Here is the second part of my extended conversation with the Jamaican painter Phillip Thomas (part I can be found here), in which he talks about his work and issues and interests that have influenced him, and on which he has strong and at times very provocative views. It is long but well worth reading to the end, as Thomas talks in detail about his engagement with music, with some very interesting views expressed.
VP: You are a Senior Lecturer in Painting at the Edna Manley College. How important is teaching to your work as an artist and what, other than the professional affiliation and income, do you get out of it? What is it that you are seeking to impart to your students.
Teaching art is a very strange activity. When I was doing my post-grad fellowship, I was working on my Fellows exhibition at the New York Academy as well as being an assistant lecturer for Jenny Saville, Eric Fischl, and Vincent Desiderio. As working artists, they have figured out ways of meeting their own studio demands as well as giving their time and expertise to younger artists, both formally at the college and informally on their own time. Those lessons were simply invaluable and I was keen on doing the same in my own country.
I learned a lot about explaining aesthetic information to varying minds and abilities. It is a very difficult thing to do. Upon returning to Jamaica, I really had no intention of teaching formally. I was thoroughly busy with my own work and the idea of teaching would have been a distraction, to be honest. It was Petrona Morrison who told me that she would like to have my presence at the Edna Manley College, to expose students to another voice within the Painting department and the wider school. So I started on a part-time basis and began interacting with students.
Teaching challenges your ideas on a given subject and it allows for dialogue with the varying positions on the same. However, one easy error to make is the idea that teaching is one-directional. True exchange has to function both ways and it has to be a conversation with your students in order to have a better understanding of their position on their given ideas. That balancing act between teacher and student is an art form in itself. A lecturer like Omari Ra is a master at student engagement and he is so advanced at allowing the student to understand the sum total of their ideas. He has become a kind of benchmark for me in the idea of teaching art.
In the end, my responsibility as a lecturer is to allow my students to develop ideas and to challenge these ideas from as many angles as I can in order for that individual to have a full grasp of the subject and its potentialities. It is “easier” to impart art theory and history, since these are standards in art and practice, for the most part. Those foundational bits of information are only the first step in laying in a structure on which artists are better able to challenge the same structures and build anew.
The emotional aspect of teaching is something that I am more hesitant about. This is what I mean: when I was a student (sigh, I am getting to that age now when the “back in my day” becomes the go-to line), there was a more, let’s say, robust way of teaching and many of us as students developed harder skins because of it. Cecil Cooper alone would be a hard-enough task master to get by, and in my opinion we were better able to face the world. He was such a tough art teacher that his methods were considered too caustic for some. In this current period, there are so many psychological minefields to contend with and that gives me some pause in managing some students. I don’t have the answer to these problems, but when you are critiquing a student’s work and the student’s forearms are covered in scars, it gives me some hesitance in the delivery of my criticisms. Now, am I being sensitive to that student’s needs? Or am I under-preparing that student? I must admit, I don’t know and I won’t profess to know what the happy median is either. I am learning as I go, but there are major concerns for me as it relates to younger artists today.
Also, social media has created a whole new generation of professional student/artists – kids in school with professionally developed websites and social media platform pages etcetera. I am unsure as to how I feel about this kind of new way of “careering” before the “product”. Yes, I do know how romantic I sound, and how nostalgic these positions could be, but being on the ground and seeing the impact of student’s preoccupation with their career imaging, while failing in class, is frightening to me. I guess with every new advancement there are a set of Luddites complaining in the wings.
On a promising note, the “Rubis InPulse” project is a shining beacon that is doing important things at the high school level. As you know, myself and a few of the other artists from our community have participated in this art project for high schoolers. This gives us a chance to interface with students who are even younger and it gives us an opportunity to prepare the next batch of Edna Manley College students before they get to that institution. I can say with much certainty that this programme is delivering on its promises and we are seeing the results, and it is raising the stakes in art education.
This is the first part of an extended conversation with the Jamaican painter Phillip Thomas. Part two can be found here.
