Artists and Artisans of SVG: Bongo Joy
If you’ve walked past the T shirt Store on Halifax Street in Kingstown within the last year, chances are you’ve seen O’Neil ‘Bongo Joy’ Samuel in the middle of his creative process, completely in his element. His story is a heart-warming one, one of overcoming the odds and playing to one’s strengths.
O’Neil admits that he was heavily influenced during his childhood years by “bad company”. However, he would come to realize that constantly getting into trouble and endangering himself was not the life he wanted to live. He wanted more, he wanted be a better man. It almost comes as no surprise that arts and crafts became O’Neil’s outlet of self expression as there is creative energy flowing through his bloodline.
He would often watch as his mom intricately layered strips of newspaper during a paper mache project, or weave ribbons and use sponge to make extravagant skirts and dresses for dolls. His brother was more of a visual artist, and so it was his drawing and painting skills O’Neil would admire, so much so that it was pencil drawings that were his first creative endeavour. He then added mirror etching to the list and now hand-makes accessories such as bracelets, necklaces, waist beads and his most popular and unique item, bags made from the fruit of the ‘Calabash Tree’ (also known as the Gourd plant).
Samuel shares that he believes he was born with creative talent but it was also his ability to look at others and quickly pick up skills that allowed him to get to where he is now. He recalled the first time he saw someone working with the gourds. He observed keenly for about fifteen minutes and then he was off to making a ‘bowlie’ of his own. He didn’t have any fancy tools or special solutions, he used an old spoon to design and carve out his first piece. These days he has become so dexterous in this art form that it would take him only 25 minutes to carve out, design and decorate a bag from start to finish.
If you are wondering whether or not he has a personal ‘bowlie’, he does! In fact he has several of them. They are the vessels from which he eats and drinks and he even uses the pulp of the gourds that would be removed when he’s making his bags. He expressed great confidence in the health benefits that can be derived from boiling and drinking the pulp.
O’Neil is proud of the work he does, and rightfully so. He enjoys making a living from his handiwork but made it clear that money isn’t his motivation. “It’s not because of money, is the stuff I love to do, is the craft I’m passionate about” and having people who are intrigued by what he does and delight in his creations spurs him on all the more to keep pushing boundaries and allowing his creativity to run wild. He hopes to add a few decorative items for the household to the list of products he offers such as lamp shades and candle burners.
Here’s an individual who has managed to emerge from being besieged by negativity during his younger years, to become an upstanding citizen, a person driven by his artistic abilities and someone who now has a deep understanding about the “bigger picture” in life. There is simplistic beauty in the lifestyle and outlook that Samuel has settled into.
“I’m just a man, a man with love and a man with passion…I want to see more of what I looking at get better, more business, more love, more people trying to help… more of that is better for the world.”
He treats his craft like an act of humanitarianism. His display table is a neutral space, where he makes no distinction about class, colour or creed. His only concern is ensuring that the people who stop by his table leave with exactly what their heart desired, and so his work is a depiction of his genuine love for people.
“Once you’re a human with righteous mind, it doesn’t matter what denomination you stand for.”