At a Parisian bar at Folies-Bergère, Edouard Manet met a barmaid that eventually became the muse for one of the most famous paintings in history. This woman, known only as Suzon, was painted as the central focus of a busy bar scene. Her demeanor was quiet as she gazed through the canvas, her posture, relaxed and open. Walking into Canvas gallery’s recent display of Belinda Eaton’s work, I couldn’t help but come back to Manet, not only for their similarities but also differences.
As she gazes back at the audience, Manet’s barmaid stands plainly in the mid-ground and yet manages to envelope the entire painting. Similarly, the figures of an Eaton piece also dominate the composition but through stronger figurative forms, postures and facial expressions. Take for example, ‘Armchair and Stripes’: the woman relaxes on a turquoise sofa, each limb creating strong compositional lines that leads the audience’s gaze to the face, where the figure holds an intensive glare back at the viewer.
Manet’s work stood between the realms of realism and impressionism and in much the same way, Eaton’s paintings position themselves between the world of magic and reality, thereby making her work a prime example of Magical Realism. This genre of art captures the truth of the world and its physical laws, as one would understand them, but also allows the addition of objects that shouldn’t necessarily be in a particular space. The work in turn, makes the viewer question whether all that they see before them is factual and if not, why the mysterious anomaly is added to the painting in the first place. In her painting ‘Man with Hoopoe bird’ why does Eaton paint a man in a russet coloured shirt standing behind said bird? Perhaps, the lad was a drifter, moving seasonally much like the bird. Or maybe, the whole composition speaks of a journey through an area affected by warm climate conditions, made plausible by the presence of a prickly plant (a resident of the desert), the cowboy-patterned shirt and general brownish colour scheme of the painting, as well as the bird, itself, that migrates to warmer temperatures.
Eaton was born in Mombasa, Kenya and has since lived in different cities across the globe including London, New York and Karachi. Today the artist lives and works between England and Spain. Her nomadic life has had a clear influence on her practice as each figure and their surroundings express nurtured tales from around the world that are wrapped in appealing packages of expressive brushwork and vivid hues. The paintings seem to have no preference for gender or race but rather distinctiveness. Each character and their expressions encircle the canvas with their fervent presence and powerful demeanour.
The colour palette also plays a key role in her paintings. Not only does her choice of hue dictate the mood of the work, each tone is carefully chosen so as to bring emphasis to the figures, as they visually contrast with the backgrounds. One such example is ‘Ladies who Lunch’ where the woman, painted with a minimal black dress and crimson hair, pop outs against the busy background of bluish furniture and painted hors d’oeuvres. Along with her unique style, the artist seems to be partial to patterns, recurring in her work in the form of wallpaper, floor panels, clothes and even body-tattoos. The presences of these designs, that range from organic to geometric, soften the composition, as well as provide focus and eye movement. Breaking the paintings down to their base, they each seem to be a collection of multiple patterns placed side-by-side, while still managing to compliment each other despite the complexity and distinctiveness of each pattern.
These marvels of Belinda Eaton seem to grace Karachi every 10 years or so, giving each decade a chance to revere in its surrounding presence. Displaying for the first time in the city in ’97, Eaton again showed in Karachi a decade later and now it was finally a chance for this decade to come into contact with the work. The first time I came across an Eaton painting was on a mere discoloured inkjet print while I sat in a group of eager art students amazed by the cheap reproduction. Finally seeing it person, being able to follow each brushstroke, each design as it travelled across the canvas was an experience all on its own.
Belida Eaton’s work was displayed in Canvas Gallery, Karachi from
9th-18th October, 2018