From Baron Samedi - the voodoo occultist henchman in the 1973 James Bond instalment of Live and Let Die – to the equally mystic servant, Punjab, in the 1982 movie adaptation of Annie, he has enjoyed some signature Hollywood roles.
Small-screen audiences also became familiar with his jolly, deep-voiced characters from 7-Up and BWIA commercials in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
In 1975, he won Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Costume Design for his work on the stage version of The Wiz. He was nominated in 1978 for Costume Design on Timbuktu! His accomplishments have placed him in the same league as other Trinbagonian cultural icons who have excelled on the international stage such as Sir VS Naipaul and Peter Minshall.
He is a dancer, designer, actor, choreographer and artist extraordinaire.
And now Geoffrey Holder’s work is coming home, once again.
Born into a family of outstanding Port of Spain talents – his grandfather, Louis Ephraim, and late brother, Boscoe, were also outstanding painters – Geoffrey Holder has graced the stages of Broadway since the 1950s.
With his predilection for oils and multimedia he has mostly expressed himself through brightly coloured works that reflect the tropical vibrancy of his homeland. By his early twenties, the multi-talented Holder had annual exhibitions of his paintings at the old Port of Spain public library. As a matter of fact it was through the sale of his paintings that he financed his dance troupe, the Holder Dance Company, with whom he performed in New York, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
During a 1952 performance on St. Thomas he was discovered by choreographer Agnes de Mille. It was the moment that ignited his rise to stardom.
With his signature looks in tow – bald head and 6’6” frame- he became the lead dancer in the 1954 production of House of Flowers. The cast included Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll and Alvin Ailey.
During the show’s run Geoffrey met well-known dancer Carmen De Lavallade. The two cast members married a month later, embarking on a 53-year relationship that produced a son, Leo Anthony Lamont, now a graphic artist in California.
Even as his on-stage career took off, Holder ensured that his painting was not neglected. In 1957 he won the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship award in painting. His art has been acquired by many private collectors and public institutions, including the Corcoran Gallery and the Museum of the City of New York.
In 1965 the couple joined the Josephine Baker show in Paris, where they were nicknamed “La Goulue” and “Valentin” of Harlem by local audiences who were enraptured by the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec. It was while living in Paris that Holder met film writer, Jacques Sigurd. Sigurd encouraged Holder in his painting while bestowing valuable advice that launched the latter’s painting into another dimension.
Holder’s work is a reflection of his cultural roots, his career in entertainment and his spirituality. As he has suggested, as an artist he is here to record life the way he sees it, the way it might have been of the way it is. African figures, full of vitality abound, in both tropical and urban settings: a testament to his life in the Caribbean and New York City. His utilization of bright colours enhances his expressions and one can almost feel the rhythms of the music from his Manhattan dance hall scenes.
A perfect example of his crossover work was “Last Mac,” an all-black interpretation of the last supper with characters that appeared to be drawn from the “gangsta” mold – religious and urban themes all rolled into one. In addition, as he puts it, he has always painted “hauntingly beautiful” Creole women: indeed the female form has been an every-present feature of his work for over 50 years and it’s yet another tribute to the various figures and characters that have been a part of his life.
In February 2008, Geoffrey Holder had a very successful exhibition at the Nassau County Museum of Art in New York, entitled “Geoffrey Holder, A Life in Theatre, Dance and Art”, which featured all aspects of his great talent. Apart from “Last Mac,” the exhibition also included other religious paintings such as “Mary and Her Baby” and “Come Sunday.”
Also on display were some of the fantastic costumes that he has designed over the decades: perfect compliments to his radiant paintings, which, as always, he described as “making pictures from life”.
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