My previous post in this series, which can be read here, was aimed at rekindling the critical discussion on Jamaica’s art histories. As I argued then, the problematic of Jamaica’s main art historical narrative cannot be addressed by merely identifying and correcting the obvious gaps and oversights, or simply updating it to the present day by adding recent developments. More fundamental rethinking is necessary to address the disciplinary biases and ideological interests that have informed it and to develop productive alternatives. It is nonetheless useful to take a closer look at some of the obvious omissions from what has been the dominant narrative, since those shed revealing light on the logic of this narrative, and since this also helps to set the agenda for further research and scholarship development.
This second post begins to examine whether any African-derived visual art was practiced during the Plantation era and its immediate aftermath and what, if anything, has survived to the present day, which is inevitably an ideologically charged and contentious question. The focus of this post is on sculptural traditions related to spiritual practices, for the reasons I outline below. This post is, again, adapted from sections from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011 – Chapter 5), updated with more recent research which is still in progress. So please regard this post as “work in progress” rather than as any definitive statement.
(I wish to thank National Museum Jamaica for assistance with images and information regarding objects in its collection.)
As we have seen in the previous post in this series, David Boxer, in his Jamaican Art 1922-1982 essay, which was first published in 1982 and remains as the standard text on Jamaican art history, controversially claimed that:
It is one of the tragedies of slavery that so drastic was the deculturation of Africans, so harsh the prohibitions against the manufacture of ritual objects, that with the exception of undecorated ceramic vessels not one object exists as evidence of the African artistic traditions in Jamaica. (1998, 13)
There are several ways in which this statement can be read. One is that such visual art forms did not exist in Jamaica during the Plantation era, which is quite easily disproved, and it is this reading to which most of Boxer’s critics have objected. Another, more charitable way to read the statement is that no such historical objects have survived to the present, although that too is debatable. In the 1998 edition of this essay, which included some slight revisions, Boxer moderated his position somewhat, no doubt in response to the criticisms, and recognized that there is in fact some historical evidence, but he did so only in a footnote. He obviously did not feel that this evidence was significant enough to be mentioned in the body of the text or to challenge his overall narrative (1998, 27, fn 9).
To understand Boxer’s position, we need to understand that it is fundamentally related to how he defined “art,” focusing on the conventional “art object.” More specifically, it stems from his conceptions about what is of value and warrants consecration as “art” in Africa’s traditional material culture. It is of note that he prefaced his statement by arguing that the Africans who were brought to Jamaica as slaves came from societies that had well-established sculptural traditions [my emphasis], most of them related to magico-religious practices, and that it could be assumed that the enslaved brought some of these art forms with them (1998, 13).
Boxer’s assumption that any African-derived art forms worth including in his narrative necessarily had to consist of sculpture significantly narrows the scope of discussion and is biased by the Western consecration of magico-religious figural sculpture as the pinnacle of African artistic achievement—the sort of narrow, selective and decontextualized interpretation of the African visual arts that influenced modernist European artists such as Picasso and the German Expressionists and initially informed its inclusion in art museums and private art collections. African art in other forms and media has, conventionally, not received the same level of Western recognition, although this has changed recently, and there is in any case not much room in mainstream European art history for utilitarian art forms of any kind or origin, unless the utilitarian function is “transcended” by what are considered to be outstanding decorative or design qualities—Boxer’s summary dismissal of Jamaica’s African-derived ceramics, even though there is a substantial and fairly well-documented tradition in Jamaica (and elsewhere in the Caribbean), is consistent with that bias.
If we are looking in Jamaica for sculptural traditions that are consistent with these biases, then it may indeed seem, certainly at first glance, that little or nothing has survived from the Plantation era and its aftermath. As Boxer himself later acknowledged, however, there is some historical evidence, and there are several surviving or otherwise documented sculptural objects that may also challenge this claim. None of this evidence is well-known, or well-studied, and none of it has yet been recognized as representative of key moments in Jamaica’s artistic or material culture history.
The question arises why Boxer ignored this evidence in his initial art-historical narrative or failed to integrate it in any significant way in its subsequent revisions, if it is that he had somehow overlooked it initially. As I argued in my previous blog post on this subject, the answer may be that this was instrumental to the way Boxer sought to establish the significance of the Nationalist school, especially Edna Manley, and of the self-taught artists he canonized as Intuitives. Simply put, he argued that these artists undid the cultural injustices of colonialism to create new art that was fundamentally Jamaican, even though rooted in Jamaica’s cultural origins, and that this emerged in tandem with the political awakening of Jamaica as a postcolonial nation. The omission thus goes to the heart of how his argument was strategized.
