- Words by John Atkinson Photography by Lia Crowe
For Jamaican-born visual artist Charles Campbell, making good art is about expanding his world and its possibilities—and then inspiring others to do the same.
The now Victoria-based painter, sculptor and performance artist has been exploring multiple disciplines and his own creative mind for nearly 30 years, and this year he has been honoured with the Jack & Doris Shadbolt Foundation for the Visual Arts VIVA Award.
“I can be extroverted, but mostly I tend to come into myself, and so the art production is where I kind of move into the world and imagine its possibilities in a bigger space,” Charles says. “At this moment, in the world, it feels like things are closing down. There’s this ecological tragedy we’re living through and a kind of segmentation of groups into smaller categories. There’s so much possibility in the world, so let’s recapture that sense. And hopefully, through my art, I can help and inspire other people to imagine that bigger perspective.”
As for what he’s discovered is possible for himself, the 52-year-old highlights race and climate change as his most prominent motivations in creating art.
“It’s often about both capturing the experience I and other Black folks/racialized people have lived through, and seeing how that can assist us in navigating the future.
“Our history has demanded we reinvent our cultures and move forward. When you think about the history of slavery, its brutality and attempt to annihilate our social structures and personhood, it necessitated a kind of cultural ferment. We have to reconstruct ourselves.”
When Charles was five, his family moved from Jamaica to Prince Edward Island. Keen to reconnect with his homeland, he moved back to Jamaica after obtaining a degree in fine arts from Concordia University in Montreal. And that’s where he cut his teeth as an artist.
Charles had investigated issues of race and identity at art school and felt compelled to properly connect with his Jamaican-ness. He stayed for five years and later returned for another two-year spell, including time as chief curator at the National Gallery of Jamaica.
The artist was captivated by Jamaican history, not least its period of slavery, and how the colonial past and social fractures affect the current-day social dynamics and problems with violence. His art helps investigate and expand these ideas.
“I think the question I always ask is ‘how did we end up here?’ In Canada, I feel like we try to gloss over the fact our foundation is rooted in Indigenous genocide. But it’s harder to pretend Jamaica’s economic foundations were anything other than as a slave colony.”
Charles left Jamaica after his five-year spell to do a master’s degree at Goldsmiths College in London, England, and then spent five years there, marrying his first wife, having two kids and eventually moving to Vancouver Island to reconnect with family.
Working out of his home studio in Fernwood, Charles now focuses more on sculpture and performance art—although, he also began painting.
“Then, really through my master’s degree at Goldsmiths, I started getting interested in performance. I found any references I made to Caribbean history in my paintings were dismissed. They were just seen as ‘he’s talking about Blackness’ or ‘he’s a Caribbean artist’.
“Performance art placed me in the middle of these categorizations and really allowed me to answer back to my audience.”
Having reinvented his painting, Charles explored both performance and sculpture through a character.
“I got obsessed with this character from a Jamaican folk festival called Jonkonnu and started reinventing it. I created a character called Actor Boy from a utopian future and embedded that question of ‘how did we get here?’ in him. Then he started making objects and that became my sculpture practice.”
Charles portrayed Actor Boy in Travels in Birdsong on stage in PEI and interacted with his sculptures as part of the performance.
Travels in Birdsong also featured audio sound captures of wetland birds singing from The Bog, a place on PEI which was previously home to a Black community.
“The idea was refined for my airport piece [Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos, a permanent exhibit at Victoria International Airport]. It’s made out of these vessels that hang in a torus. And the pattern on the surface is Morse code: a quote about paradise from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. She’s a Black science fiction writer known for being very prescient.”
Charles is especially proud of his airport exhibit and his piece Maroonscape 3, portraying a 17-foot tree in a Y shape (and with mini-Y’s in the branches) and the human respiratory system, which was displayed at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s 2021 Vancouver Special show, and later reinstalled in Montreal.
Charles now works full-time as an artist, but says his major success and recognition has come only in the last three or four years.
“Yes, now it feels like a career. But it hasn’t always paid the bills. I’ve worked in the environmental non-profit sector for many years. However, I always made art and it got to the point where there were enough opportunities to really go for it.
“I’ve been making work for nearly 30 years and it’s only the past three or four where I’ve made a decent living. So hopefully you’re doing good work that gets recognized. The stars won’t always align for you, but I’m confident I can work through the challenges.”
His exceptional art has this year enjoyed the sublime salute of a Jack & Doris Shadbolt Foundation for the Visual Arts VIVA Award. His near three-decade career as an artist—and the outstanding achievement and commitment he has shown—earned him a $15,000 grant as selected by an independent jury.
Since their inception, 59 VIVA Awards have been given, and Campbell says it was “pretty thrilling” to get the call from the awards committee.
“It feels good to be recognized closer to home,” he said. “The list of previous recipients is impressive and it’s especially meaningful to share this year’s award with Jan Wade. Recognition for her work is long overdue!
“Beyond that, the cheque certainly comes in handy. I’m looking for a new studio that can accommodate larger work but wasn’t quite sure I could afford it. Now the search is on.”
To learn more about Charles’ work, visit charlescampbellart.com.