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Eva Campbell: Black Being / Body And Beyond
A Thirteen Year Retrospective
By Robert Amos

Jul. 6, 2005 - Jul. 26, 2005
in the McPherson Library Gallery

Eva Campbell is a talented artist in the midst of her career. In the thirteen years sinced she immigrated to Victoria from Ghana, she has created a body of paintings which allow us to share the inner thoughts. This extensive exhibition reveals an interesting woman.

Campbell's father was a mathematician and her mother a biology teacher. From her earliest years she drew on the reams of paper they provided. Her iconic painting Schoolgirl (1994) shows Campbell in the uniform - her uniform - of a schoolgirl in Jamaica.

Campbell's mother led the family on a visit to her native Ghana when Eva was a teenager. The "visit" lasted nine years, during which time the precocious young woman took a degree in fine art at the University of Ghana.

Eva Campbell has had the benefit of an art education based on the traditional curriculum - drawing from plaster casts and models, oil painting - and she was taught by eager and talented Ghanaians who had degrees from American Universities. In addition to her classes and studios, the degree also required field work in village potteries and with mask-makers.

Choosing a graduate school from those which offered her a scholarship, Campbell picked Victoria. Without knowing anything about this place when she arrived in 1993, she was enrolled in the Masters program of the Fine Arts Department. The culture shock she felt is unforgettably told in one of her first paintings here, a large canvas showing a young woman sitting on a cold metal chair. She is black, seen from the back, and wearing only her underpants. Crowded together in the upper right corner is a huddle of gowned surgeons.

Campbell adapted to Canadian life, but in her own time she continued painting sensitive watercolours of African market ladies and doe-eyed children. At school, she submerged her considerable skills as a painter under a slashing crust of collage and action painting.

For her professors, she tried to make her painting "the most difficult I could do. It's as abstract as I got." Yet despite the theoretical direction of her teachers at UVic, Campbell persisted in painting people - women, mostly. She cropped her figures abruptly making striking compositions, and concentrated her powers of observation on knees, backs and the nape of the neck.

At this time, Campbell painted a memorable series of figure studies seen from close above - in fact just as if the painter was simultaneously the subject. There is one of a girl in a gingham dress sitting on a swing - we see her lap and her hands holding the rope. Others show the model carrying a tray, or measuring her bust. These are not self-portraits so much as portraits of self-consciousness.

"Eyes for me are the first thing," Campbell told me. 'And when I put the dot in the eye, then it becomes someone looking at you." Other people's paintings of women usually show them with an averted look, eyes cast down in submission. Campbell's healthy, confident women meet our gaze.

This artist's love of colour and pattern blossom animate the wonderful cottons which her women wear. Roughly laid in with a palette knife, their bold colours may evoke the "spider" or "marital discord" designs of women's clothing in Ghana... or the colour-field paintings of abstract expressionists in which her teachers were steeped.

Campbell's appetite for pure colour is also evident in the quantities of scarlet and crimson which she modelled a bouquet of hibiscus. She told me that, when she was at university, her uncle then at Cambridge would send her oil paints from Britain - her year's quota. Now she no longer needs to hold back, and she revels in the pure colours.

With her Master's degree behind her, Campbell cultivated her skills in portraiture. Never clichéed or ironic, her "people pictures" are composed with equal parts of academic grounding, painterly challenge, theoretical searching and a tender sympathy for her subjects. Apparently, she considers this apparently old-fashioned approach as "a form of resistance. I don't seen anything like this in the serious art world," she laughed.

Almost all of the 50 paintings in the show were borrowed back from Campbell's collectors, yet it's still a struggle for the artist to find a market for her work. Commercial galleries in Victoria show no interest in her work. So, in addition to her painting, she teaches at the Vancouver Island School of Art and continues her work toward a Ph. D. in art history.

This exhibition was initiated and curated by Dr. Astri Wright of the University of Victoria, with the assistance of her graduate students. Dr. Wright has written "Eva invites mostly uninitiated audiences to explore blackness in the female mode, in visual statements and story-moments created by a woman who was always comfortable with being black."

It is a pleasure to share a retrospective look at this talented artist.

You can meet Eva Campbell this weekend at the Moss Street Paint-In (July 16, 12-4 pm). On Thursday, July 21 at 7 pm Campbell will present her artist lecture at the McPherson Library gallery.

© Eva Campbell 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
last update: Saturday, September 19, 2009