The point I wish to make in this post is, however, that, even if we adhere to Boxer’s narrow expectations of what African artistic traditions ought to look like in Jamaica, and focus on sculptural traditions related to religion and spirituality only, there is evidence that should have been considered. Let us have a look, then, at what this evidence involves.
The first published written and pictorial source on African derived material culture in early colonial Jamaica is the naturalist Hans Sloane’s A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica…, which was published in two illustrated volumes in 1707 and 1725, respectively. These publications were based on what he collected, observed and recorded, and was told by third party informants, during travel he undertook twenty years earlier, in 1687-88, during the early years of English colonial rule in Jamaica, when he spent about 15 months on the island. While Sloane was primarily concerned with natural specimens, and especially those with medicinal value, he also made some efforts to describe the cultural practices of the enslaved and he pioneered the documentation of African-derived music in the Americas by including three short musical scores of the music that was performed at a festival he witnessed, which he attributed to three different African ethnicities. (Delbourgo 2017)
Sloane also paid attention to the musical instruments and collected and illustrated what he called a “strum-strump.” He describes this type of instrument as follows:
They have several sorts of instruments in imitation of lutes, made of small gourds fitted with necks, strung with horse hairs or the peeled stalks of climbing plants or whits [sp?]. These instruments are sometimes made of hollow’d timber covered with parchment or other skin wetted, having a bow for its neck, the strings tied longer or shorter as they would alter their sounds. The figures of some of these instruments are herafter graved (1707, XLIII-XLIV)
A few pages later, Sloane also makes reference to drums and trumpets that were also used in festivals, but notes that these were now prohibited, because of their association with war and rebellion in Africa (LII). The sort of cultural prohibitions Boxer referred to were thus very real, and applied from early on, if more selectively than Boxer suggested.
There is some confusion, given the rather cryptic Latin captions, of the identity of the three string instruments depicted in the plate section, but at least one (the middle one) is Jamaican, while the other two appear to be Indian and African and were added for comparison. And even though Sloane rather disparagingly refers to the Jamaican strum-strum as “an imitation lute,” the illustration suggests that all three instruments are beautifully crafted and decorated objects that were obviously made by persons with significant traditional skills. The Jamaican example arguably qualifies as the oldest documented African-derived visual art work made in Jamaica, dating from 1687-88, in addition to being part of Jamaica’s musical history. It may not be what Boxer was looking for but it is certainly worth mentioning here.
Later Plantation-era chroniclers such as Edward Long (1774, 416-430) and Bryan Edwards (1801, 85-86 & 100-119) also described aspects of the material culture of the enslaved. Long, for instance, reported that “[b]its of red rag, cats teeth, parrot feathers, egg-shells, and fish-bones are frequently stuck up at the doors of their houses when they go from home leaving any thing of value within (sometimes they hang them on fruit-trees, and place them in corn-fields), to deter thieves” (420). These forms are described with derision, and the focus is on their role as material expressions of African-derived beliefs such as Myal and Obeah (which they often lumped together as Obeah), that were feared and outlawed under the slave laws. Neither made any reference to African-derived wood or stone sculpture, although this does of course not mean that no such items were produced.
It took until the mid 19th century source for a source to report on sculptural forms and this was none other than the Abolitionist Baptist minister James Phillippo, who referred to the prevalence of funerary carvings in the years before Emancipation. It is this source Boxer footnoted in the 1998 edition of his Jamaican Art 1922-1982 essay. Phillippo reports:
Fifteen or twenty years ago, in a negro-burying ground, at no great distance from the author’s residence in Spanish Town, there was scarcely a grave that did not exhibit two to four carved images; and it was a common custom, for even comparatively respectable persons to strew the rude tombs with which it abounded with viands, and to pour upon them libations of wine and blood, as offerings to their supposed divinities (1843, 283)
While Phillippo acknowledges the existence, and prevalence, of funerary carvings, he did not provide any details on what they looked like, what they were made of, what they represented, what specific purpose they served, or who made them.
