Deondra Frett on Joseph Hodge
oJseph Hodge, a British Virgin Islands (BVI) native, is usually found in his studio at Road Town, Tortola. He is a popular artist in the BVI, but arguably also the Caribbean and beyond. Approaching 70, Hodge is still energetic about painting. He is known for that energy, evident in his colorful depictions of the BVI landscape, as well as historical and cultural scenes.
Yet some of his early art ruffled feathers. From the start, Hodge has focused on oppressive colonial history, even when this involved testing relationships. An early painting of the Maroons of Suriname, a group of runaway slaves who successfully waged guerilla warfare against Dutch slave masters, was exhibited at a white-owned venue, to the apparent chagrin of the owner. The artist is not afraid of starting difficult conversations.
In a 2012 profile, Dan O’Conner wrote, “Hodge considers himself not only an artisan, but also an ambassador—an ambassador of the Virgin Islands’ past and present. His realistic paintings depict a life full of culture and community; his abstract pieces reveal a gateway into emotional interpretation. Through his medium, he believes he preserves history.”
Each of Hodge’s paintings has a story, but the artist has reserved the most complex story of them all, his journey to finding his own truth, for himself.
In his daily life, Hodge invokes traditions of the Asante tribe of Ghana as well as African culture and philosophy. His introduction to his current nous can be traced back to his early childhood. He says during this time, he discovered a burning desire within him that could not be quenched by teachings in school. He, therefore, sought ways to express himself. Along his journey, as an early adult, he spent a lot of time on the neighboring island of St. Thomas. While there, he frequented many bookstores. He read in search of himself.
“There are still parts unknown to me, my African self,” he says.
In one of those book stores, by Hodge’s account, he met a man by the name of Oforiatta, who became one of his mentors and friends. On their second meeting, Oforiatta entrusted him with a book titled The Groundings with My Brothers (by Walter Rodney), then put him in contact with the Maroons of Suriname. This introduction was the beginning of a lifelong journey. Hodge now had the resources to expand his knowledge in the pursuit of ‘decolonizing his mind’. He made it a point to express the importance of finding the truth, and when questioned further, he revealed that ‘truth’ to him is to ask “Who are you? Whence you came? What are your values?”
When specifically talking about the BVI, he explains, “the BVI is still looking for what’s our culture. We’ve lost our way of life because of colonization.” However, in a confident tone, he adds: “You don’t have to go to Africa to be African; you are an African… Art is how we know that the Egyptians were black, that Ethiopia had the first university in the world.” In the eyes of most, Joseph Hodge is just a painter, but to him, his art is his entire being. It is also a lens through which he distills his worldview into images that depict BVI history. “Art is any depiction of contemporary life showing ancestry. I don’t paint for others, I paint to exist.”
Deondra Frett was born raised in the British Virgin Islands and is studying media, communications, and culture at university.