Hollis Baptiste as Social Activist

Hollis Baptiste is a mid career, self trained artist, born 1962 in Trinidad, residing and practicing art in Canada since 1972. The scope of work 80’s, 90’s 2000’s  is concerned with social issues. Hollis says, “Its hard work to like my art. You have to be able to conceptualize it intellectually and most folks are not willing to do that.”

In preparation for his upcoming show “i.C.POP RU Pop” Hollis dropped by my studio to pick up some pedestals. ”I’m working with plastic bottles” he says. The pedestals are a little worse for wear.”Got any white paint?’’  he asks. I drag half a can up from the basement.

As an African Canadian artist he walks in the footprints of African American installation artist David Hammons and Junkster artist Lonnie Holey.  He feels it is his duty to illuminate his social concerns and create subversive works, which illustrate issues of human rights, consumerism, gun culture and violence in mainstream media.  I met Hollis Baptiste, a socio-political urban realist in 2003, he exhibited ‘Masks, Faces and Profiles’, a retrospective of his works created in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, at Studio Visual.

He hands me an invite,  “A voodoo doll in the shadows”,  her creepy little silhouette casts a spell. When I enter the gallery, Dionne Simpsons’ live work space,the true image of “i.C.POP RU Pop” is revealed.  A little brown naked baby doll, doused in Santeria blue, attempting to take her first steps with empty chubby plastic bottles screwed onto her feet. The baby doll is the icon of the show.  She is I.C.POP and she wants to know R.U.POP.

Hollis Baptiste’s work raises issues that prevail in the popular culture of the twentieth and the twenty-first century.  Hollis employs both diverse techniques and mediums to convey his message.  In many ways his work illustrates, speaks to and liberates the tormented soul.  The African Diaspora is clearly evident in many of his paintings and discarded bottle sculptures. Baptiste paints images of disfigured countenances, figures with spears and arrows going in many directions, suggesting how defensive and non-trusting a male of African descent maybe of the world around him.

Hollis Baptiste’s works are also reminiscent of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui.  Anatsui finds use for ‘found’ materials in his work; he investigates commerce and how it has affected African and European societies.  Consumption-ism has been integral to international cultures for centuries. Alcohol, among many other goods was the first to be exchanged for trading purposes.  Unfortunately, the African traders involved did not conceive that this corridor would ultimately be the passageway into the slave trade. El Anatsui assembles flattened bottle caps and sleeves that have  colours similar to the colours of fabrics from his communities.   Consumptionism has been woven into the fabric of the lives and peoples of not only Africa, but many other nations as well.

In Baptiste’s “Nu-Pop” project, he has gathered and painted recycled water bottles, made monuments and placed them on portable surfaces.  They are statues on altars, paying homage to first world consumption. The painted blue plastic bottle connected cap to base lined up against the wall are evocative of displaced herd of animals looking for the water that was in the hole  the last time they came to visit.

“Nora Paulin, Curator, Aut Gallery 2009”]Hollis Baptiste exposes the Cult of Bottled Water for the skeleton that it is.  It is not the contents that are being sold, but their containers that make them a marketable commodity.

Water is the main building block of life.  Depending on a person’s weight, the human body can be between 45% to 75% water.  The act of bottling water and distributing it commercially is to put a price-tag on life. The selfish human nature of mankind has transformed water or the lack of water into a gun, a knife or a bomb; capable of assassinating whole communities.

Baptiste’s 2003 “Eat of Me” & ‘Gun Play’ series may be the most poignant of his works which rouse the issue of violence and gun play.He mounted toy guns onto a plate, a toy jeep and even onto Porky Pig’s head.  He continued this theme and experimented with new mediums and printed ‘Uncle Blam’ and ‘Piece Peace’ on silk during a residency at the Open Print House.

A National Post survey conducted in 2003 showed of the 65 homicides committed in Toronto, guns were used in 31 of them.  Findings taken from 2003 murder statistics showed that Black males in Toronto were far more likely to be the victims of gun violence than other groups; they make up 74% of such victims.

From a young age and even as adults, we are constantly bombarded with impressions of violence and we consume ideas of violence.  Of course there is nothing wrong with entertainment, but there is a difference between fiction and reality. When people begin to use violence as a solution to problems, then issues begin to multiply.  As social creatures, we desperately need to be connected to others. Apparently there is a disconnected social circuit between individuals and family members, friends, society and even the world. That disconnect, causes people to strive against one another, not necessarily to get a friendly hello or smile, but just to experience some sort of emotion.  In 2010, community activist continue to be alarmed by the high rate of violence among young black males.

Baptiste has been contemplating the glorification of violence and delivering his sly and ironic anti-gun messages through symbols, words and images since the early 1980’s.  His ‘The Real Big Bang Theory’ 1985 and ‘Big Gun Conspiracy Theory’ are highly reminiscent of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat.  In the winter of 2005, Hollis’ work caught the eye of art director Keith Burns who was working on the set of John Singleton’s film “Four Brothers” in Hamilton.  Hollis created ‘Eggs Make Money’ 8’x 5′ canvas for the film.  It can be found in the backdrop of the gangster mansion scene. Hollis continued to critique the consumption of violence into 2006 with an opportunity to challenge the message of main stream media. Presenting  “reading between the li(n)e” Studio Visuals  participation in ArcFEST;  Toronto’s now defunct  Social Justice Arts Festival.

Baptiste began using found objects and paints to create his art in the 1990’s.  Baptiste’s city detritus ‘Urban Warriors’ masks are evocative of West African ceremonial masks with their exaggerated and stylized features which express abstract qualities: bulging eyes made from discarded metals, elongated noses of rubber hose, and protruding low set mouths fastened down with copper wire, all heighten their impact. He says, ‘the found objects he uses were scattered on North American soil just like African people scattered around the world.’  The largest of the masks, “Urban Warrior I” were  exhibited at the Art Gallery of Peel and Art Gallery of Mississauga, ‘Tribute to the Art of African Canadians,’ curated by Neville Clarke in 2005

Peter Goddard Visual Art Critic Toronto Star Thurs January 20th, 2005“]Imagine the mating of an Easter Island head with an old Chevy Pickup – it is a blast from arts Dada Past in the 1920’s when the mechanics of life dazzled artist with its newness.  Baptiste’s junk feels fresh and innocent like the unthreatening even passive mechanism of a baby robot.

Hollis is an outsider with a taste for surrealistic and abstract compositions. His depiction and subversive commentary messages the social and political entities of the global community, in which he lives.  The social divide epidemic that affects the billions of people that inhabit the world can have devastating effects.  Issues of this magnitude require an audience dedicated to extinguishing any economic, social and racial reservations that exist.