Susan Matthews' Paintings & Illuminated Manuscripts

painting of hands holding images

One of our goals in the Secrets Under the Skin project has been to connect the Arará community in Perico with a parallel religious community in Dzodze, Ghana through the shared attributes in their belief systems. Our idea was to use the practice of our own art to bring some of these shared attributes to light. My work in this project contains stories, images, and communications between Ghana and Cuba, in the form of large scale, acrylic paintings on canvas, and smaller "illuminated manuscripts" on paper.

My large and small figurative paintings are based on visits to sacred sites in Perico and Agramonte, Cuba, and in Dzodze, Ghana and Adjodogou, Togo. These paintings include portraits of some of the people we interviewed in Cuba, and portraits of some of the women from Dzodze. I work in a larger-than-life format because I want the paintings to enter the physical space of the viewer. The paintings are unstretched and hang like tapestries. I also painted four large text panels with excerpts from communications between people in Perico and Dzodze. I wanted to commemorate the nature of the questions and answers that were sent back and forth from Cuba to Ghana, and to show the people in Perico the visual appearance of written Ewe. 

Twenty-one manuscripts are composed of excerpts from interviews that I have rendered in calligraphy with corresponding gilded watercolor images. My choice of this format refers back to ancient times when myths, stories, poetry, philosophy and visual images walked across Asia, the Middle East and Europe on camelback and horseback, spreading ideas and knowledge in the form of illuminated manuscripts. I carried the manuscripts in my luggage because the U.S. embargo prohibits mail or shipping between the U.S. and Cuba. The illustrations are meant to spark discussion, recall memories, and move images and ideas across continents as did the illuminated manuscripts of olden times.

Throughout this process it has been important that we share our work among our collaborators in Cuba and Ghana. I have given prints of many of my images to the people in Perico, we have distributed photos and DVDs, and we exhibited our collective work in the local museum in Perico. My ultimate goal is to have high quality prints made of all of my artwork to donate to the museum in Perico. People in Dzodze, Ghana and Adjodogou, Togo have received prints as well.

I believe that art is a continuum, and that contemporary artists stand on the backs of artists and practitioners of culture from the most ancient times. Through Secrets Under the Skin I have had the opportunity to look at some of the sources of music and dance that have found their way into popular culture and university curriculums in the United States, the Caribbean, and throughout the world. I have barely begun to work on the quantity of interviews. The manuscripts that appear here barely scratch the surface of the interviews that have been gathered over the years. I plan to continue creating manuscripts and paintings that capture the stories of Perico and Agramonte for years to come.

I became interested in Cuban folklore through my own study of percussion at Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana, where I met Jill Flanders Crosby in 1996. I have done an extensive series of paintings on Cuban folklore. Please see my website: