Jamaica’s art as a refection of Caribbean history
Jamaica like the other islands in the Caribbean, has gone through several periods of growth, development and evolution and so has its art industry. The island has a long and complex history, with multiple cultural influences, which are indicative of the potential of its creative sector. Our music and dance culture are known worldwide but the Visual Arts still often struggles to find the same foothold and visibility. Even so there have been developments in the last 10 years for Jamaican art and artists who are based both locally and internationally. If we trace a path forward from key developmental moments to the contemporary period however, a more layered understanding of the cultural legacy that artists of today frequently engage with may be highlighted.
Belisario: Historic & Social Documentation
In homes and buildings in Jamaica today among the most popular prints on the walls are Isaac Mendes Belisario’s depictions of the characters from the seasonal masquerade tradition of ‘Jonkonnu’ or ‘John Canoe’ created between 1837-38. Jonkonnu is derived from the West African masquerade traditions of Egun as well as the mimicry of colonial class by the working class of the period. As an artist he helped to concretize and develop the visual records of the culture and customs of his time. Belisario was of Portuguese Jewish origin and had all the technical facility needed to become quite an established artist in the island. The technical adeptness of his prints and skill in painting the landscape and society of the time have allowed great insight into both the ruling groups and the oppressed groups in the society during this period. His means of visually representing workers in extreme minutia in contrast to the expanse of the landscape are not dissimilar from English paintings of that period such as the J.M.W. Turner painting, ‘Hornby Castle from Tatham Church’. Belisario is said to be the first documented Jamaican-born artist and for these and other reasons discussed Belisario’s prints and paintings hold great value as documents of that period in Jamaica’s cultural history.
[Image: Barrington Watson https://nationalgalleryofjamaica.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/barrington-watson-conversation.jpg?w=450&h=631]
The Era of Independence & Modern Means of Representation
The ethnic composition of the society had changed drastically during the periods of Colonization and The Slave Trade. Amerindians had given way to Spanish and Portuguese settlers and then British and West Africans began to comprise most of the makeup of the island’s population after slavery ended. The Chinese and East Indians would further add to the diversity of the island in other waves of immigration. In the 20th century, Jamaica like other Caribbean nations began thinking about independence from British rule. In 1962, when independence was achieved it was accompanied by a new desire to establish nationhood through various channels including culture.
New opportunities for training and scholarship arose for the various classes as attempts were made to gradually integrate the citizens of a new Jamaica. Many of the early leaders in the local art scene were recipients of such scholarship opportunities created for Jamaicans to travel and study overseas and to return with new influences and ideas. They returned with the means and thoughtfulness with which to engage with the West in a more modern sense. Expatriate artists from Europe and the Americas also came to Jamaica to make use of the opportunities and assist in shaping this newly awakened country.
Barrington Watson, one of Jamaica’s foremost academic painters also studied overseas at The Royal College of Art in London in the 1950s. His paintings went further in the direction of portraying the black Jamaican as a legitimate subject in his paintings where they were featured in larger proportions in the compositions. While being influenced by European art, Watson also rewrote some of those European narratives by inserting coloured bodies which reflected his observations about the intimate social lives of Jamaicans of varying classes.
1970’s-80’s: New Art Institutions & Collections
. For many artists who were active between the 60’s and 80’s however, rewriting the narrative of colonization and eroded cultures and identities in their art was a major way of reasserting the potential and the possibilities of the peoples of the island away from its history of servitude and exploitation. It was a way of equalising and showcasing the mélange of cultures which had shaped the society. Artists of the period were busy in the exercise of giving serious thought to what it meant to be an artist in Jamaica and the Caribbean. This wave of regenerative thought was part of a Caribbean-wide renaissance of new thought and reflection by writers, philosophers, artists, musicians, policy makers and politicians.
Groups of self-taught artists from around the island were exhibited under the label of ‘Intuitive’. Intuitive Art was akin to what in other cultures would be called Outsider Art. The Intuitives were presented as the keepers of authentic Jamaican visual expression. This move facilitated an alternative narrative within the growing Jamaican Art story where room was made for artists who were self-taught and were also mainly making working in their communities away from the art scene. Intuitive Art enjoyed a particular status in Jamaica at the heart of the art market during the 70’s to early 2000’s and proved sure-fire favourites with collectors of Jamaican Art.
[Image: Stanford Watson https://nationalgalleryofjamaica.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/stanford-watson-malnourished-dog1.jpg]
1990s-2000s: Pan-Africanist thought & Public Art
The opening of the region and connections being made between the Caribbean islands as well as the influx of Pan-Africanist thought did not escape artists. The alignment with African Art and culture and the coupled resistance and integration of Modern Western Art ideas became evident in the work of Stanford Watson, Omari Ra and Petrona Morrison. They emerged along with many other artists coming out of the bubbling atmosphere of deeper thought and inquiry. The new subject matter of the art varied from reflections on the state of affairs in the now independent and struggling nation state; challenging pervasive social ideas which were holdovers from colonial era Jamaica; and reconnecting with the art traditions and aesthetics of the African continent as well as reclaiming personal histories through materials.
New public art and monuments helped to reaffirm shared histories and memorialise key figures in national culture. A selection of Jamaican artists has been involved in memorialising cultural icons such as Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey and Usain Bolt. Alvin Marriott, Christopher Gonzales, Fitz Harrack, Laura Facey, Raymond Watson, Basil Watson and Stefan Clarke have made major public art pieces which have helped the growing nation symbolize its status and shape its national narrative. Their work has helped cities and institutions define symbolic landmarks and signify a dedication to celebrate this modern moment in our history as well as to build new appreciation for the arts amongst its people.
[Image: Marvin Bartley http://jamaica-gleaner.com/sites/default/files/styles/jg_article_image/public/article_images/2012/11/18/mutualgalleryb20121102ch.jpg?itok=hqO4GcFe]
By Oneika Russell
Submitted by Experience Jamaïque online gallery https://www.experiencejamaique.com/