Aubrey Williams’ large-scale oil paintings were inspired by the indigenous cultures of the Americas and the European abstract expressionist movements he encountered while travelling in the 1950s. Quetzalcoatl III (Olmec Maya Series) (1984) is a large colourful work from his Olmec Maya series, one of three major bodies of work he produced (the others being the more abstract-expressionist Shostakovich and Cosmos). In this series, referencing the cultures of indigenous peoples of the Americas from around 1500BC, Williams explores Olmec and Maya civilisations through his explosions of colour and tone and his use of icons and symbols. This painting explores the figure of Quetzalcoatl, a Mesoamerican deity named from the word “feathered serpent”.
Born in Guyana in 1926, Williams painted from an early age, though he formally trained as an agronomist. His work as an Agricultural Field Officer took him to the remote north-west of Guyana, where he lived among the indigenous Warrau people. This experience arguably informed his style, with abstract explorations of flora and fauna alongside icons of the ancient cultures of Central and South America. In 1952 he left for England. After giving up a course in Agricultural Engineering at the University of Leicester, he studied for a time at St Martin’s School of Art in London, as well as travelling widely around Europe. His first exhibition was in 1954 at the Archer Gallery in Westbourne Grove, London, and other exhibitions followed regularly thereafter, establishing him on the post-war British art scene and leading to an international career.
In his lifetime, Williams exhibited worldwide - from Dublin, Ireland, to Kingston, Jamaica, to London’s Royal Academy of Arts, as well as the ground-breaking The Other Story at the Hayward Gallery (1989–90). Along with Ronald Moody, John la Rose and Andrew Salkey, Williams was a founding member of the influential London-based Caribbean Artists Movement. In 1963 he exhibited at the Commonwealth Biennale of Abstract Art, winning the Commonwealth Prize for Painting in 1965. He was also awarded the Golden Arrow of Achievement (1970), fourth highest award in the Order of Service of Guyana, and later went on to win the Cacique’s Crown of Honour (1986).
His work has been showcased in several posthumous exhibitions at the October Gallery London (where the last solo show during his lifetime was held), most recently in 2015, as well as having featured in a major exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1998. Important collections holding his paintings include those of the Art Council England and The Tate. Williams died in London on 17 April 1990, aged 63.
Aubrey Williams (1926–1990)
Quetzalcoatl III (Olmec Maya series), 1984
Guyanese-born Williams, a major and distinctive post-war British painter, is best known for large paintings combining abstract expressionism, figuration and symbolism found in the indigenous art of the Americas. He was an active founder member of the Caribbean Artists Movement.
Oil on canvas
On loan from October Gallery