Phillip Thomas was born in 1980, in Kingston, Jamaica. He holds a BFA in Painting in 2003 from the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and an MFA from the New York Academy of Art. He has exhibited extensively locally and internationally and is represented in major collections. His recent exhibitions include his solo show “Rich in Black History” (2019) at the RJD Gallery, Bridgehampton, NY, and “Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox” at the Museum of the African Diaspora San Francisco. His awards include the Bronze Musgrave Medal of the Institute of Jamaica, the Public Prize in the 2006 SuperPlus Under 40 Artist of the Year competition, the Aaron Matalon Award in the 2008 National Biennial at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and the Albert Huie Award for Painting at the Edna Manley College in 2003. Thomas lives and works in Kingston, Jamaica, and lectures in Painting at the Edna Manley College.
Veerle Poupeye: How do you situate and define yourself as an artist, in the contemporary Jamaican and Caribbean context? Is that, in fact, the context in which you situate and define yourself and, if not, how else would you contextualize your practice?
Phillip Thomas: It has been a very complicated problem for contemporary artists of the region for some time now. The very structure of the question suggests that artists of the region ought to, in some way, self-consciously produce works of art that reflects some sort of idea about Caribbean aesthetics. As one can imagine, these types of problems produce not just specific aesthetic problems, but ultimately complicate the ways in which we go about the very nature of aesthetic problem-solving. We must, at some point, make up our minds as to what it is that we intend to produce here in the Caribbean – art or artifacts. If we are going to question whether or not the “subaltern” can speak, we cannot merely be content with speaking in unison, where that is appropriate, but, perhaps more importantly, we must also strive for individuality.
Regionalism through art must be, in my opinion, firstly an endeavor that occurs through the rigors of academic and aesthetic inquiry. Secondly, we must use our present lives and experiences in conjunction with the understanding of our historical narratives in order to convey our truest selves. If our aesthetic investigations are merely remnants of the demands of the “art market”, in other parts of the world, then those demands will produce a false sense of homogeneity. This problem of aesthetic uniformity almost destroyed Haitian Art, for example. Remember, there was a time when Haitian artists were driven to singularity by the global art market. This in turn rendered the works almost indistinguishable in their make and subject matter. Thankfully now, we can all see that this financial suffocation has changed over the years and I think for the better. Certainly, some cultures are more susceptible to these kinds of globally recognized iconographies, and Jamaica is one such cultural product. We even go as far as calling our culture “Brand Jamaica.”
As for my own Jamaican or Caribbean contextualization in art, I am often speaking from a very personal space and experience through which I am “reverse-engineering” some of our national and perhaps regional concerns. One of the ways in which I have gone about discussing some of the aesthetic issues here in Jamaica, is through critiquing the problems of representation, authenticity, authorship and ownership. Much of “our” art history in Jamaica, going back to the 18th century, has primarily been about the depiction of ownership and the “other”. This meant that much of the depictions of Jamaican life was designed to present the land and people as resources that are primed for exploitation. The depictions of Jamaican life, or rather, life in Jamaica, in much of the work of the “Itinerant Painters”, didn’t simply present their subject as merely the acquisition of property but more importantly, they presented the ownership of “subjects”. This manner of depicting acquisition presented a very clear distinction between owner and owned. Now, I have argued that much of those structures are still in place today and we haven’t been able to have an honest discussion about the ways in which our search for “authenticity” has created, inadvertently or otherwise, the means through which the subject of Jamaican art is made synonymous with the demography of the working-class.
Herein rests a very big problem. If Jamaica’s “authentic” cultural expressions are designated in the manner that they are, then this one-dimensional delineation will only allow one demography of Jamaicans to be the subject of inquiry, rendering another demography of Jamaicans the sole collector and distributor of these findings. Am I saying that these stories are not true? Certainly not. Am I saying that “middle-classed” Jamaicans have no right to tell these stories? Not at all, but what I am saying here is that the danger of a national homogeneous brand allows, on the one hand, a one-directional flow of national self-definitions. However, at the other end of the discussion, it is also clear to see that there is something that is very dangerous about untold stories. Untold stories have the ability to mystify their undiscovered subjects. And that mysticism is a major part of how the “powerful” maintain power. In my own work, I have made a very conscious effort to open these dialogues about the idea of the “subject” of Jamaican art. Much of what I have done is to ignore the notions of the “authentic” Jamaican subject matter and allow for the development of my work to follow those natural progressions. That opening up of the subject allow me to produce works that excavates our varying demographics and the result were works of art that dealt with Jamaica’s inter-demographic relationships, and that was very fruitful for me.
