One of the island’s most renowned artistes and contributors to the development of the nation’s artistic and cultural expressions passed away last week. The family of Sir Dunstan St. Omer, SLC, KCMG, MBE advise that he passed away peacefully at 11:25pm on 5th May, 2015. This, after a prolonged illness that had taken a toll on his body. He died at his home in Union surrounded by his family.
From all I’ve heard, read and learnt about Sir Dunstan St. Omer, affectionately called Apilo, he loved Saint Lucia, his family and two women: the Blessed Virgin Mary and his wife. He loved them all, even above his art. In fact, he used his artistic expressions to pay homage to the things that he loved.
Born in 1927, St. Omer grew up in Saint Lucia and was influenced by another unsung (at that time) hero and artist, Harry Simmons. At St. Mary’s College, where he was educated, he met fellow Saint Lucian Derek Walcott and the two soon became close friends. Walcott also happened to be a painter. The young Simmons inspired St. Omer to paint from his own experience. “What he taught us was to paint our own experience. Up until then, the art I had known was European,” St. Omer once said. That began to shape the direction that he would take with his paintings.
Dunstan St. Omer later became well known for his religious themes, particularly changing the concept of a “white Jesus” into an ethnicity with which most Saint Lucians and indeed West Indians could identify. Standing at the epicentre were his famous Black Madonnas. In one interview he recalled, “There was no tradition of Caribbean religious art to draw on. The tradition was European. Jesus, Mary and the Saints had European features; there was nothing remotely resembling Caribbean faces or tones. After a long process of internal questioning and dialogue, I got that inner revelation which was also my personal liberation.”
St. Omer’s first canvas to test his new inner vision would be the wall behind the altar of the Jacmel church. Today it stands as one of his most remarkable monuments. It features the Holy Family, depicted as black, surrounded by the circle of life which includes members of the community – a chanteur, dancers, a chak-chak band, an Amerindian woman and child, a banana worker. From the hand of the Christ child a ray of light emanates.
St. Omer then continued to paint his inspiration at several other churches including the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Castries, described by some as “the greatest commission since Michelangelo”. From there he was commissioned to do other work in neighbouring islands including Martinique and Trinidad.
But amidst his thousands of paintings hanging in hallowed halls, galleries and homes all over the world, one creation is the most famous: the Saint Lucia National Flag.
During his lifetime St. Omer also worked for the government of Saint Lucia as Curriculum Officer for Art in the Ministry of Education and Culture, imparting his knowledge to students island-wide.
St. Omer was married and fathered nine children. This week the STAR spoke to one of them, Giovanni St. Omer, who opened up about his father.
What do you remember most about your father?
“The thing that will always stand out for me is that my father was always a very humble man and his love and his passion was always for Saint Lucia and for Saint Lucians. For him it was never about self, awards and honours, but about what he could do to raise the consciousness of the black man in the Caribbean at that time. What he always wanted was for Saint Lucians to be more confident in themselves and realize that they are greater than they actually realize and that they could do great things.”
What was it like growing up in the St. Omer household?
“It was exciting because my father always believed in family. Most of his friends, they had a chance to leave home to pursue greener pastures, riches and fame. My father stayed home with family. He used to take us around to every beach and places we never new existed because he wanted to expose us to the beauty of Saint Lucia and help us appreciate what we had. As a devout Christian, Christmas was also very important and we would have a great time then, going to church and then having family time.”
You and your brothers also got involved in the arts; was that something that came naturally or did your father encourage you?
“To be honest, people like Derek Walcott, Roddy Walcott and George Odlum used to be at our house with my dad and there were always these discussions about how difficult it was for the artiste to make a living. So my father did not want us to be a part of that, he did not want us to struggle. So he worked hard to ensure we had a good education. But we did not have a choice; we were surrounded by artistes, the tools and what have you so it just happened. We started doing it for fun at first but he became really proud of us when we got into it and started making our own contributions in one way or another.”
In conversation about his inspiration for the National Flag, what do you recall him saying?
“The thing is, when my father was thinking about doing the flag, his thing at that time was that he wanted Saint Lucians to believe in themselves, to never look down and never allow anyone to look down on them. So that’s why he chose the Pitons as the symbol as it is rising, everything is rising and he chose colours that would speak to us, the blue sky and heavens we look up to, the glory of the sunshine, our skin colour. The peaks of the flag speak to our yearning to rise and we should never stop aspiring to reach the top.”
What were the last days with him like?
“It was tough. I was one of those around him when he first took ill and had to travel to Martinique.
“We always ensured that he had someone around whenever he opened his eyes because my father hated being alone and loved the company of his family. When he came home from the hospital he ensured that we did whatever we could to just enjoy the moment.
“The last few weeks, however, became difficult. He would tell us that he stayed alive for his kids, but he is tired now, his work is done and he wants the family to accept that. My father is a very proud man; he did not like the idea of not being able to do anything for himself.
His body was broken, but his mind was sound. And so that last day he said just let him sleep in his mother and father’s bed and go to them in peace.”
Do you recall his last words to you?
“Take care of your mother!”
Did he ever speak of having any regrets?
“My father’s only regret, and he mentioned it many times, was that Saint Lucians did not accept Saint Lucian artistes and that there still was nowhere one would go to see the works of Harry Simmons, Roddy and Derek Walcott and himself. And as his family, we intend on doing everything we can to correct this and to carry on his legacy.”
Talk about his inspiration for the Black Madonnas and his affinity with the Christian faith.
“My father’s love is for Mary Mother of God. That foetal connection between the mother and child was something he was always in awe of. In fact, he often pointed out that it is in everything, that foetal connection – mother and children, country and its people, church and congregation. “Once that connection could work in harmony, then everything else would work,” he said. So that’s why he created the Black Madonna. And he also loved the church and believed in having faith. He often said that faith is what carries everything and that if you have faith it gives you strength, it gives you power to do things and that it can protect you and help you overcome your fears.”