Denyse Thomasos: A Driving Force for Caribbean Art
Exploring Colonial History, Imprisonment and Hope
Written by Tricia Gopi
Sunday April 2, 2023
Denyse with Arc, 2009. © The Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery, Photo: Nancy Borowick.
While I am by no means an art connoisseur, I am an avid consumer of pop culture, be it TV shows, trips to the mall, movies, concerts, festivals, books, art galleries, museums, and so much more. When art is showcased, that has traditionally meant featuring Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, or Da Vinci. And while "Water Lilies" and "Starry Night" are undoubtedly beautiful and appealing pieces of artwork, they often fall short of connecting with onlookers outside the realm of standard Western Art.
More and more, the Caribbean has been given the attention it deserves in important conversations about society and culture. Most of the time, the islands are regarded and often reduced to vacation destinations with beautiful beaches that only garner thought from the general public when it's time to pack their suitcases. But in Toronto, we see Caribbean influences everywhere, in popular music, clothing trends, food, and how people speak.
This year at the Art Gallery of Ontario, another Caribbean artist was prominently featured: Denyse Thomasos. Denyse Thomasos is a name I'd never heard before, but it's a name I'll remember. I walked through the large white walls of the AGO, unsure of what I would see. Beauty? Resentment? Hope?
Installation view, Denyse Thomasos: just beyond, October 5, 2022 - February 20, 2023. Art Gallery of Ontario. Artwork: Hybrid Nations painted August 3–30, 2005, by Denyse Thomasos, Ben Oakley and Matt Janisse; computer-assisted designs by Joy Charbonneaux (prison cells) and Andrzej Wojaczek (staircase). © The Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery. Photo AGO
An entire floor was filled with beautiful, thought-provoking, and haunting work from the deceased Triniadian-Canadian painter. Thomasos's work explored the idea of imprisonment, cages, and urbanism.
Each piece was distinctly different but connected by common elements: sharp, straight lines similar to architectural drawings and crowded, dense, saturated canvases overwhelmed the gallery's white walls, transporting viewers to the claustrophobia and disarray of cargo ships. Sharp lines replicate boats that double as caskets, serving as a reminder of the grim reality of how many Caribbeans ended up in the region, to begin with.
Installation view, Denyse Thomasos: just beyond, October 5, 2022 - February 20, 2023. Art Gallery of Ontario. Artworks: Dos Amigos (Slave Boat), 1993, and Virtual Incarceration, 1999. © The Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery. Photo AGO.
Further in the exhibit, brighter paintings lined the walls. At first glance, they provided a more cheerful ambience. Still, as I moved closer to the large canvases that dominated the walls, secrets would reveal themselves below the images of bright, vivid colours. Sharp-lined boats were dark, murky rivers that contained skulls and prisons within modern, urban infrastructure, recalling a nefarious history and its remnants that still are alive and well today.
These paintings explore in great detail the idea of imprisonment, cages, and urbanism in a way that has arguably never been done before in the context of the Caribbean and modern art, contrasting the desaturation and vibrancy that recall remnants of colonial history while simultaneously looking forward to a hopeful future that built on the infrastructure of the past.
Each brush stroke, colour, and image on each canvas told a distinct and poignant story that I knew so well, covering its past and present while prompting thoughts about the future.
Denyse Thomasos. Arc, 2009. Acrylic on canvas, overall: 335.3 × 609.6 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Purchase, with funds from the Women's Art Initiative, 2022. © The Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery, Photo: AGO. 2021/356.
Unlike anywhere I've seen before, Denyse Thomasos showcases the intricacies, significance, and echoes of the Caribbean front and centre for the world to absorb and explore, representing hope while sharing hidden secrets of a tainted past. The biggest mistake is not having appreciated or even known her work existed while she was alive.
Caribbean history, culture, and capabilities tend to feel like the best-kept secret of the west. It isn't a story that is told in great detail or with great frequency, and even when it is touched on in textbooks, lectures, or pop culture, the stories and culture are reduced to mere sentences. But paintings, photographs, and sculptures suspended on walls that have been the home to renowned white artists create curiosity, demand, and representation like never before.
The next time a Caribbean artist is displayed in a museum or gallery near you, visit.
Denyse with Babylon in her NYC Studio, 2005. © The Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery, Photo: The Estate of Denyse Thomasos.
About the Author
Tricia is a marketing maven, writer, and self-proclaimed trivia queen who spends her days with a coffee in hand building brands and her nights binge-watching jeopardy. When it’s time to relax, Tricia is keen on being in the sunshine, whether that’s having a drink on her backyard patio with a movie in queue or on an island by the beach.