One of the difficulties for me in approaching an unexplored subjects in Jamaican art is how do I go about securing source material for these, more or less, unfamiliar ideas. One way I had to secure source material for a financial inquiry into my painting I.M.F@cked (2014), I selected a number of ATM machines in key locations and took the receipts from the trash receptacles, then organized them by the balance figures and regions and communities. The first reading is, as expected, the high financial threshold on some slips in some areas as opposed to others. But, what was even more interesting for my purpose was the ATM machines that were literally across the road from each other. Those machines showed some of the same disparities as machines in entirely different communities. This suggests to me that our social silos are completely exclusive, no matter how close they are to each other. It is common knowledge in Jamaica that the distance between many affluent communities and poorer ones are best expressed in culture as opposed to mileage. These contextual problems are very difficult to unravel because of my particular perspective on our national ideas of authenticity, however, they create interesting cross-fertilization for my work, they moreover, allow me to delve deeper into the very structure of our ideas of representation and invisibility.
Here is part II of my conversation with Errol Ross Brewster. Part I can be found here.
Veerle Poupeye:- You were born and raised at a time when Guyana was entering a period of political and ideological radicalism, which significantly impacted the course of the country itself but which were also connected to and influenced developments elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Africa. What was your position towards/in these early developments, as a young man, and how did this influence your work and general outlook at that time?
Errol Ross Brewster:- Oppositional elements in Guyana’s long struggle for free and fair elections, understood the duplicitous nature of the State’s stance on the international stage with regard to liberation struggles. Leaping forward many, many years, more than a generation in fact, so that the foregoing statement could be better understood, I draw your attention to the leading Guyanese, and Caribbean intellectuals and political activist, whose collective response to the South African Government’s announcement of its intention to confer, posthumously, on President Burnham a high honour for his generous contributions to their liberation struggles was to object. South Africa was made to withdraw their intention to confer this honour under pressure from this group. Charity begins at home and the President was much less than charitable, warning of his “sharper steel,” with dissent in his own country. He could not at the same time be a champion of liberation struggles.
“Until the ignoble and unhappy regime that
hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique, South Africa, in sub-human bondage,
has been toppled, totally downstroyed…well, EVERYWHERE IS WAR!”, such as that
galvanised our understanding of the world. The Guyana government, were not
enthused about Rasta messaging. But Count Ossie, and the Mystic Revelation of
Rastafari were shown the royal treatment because it suited their duplicitous
international objectives to appear to be compatible with progressives. It was
the time of the Non-Aligned Conference and CARIFESTA. As youngsters, we were
not fooled, we understood that President Burnham was not the North Star of
solidarity with international liberation struggles. Marley was!
I was of a mind that the visual signification which art afforded was to be used for social transformation. “The Abdication” is one such work. It characterises the crab in a barrel mentality which was at the heart of the fight for scarce resources on the political plane, so the Parliament building is in the background. And in the foreground is the extent to which this abdication of civility and good communal sense would make itself felt. Even the old and poor were not safe! This government had let fall in on itself the home for the aged and indigent – they met it as a grand Colonial mansion which had stood for decades and let it literally fall in on itself of neglect. Any of this is sounding familiar? Does a certain political culture seem to be at work here? Might it be prudent to warn about it?
I thought so, and so the work I made was not what people wished to put on their walls. They’re not in the National Gallery of Guyana collection, despite having being bought by Dr Williams years earlier. And they did not match people’s drapes, nor did they match with the draping of consciousness that people had to engage in to preserve their livelihood in that time. You did not have, actively, to oppose the government to be targeted. You could lose your job for who you associated with; For not attending events at which numbers, drawn from the ranks of teachers and civil servants, were required to. Increasingly, the Garden City became over run by garbage. People fell through the cracks and bedraggled beggars appeared everywhere. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception attracted beggars by day and prostitutes by night. They could not be ignored. School children became active in anti-government protest and some took to purposeful vandalism.
