Born in 1926 in the British colony of Guiana, modern-day Guyana, Aubrey Williams is often considered an Abstract Expressionist. Yet Williams, inspired by a host of influences, including classical music, tropical birds, astrology and pre-Columbian iconography, created paintings that, in incorporating figurative, symbolic and abstract elements, resist straightforward classification.
The son of a civil servant and eldest of seven, Williams was born in Georgetown, Guyana's capital. He began drawing as a child, taking lessons from a restorer of religious paintings in Guyanese churches, before joining the Working Peoples' Art Class, aged twelve.
Guyana was then a British colony, its economy dominated by the sugar industry and Williams, alongside developing an art practice, trained as an agronomist, in 1944 taking up a post as Agricultural Field Officer on the coast. His encouragement of exploited farmers to claim rights against British-owned sugar plantations soon resulted in his banishment to the remote north-western rainforest settlement of Hosororo. There, Williams met indigenous Warrau Amerindians whose history and culture came to inform much of his work.
In Tribal Mark, Williams depicts a bone-like claw or glyph, which he recorded as being part of the Warrau's pictorial language. Williams repeatedly utilised this symbol in his work, describing it as 'a strange, very tense, slightly violent shape' that 'has haunted me all my life... a subconscious thing coming out'. For him, the shape's violence represented something of the violence of humanity, especially that of colonising forces. Williams's time in Hosororo also prompted his artistic concern with the natural world, including an interest in ornithology.
Throughout his career, Williams painted a variety of birds, in particular depicting predators, raptors and waterfowl. Some examples can be seen in the archive of his personal papers at the Tate. He was drawn to birds as, for him, they represented 'the unattainable – possessing qualities we can only admire from our limited human state,' such as 'the gift of direction-control' during migration.