Get to know a rich slice of Caymanian life with our new series written and photographed by
John Reno Jackson.
The day begins for me on Shedden Road, George Town. It is another day where the sun feels like it may explode. A crushed beer can appears to be melting down into raw aluminium; exhaust fumes billow from the loud passing cars. Neighbours yell and cuss. Cigarette box ashtrays on almost every window pane. A thin man wearing cargo shorts and a marina pulls up next to me on a plum red Honda Shadow; his oxford shoes have holes in the toe. His spiky moustache drips with sweat as he wipes the mosquitos off his sunglasses. I take a right into an alleyway, passing a wall covered in little round cracks; as if someone has been playing squash with a jackhammer. The reason for this venture into wonderland was to locate Al Ebanks. The mysterious artist emerges from an ambiguous doorway, inviting me inside his studio, an inconspicuous shelter from the town around him. A camouflaged refuge from the happenings outside.
This artist looks to explain his emotions through his work. It is immediately present once entering the industrial lair of this sagacious lone wolf. Stacks of canvas and jugs of paint, experiments in various forms and mediums, sculptures of bodies lying amongst bottles of wine. The air is brisk and still; the studio is in a state of chaotic pause. Al doesn’t speak much. He waits to be communicated with. An analyst at heart, always thinking and pondering, dissecting conversations, taking the moral response. A man who marches to his own beat from the drum he assembled. Love or hate him; he is who he is, a product of his environment. A man formed from the pressures of his surroundings. These experiences have created a response, and the answer is to express.
This bustling neighbourhood, with its variations between commercial and residential, is essential to the story of Al Ebanks. However, this is not the Shedden Road of the past. Growing up in George Town, Al would go to Hog Sty Bay to swim with his friends, jump off the docks, and enjoy the simple life. His mother, to Al, was a beacon of the community. Consistently lending a helping hand to those around her, sewing clothes, and sharing knowledge. His childhood experiences with his mother helped him develop his creative eye. Art, to him, is a way to express yourself while helping the community.
Al has lived in the exact location for his entire life, 50+ years. He reveals that this is his family’s home. One of the final pieces of generational Ebanks land in Town, Al’s home is the last abode left. Most lots have been sold off over the years, thus marking his property as a unique location. Buildings recognised from his past are no longer present. As Cayman transitioned to the economic powerhouse it is today, many historic family homes in George Town have been demolished or gentrified to develop financial or legal institutions. Districts used to be closer-knit communities, almost operating as their own unique societies. Although unfortunately, there were still many racial and class-related issues within each locale. Cayman was never united. Family or District gatherings were the closest thing to a form of social harmony. Certain institutions would even quietly segregate or offer different preferences to members based on race or social mobility. Discrimination is something that greatly impacted Al as a child and still affects him to this day.
Al sees our culture as a box from which we need to remove ourselves. His abstract works are a response to the society that we live in. He sees the reality, the nitty gritty, the hidden underbelly for what it is. A multitude of scrambled influences, ideas, stories and complications. Abstraction brings Al comfort in being Caymanian, being oppressed, or feeling isolated. For this, I must admire his honesty with not only himself but his surroundings.
As I leave his studio, I walk away with more questions than answers. Meeting with him served as more of a brainstorming session than an interview. Feeling intrigued and consequently in need of lunch. Maybe some oxtail with potato salad will help. A rum punch wouldn’t hurt.
As I sit in Welly’s parking lot, enjoying the sweltering day, I transfix on something Al told me: “I don’t paint a coconut tree just because you tell me to paint a coconut tree.” At first, one may read this as arrogance, but I read it as a bold statement, something that speaks to what makes a person who they are, to put your thoughts on your chest and wear them proudly. This defiance and self-agency give Al the platform to redefine what it means to be Caymanian, to challenge the ideology that to be from these three islands, one must wear a socially predetermined costume or, in simpler terms, paint a coconut tree.