While I work on some other projects (about which more soon), here is another short excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011) – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.
Unlike [Albert] Huie, David Pottinger’s talent was entirely homegrown: he attended Edna Manley’s free art classes at the Institute of Jamaica (IoJ)’s Junior Centre and was among the first students at the Jamaica School of Art and Craft (JSAC), where he subsequently also taught. Pottinger’s primary subject has always been the life in the streets and yards of Downtown Kingston, his own living environment. The people in his paintings are, as in Huie and Manley’s work, represented as black Jamaican types rather than as individuals but his true focus is on the city of Kingston itself, as the cultural crucible of 20th century Jamaica where the traditional and the modern have made a potent mix. In contrast with Huie’s serene, idealized Jamaica and, more so, the colorful fantasies of tourist art, Pottinger depicts Kingston’s overcrowded inner-cities and the decaying, ramshackle infrastructure with unsparing realism and a keen sense for the old city’s dark, turbulent moodiness. Nine Night (1949), one of his best known works, depicts a streetside wake with Pukumina cultists dancing around a single standing oil lamp, the first of several such scenes by this artist. Pottinger was not the first nationalist Jamaican artist to depict Pukumina ceremonies. Edna Manley and Huie had done so before him but their stylized, aestheticized interpretations are far removed from Nine Night’s naturalist grit.
Like most of Pottinger’s works, Nine Night is an outdoor scene. The sociologist Diane Austin (1984) has observed the public, “outside” nature of the lives of the West Indian poor, which contrasts with the discrete, “respectable” privacy and domesticity enjoyed and valued by the middle classes. Krista Thompson (2004) has rightly observed that Huie’s early portraits celebrate middle class domesticity and even his later outdoor scenes celebrate middle class values of progressiveness and respectability. Pottinger’s work, in contrast, implies that there is dignity and respectability in the “outside lives” of the urban poor that needs not be “corrected” by aspiring to the status and lifestyle of the middle classes. Pottinger was less self-consciously concerned with creating national icons than Manley or Huie but instead depicted his lived experience of the popular urban culture, which is unembellished but no less nationalist [in intent].
Here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011), which is taken from a section which explores how artists in Jamaica have marketed their work – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.
The post is not illustrated, as I was unable to get permissions from the Spencer estate in a timely manner at the time of submitting my dissertation and am not able to pursue this solely for the purpose of this impromptu post. Reproductions of Ken Spencer’s work are however widely available online and I encourage readers to search and peruse these.
[There are a number of] Jamaican artists who have devised effective individual marketing strategies and acquired significant wealth in the process. Barrington Watson, as we have seen, has controlled the promotion and pricing of his work by operating his own galleries. His friend and contemporary Ken [Abendana] Spencer (1929-2005), who peddled his works to locals, expatriates and tourists, was a more extreme example.
Spencer started out selling his sketches on a street corner in Downtown Kingston. He joined Barrington Watson in London in 1952 but did not study art there, as Watson had hoped. Instead he started selling his works directly to Jamaican professionals who were hungry for reminders of home. (Greenland 2006) On returning to Jamaica, he continued this direct marketing strategy and Watson remembered that “he would go around the island in a car, and sell his work in Montego Bay and Negril. He would put a bunch of works into a car and his idea was to come back with none” (Ibid.). He personally visited potential buyers, many of them first-time art buyers, and often left the hesitant with a stack of paintings to ponder, to come back a few days later to an almost guaranteed sale (Moo Young 2006). His paintings can be seen in many hotel and bank lobbies, the offices of doctors, dentists and other professionals, and middle class homes.
Most of Spencer’s works represent “traditional” Jamaican subject matter, such as market women and mento musicians – reassuring images of “Old Time Jamaica,” as one contributor to his obituary put it (Greenland 2006). They are painted in a recognizable, confident gestural style: typically, the image is invoked by just a few broad brush or palette knife strokes and set against a monochrome background, often the white gesso undercoating of the canvas. [His large, prominently placed and curvilinear signature served as his trademark.] Spencer’s sketchy semi-abstract style – which in itself challenges the assumption that Jamaican audiences do not respond to abstraction – also reflected his goal to produce and sell as many works as possible. He reputedly worked on several canvases simultaneously, which were lined up so that he would not have to clean off his brushes to change colors, and thus saved time and paints. (Moo Young 2006) He also once told David Boxer that a painting was not economical if it took more than 30 minutes to complete – the sort of stories that horrified “knowing” art lovers in Jamaica.
