John Lyons: Carnivalesque at The Whitworth

Maja Lorkowska, Exhibitions Editor
oil paining in a expressive style, three standing figues are the main focus with an owl flying above the central figure at the top of the image.
John Lyons, Mama Look a Mas Passin, detail, 1990. (Oil on canvas, 1270 x 1020mm) Courtesy of the artist © John Lyons. Photo: Anne-Katrin Purkiss

John Lyons at The Whitworth, Manchester Until 25 August 2024 Entrance is free — Visit now

The Whitworth celebrates six decades of artist and writer John Lyons’ work, in all of its surreal vitality and exuberant colour. John Lyons: Carnivalesque is the artist’s first major retrospective, unveiling his boundless creativity which spills across visual arts and poetry.

Born in 1933 in Trinidad and Tobago, Lyons came to the UK at the age of 25 and began to study art at Goldsmiths College. For a number of years, he worked as an art teacher and lecturer during which time never stopped painting and writing. Today, viewers can admire the prolific output from the earliest days of his career to more recent paintings, as well as poetry and archival material which honours the artist’s contribution to supporting the local art scene and nurturing creativity wherever he goes.

Lyons describes painting, and art more broadly, as a language and the display follows his personal and creative journey, tracing the development of his own artistic dialect. It starts with early experiments with abstraction, structure and form as can be seen in the study Marie Louise (1968). Later, these investigations consolidate to create his unique vision, peppered with symbolism and perfectly exemplified in Self Portrait with Jumbie Bird and Alter Ego (1990). Finally, John Lyons: Carnivalesque concludes with an exploration of the mythology and folklore of Trinidad, as well as spirituality and belief systems, and the artist’s intuitive creative process that incorporates these themes.

Lyons’ fascination with Carnival comes from his understanding of the event as a cathartic experience, as well as the Trinidadian folklore that surrounds it. Scenes of masked, dancing figures are interspersed with the artist’s personal recurring symbolism in unexpected compositions, all bathed in bright colours, as can be seen in Before Ash Wednesday in Trinidad (1988), Lyons’ largest surviving work.

The exhibition gathers 80 pieces made between 1964 and 2024 and gives audiences the chance to see many works which haven’t been seen in decades, including paintings, drawings, woodcuts, poems and sketchbooks. Now aged 90, it is Lyons’ fresh creative thought and commitment to his vision that gives this show such an invigorating quality.

John Lyons: Carnivalesque is accompanied by an exciting programme of events, including ‘The Carnival’ on 9 June, a day filled with live art performances, workshops and activities for anybody who fancies taking part. In August, the gallery offers PLAYTIME, a summer holidays programme for children. Take a look at the website to find out more.

John Lyons at The Whitworth, Manchester Until 25 August 2024 Entrance is free Visit now


  • Dementia-friendly
  • Relaxed

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