Notes on Jamaica’s Art Histories # 1: Critiquing the Main Narrative

Jamaica’s art histories have been on my mind recently, as part of broader considerations about the art histories of the Global Caribbean.

Most of the recent art-historical work in and about Jamaica (and the broader Caribbean) has consisted of reflecting on but, ultimately, rehashing what was already done with very little new primary research or new ideas or interpretations–the production of new scholarship and insights that is a necessary part of a vibrant and viable art world. Those few efforts to seriously build on the older art-historical work have, furthermore, focused on filling in gaps and elaborating on certain artists and issues, but insufficiently on rethinking those structures, hierarchies, and methodologies, and those underlying interests and ideologies that informed the foundational narratives. And this includes reflection on the need for and implications of national and, more specifically, nationalist art-historical narratives.

What really needs to be done is to consider HOW the stories of art in, around and about places like Jamaica can be re-conceptualized and, importantly, re-researched to be more relevant to their present cultural context and what is necessary for that to happen–a line of inquiry that has implications beyond the Caribbean. I want to encourage this very necessary conversation with a number of blog posts over the next few months. Here is my first contribution, an older critique of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s foundational art-historical narrative which I believe serves as a good starting point. It is excerpted and slightly adapted from Chapter I of my doctoral dissertation Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011 – all rights reserved). The chapter in question was completed in 2006.

David Boxer’s Jamaican Art 1922-1982 essay has been the main general historical text on Jamaican art since it was first published in 1983 and when Boxer was Director/Curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ). It was published in the catalogue of the like-named exhibition which was circulated from 1983 to 1985, in the USA and also to Canada and Haiti. by the Smithsonian Institution Travelling exhibition Service (SITES). It is useful to start this discussion with a closer look at this text, since it provides a benchmark to assess the rest of the published material on the subject as well as a brief introduction to conventional Jamaican art history, especially since that essay has also served as the basis for the NGJ’s initial permanent exhibition, which was put in place in 1983-1984 when the museum moved to its present location. Boxer’s narrative, which in effect merely amounts to a ten-thousand word essay, is relatively easy to summarize, as I have attempted below, with special emphasis on how his argument is strategized. For citation purposes, I have used the 1998 version of his essay, which was published in the book Modern Jamaican Art and which is more widely available than the original.

After first establishing that, Jamaican art was, in his view, “the art that has developed as an integral part of the nationalist, anti-colonialist consciousness underlying the cultural and intellectual life of the island since the 1920s” (1998, 11), Boxer moved on to sketching its “prehistory.” This started with a brief discussion of the art of the Taino, the Amerindians who inhabited Jamaica at the time of Columbus’s first arrival in the island in 1994. He particularly praised four woodcarvings of Jamaican Taino zemes (or divinities), three of which are in the British Museum and one from the Rockefeller Collection in the Metropolitan Museum. The Metropolitan Museum, based on recent scholarship (e.g. Kerchache 1994), now attributes the latter carving to the Dominican Republic but Boxer refused to accept this re-allocation, a good example of how nationalist agendas sometimes motivate attributions. The 1998 version of Boxer’s essay included a footnote in which he described three major Taino carvings that were recovered in the small town of Aboukir in central Jamaica in 1994 and are now housed at the NGJ (26). Another major carving, a dujo or ceremonial seat, has since been found in the Hellshire hills, not far from Kingston, and is now also on view at the NGJ. He then cursorily mentioned the Spanish period (1494-1670) and its main artistic relic, the so-called Seville Carvings (c1530), a group of decorative architectural stone and stucco carvings that were made to adorn the Governor’s mansion and other structures at Jamaica’s first capital of Sevilla Nueva.

The discussion of the English colonial period, which officially started in 1670 when the island was formally ceded to Cromwell’s England, was divided into three short parts. In the first, Boxer discussed the work by major European artists that was commissioned and imported into the island by the plantocracy, especially the Neo-Classical commemorative and funerary sculptures, such as John Bacon’s 1790 Rodney Memorial in Jamaica’s former capital Spanish Town. In the second, he discussed the work of the itinerant naturalists and topographical artists, most of them Europeans but also a few US-Americans, who produced landscapes, depictions of the flora and fauna, and picturesque scenes, often as clients of major planters. In this section, he made special mention of Isaac Mendes Belisario, who, he stated, established a painting and printmaking studio in Kingston in 1835 (and who is the first documented Jamaica-born artist, although this was not yet established when this essay was written). The discussion of colonial art concluded with its most significant and controversial part, in which Boxer claimed that no African-Jamaican art of any significance had survived from before the 20th century and that very little such art ever existed, which he attributed to the forced deculturation of the African-Jamaicans under colonialism and slavery. This absence, he argued, set the stage for what “real” Jamaican art had to redress in the 20th century.

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When It Turns Out That Your Great-Great-Grandmother Was, Sort of, a Museum Curator

My great-great-grandmother, Virginie Strubbe, c1900 (Maria Roose family archive)

A few days ago, I published a post about some aspects of my family history, based on family photos I found, as a tribute to my mother who passed away recently. It can be read here. One of the questions I raised was how the personalities and life choices of our ancestors are. consciously or unconsciously, echoed in ourselves.

I had always assumed that my art historical and migratory inclinations were indebted mainly to my paternal great-grand-uncle Camille Poupeye (1874-1963), who was an art historian and a theatre and art critic. He was also a world traveler who spent a lot of his time in Asia, as well as in Africa and Central America, and published several books about theatre and dance traditions in Asia–he is probably best described as an Orientalist, with all the critical concerns that entails. I had always intended to write a reflection on that fascinating but ideologically fraught family heritage and will still do so at a future date (I found some interesting new information on him also).

But then I came across another document in my mother’s papers that charted the history of the lace shop that was operated in Bruges by my great-grandparents, Arthur Roose and Irma Deschepper, and I discovered something that complicated that assumption and also shed light on the roles of women in early museums and in the Bruges cultural industries. And I thought it worth sharing here, as a coda, or more correctly, a precursor to my previous post. Read More »

Roaming Photographically through my Family History

My mother, Maria Roose, passed away recently, on July 22, 2018. Since my father’s death in 1989, she had lived alone in our hometown of Bruges, Belgium, surrounded by a mix of family heirlooms and newer things, and she lived an active and fiercely independent life, driving until very recently. We are still in shock at how quickly things changed and how sudden her death was, a mere three weeks after having been hospitalized and diagnosed with rapidly escalating health problems. She was 87 years old.

One of the inevitable tasks after the death of one’s parents is having to sort through their personal belongings and to clear out the house. Such work is always emotionally taxing and in our case, it has also been a physically demanding task, not yet completed at the time of writing, for my mother was not one to throw away things. Perhaps it was the experience of having lived through World War II as a teenager, when there were critical shortages of all sorts of goods and supplies we now take for granted but her insistence on keeping still-usable things also led to instructive and at times hilarious finds.

One was my mother’s “shoe collection,” which surely rivaled Imelda Marcos’s, at least when it came to numbers. Another was her substantial hoard of clothes, many of them hardly worn, which provided us with a “history of fashion” object lesson from the 1950s to the present (she had even kept the striped dress she wore when she first met my father at a ball in 1955, which had a lovely petticoat design). My mother was a beautiful woman and she took her appearance seriously. And then there were ample supplies of candles of all sizes, colours and types and of Christmas- and birthday-themed paper table napkins, as well as dozens of board and card games and children’s toys, many old children’s drawings, and an impressive collection of empty (and near-empty) cookie tins—an archaeology of her life as a devoted mother and grandmother.Read More »