Spencer’s expansive, jovial personality played a crucial role in his sales and he cultivated his image as a notorious eccentric. He lived in Portland in a self-designed, six-storied castle and willingly entertained local and tourist visitors there, although it was implied that works would be bought. Spencer also frequented the New Kingston hotel bars in search of sales. The art dealer and framer Herman van Asbroeck tells a story that illustrates Spencer’s ingenious “traveling salesman” tactics:
A year ago a man came into the shop and put a Ken Spencer on the desk. He wanted to have it framed. I asked him: ‘You bought a Ken Spencer?’ And he replied: ‘No, I won it!’ Apparently, he had come to Kingston for a builder’s conference and a group of them had gone out for a drink. They ended up in the Hilton at 2:00 a.m. Suddenly a gentleman approached their table and asked if they wanted to play a game. He told them he had a number in his pocket and then he marked out cards 1 to 5. Everyone took a number and the customer in my shop was the winner. Then Ken Spencer introduced himself. By the end of the night, all the people at the table had bought paintings! (Greenland 2006)
These anecdotes, also, marked Spencer as one who was not a “serious” artist.
While he occasionally produced more ambitious works, Spencer was not an artist who strove to produce “masterpieces” but one who deliberately produced generic paintings that were recognizably “a Ken Spencer.” [He] did not significantly pressure local cultural institutions for public recognition and never had an exhibition in a gallery. When asked why, he claimed that he did not need such exposure because all of Jamaica was his gallery (Moo Young 2006). His sense of achievement thus came from the prevalence of his work in the Jamaican environment. Others, however, took up his cause and already during his lifetime there were heated arguments within the art community about Spencer’s artistic merits and the NGJ’s neglect of his work was cited as evidence of the elitism of the Jamaican art establishment.
Spencer was an undeniably gifted painter and the local popularity of his work is a cultural phenomenon that warrants its own recognition. The recent attempts at inserting him into the national canons, however, obscure that had he handled his work differently, he could certainly have been a recognized member of the post-Independence mainstream. Spencer was unapologetic about being primarily motivated by economic gain and opted to disregard the processes by which artistic worth is conventionally determined. He thus represents an instructive counterpart to those contemporary artists who resist the forces of the market and, despite the fact that he had far less to say, succeeded where they have failed by reaching deep into Jamaican society. Spencer’s choices also separate him from Barrington Watson, who used more conventional art sales methods and always asserted the “high art” status of his work. While Watson’s exact position in the local art hierarchies has been contentious, his inclusion in the national canons is quite secure, unlike Spencer whose chances at consecration as a “Jamaican master” will always be tenuous, because he broke the codes of “high art” in his pursuit of commercial success.
 He was commonly known as Ken Abendana Spencer during his lifetime but the lawyers responsible for his estate insist that his legal name was “Kenneth Abondarno Spencer” (Forth Blake 2006).
 Personal communication, David Boxer, January 11, 2006.
 The NGJ owns three Spencers but none are on permanent display. One of these works was transferred from the IoJ collection in 1974 and the other two were part of a major donation by the then Chairman of the NGJ Aaron Matalon in 1999, which sought to address lacunas in the NGJ’s collection. While there may have been other expressions of discontent on Spencer’s part, I know of only one incident, a year or two before he died, when he complained to the NGJ Registrar about not being adequately represented in the NGJ’s collection (personal communication, Roxanne Silent, Registrar, NGJ, March 12, 2008).
Greenland, Jonathan. “Remembering Ken Spencer.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1-2
Moo Young, Howard. “Jamaica Is My Gallery.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1
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.
