'Painting saved me'
Keisha Hill, Sunday Gleaner Writer
Life is a journey, not a destination. It is fair to say that life has not one, but many different meanings and purposes. Different emotions give us different perspectives on life, and different ways of thinking make life different for each and everyone of us. The way we think changes through experience, and each day we live gives us new experiences. So many of us spend each day of our lives searching for simple life answers.
For painter Naphtali Emeka Berhane, life has its ups and downs, good and bad days, a wonderful journey wherever it inevitably takes you. The mistake he said most people make is searching for the answer to life instead of living it.
Several years ago, Berhane wasn't as prophetic and found himself on the wrong side of the law on more than one occasion. Born Andrew Mark McLaughlin to parents Delores and Sigismond McLaughlin in Streatham, London, he was the youngest of three children. His parents divorced at an early age and his father moved back to Jamaica.
He started showing his artistic potential from an early age, and his mother saw his aptitude and encouraged him.
"My mother noticed that I could draw better than most of my friends in class, and once she realised I had an interest, she began to nurture it," Berhane said.
By the time he was 11 years old, Berhane attended the Battersea Art Centre in London, where he was the youngest art student among those in their late teens and early 20s. He also had extra lessons, as his mother did whatever was necessary to develop his talent.
At five years old, he made his first trip to Jamaica, following which he spent subsequent summer vacations here. Afterwards, he lived in Jamaica for three years, when his mother migrated to Jamaica and lived in Mandeville during this brief stint.
"My older sister and I went to Manchester High School and my brother went to work at my dad's auto parts business in Porus," Berhane said.
He then returned to England and finished school there. However, his world came crashing down when his mother lost her battle with cancer and he went down a depressing road.
"Half of me was gone," he said. "This path led me to be incarcerated; however, while there, I read books about black history that stirred emotions in me - both good and bad. Bad in the sense of being robbed of the knowledge of knowing who I am. I made up my mind from that day to change my name to Naphtali Emeka Berhane," he added.
He explained that 'Naphtali' means 'one of the sons of Jacob blessed as being like a hind let loose but filled with goodly words'. 'Emeka' is Nigerian, given to him by his Nigerian friends, meaning 'I give thanks to God'; and 'Berhane' is Ethiopian, meaning 'my light'.
ART IN PRISON
During his incarceration, Berhane said his fellow inmates noticed he could draw and paint, but he didn't think then that art would become the love of his life.
"I was flooded with portraits of girlfriends, babies - even pets - and the guards gave me commission," he said.
After a string of different jobs in England, in 1993, he participated in his first exhibition in Mandeville at Frame Works.
"I decided in 1995 to come home to Jamaica and that I would help my dad and do my art at the same time. But things did not work out. Things were rocky with my dad, as he felt I should get a 'proper' job instead of being an artist," he said.
"I was introduced to Norman Russell, an artist and art teacher who, in turn, introduced me to Veronica Carnegie, then principal of the Liguanea School in Half-Way Tree. Without teaching qualifications, she gave me a chance, and after seven years, I was still there and loving it. After the school closed its doors, I returned to England and continued painting," Berhane said.
While in England, Berhane said it was not easy for him, as sometimes he was unable to get his artwork sold. He said he lacked inspiration and it was much harder for a breakthrough artist in England to get recognition. As luck would have it, in 2011, he again found himself incarcerated, this time in Jamaica.
"Sometimes we look at things in a negative or destructive way and lose sight of the big picture. But as Malcolm X said, he put prison next to college - if you want to learn, you have the time," he said.
"My eyes became opened in prison. Painting saved me and kept my mind at peace. I was able to reflect on my life and let go of the baggage I was carrying," Berhane added.
He joined the library and read all the books that he could find to inspire him.
"I was able to release issues with my dad after all those years and found some peace with my mom's passing. I was thrown right back into what the Creator made me to be - an artist and more. I cannot count the number of portraits I did between Gun Court and the Spanish Town prison. It truly saved me," he said.
A new chapter dawned for Berhane in 2014, and he is now more optimistic about his life's journey. Berhane paints portraits of elderly people, children, old houses and churches. He also paints many portraits of women. According to him, they convey his messages better than men.
"Women are more spiritually powerful than men. They convey happiness and simplicity," he said.
He hopes to have his own exhibition one day, focusing on the many talents of individuals in Jamaica's prisons. The profit, he said, would be used in the prisons for educational purposes as there is limited rehabilitation in the prison system for the inmates.
"There is no way to express the frustration and anger, and most times persons end up worse than how they go in there. We are not taught how to verbalise ourselves, and art can help many of the inmates. There are many gifted persons in the system," Berhane said.