On an island where the Prime Minister's mother was the leading sculptor, art and politics are intimately linked.
The Guardian, 3 Oct 1990
Downtown Kingston is not quite the thriving centre old black and white photographs show it to be. It is busy still, but with the chaos of deregulated buses filled to over-capacity and street stalls swamped by cheap imports from Haiti. The market extends from the top of the once grand King Street nearly to the sea. The harbour is quiet, pelicans swoop down and people with nothing to do hang around in groups.
The National Gallery of Jamaica is "temporarily" down town. It is eventually supposed to move up town, following the whole of the middle class who seldom set foot in this part. Jamaica is a poor country. Even the rich people talk of priorities: what the State, and they, should or shouldn't do. If the junior school roof has only just been repaired two years after Hurricane Gilbert (and that with the help of a cheque from Jamaicans abroad), art and art education will come pretty far down the list. Yet Jamaica has the most active art scene in the West Indies.
Kingston has lively theatre as well. At a recent revue the question was asked "Who is F-ing who" and the answer came "IMF-ing you and you and you."
The middle class, politicised to an extent unknown in Britain, laugh nervously. By the end of the 1970s real panic had set in among the business community. The proliferation of Skoda cars and Cuban advisers helped to encourage a spread of rumours. Rich people bought yachts, called them "Let's get out of here," "Ever Ready," and "I'm Off," and prepared to bail out with family, jewels and the obligatory collection of Jamaican art. Seaga replaced Manley, and most of them stayed. Ten years later and a chastened Manley is back in power.
He has a strong relationship to art. His mother Edna, the sculptor, was one of Jamaica's most celebrated artists. Her work was the visual manifestation of her country's transformation. She died in 1987, aged 87. The first retrospective of Manley's work is currently at the National Gallery. Seldom is an artist's work so mixed up with politics. As a member of one of the strongest political dynasties this century (mother of Michael, wife of Norman the Nationalist Leader and cousin of Bustamante, founder of Jamaican trade unionism) and yet a considerable artist in her own right, she is totally fascinating. The rise of nationalism at the end of the 30s is perfectly represented by her imported European classicism. Labour themes — sawing, selling, striking —are carved in local wood.
"Negro Aroused", a black man with developed muscles who looks upwards either in quiet contemplation of another world or serious organised involvement in this, was purchased by public subscription in 1937. At the end of the 40s Manley, perhaps reflecting disillusionment, turned to a private and probably less effective language. Religion, never far away in Jamaica, combines with invented mysticism to provide subject matter. She loved William Blake but mistook message for medium and Blake's form does not translate well into three dimensions. Manley was timely because she brought European modernism to Jamaica, but her desire to found a national aesthetic could only fail. Contemporary art goes in different directions and still seems concerned with defining national identity. There is a debate about whether the "Intuative" artists, people who didn't go to art school, are part of a Jamaican Fine Art heritage. For some, the notion of advance is synonymous with perspective and realism; "How can we say we are getting any where if we admire this naive stuff?"
But there is also the farcical infatuation of art school educated artists wishing they could paint like the intuitives. You are just as likely to see an artist bringing work for safe keeping to the National Gallery as to find a group of school children giggling around a phallic hand-carved staff in the permanent collection.
Allen "Zion" Johnson, who is well represented in the collection, paints Jamaican scenes held flat against the board by a typo-raphical road, lake, or roundabout, with roosters, cars, floating onion-domed buildings, and helicopters. His work is available in many commercial galleries as well, in fact he churns them out and they remain cheap. William Joseph "Woody" also keeps work at the gallery for security. His defenceless figures sculpted from wood can be seen in private collections — Edna Manley had a large "Woody" on her studio floor. Kapo, the most famous of the 'Intuitives" is now dead and has a room at the National Gallery dedicated to his work. A favourite of the leader of the opposition, Kapo's dense, chunky spiritual scenes are appreciated by Seaga perhaps for their anthropological interest.
The question of who supports what is very important in Jamaica. Layers of meaning can be attached to artistic loyalties. It is different from any take-or-leave, like/don't like, notion of freedom enjoyed in larger more developed countries. There are a number of contradictions in the acceptance of the "Intuitives." If David Boxer, Director of the National Gallery, who coined the name, calls the naive artist Intuitive what does that make the art school trained artist? A hung-up academic?
Jamaica's art school was only started in the 70s, with the help of Edna Manley after whom it is named. As the infrastructure (education, transport and social services) is hardly in place, the funds for the art school are limited. There are only three feet of art books in the school library. Reproductions are not available and as art students can seldom afford to go further than their own national gallery they must remain visually ignorant. Artists have little recourse to anything other than battered old American art magazines. The search for identity will inevitably become stale without information — whether African, Indian, Western or Chinese — to feed the process.
One piece in the National Gallery that is overtly political is a large scale installation by Dawn Scott. The same graffiti-covered, corrugated iron that makes walls and roofs not far from the gallery has been placed in a spiral maze. At the centre, shockingly, lies a life-sized figure destitute or dead. This literal piece may be better without the figure but would it shock? Osmond Watson paints small religious icons of the black face of Christ picked out with jewel like intensity over-laid by a plastic working. Much Jamaican painting verges on the unpleasant. Is this because Black subject matter has been underrated, turned into kitsch through conscious or unconscious belittlement? The obsessive nature of much Jamaican art comes from artists who work in virtual isolation. Colin Garland makes strange paintings that are a cross between Richard Dadd and early Italian. Laura Facey works wood, fabric and plastic to secret effect and David Boxer uses ready-made art images behind a veil of paint and tissue.
Perhaps the delicacy of all this is a defensive protection from the tension and violence outside. More "Jamaican", though, continues to be work by Carl Abrahams, who made his earliest pieces in the 20s, and Albert Huie whose earlier portraits are among the most powerful in the National Gallery. Much younger, Milton George has travelled abroad and it shows. He paints so well, abstract to light caricature, that his knowingness seems in stark contrast to other artists who say they hate the idea market forces outside the island. Three hours by road out of Kingston, way up through "cattle country", past orchids growing from tree trunks and a sudden growth of new houses built with Ganja Money, you get to Browns Town. The centre of the Bible belt, there are numerous churches, schools and a few local artists. "Brother" Everard Brown is a real visionary. He paints magnificently, piling up detail and line to make hill and tree out of a web of arterial lines. The landscape is familiar because it goes before him into smart collectors' homes in Kingston and the North Coast.
© Sacha Craddock - Oct 1990