Frank Walter: The Last Universal Man 1926–2009 marks Antigua and Barbuda’s inaugural representation at the 57th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. The exhibition invites visitors to inhabit the creative world and humanist vision of seminal Caribbean artist Frank Walter through a selection of his paintings, sculpture, audio recordings, and writing—as well as through video exploration of his entire oeuvre consisting of 5,000 works of art and a 25,000-page archive. The Last Universal Man is also conceived of as a space to inspire dialogue—a posthumous fulfillment of Walter’s intention to open his house and studio as a center for art.
Fittingly situated in the tranquil setting of central Venice’s fifteenth-century monastery Don Orione Artigianelli, the exhibition extends outdoors to an Antiguan garden. This sets the contemplative mood of Walter’s artistic retreat and paradisus terrestris, which he built above the southern Antiguan coastline in the last decades of his life. The artwork that once filled Walter’s house and studio is inextricable from his postcolonial experience. Yet the issues he engaged with—such as identity, memory, and environment—resonate today.
Walter began adulthood with the distinction of being the first person of color to manage a sugar plantation in Antigua, and he remained devoted to the land as a source of meaning and sustenance throughout his life. Walter’s complex, mixed-race descent from both slave owners and enslaved people meant that he struggled with the complexities of his identity. His position as other within postcolonial society was felt acutely in the systemic racism he endured during his eight-year Grand Tour of Europe in the 1950s, and it informed his obsessive interest in his white aristocratic lineage. In Walter’s imagining, his German heritage was connected to the royal houses of Great Britain and Europe, and he increasingly referred to himself as the “7th Prince of the West Indies, Lord of Follies and the Ding-a-Ding Nook.”
Walter’s need to invent his own universe originated in the difficulties he encountered in constructing his identity in relation to a society defined by exclusion. When Walter retreated into nature, art was his solace. He populated his world with talismanic sculptures depicting figures as varied as ancient Arawak people, European royalty, and men from outer space. He revisited his memories in painting and writing and explored nature as an avid environmentalist and student of science. Walter’s diverse practice as visual artist, musician, and philosopher reveals him as the ultimate Vitruvian man.