by Gemma Handy
It took 150 schoolchildren, several days, thousands of dollars, and the assistance of an internationally acclaimed artist to create the eye-catching marine-inspired mural that once proudly adorned the perimeter wall of the Yasco Sports Complex.
In February 2017, the 2009 creation – overseen by famed US conservationist and artist Robert Wyland – was refurbished with the help of local sponsors plus another 40 youngsters keen to grab a paintbrush and learn about Antigua and Barbuda’s intriguing sea life.
So when the Old Parham Road wall was recently painted over – with no warning to those behind its inception – an outcry erupted.
“Devastated”, “short-sighted” and “shameful” are just some of the words used by local residents on social media who had admired the vibrant life-size images of whales, fish and corals.
The 120ft mural was spearheaded 12 years ago by the Antigua Barbuda Independent Tourism Promotion Corporation (ABITPC) in a bid to teach children about the need to protect the oceans and their denizens.
Funding of almost US$7,000 was provided by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), and Wyland travelled to Antigua in May 2009 to help.
The 65-year-old is renowned for his large outdoor murals featuring marine creatures. He has painted more than 100 of his ‘whaling walls’ across the globe and also boasts the title of the world’s largest painting – a 116,000 sqft mural in Long Beach, California.
Martha Watkins-Gilkes, one of ABITPC’s founders, told Observer she had been “really shocked” to learn the wall had been painted over. It came two months before a five-year agreement struck with the Ministry of Sports in 2016, ahead of the mural’s revitalisation, had been due to end on September 30.
“The agreement states that permission for the mural could be extended; we wrongly assumed it would be,” she explained.
“We were never approached and the matter was never discussed with us as the organisation that created it.
“Wyland is an esteemed international marine artist; to have a Wyland marine wall in Antigua is really a major thing and has brought us a lot of international press.
“It is beyond me why this work of art would be destroyed.”
Watkins-Gilkes continued, “After all the time, effort and thousands of dollars of expense that volunteers put into this project it is not unreasonable that we would have expected to be advised on this before it was painted over.”
She added that the group had also paid around EC$8,000 in gardening fees over the years to maintain the grounds in front of the wall as part of the 2016 deal.
Local artist Katie McConnachie, who worked with the dozens of children involved in the mural’s 2017 overhaul, said she too had been hoping the youngsters would get the chance to continue to add to it.
“I feel sorry for the kids because they loved it and they had so much fun working on it,” she said. “It was a way for them to express themselves and it’s upsetting for them because they were so proud to show their work to their parents.”
Sports Minister Daryll Matthew told Observer the wall had been painted to make way for a new athletics-themed design.
“There was some miscommunication,” he conceded. “Our understanding was that the agreement regarding the aquarium wall came to an end last month but it was actually September 2021.
“There was no malintent; I wish we had known the full details.
“We had no issue with the existing wall; it was just felt that, being a sporting facility, it was more fitting to have images of athletics and track and field to celebrate our past and present athletes,” Minister Matthew added.