Memoirs: Visiting Leonard Daley

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Leonard Daley at his home in Fiddler Hill, St Catherine, with three of his paintings, 1996 (photograph Walter Rammelaere – all rights reserved)

My father-in-law, Walter Rammelaere, passed away recently. He was, among other things, an amateur photographer and when my husband, Marc, rummaged through his photographic files recently, he found photographs of a long-forgotten visit to the self-taught, “Intuitive” Jamaican artist Leonard Daley (1930-2006), who lived in the hills of St Catherine. I have reproduced a few of these here. They were taken in 1996, while my father-in-law was on a one-month visit with us. We took him to the usual tourist sites, but also to those nooks and crannies of the island that tourist visitors only rarely get to see — one of the advantages, I guess, of having a son who is a geologist and environmentalist and a daughter-in-law who is an art historian and curator, both of them actively involved in field research all over the country.

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Leonard Daley – Untitled, c1996 (Collection: Shari Cavin and Randall Morris; photograph: Walter Rammelaere, all rights reserved)

My father-in-law was game to go on those “adventures,” and furthermore had a genuine interest in art, although his own artistic tastes were  quite different from ours: most of the paintings he had at his home in Belgium were rather conventional, nostalgic paintings of our hometown, the city of Bruges, by local artists such as Leo Mechelaere. Surprisingly, he actually bought a painting by Daley, but it was not on view at his home when I was last there in May. No doubt it was too raw and too dissonant with the rest of the art and the furniture in the house, and others who visited or lived in the house may not have liked it or recognized its value.

While the photographs we have thus far found are not particularly remarkable, they document Daley’s house and environment quite effectively and they triggered a lot of memories, of Leonard Daley and of that moment in the Jamaican art world. The critical battles over the National Gallery of Jamaica’s promotion of these artists that raged during the 1980s had, by and large, subsided but there was still a lot of passion and interest for this kind of art among a small group of enthusiasts. I was one of them (a position I still maintain, even though I am skeptical of how the Intuitives canon has been framed and patronized) and regular visits to artists such as Daley, Everald Brown and William “Woody” Joseph were part and parcel of the work I did at that time. I wish we could rekindle some of that passion and enthusiastic sense of common cause today.

Daley is no longer with us and his house no longer exists either. The land was captured and the house destroyed when he was hospitalized some time before his death. Similar things have, sadly enough, happened to several other “Intuitives” who were regarded as “outsiders” in their communities, by virtue of their eccentric personalities and lifestyles, and their association, actual or perceived, with spiritual practices that may incite fear. The sort of patronage they received also turned some of them them into targets, since the patrons who visited periodically (many of them white) departed the community laden with art works, with the understanding that they left behind cash and goods such as tools and paints.

Fiddler Hill, St Catherine, where Daley lived, may be stunningly beautiful, lush and with an epic view of the valley below, but life is far from idyllic for those who actually live there, most of them small farmers, in an environment that lacks basic modern amenities such as electricity or running water. It is tempting to romanticize the lives of self-taught artists who live in deep rural areas (or, for that matter, in urban inner cities) by focusing on their culture bearer status, but the sometimes harsh realities of their lives also need to be taken into consideration if we are to fully understand what their art represents.

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Paintings on Leonard Daley’s house, 1996 (photograph Walter Rammelaere – all rights reserved)

I do not recall exactly when I first met Leonard Daley (or “Brother D,” as he was often called) but it was probably on the occasion of the 1987 Fifteen Intuitives exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica, where I then worked as Assistant Curator. By the early 1990s, I was a regular visitor and I took many others there. It was quite a trek, to Bog Walk via the main road, which took us through the Rio Cobre gorge, and then via a narrow parochial road through large citrus plantations and up into the hills to the west of Bog Walk. Daley lived near the end of a road which was impassable for most vehicles, so we had to leave our car at the T-junction where Daley’s road started and walk the rest, probably about a mile. It was a red earth road, parts of which  had been carved out into a gully-like trench by regular heavy rains (weather was, not surprisingly, an important consideration in deciding when to visit). Walking to Daley’s house was, mercifully, mostly downhill; returning to the car, however, was far more challenging and involved significant huffing and puffing for all but the fittest, as it was, of course, uphill.

The house–a ramshackle, ever-changing wood and zinc shack structure, of which most walls were covered with Daley’s paintings–was surrounded by a fairly large lot of land that was planted rather erratically with various food trees and other crops. I doubt that Daley had a title to the land, as land ownership in such rural areas is often poorly defined, but it was for all intents and purposes his home, at least for as long as he actually lived there, and he sure made his mark on it. The house had an overhanging zinc roof and an intricate system of metal and bamboo gutters to catch rainwater, and the interior was dark, humid and cavernous, with a hardened sand floor. One of the rooms included an open water cistern and I vividly remember on one occasion seeing a big toad sitting on its edge and signs of similar life in the water itself, echoing the hallucinatory imagery of Daley’s paintings.