The Independence Generation
The years around Independence were, as the artist and critic Gloria Escoffery (1986) has argued, characterized by a combination of great ambitions and sometimes naïve idealism. The period was marked by the advent of a new generation of artists, most of whom had studied abroad. The three most influential among them were Karl Parboosingh, who had studied in Paris, New York and Mexico; Eugene Hyde, who had studied in California, and Barrington Watson, who had attended the Royal Academy in London and several continental European academies. Their choices illustrate that England was no longer the obligatory overseas study destination, as it had been for the previous generation. Each returned home with new ideas about art – high Modernist in the case of Parboosingh and Hyde and academic in the case of Watson – and an ambitious, cosmopolitan outlook which actively challenged the more limited outlook of earlier nationalist art. Their subject matter was still recognizably Jamaican but they combined this with formal experimentation, a preference for monumental scales that transcended the “living room format” preferred by the nationalist school, and a new critical attitude.
Watson, Hyde and Parboosingh, who were more securely middle class than most of their predecessors, presented themselves emphatically as professionals and made unprecedented public demands about the support Jamaican society should provide for their work. Along with the art collector and engineer-builder A.D. Scott, they founded the Contemporary Jamaican Artists Association (CJAA) which was active from 1964 to 1974 as the first professional artists association in Jamaica. Watson was in 1962 appointed Director of Studies of the Jamaican School of Art and Craft (JSAC) which he, in a move that reflected his commitment to “high art” ideals, renamed the Jamaica School of Art, thus dropping the “craft.” He transformed the previously informal, part-time school into a full-time institution with a four-year diploma curriculum, modeled after the then English art school system. This further contributed to the professionalization of the arts and better equipped graduates for further studies abroad.
Predictably, there was animosity between these ambitious young artists and their artistic elders and this went beyond mere aesthetic differences. They were the first to openly challenge Edna Manley’s dominance. Watson stated in a 1984 interview that the older artists “were in a different mould, and they were already established and not prepared to make the big breakout in the way we were” (Waugh 1987, 136) and:
The Edna Manley, the [Junior Center director] Robert Verity and that lot were doing a really good job in the arts before [but it] had something like a colonial approach to it in a sense. It was [a] sort of ‘giving a break to a talented youngster’ type of thing […] They patronized a lot of the artists and kept them at a certain level, unfortunately or inadvertently, by this kind of patronizing approach. (137)
It could certainly be argued that the nationalist intelligentsia’s missionary zeal to promote local talent replicated the colonial notion of the child-like native whose potential had to be awakened and nurtured. Watson and his colleagues were not interested in obtaining any “from the top down” patronage but in self-empowerment – and it is implied, as black postcolonial artists – and they were quite successful in becoming outspoken public figures that functioned as cultural icons and self-sufficient entrepreneurs.
The introduction of high Modernist ideas represented a departure from the populist beginnings of modern Jamaican art and this resulted in what could be construed as a more elitist and “foreign” kind of art. Yet this new generation was more proactively involved in bringing their art into the public domain than their predecessors and took the initiative to be involved in public art projects, to be visible in the local media and to establish new galleries. […]
[The artists of the CJAA generation] wanted “proper” spaces and display methods that matched the high Modernist “white cube” gallery concept (O’Doherty 1986). In 1964, the CJAA opened its own gallery, simply known as the Gallery, which was the first modern gallery space in Jamaica. The Gallery mainly showed the work of its directors but also of like-minded artists such as Kofi Kayiga (né Ricardo Wilkins), Milton Harley and George Rodney – all pioneers of abstract painting in Jamaica. In 1970, Hyde opened his own gallery, the John Peartree Gallery, which provided space for avant-garde artists such as David Boxer, who had solo exhibitions there in 1976 and 1979. Watson followed suit in 1974, when he established Gallery Barrington, although this gallery served primarily to promote his own work. When the CJAA folded in 1974, A.D. Scott established his Olympia International Art Centre, as an expansion of the hotel and apartment complex he had previously built near the UWI campus on the north-eastern outskirts of Kingston. In an effort to integrate art and life, Olympia housed his substantial collection, hosted occasional exhibitions and provided affordable housing for some artists.[…]
While self-promotion was a factor in their public initiatives, the idealism of the CJAA members was genuine. They wished to create art that would be meaningful to the new, progressive Jamaica and to stimulate new thinking, shifting the focus of local art production from the affirmative to the critical. Hyde stated in 1964:
[The] artist needs to be aware of public interest. This doesn’t necessarily mean compliance. In fact one wishes there was more counter-reaction to the artist from the public. It is hard to describe just what we’re seeking, but it is a kind of friction, a sort of force, one against the other, which the artist must have, if he is not to exist in a vacuum (Gloudon 1964).
