings were sole on site. It made him happy. His art had spread to new frontiers. It ignited his enthusiasm for further ambitious projects.
As luck would have it, was we say, early in 2010, he won a contract to exhibit so of his paintings in the office of the Gazprom Company in Dusseldorf. The Company used to hire and exhibit the work of a selected artist from anywhere in the world. Most of those 80 paintings are now cherished artworks in German homes.
You should be wondering – since he has an inveterate penchant for painting marine scenery – if Henri has ever participated in the annual SUBIOS (submarine images of Seychelles) event. Definitely, for him, SUBIOS (since 2015 renamed Seychelles Ocean festival) is an outlet for his art. He was there in 1998 in a collective exhibition with other local artists.
The following year he had a solo one. In 2001 he participated in another collective one. But not consistently every year, because he does not want this artistic predilection to earn him the stigma of being a mere ‘SUBIOS artist’! Discernment and far – sightedness are also colours that are blended on his palette and then applied sagaciously to obtain the desired results.
Exhibition to an artist is what publishing is to a writer. It is the precious showcase of his artistic talent and expression as well as the source of his livelihood.
During his 30 year career, Henri has had scores of exhibitions; Solo or in collaboration with other artists.
From 1996 to 2002, he has held a total of twenty exhibitions, local and international – from the gallery of Alliance Française des Seychelles to the halls and corridors of Paris, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic. Yes, surely there must be more Henri paintings in private collections outside of Seychelles.
On Wednesday 14 June, on the eve of his 50th birthday, Nigel Henry will give us the luxury of another exhibition which will be located in the National gallery at the National Library building.
If you were there in 1992, at his first solo which was held at the Carnegie Hall, this exhibition will certainly be one that will make you gasp at Henri’s mellowed artistic prowess. It is now 25 years later. Henri’s acrylics, inks and pastels reside in many homes across the globe. Henri is now the father of a 26th year old architect son and a 23 year old daughter. And yet, he paints with the verve and brio of a talented teenager. Happy birthday Henri!