Phillippo however also claims that, giving fuel to Boxer’s assertion that nothing of note survived:
Such practices have long been discontinued, and were any to adopt them at the present day it would affix to their character a stigma which would almost exclude them from the pale of society. […] Idolatry, indeed, may be said to be entirely abolished. So little reverence do former deities now inspire that a short time since the author found an idol on the public road. The appearance of such an object three years ago, in such a place, would have created the utmost terror and alarm throughout the neighbourhood, but it was now either passed by entirely unheeded, or elicited only contempt or sallies of wit from the beholders (283-284)
In a revealing footnote, Phillippo reports that an older black woman taunted the discarded sculpture, saying that it would get “noting [sic] for nyam’ now” or nothing to eat (284). That the woman addressed the carving as if it were a sentient being, albeit one which no longer held power over her, inadvertently illustrates that African-derived beliefs had in fact survived, despite Phillippo’s enthusiastic claims to the contrary.
There had been only nominal efforts to convert the slaves to Christianity prior to the arrival of non-conformist evangelical churches: the Moravians in 1754, the Baptists in 1784, and the Methodists in 1789. These churches, the Baptists especially, were actively involved in the Abolitionist campaign but also sought to “rescue” the black population from what they considered to be superstition and backwardness and were thus arguably more effective in disrupting African-derived traditions than the Plantation regime had been (Austin-Broos 1997, 254-255). While the slave laws were no longer in effect after Emancipation, a new Obeah law was introduced in 1845 (Robinson & Walhouse 1893, 210), which in itself illustrates that such magico-religious practices had survived.
Despite these “anti-superstition” campaigns, African-derived beliefs were being assimilated with evangelical Christianity, as could from early on be seen in the Native Baptist movement, which was chastised by the expatriate missionaries for incorporating Myalist healing practices (Chevannes 1995, 18-19; Austin-Broos 1997, 54-55). Popular religions were also influenced by the arrival of indentured laborers from Africa, India and China, who were brought in to replace the ex-slaves who had left the plantations after Emancipation. Approximately 10,000 Yoruba and Kongolese came to the island between 1841 and 1865 and about 8,000 of these stayed, mainly in St Thomas (Schuler 1980).
These factors–-the social upheaval around Emancipation, the Native Baptists and the arrival of indentured labor–-fueled Jamaica’s Great Revival of 1860-1861, which was also influenced by the 1858-1859 Revival movements in North America and Britain. The Jamaican Revival intensified the interaction between the evangelical Christian and African-derived religions and produced the African-Christian religions of modern Jamaica. (Seaga 1983, 3-4; Austin-Broos 1997, 55) These religions, which lack central organization, are usually divided into Zion Revival, which is closer to Christianity, and Pukumina, which is more African. The arrival of new Africans also produced Kumina, an ancestor-focused religion which does not incorporate Christian elements (Houk 2001), and the related Convince, which incorporates older, more creolized Maroon beliefs (Hogg 1960; Brandon 2001; Bilby 2006, 110-112).
Figural Obeah Artifacts
African-derived religious beliefs and practices thus not only survived beyond Emancipation but were invigorated in its aftermath, with new forms emerging. The question arises whether this also applied to the associated arts. Thanks to the emergence of folklore studies and, ironically, the efforts of the authorities to prosecute suspected Obeah practitioners, some tantalizing information is available on Obeah-related objects of the late 19th century.
A member of the Constabulary, one Inspector Thomas, published a pamphlet titled Something about Obeah and collected seized artifacts. I was unable to locate this pamphlet but it served as a source for an early article on the subject in Folklore (Robinson & Walhouse 1893). This article, which is otherwise indebted to outdated descriptions by Bryan Edwards, is noteworthy because it has an engraved illustration of a purported Obeah effigy sculpture. It had been taken in May 1887 from one Alexander Ellis in Montego Bay, who was prosecuted for his practice of Obeah and given the relatively mild sentence of 15 days at hard labor. (212) The small clothed figure is reclining on what appears to be a small chair and holds a tied-up bundle from which fowl feathers protrude. Assuming that the illustration is accurate, the bundle strikingly resembles the pakèt Kongo power objects of Haitian Vodou. While modest in scale, and barely a foot tall, it also bears obvious resemblance to the Nkisi power objects of Central Africa, to which such object-making traditions in the Caribbean are obviously related, both in form and in function. Some Nkisi figural sculptures even have articulated and movable limbs. And I should also note that the practices the Edward Long described in the 18th century fit into the same general context.
