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Arts & Life

Kansas City Artist Anne Pearce Went To The Other Side Of The World ... And Saw Herself

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the artists
Kansas City's Anne Pearce met London's Shiraz Bayjoo on the island of Mauritius.

Anne Pearce made her name in Kansas City years ago, as a painter and as director of the Greenlease Art Gallery at Rockhurst University, where she also teaches art. Two years ago, during sabbatical on the other side of the world, Pearce had a profound experience — one she's now sharing with her students.

During her year of sabbatical, Pearce went to three artist residencies. One was in Wyoming; another was in Mexico. For the third, Pearce packed as many supplies as she could fit in a suitcase – heavyweight paper, pencils, ink pens, watercolors – and flew to the island of Mauritius, more than a thousand miles off the east coast of Africa.

This residency was at a place called Partage. It was a block from the Indian Ocean.

"This was a massive cinder-block complex that was painted in jewel colors, bright colors, huge tropical plants, fruit trees," Pearce remembers. "It was color, you could see evidence of the diversity of cultures, and then the sea. This beautiful sea."

Staying in the room next door to her was Shiraz Bayjoo, a London-based artist who's had his own prestigious residencies and shown his work at places like Whitechapel Gallery and the Tate Gallery.

Though he'd grown up in the UK, Bayjoo was born in Mauritius and had made many trips there to visit his grandmother. So while Pearce noticed the island's diversity of cultures, Bayjoo knew how complicated the place really was.

"About 50 percent of the population is Indian, a quarter of the population is Creole or ex-slave, mainly from East Africa and Madagascar, who've been in Mauritius since its beginning 300 years ago," Bayjoo explains. "There’s also a small white population, mostly French families who moved there as colonialists. Then you’ve got lots of Middle Eastern and Muslim-based merchant families who moved there in the late 19th and 20th centuries. And then you’ve got some Chinese."

All of which made Mauritius an ideal place for Bayjoo to do the sort of research that leads to his paintings, which deal with issues of identity.

"The society is very visibly layered," he says. "So when you start to explore about people’s identities and who we really are, it’s a really visual and easy place to get to grips with that."

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Credit Courtesy of Anne Austin Pearce
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Anne Austin Pearce's 'Thinking of Mexico'

At first glance, Bayjoo, a mixed-race African-Asian Londoner by way of Mauritius, would seem to have little in common with Pearce, a white woman from Kansas. But when they saw each other’s work, something strange happened.

"I was shocked. I was shocked," Pearce says. "I would work a lot in my very hot little room, I had things taped to the wall — rocks, sticks, etc. — and I was making paintings on a cardboard box that I had flipped over in my room. I’d left a door open and he’d come in when I wasn’t there. I think at that moment, he said 'Oh my god, I can’t believe this.'"

"I couldn’t believe how similar our styles of painting are," Shiraz says. "Our interest in abstract marks and how that creates an emotional landscape in our works."

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Credit Courtesy of Shiraz Bayjoo
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Shiraz Bayjoo's 'DMD3'

Their work has obvious differences — Pearce paints abstract forms on paper; Bayjoo incorporates photographs and paints on old furniture. But the similarities were inescapable.

"We even looked at each other’s paints and realized we were attracted to the same medium and the same materials," Bayjoo says.

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Shiraz Bayjoo's 'Invertay -- Two Ships'

Now, two years later, Bayjoo is on this side of the world.

He arrived in Kansas City on Aug. 19 and will be a visiting scholar at Rockhurst until mid-September.

Pearce wanted her students to experience his perspective, and not just on art. Because, she discovered, Bayjoo's art was a way to understand her own complicated history — and America's.

"My father grew up in Kenya and my grandparents were colonists," Pearce says. "My grandparents had a coffee plantation and my understanding of colonialism started with stories that came directly (from my family), obviously many of them misshapen. Shiraz and his work explore the other side."

"Through the forces good and bad, of slavery and labor, cultures born out of the mixing of those people," Bayjoo says, "we find there's a lot we have in common because most countries have some kind of colonial legacy."

Pearce is eager to see how her students respond to Bayjoo.

"He will be able to speak to them in terms of their endeavors professionally, critically but gently," she says. "As with any artist, it will be a new set of eyes — but in this instance from across the world, which will inherently provide a different cultural perspective."

Shiraz Bayoo presents "A Land Of Extraordinary Quarantines," a visiting scholar lecture, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 28 in Rockhurst University's Arrupe Hall Auditorium.

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