A secret treasure trove of sculptures, paintings and prints, crafted by the hands of renowned artist Sonnylal Rambissoon has been unveiled for the first time since his death almost three decades ago.
Along a winding road in South Trinidad behind a nondescript house, the prolific pioneer of the fine arts did some of his best works.
Some of these are showcased in art galleries and museums across the world.
Yet right here in south Trinidad, Rambissoon’s dusty workshop stands exactly as it did on the day he died, back in 1995.
Walking into his art studio is every artist’s dream. Inside you can find dozens of rusty unused powdered paint tins bought from England in the 1970s, bottles of paint powder, tubes of watercolours, hydrochloric acid, dozens of brushes, pencils, etching tools, easels and Rambissoon’s very own printing press which he designed and built using old truck parts.
His works, in varying stages of completion, stood on a table. Among them s a piece titled Caribbean Heat, created for a German diplomat, a pastel masterpiece showing San Fernando in the 1960s, water-coloured ink designs and abstract artwork using patent powder, rock inks and banana sap stains.
Rambissoon’s wife, Dr Sheila Atwarie-Rambissoon (an academic in her own right) gave Guardian Media an exclusive tour of his collection on Tuesday. She explained how Rambissoon collected rocks from the sugarcane fields to make natural ink.
Back then, the sugarcane fields flourished around Rambissoon’s home which remained a source of motivation for his many creations.
“He would pound the rocks until it turned to powder. Then he would boil the linseed oil in a tin out in the back yard. After the oil cooled, he would pour the oil in bottles and string it up on a mango tree outside to set as a liquid paint base,” she explained. He also made ink by extracting the sap from fig trees.
Those pieces made with ink rocks remained vivid even though they were over 50 years old.
A LIFE OF WONDER
Giving an overview of their life together, Dr Atwarie-Rambissoon said she married the artist when she was in her 30s and he was in his 50s. He was already well-travelled, the brother of an ambassador.
Handsome and strong, Rambissoon caused a flutter wherever he went.
“He was always watching his paintbrush and his easel. Or doing sculptures out of clay, wood, stone or metal. All the women in the village felt he was so handsome but he never had time for them,” she joked.
Despite being fluent in five languages including German, French, Spanish, Italian and English, Rambissoon remained humble and generous.
“He would willingly share his work and his techniques. He opened the house to strangers and always shared knowledge wherever he went,” Dr Atwarie-Rambissoon said.
Being a true patriot, the artist mentored hundreds of art students over the years without charge.
Through the decades, he honed his skills by attending art seminars, visiting museums and pursuing several fine arts classes abroad.
In 1972 he was awarded the Public Service Medal of Merit (Silver) for his contribution to Art. He also served as a temporary independent senator.
As the grandson of indentured immigrants, Rambissoon’s love for art began early as he helped in his parents’ business, creating paper decorations for weddings and prayers.
In the 1950s, Rambissoon won a scholarship to study Fine Arts for seven years at the Brighton College of Arts and Crafts in England.
During that time he travelled to France, Russia, Italy and Belgium, learning everything he could about the world of art.
“One cold winter, he stayed in the printing press because it was warm there and that was when he started developing a love for prints,” she explained.
During the summer of 1963 in Paris at the Atelier 17, Rambissoon flourished under the mentorship of the master printmaker Stanley W Hayter.
“He went to Rijksmuseum, the museum of the Netherlands in Amsterdam. All the museum trips were really fun. He reached as far as Russia. His brother was the ambassador and a senior person in the Embassy in India. He had the opportunity to go there but he never went. I was seven months pregnant but he never left me although I know he would have loved it there,” Dr Atwarie-Rambissoon recalled.
From 1964 to 1965, Rambissoon did postgraduate work at the University of London and was elected an Associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers.
“He mastered etchings and engravings which were sold across Europe and the Americas, yet he never boasted but quietly sold his pieces some for 50 or 60 pounds,” Dr Atwarie-Rambissoon revealed.
Never one to short change anyone, Dr Atwarie-Rambissoon said her husband would never sell an unfinished piece.
Some of his pieces took years to complete.
“He never rushed a painting. It had to be perfect,” she added.
When he returned to Trinidad in 1965, Rambissoon needed a printing press for his designs so he went to Baron Engineering Company in San Fernando.
“They were very excited about what he wanted to do so he designed the printing press and under his direction, the men fabricated it out of truck wheels, gears and old truck parts,” she said.
It was mounted in a room under his house.
Using this printing press, Rambissoon etched his own prints using natural inks, bitumen and heat. It was a tedious process.
“He had printing press plates which he had bought from England and France. He would put a lighted candle under the metal plate and put rosin powder on the opposite side of the plate to get it bubbly, so the texture of the print will be unique,” she explained.
Rambissoon used a range of dry and wet methods for his prints. His diversity with his craft earned him international accolades.
A SCULPTOR AND EDUCATOR IN HIS OWN RIGHT
Apart from his prints, Rambissoon made a name for himself as a sculptor. He was close friends with the late Dr Ralph Baney and his wife, ceramist Vera Baney, who were internationally renowned Trinidadian artists living in the United States.
“They used to come right here in our back yard and sculpt out of wood and clay,” Dr Atwarie-Rambissoon recalled.
But unlike the Baneys who spent their adult lives in Maryland, USA, Rambissoon preferred his homeland.
“He spent most of his life teaching here. It was the Trinidad and Tobago Government that sent him abroad on a scholarship to study fine arts so he came right back here. He had everything he needed to sculpt and paint. He could come outside any time and did not have to worry about a cold winter,” she added.
Having worked as a school principal for many years before retirement, Dr Atwarie-Rambissoon said most people called him “Teach”.
“He was one who always made time to talk to others. His creative mind was always working. If he found a piece of stone thrown away, he would bring it here. He would sculpt that stone into amazing pieces,” she added.
This was evident as pieces of sculptures made of wood, clay, stone and aluminium lay in glass cases upstairs his home.
None of these pieces has ever been showcased before.
Dr Atwarie-Rambissoon said her husband’s pieces were dear to them.
“Every piece you see here are our favourites, the ones we kept back for ourselves because we loved them,” she added.
She said her husband’s kindness will remain with her always.
“He was a lovely human being. You could talk to him, make a joke. He was never too busy to talk. It was difficult to see him angry. He was pleasant and nice to live with. He wasn’t selfish, an open person and he was a very nice man who was proud of his country.”
After almost three decades, Dr Atwarie-Rambissoon said she was finally ready to showcase the secret treasure trove which her husband left behind.
Arnim Ali, owner of Arnim’s Framing Solutions said he was prepared to exhibit all of the work. The exhibition will take place in south Trinidad.
“I am trying to bring awareness to his work because he was a great artist that everyone should know about. It is overwhelming for me to see his body of amazing work. I am honoured that I am being allowed to showcase his work. I have been in the business for 30 years. His diversity in all genres, watercolours, natural inks, sculpting, etching and print-making…how he made his printing press and countless numbers of work around the world. How he shared his knowledge was inspiring,” Ali said.
He noted that even though Rambissoon was known internationally, his body of work should also be known to nationals.
Anyone interested in Rambissoon’s work can contact Ali at 752-4504 or call Brenda at 460-7188.