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Unpainted part of Leonard Daley’s house, 1996 (photograph Walter Rammelaere – all rights reserved)

Visiting Leonard Daley was almost like a ritual, with some very predictable, seemingly scripted elements, and it was not possible to stop by for just a quick visit. Visitors were taken on a lengthy tour of the house and the land, and then made to sit down for a full-fledged “reasoning” and story-telling session. This invariably involved at least one riddle, which most visitors were unable to answer, to Daley’s obvious delight. As my colleague Jacqueline Bishop recalls, he was almost impossible to interview in any structured way, but he sure loved to talk. There was one story he told every single time I visited: how he was once cornered by an angry bull, and forced to climb a tree where he had to stay for hours until he was finally rescued by neighbour–it may well have been that fearsome, red-eyed black bull he depicted in a painting that now belongs to Shari Cavin and Randall Morris of Cavin-Morris gallery in NYC.

It was also interesting to observe his somewhat prickly relationship with his neighbours, who clearly had their own opinions about Daley and the slew of strange visitors that came to his yard: on one occasion, while we toured his garden, Daley told us the place was called Fidler’s Hill, only to be promptly corrected by a loud female voice coming from the bush nearby, who hollered “Is Fidler Hill, Brother D, Fidler Hill,” sounding quite impatient and annoyed, as if she was correcting him for the umpteenth time. Daley just laughed and shrugged, and continued our tour. “Bush Have Ears,” to paraphrase the title of Everald Brown’s famous painting, is not only a spiritual concept but it is also steeped in the reality that one is rarely alone or not seen, overheard and judged in Jamaica, even in deep rural areas.

Unlike some of the other “Intuitives,” who could be volatile and demanding of monetary and other support, interactions with Leonard Daley were always pleasant and I never saw him angry or miserable. He was quite generous to those he liked and once gave me a painting on an oil drum cover–it is a treasured part of my small art collection. The encounters were however always on his terms. I always had the sense that he refused to be “owned” by his patrons and saw himself outside of, and even in defiance of, the dominant, conventional hierarchies and value systems of the society he lived in.

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Leonard Daley – Untitled, c1994  (Marc Rammelaere and Veerle Poupeye collection)

This irreverence is evident in his work, which requires careful analysis without being overly distracted by its visceral, abstracted, seemingly “ghoulish” imagery. Many of his paintings for instance include John Crows, Jamaica’s omnipresent and rather ominous turkey vultures, which are commonly associated with evil, death and hypocrisy in the popular lore–being called a “dutty John Crow” is not a nice thing in Jamaica. Daley used to delight in pointing out that the John Crow in his paintings was himself and he explained that the bird played a useful and indeed necessary role in the natural ecology. One of my favourite works by Daley is an untitled 1992 painting in the Wayne and Myrene Cox collection which has inscriptions such as “I am a wrongdoer. Which judge can have me not guilty when I am guilty” and “Who can judge? The seven big men” on it, mockingly turning conventional conceptions about justice, guilt and innocence, and the power and status of “big men” upside-down.

The moral universe depicted in Daley’s human-animal fables is not one of  binaries, it is not a clear battle between good and evil as we see in the work of Hieronymus Bosch, with whom he is often compared, but one in which the very notion of such binaries is challenged, as it was in the complex and challenging real world Daley himself inhabited. His work is best understood as a form of “visual reasoning,” or, better even, as “visual riddles” that reflect on that contrary moral universe and his own place in it. I am not suggesting that Daley’s individualist persona and way of thinking separated him from the popular culture. Daley’s reliance on “reasoning” as an intellectual strategy, for instance, is related to the culture of Rastafari, while his irreverence to power and his refusal of simplistic “good and evil” binaries links him to the trickster figure of Anancy. If anything, it was Daley’s fierce individualism and disregard for the conventional rules that made him so deeply Jamaican.

All that remains today of Leonard Daley’s life are the recollections of his family (he had children), friends, researchers and collectors; and the written records, photographs and video footage of those who visited, interviewed him and documented his art and his house. Fortunately there is a fair amount of documentation, thanks to the efforts of the likes of Wayne Cox, Randall Morris, Jacqueline Bishop and the late David Boxer, and I have contributed to it myself, also. And, most of all, there is his art, which is scattered in many local and overseas collections, including the collection of the National Gallery of Jamaica. His work does not have the widespread appeal of that of artists whose work is more aesthetically and culturally accessible, such as John Dunkley or Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds; nor has it received the same level of national or international recognition. Daley’s work is not for everybody, but I firmly believe that it is equally significant, artistically and culturally, and it is arguably more unique, as it is harder to pinpoint the artistic sources or cultural influences that may have shaped Leonard Daley’s vision. He certainly deserves to be recognized as a major artist.

Discovering the photographs my father-in-law took twenty-two years ago reminded me how important it is to ensure that there are good archives on Jamaican art, especially on those parts that fall outside of the mainstream and its formal records, and to ensure that future researchers have access. While it was early days in the documentation of Jamaican art history, it is no credit to Dunkley’s patrons that there is only one extant photograph of him, and nothing (at least not that I am aware of) on his barbershop on Princess street. What a loss that is to our understanding of his life and work. I can only hope that Wayne Cox’s dream of setting up a documentation centre on the self-taught, Intuitive artists will one day take shape, perhaps handled by the National Gallery of Jamaica, and that others will opt to deposit their materials there.

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The start of the dirt road to Leonard Daley’s house, 1996 (photograph Walter Rammelaere – all rights reserved)

Note: a correction regarding the ownership of the first featured painting was made on June 13, 2018.

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