Up Close … with George Camille, artist and entrepreneur
I’m waiting for George Camille at his restaurant and art gallery, Kaz Zanana, in town. My photographer Louis is with me, and we sit somewhat uncomfortably on cushioned wicker chairs, not because the chairs are uncomfortable, but because this type of assignment isn’t national news, so it feels a little bit as though we have skipped work without permission and fallen down the rabbit hole to another world.
This is the world of good food, art and opulence, a place designed to relax the mind and please the senses. The wooden floors, walls, ceilings and furniture radiate warmth, refinement and muted sounds, but they sadly represent a bygone era that stands alone in a burgeoning cacophony of metal, concrete and mass-produced plastic veneers over chipboard.
When George arrives, I can see he’s visibly, and justifiably, proud of the huge amount of work and money he put into rebuilding his “beautiful lady”, which in 1915 was originally constructed to be the townhouse of a Captain Michaud from Anse Royale. He says Kaz Zanana is one of the few old Creole houses that still remain in good condition due to the high expense of restoring and maintaining these wooden structures.
The ornately-carved trimmings, decorated with a symmetrical pineapple motif throughout are a symbol of friendship in the East, he tells me. And his connection with the East is another thing that is obviously an important part of his existence; as both of his grandfathers were Cantonese.
It is his Asian genes, I’m convinced, that are responsible for my sense of surprise when he informs me that he will be celebrating his 50th birthday this year. Remarkably fresh-faced, it’s only his sense of calm self-awareness that belies his youthful appearance.
Beginnings of an artist
Born in 1963, he was one of eight children growing up with his parents in the English River district. When George was about ten years old, his father moved to La Digue to take over a bakery at La Passe. The bakery was owned by an Indian family who had become too old to run it.
Remaining on Mahé, George’s mother stayed to ensure that her children got a good education.
“Every school holiday, we would go to La Digue to work with my father in the bakery,” recalls George. “It was hard work, but you got your afternoon off, and you got paid as well. I suppose that – along with my Chinese background – taught me the value of money and hard work and has allowed me to achieve what I have achieved in life.”
From an early age, George says he was always complimented by his teachers for his artistic abilities, but says two of his brothers were also very artistic, which inspired him a lot. He also bought comic books and says he would draw the comic book characters and sell them to other children, which typically appealed to his entrepreneurial skills.
He recalls that another encouraging moment was winning the national schools poster competition for the accession of the new Catholic Bishop in Seychelles. He won the competition, receiving the grand prize of a Bible and a place of honour at the Bishop’s inauguration ceremony.
Due to outstanding results achieved in his P6 national exams at St John Bosco, he was one of two children selected to go to Seychelles College on a bursary programme, where he continued to excel at his studies.
“When I was at Seychelles College, art was not part of the curriculum,” George says. “I had to take art as a 10th subject on top of all my other subjects. There were only two of us doing it, but we were both talented and we wanted to do it, so we both got ‘A’s for it.”
He then went on to choose Art as an A-level subject, and again he achieved top marks without trying very hard.
Although George wanted to study fine art at university, the government at that time did not see a value in sending a young undergraduate overseas to become an artist, so while his fellow companion in art class went on to study architecture, George instead chose a scholarship programme in textile design, having spent the previous year assisting a textile and fashion programme at polytechnic with two foreign teachers.
“That’s how I met my wife, Jane,” says George coyly. “I had to work with this English lady, who was teaching seven girls and one boy about fashion design and cutting, and I was teaching them textiles because I knew a little bit about screen printing and design.”
George was sent to the Blackheath School of Art for his scholarship, and later spent some time learning at Goldsmith’s College, both in London. It was an experience that was a deep culture shock for the somewhat wet-behind-the-ears young man who had never before experienced life away from the islands.
Arriving in the middle of the punk rock Britain of the Seventies, with anarchy and civil disobedience the undertone of the subculture movement, young George was lost in a maelstrom of spiky hair, bizarre safety-pin piercings and music that must have sounded horrifying to his ears.
“Coming from this sort of background where you had to wear uniforms all the time and everybody conformed, suddenly everything was free, and well, punk, I was like…” he trailed off with a wry smile, momentarily at a loss for words.
“But I learned fast. When you go to art school it takes a while to get your head around being a real artist. I always thought that being an artist was being able to replicate or faithfully copy something, but that’s actually being a good technician,” he said. “There’s no imagination in that, so my schooling actually taught me how to be imaginative and to be a real artist.”
