While I work on several new blog posts, here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011) – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved. Osmond Watson was one of the key artists of the post-independence period in Jamaica.
The painter and sculptor Osmond Watson grew up in Jones Town, a West Kingston neighborhood, in a Garveyite working class environment. Africa had more concrete meaning for his family than most since his mother was born in Sierra Leone, as the daughter of a West India Legionnaire who was stationed there. After attending the [Institute of Jamaica’s] Junior Centre’s youth art classes, he received a scholarship to attend the Jamaica School of Art and Craft. He subsequently received a British Council scholarship to attend the St Martin’s School of Art in London (1962-1965) and returned to Jamaica in the late 1960s.
While his earliest work was in line with that of the earlier generation and mainly concerned with Kingston street life, it was during his stay in London that Osmond Watson developed a formal language and iconography that was uniquely his own and one of the most recognizable among Jamaican artists. Visits to the British Museum and other cultural institutions provided him a range of formal and iconographic sources, such as traditional African sculpture, cubism, Byzantine icons, stained glass windows and Early Flemish painting. Jazz and the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam were also important influences. His most important source, however, was Jamaican popular culture, not only in terms of his subjects but also in his bricolage aesthetic: he routinely combined conventional, meticulously executed oil painting and woodcarving with found objects such as decorated plastic mirrors and sparkly costume jewellery, thus lending dignity and value to these “low brow” tokens of local pop culture. Although he remained firmly committed to the art object and was perhaps the most skilled technician of his generation, Osmond Watson thus subtly undermined the “high art” pretensions that were promoted by contemporaries such as Barrington Watson (no relation). As David Boxer put it, Osmond Watson “strove to create works that could be understood and appreciated by all levels of society” (2004).
Osmond Watson’s affectionate engagement with the popular culture is evident in the painting The Lawd is My Shepard (1969) which, like Eugene Hyde later did in Mask a Come, appropriates the Jamaican Creole language in its title. It is a striking, monumentalized image of a market woman seated in a typical stall made from recuperation materials, surrounded by her produce, all lovingly detailed, and with an open bible in her lap, at the very geometrical centre of the image. The work was obviously conceived as a social icon which comments on economic self-sufficiency and the defining role of religion in Jamaican society, but unlike Karl Parboosingh’s Jamaica Gothic, its tone is affirmative and celebratory rather than critical. The work exemplifies Osmond Watson’s style, which is characterized by ample, geometrically stylized forms influenced by cubism, a fondness for patterns, deep, glowing colours and heavy black outlines, which give many of his paintings a precious, stained glass appearance.
Like Hyde, Osmond Watson was attracted to the Jonkonnu masquerade as a defining African-Jamaican tradition, which he depicted in his Masquerade series of the late 1960s and 1970s. One such work is Masquerade No. 6 (1971), a depiction of a dancing “Horse head” masquerader. Most of Osmond Watson’s other images are static but the Masquerade series depicts dance movement, for which he uses a Cubist, or rather, Futurist faceting and repetition of the forms, especially the limbs of the figure, which gives these images a dynamic, filmic quality. His Jonkonnu paintings have nothing of the threatening, disorderly quality that gives Eugene Hyde’s 1938 – Mask A Come (1976) its political ambiguity but represent the masquerade in an aestheticized manner which is closer to Rex Nettleford’s National Dance Theater Company “high art” representations of Jamaican traditional culture than to the actual sources – a good example of what Partha Chatterjee has called the “classicization of tradition” in nationalist cultural products (1993, 73). While this may seem to contradict Osmond Watson’s anti-elitist agenda, it also reflects his resolve to represent Jamaican culture in an affirmative, dignified light.
The optimistic, seemingly harmless character of Osmond Watson’s images may suggest otherwise but he was a deeply political artist who was entirely committed to asserting “blackness” in his work. His political sympathies occasionally became more explicit, such as in Peace and Love (1969), which depicts Christ as a dreadlocksed Rastafarian, a provocative merging of identities in a religious image, produced at a time when Rastafari was still controversial and marginalized in Jamaican society. Although Watson never wore locks, Peace and Love is also a self-portrait, which placed him at the center of the Black Nationalist politics he embraced. While this gesture was arguably as radical as Parboosingh’s portrayal of Rastafarians, the image lacks the confrontational quality of the latter’s Ras Smoke I and emphasized the peaceful socially transformative side of Rastafari rather than its disruptive revolutionary potential. The self-portrait aspect of Peace and Love also reveals the personal side of his work, which included many self-portraits and intimate, romantic and subtly humorous portrayals of women, couples and their children that often allude to his relationship with his wife Daphne. Osmond Watson was also an accomplished sculptor and he integrated painting and sculpture in some of his works, as is illustrated by the elaborate hand-carved, polychrome wood and metal frame that is an integral part of Peace and Love and, with the nails that are inserted along the edge, an obvious reference to Christian iconography but possibly also to the use of nails in certain African sculptures.
Watson’s celebrations of “Black Jamaicanness” resonate with local audiences, especially the black middle class whose cultural values and racial politics it embodies, and his work has been in high demand in the local art market. He is well represented in major collections but his still-affordable works have also been a popular choice for more occasional art buyers. Reproductions of The Lawd Is My Shepard, can be seen in many local and Jamaican diaspora homes. His commercial success and the attendant pressure to produce negatively affected his later work, however, and resulted in the endless replication of his most popular images, which became increasingly cute and sentimental at the expense of their political potency. Nonetheless, Osmond Watson succeeded better than any of his peers in introducing edifying black imagery into the private living environment of Jamaicans, thus following Garvey’s mandate to this effect.
Boxer, David. “Osmond Watson (Obituary).” Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 2004.
Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.