The Obeah figure had been taken to England in 1888 by one Commander Hastings of the Royal Navy but was temporarily returned to be included in Inspector Thomas’ display of Obeah-related artifacts at the Jamaica International Exhibition in Kingston in 1891, where it apparently caused a sensation. The Obeah display was removed ten days after the exhibition opening, when its Executive Committee declared it an “undesirable exhibit” (Robinson & Walhouse 1893, 213). The removal of the Obeah exhibit was reported in the local press and the official reason cited there was that would deter local country people from visiting (Gleaner, February 11, 1891, 3). More likely, the removal was spurred by worries that displaying evidence of “superstitions” represented Jamaica in a negative light, which was incompatible with the exhibition’s objective of promoting the island as a progressive British colonial outpost. The Obeah figure was reportedly returned to its owner but is now presumed lost.
Very few antique Obeah objects have been preserved, which is not surprising, given their clandestine and ephemeral nature. Some have, however, made it into major ethnographic collections, such as the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) of the Smithsonian and the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford University. The NMNH owns an 11 inch wooden Obeah figure, which was accessioned in 1885 and had been collected (or confiscated) by Charles Sibley, a Baptist missionary who was active in the Parish of Hanover, near Montego Bay. It has articulated limbs like a marionette and hook-shaped hands from which it could be hung. The posing of the figure in the 1893 Folklore illustration suggests that it may have been similarly articulated and the feet are carved in almost identical fashion. The NMNH figure is not clothed but may have been originally and it has mirror glass set into its abdominal area and eyes, cavities for magical substances in its side—features which are also commonly found in Nkisi sculptures. The similarities between the two Jamaican Obeah figures suggest that such objects were governed by convention (and it is certainly interesting that both objects were collected in the same area), although each seems to have been uniquely designed, likely to fulfill specific purposes.
Surviving Objects in Jamaican Collections
I am also aware of a similar Obeah object in a private collection in Kingston, although that one is not available to me for further study. I have seen the object a few times in the mid-2000s and it consists of a similarly constructed and clothed articulated figure, with identical looking feet, and it is placed in a miniature coffin. I was told that it was found buried in a church graveyard in Kingston (or under the door sill of that church) but its provenance is undocumented and uncertain. The study of Obeah artifacts is still a difficult matter in Jamaica, because of continued fears and prejudices and the restrictions of the Obeah Act (1898), which remains in effect (although there have been calls for its removal).
There are two other objects, neither of them related to Obeah and both in the collection of National Museum Jamaica, that may also be of significant interest in this context, although there are questions about the provenance of both. One is a decorated hat, illustrated at the start of this post, which is believed to have been found in the Port Royal excavations; the other is a red-stained figurative sculpture of a female which some have identified as a grave marker, possibly from the Emancipation era, of the type Phillippo discussed.
The hat, which is made from raffia and cowrie shells and strikingly resembles the “prestige hats” of Central Africa, which is not the carved African sculpture Boxer was alluding to but which are sought-after African art collectibles, which are represented in major Western museum collections. The Port Royal hat recently came to my attention when the film-maker Karen Mafundikwa excitedly reported on it on social media after a visit to National Museum West in Montego Bay, where it is on view. The hat is also featured on the Institute of Jamaica website and is accompanied by the following label text:
Cowry Shell Skull Cap: An embroidered cowry shell skull cap unearthed at Port Royal Jamaica during underwater archaeological excavations at the infamous “Sunken City.” Port Royal was dubbed as a haven and ready market for buccaneer and pirate spoils. The find suggests the likely presence of Africans in the town, which was known to have been highly cosmopolitan. On only 60 acres of land Port Royal grew into a compact, bustling New World.
I must admit that I had not previously taken note of this object, which is rather casually exhibited along with other African items, in an exhibition which traces the general social and cultural history of Jamaica, but with a focus on the Montego Bay area. But if it is indeed what the label says it is, the hat is surely one of the most remarkable objects in the National Museum Jamaica collection.
National Museum was unable to give me much information on the provenance of the hat, other than to say that it was found along with other objects that were recovered during the excavations in the 1960s and that it was on view in the museum at Fort Charles in Port Royal until that structure was damaged by hurricane Gilbert. With other words, there is not a lot of information to authenticate this object and the possibility that it is of a more recent date, as its excellent condition may suggest, and somehow got mixed up with the Port Royal excavation cannot be ruled out (most prestige hats in major museum collections date from the 19th and early 20th century and antique and newly made examples are readily available in the African art market). But it may well be that the hat is indeed from the late 17th century and was indeed buried in the 1692 earthquake (and I understand that organic material is often well preserved in such marine sites because of the anaerobic conditions).