Being in London also brought George into contact with some of the most famous artworks in the world, and he quickly became exposed to all the different forms and styles of art, developing a special place in his heart for surrealism and the works of Salvador Dali in particular.
“Surrealism is pushing the imagination to the limit. Some people can’t grasp modern art – they think it’s all rubbish. But art is all about pushing the human imagination, and some people get it, some people don’t. Art is a cerebral process, it’s about thinking and artists are supposed to push the boundaries.”
Finding himself socially isolated in London, George reached out to connect with other Seychellois in his area. But in the years of single-party statehood in Seychelles, his desire for companionship proved to be ill-timed. News travelled back home that he had been rubbing shoulders with the families of political exiles, and he returned home after his studies to find that the government, who had sent him overseas on scholarship, seemed reluctant to find work for him.
“I ended up borrowing R300 from my mother and together Jane and I started Sunstroke Studios in Victoria designing t-shirts and beachwear,” he recalls. “At first we got a stand at the market and did the silk-screen printing on our kitchen table.”
They re-invested their earnings into the business and worked seven days a week, eventually building a little empire of 30 employees and three retail outlets within a space of just three years. After being refused a license for a fourth outlet, George decided to invest in building his own art gallery, and began work renovating Kaz Zanana.
This was when he really started to focus on being an artist, he tells me. Starting with small watercolours initially, his career took a turn when French artist Mikel Chaussepied visited Seychelles for a one-month workshop and taught George the intricacies of etching, which today forms a key element of his work as an artist.
“For me, it was love at first sight. It’s my favourite medium, and it allowed me to expand the technique into different areas,” he says. “I used to do a lot of pencil drawings, which is quite time-consuming and meticulous. But etching allows you to actually produce original artworks in editions, so that was the good thing about it.”
An advocate for radical art
Of the art scene in Seychelles, George says there needs to be a total revival of the arts.
“It’s long overdue,” he says. “We need to shed this image of ‘airport art’ as it’s been referred to in the past. We need to show the problems, the issues and the grittier side of life.”
“I think the time has come for the government to realise that the time is now. And artists can actually help sensitise people about issues affecting society and bring them all to the front. My next exhibition will be completely different to what people are doing. I’m starting to comment on what’s going on, so at my next exhibition in December I will see the reaction of the public.”
George says one of the problems he has noticed is the lack of constructive criticism for the arts, a situation he says puts artists in a comfort zone and does not encourage them to push harder to develop their art.
“You go to an exhibition, and somebody reads from a pre-prepared speech and everybody claps and says it’s wonderful,” he says. “People need to start to stop being so polite and start criticising constructively; it’s really the only way to grow.”
George thinks Seychellois artists need to start exhibiting their work on the world stage to overcome a somewhat insular world view. Participation in the Biennales (international art fairs) of Europe would be a good start, he suggests, and art would also be an innovative avenue for showcasing Seychelles on the world stage instead of through the more usual tourism fairs.
“Art and culture has the potential to become the third pillar of the economy,” George submits in all seriousness. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry, he says, and our tourism target market is made up of the kind of people who are serious art connoisseurs, people who are known to spend money on acquiring unique and original artworks.
When we talk about his own personal style, George prefers to think of his art as a reflection of his own personal journey through life, and his style has evolved with the years to match new experiences and the influences of other artists whose paths have touched his own.
He takes me on a short commute to his studio in Le Rocher, where he introduces me to his wife and shows me around his studio. It’s a bright, airy space, filled with his pieces, but the things that catch my eye the most are pinned up on a notice board at the entrance to the studio.
There are some brilliant sketches that George designed for his son’s birthday parties. There’s also a stunning photograph of a man George tells me is his mentor and friend, the late “Tonga Bill” Fehoko, a Tongolese sculptor who took an amazing journey across the Indian Ocean on a little fishing boat.
While he tells me Bill’s story, I marvel at how the stories of amazing people intersect with the stories of other equally amazing people, and how the result of those paths crossing often leads to the enrichment of many, in this case through the development of art and a desire to preserve our culture.
Interviewing an artist is always sure to get the mind wondering about a lot of things, and my interview with George Camille is no exception. One thing is for sure; that we need many more artists like George to represent Seychelles with fierce passion, imagination and steely determination.
By Hajira Amla