Memoir: Eric Cadien (1954-1993)

Eric Cadien – Untitled Nude, 1986
Eric Cadien – Untitled Nude, 1986 (Photo credit: Veerle Poupeye)

I met Eric Cadien in 1984, when I started teaching at the Jamaica School of Art, now part of the Edna Manley College. Cadien, who also taught there, and his friend Cecil Cooper, who headed the Painting Department, were a regular presence during breaks in the staff lounge, where spirited discussions were had about art and public affairs. The sort of conversations and friendships that were part of my own formative years in Jamaica, during the socially and politically eventful, ideologically heady years after the Grenada invasion and the 1983 snap general elections in Jamaica. I later had the opportunity to collaborate with Eric on his 1992 solo exhibition at the Mutual Life Gallery, for which I produced the catalogue and wrote the main essay.

Cadien was the calm, easy-going counterpart to Cooper’s nervous energy, but he was no less opinionated. A recurrent subject for some of our most heated discussions was the art market, which was burgeoning in Jamaica in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the effects which the proliferation of new galleries, collectors, and instantly sold-out exhibitions were having on artists and artistic production. Cadien, whose work was well supported by local collectors, did not support any notions about the poor, suffering artist. He had clear goals for his financial future. He wanted to be a millionaire by the time he was 40 (a million Jamaican dollars meant far more then than now). He understood, however, that the local art market was too speculative to achieve that goal. Perhaps he also wanted to safeguard his artistic autonomy against market pressures, and also ran a motorbike rental business in Negril.

Cadien had attended the Jamaica School of Art in the 1970s. He was part of the 1975 graduating class, along with Laura Facey, Stanley Barnes, Mervyn Palmer, Victor Wong, and Marjorie Keith, at a time when the school’s programme was expanded and energized under Carl “Jerry” Craig’s directorship. Cadien went on to study at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) in Toronto, where the Guyanese artist Errol Brewster was among his contemporaries. Brewster describes Cadien as cool and calm, and a comforting presence in response to the unsettling social environment at the college, where the muted, subtle racism and xenophobia that was prevalent in Canada caused the foreign students to stick to themselves. Brewster also recounts that the curriculum at OCAD was freewheeling and experimental, with interdisciplinary approaches encouraged, although students were directed to the process-oriented, “pure aesthetic” of high modernism and actively discouraged to pursue the sort of political art that was prevalent in the postcolonial Caribbean at that time.

This may help to explain the tension between modernist formalism and the ideological and aesthetic thrust in Jamaican art of that time which is strongly evident in Cadien’s work. He is often regarded as a transitional figure between the post-Independence generation, with artists such as Karl Parboosingh, Osmond Watson and Kofi Kayiga as obvious influences, and the restless new generation of expressionist painters that emerged in the 1980s, which included Milton George, Omari Ra, Khalfani Ra, and Stanford Watson. He, however, held his position in this lineage and the National Gallery’s Chief Curator David Boxer aptly described him as “a highly charged classicist or a ‘cool’ expressionist”. While his work made references to the culture and ethos of Rastafari, the social issues facing Jamaica, and had autobiographical overtones, there was indeed always a tempering focus on form.

Cadien was a sculptor by training. While he occasionally returned to that medium, he was primarily known as a painter although many of his compositions had a strong sculptural quality, in terms of their compositional discipline and the heft and bulk of the forms depicted. Some of his works were fully abstract but in most, the human figure is present, often in the form of nudes and erotica, although his characteristic restraint was also evident in his treatment of that subject. Texture and colour were important in his work, and an essential part of what had become by the mid-1980s a very recognizable style. His painting on canvas compositions were sometimes a bit rigid and became increasingly repetitive towards the end of his life. In his work on paper, where his emphasis on process was more pronounced, there was more thematic and formal diversity, a more subtle use of colour and texture, and a more fluid and relaxed interplay between composition, line, and form. It is there that we see his artistic imagination being given free rein and where, no doubt, the future of his work was being charted.

Cadien’s life was taken just months before reached 40. His murder, to my knowledge, was never resolved. His funeral attracted a large and diverse gathering of the Jamaican art world, a moving moment of solidarity and community that he would surely have appreciated. Cadien was strongly committed to the idea of an artistic community: it was, for instance, Cadien and his friend Stanley Barnes, who also died early, who first gave exposure to the work of the self-taught William “Woody” Joseph and organized his first exhibition at the Paisley Gallery that they briefly ran in Stony Hill.. Woody was soon recognized as a major figure in the Intuitive art canon.

Had Cadien lived longer, there is no doubt that he would have contributed significantly to the course of Jamaican art. While his work continues to be cherished by those who know it, it has been rather quiet around Cadien in the nearly three decades since he passed, in terms of exhibitions and publications. He is not as well-known today, locally and internationally, as he ought to be. It is time for more recognition to be given to his unique, pivotal place in Jamaican art history.

Dr Veerle Poupeye is an art historian specialized in art from the Caribbean. She lectures at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica, and works as an independent curator, writer, researcher, and cultural consultant. Her personal blog can be found at

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