Theme of Identity

Walcott’s Identity at a Glance

Derek Walcott is a painter, poet, and playwright born in Castries, Saint Lucia in 1930. Though his father, an artist, died when Walcott and his twin brother were very young, the brothers and their older sister were able to stay with their mother in Saint Lucia (Sture). Walcott’s experience of life in the formerly-colonized islands, his racially mixed heritage, and the history of abuse the island and it’s people had taken over the years greatly impacted his identity and work.

derek, pamela, roderick walcott

Roderick, Pamela, and Derek Walcott (the Walcott siblings left to right).

 

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Analysis of Identity in Walcott’s Painting

Walcott’s Painting as Related to His Philosophy

Derek Walcott’s work was always an unadulterated expression of identity. He felt it was important to be intentional about your choices when making a piece of art, and to make those choices reflect your own identity. In interview, Walcott explained that the critique of his work has little or no value to him, and that “what [he] really… want[s] is to be where [he is] and to write as well as [he] can about where [he is] and where [he comes] from and who [he lives] among” (Castro 79).

That statement, that his work is truly about his own situation, exemplifies that where he finds himself is his identity. Walcott’s paintings are all snapshots of the places he finds himself, and according to his mission statement for his work, those snapshots are meant to be glimpses into his individual identity. It is clear (based on his statements in interviews with people like Castro and simply observation) that this does not stop with his paintings, and that his philosophy is woven through each of his poems and plays as well.

Whether or not that glimpse into his identity is for self reflection or for the world to better understand the identity of mixed-race, post-colonial, West Indies citizens, one couldn’t say. The value of knowing this is simply understanding what Walcott’s work is all about in order to improve our perspective.

 

Walcott’s Painting Style Analyzed

Derek Walcott’s paintings have an immediately recognizable style to the art fiend, but that style might be unknown to others, possibly bringing up fuzzy memories of paint-by-number canvases. That famous style is known as impressionism. The reason the style is so important to note is because impressionists use shorter brush strokes (kind of like a mosaic) to try “to paint candid glimpses of their subjects in every day life, which showed the effects of sunlight on objects at different times and in different weather conditions throughout the day” (DeVore). Walcott’s paintings clearly place candid moments, every day life, and light at the center and focus, all by using a mosaic of brush strokes to make the whole.

This is significant in two ways: the focus on candid, everyday depictions suggest his priority as an artist, and the stylistic choice of mosaic brush strokes suggest that all the little elements of paintings (or life) make up the whole identity of the piece (or person).

Focusing on candid, everyday depictions shows readers or viewers what Walcott thinks is most important in life. Evidently, looking at his work, what is important to him is his home, the places he goes, and little memories he has. Using mosaic brush strokes, and in a broader analysis, using elements of a location or event (like a tree, a house, a color, a character) shows that his identity is composed of those things around him. If, as his (aforementioned) philosophy explains, the point of his work is to describe his world (his identity), then all those specific elements in his world — almond trees, limes, little boys, a particular color of foliage or house — are crucial to understanding his world, his identity.

Here is a gallery of some of Walcott’s paintings:

 

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Analysis of Identity in “Love After Love”

Another of Walcott’s poems focuses heavily on just the theme of identity, which is why it is worth addressing here but not in an analysis of home. His poem “Love After Love”, was in the 1986 publication Collected Poems, 1948–1984.

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

It is clear that the message of “Love After Love” is to take the time to love yourself, by yourself, instead of forever chasing after the love of others. Walcott writes, “Give back your heart / to itself, to the stranger who has loved you / all your life, whom you ignored / for another, who knows you by heart.” The image of this soul or heart that has loved you and known you best your whole life, but that you have ignored in favor of another, is a deep parallel to the relationship of the needs of the individual and the preference of the world. It’s been seen across the globe that when a dominant culture (such as English colonizers) take over and drastically change forever the culture of another place (such as the West Indies) there is a clash between the needs of the native people and the preferences of the dominant.

That clash is the root of identity struggles that individuals like Walcott have endured. Catherine Manathunga of the Victoria University of Education in New Zealand discusses how even in 2011 people are still caught in this conflict of love for the self (and the natural location/origin of the self) and love for what the dominant culture says one should love. She refers to the Penguin Dictionary of Sociology for the definition of assimilation (which is the primary cause of this conflict Walcott is alluding to). According to Penguin, assimilation is the “unidimensional, one-way process by which outsiders relinquished their own culture in favour of that of the dominant society” (Manathunga 369). Through this definition of assimilation, post-colonial theorists (who study situations like Walcott’s in the West Indies), have been able to describe “the ways in which Western experiences come to dominate” other areas of the world (Manathunga 369).

Those ways in which Western experiences come to dominate cover most aspects of the human experience, from what kind of furniture to decorate your house with, to what you should look like, and what your religion should be. In essence, all the ways Western experiences dominate are in individual identity. Many individuals have struggled to see themselves, and have instead loved the experiences of the West and the things that westerners love as a result of assimilation and post-colonialism. In his poem, Walcott illustrates the prodigal return to the self, encouraging readers that one day they will eventually ” love again the stranger who was yourself.”

In much of Walcott’s work he speaks of this parallel, mentioning the “warring between two worlds for the [loyalty] that is required from… loving your own country and maybe falling in love with another” in an interview with Jan Garden Castro. In the same interview he talked about how he has struggled to determine where his loyalty and heart lie — in Europe where he has been drawn to (as a result of post-colonialism, his career, and his mixed ancestry), or in the Caribbean. In the end, he says there is a responsibility and draw to the Caribbean. So for Walcott, the heart that has always loved and known him is the Caribbean, and he has love for the stranger who was himself. For others, the path to finding that heart continues, but “Love After Love” promises that true identity will eventually be revealed and embraced.

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