The question then is, where this hat came from and how it got to Port Royal, and whether it was brought over from Africa or made in Jamaica, in the tradition of such Central African hats. If it is that the hat was worn by someone who was present, and possibly perished in the earthquake and if the object did not otherwise travel to Port Royal, for instance as a keepsake, we need to ask who that person may have been. As Karen Mafundikwa has pointed out, it is very unlikely that such a hat, which is a symbol of high rank, would have been worn by an enslaved person. The hat may have been worn by a visiting African or a free person of African descent who lived in or visited Port Royal, perhaps a Maroon as Mafundikwa suggested. It is known that many pirate crews included Africans and that some were captained by persons of African origin or descent. It is also well possible that the wearer was involved in trade between Central Africa and Port Royal, which was then one of the main trade centers of the Americas, among others in slaves as well as agricultural commodities (of which cassava, which came to Central Africa from the Caribbean during that period, may well have been one). I would caution against over-enthusiastic speculating, however, since objects such as this one need to be studied and authenticated with the greatest care if the crucially important cultural point they can make is to have any real scholarly credibility. But it is surely a fascinating object and potentially, a game-changer which, if it is ever fully authenticated, ought not be relegated to a footnote in Jamaica’s cultural and art histories and their attendant museum displays.
Part of the problem is that there is little or no provenance information for many objects that entered the Institute of Jamaica collection up to quite recently and unfortunately such information, if lost or never collected, cannot be manufactured retroactively. The same also holds true for the red-stained figural carving which is is not on display at the present time. I saw it in 2001, when I visited the National Museum Jamaica storeroom to view potential examples of colonial-era African-derived sculpture but I must admit that I have never been convinced of its antiquity. Others have however been more confident with their attribution: the catalogue of Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and His Worlds (2007) at the Yale Centre for British Art, for instance, includes an essay by Robert Farris Thompson on the African heritage in Jamaican culture, in which he identified the sculpture as a grave marker and dated it to “before 1834.” He did not provide any supporting evidence, however, except for cursorily linking the redness of the carving to menstrual symbolism of the Kikumbu society (2007, 89-90).
The simple, geometrically stylized carving does have an “African look” but, arguably, not more so than the carvings of the 20th century self-taught artist William “Woody” Joseph (1919-1998), many of which are also stained red. While it could well be from the 19th century or even pre-Emancipation, the IoJ has no records on the dating, provenance or, for that matter, purpose of the carving and there is at present no sound basis to attribute it with any certainty, beyond placing it in the context of African-Jamaican culture. But if the sculpture can ever be credibly authenticated and dated, and is indeed a pre-Emancipation grave marker, than it would surely also be an object of great importance to Jamaica’s art histories and its general cultural histories.
While it requires effort to locate what are, at least for now, rare and somewhat uncertain examples, I would argue that there is enough evidence of African and African-derived sculptural art forms in Jamaica before the “cultural revolution” of the Nationalist school and the early Intuitives to challenge any notion that no such things ever existed or survived. It is very likely that additional evidence will be found with further research but what needs to be done to get to the full picture is to expand the scope to include the fiber arts, ceramics and other utilitarian art forms, the ephemeral arts associated with the African-derived religions (such as the ground drawings), as well as dress and body decoration. And what also needs to be done is to move beyond the “Jamaican exceptionalism” that restricts the manner in which Jamaica’s art history has been written and to regard such evidence in the broader context of developments in the entire Caribbean and the Americas, some of which are better preserved and documented. Comparisons with the arts of Haitian Vodou are for instance obviously necessary. But for now, this project remains woefully incomplete.
 The introduction of the Baptist church effectively came in two stages. The African-American Baptist preacher George Liele (or Lisle) started missionary work amongst the slaves in 1784. The Baptist Missionary Society, which was based in England, subsequently sent its first missionary in 1814. Phillippo was part of this second missionary campaign of the Baptists. (Austin-Broos 1997, 254-255, fn 6)
 The catalogue number of the object in the Smithsonian is E74836-0 and of the item at Pitt-Rivers, 1985.49.108. More information on these objects can be found on the websites of these institutions, at http://nhb-acsmith2.si.edu and http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/, respectively.
 I sought clarification on the dating via e-mail but Thompson responded that all he knew about the carving was in his essay (July 7, 2008).
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