The CJAA artists were thus not interested in “art for art sake” but wished to produce art that played an active, productive role in Jamaican society. […]
Eugene Hyde is the only major Jamaican artist of his generation who studied entirely in the USA and who did not have an exclusive fine arts training: he had studied advertising design at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in the early 1950s and then obtained a scholarship to pursue an MFA in painting and graphic design at the Los Angeles Art Institute. He returned to Jamaica in 1960 but after failing to obtain a teaching position at UWI or the JSAC, he left again for the USA, to do further studies in advertising and architectural ceramics. He finally found a job at a Jamaican advertising firm in 1961 and permanently returned to the island. (Smith McCrea 1984)
Hyde’s inaugural Jamaican solo exhibition, which was held at the Institute of Jamaica in 1963, is widely credited as the first local exhibition of abstract art although the works he showed were essentially figurative and perhaps best described as “abstracted expressionism”. Hyde’s work was sometimes excessively influenced by the Italian-American painter Rico Lebrun, an exponent of the “New Imagist” stream in Modernist Western painting which focused on the human figure, represented in an abstracted, expressionistically distorted manner to represent the anxieties of modern existence (Smith-McCrae 1984).
Hyde’s solo exhibition included three mural-size multi-figure paintings, Colonization I, Colonization II and The Lynch Mob, but the entire exhibition, which also included etches and drawings, had an expansive, dramatic quality. This sense of scale and the gestural, abstract expressionist technique of Hyde’s paintings – or, as Eker regretted, his preoccupation with the act of painting itself – was regarded as “American” by some local observers and their responses reveal a deep distrust of the emerging US-American influence in Jamaican culture. The fact that Hyde was primarily trained as a graphic designer was also invoked to suggest that the work lacked “deep” content. Eker denounced “the hectoring tone of the show. It was as though the artist – who, significantly, is also an advertising executive – were shouting ‘Listen to me! Listen to me!’ and when I listened, I found that they had very little to tell me” (1963, 12). The American critic [and Haitian self-taught art promoter] Selden Rodman, in his travel book on the Caribbean, also located Hyde’s work outside of Jamaican culture and summarily dismissed it as “perfectly indigenous to Madison Avenue” (1968, 35). Despite these misgivings, Hyde became influential in the local art community and the ownership of the works in his 1984 retrospective indicate that he was supported by the professional class of his generation.
Hyde’s work challenged local artistic conventions [of the nationalist school] but, as with Parboosingh and Barrington Watson, is better understood in terms of its relationship with the rest of Jamaican art than in terms of any irredeemable difference. While he was certainly concerned with the act of painting (and drawing) in its own right, Hyde was no true formalist and many of his works make socio-political statements, as the titles of his early murals well illustrate. Like his nationalist predecessors and contemporaries such as Parboosingh, Hyde was preoccupied with the effects of colonialism and the challenges of building a modern, independent society but his perspective was more pessimistic. Hyde’s political works, far from being empty rhetorical gestures, represented Jamaica as a wounded, blighted society, disabled by its past and present traumas. Works such as Future Problems (1962), an ink on paper portrait of a poor young man, prophetically captured the discontent among the youth as the main source of social tension in Jamaica.
Not all of Hyde’s early works were political, however, and he also produced abstract, formalist paintings. He obviously preferred to apply the formal explorations of high Modernism to Jamaican subject matter, however, and this resulted in his extended series of Sunflowers, Spathodias and Crotons of the late 1960s to early 1970s. These highly abstracted explorations of the Jamaican vegetation were, with their bold designs and intense colors, as celebratory as Albert Huie’s light-infused landscapes (although his Sunflowers, inevitably, also referenced van Gogh’s more morbid use of this floral theme.)
Here is part two of a two-part excerpt from my PhD dissertation “Between National and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011). The excerpt is from the Introduction. Part one can be found here. (c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved
Partha Chatterjee has pointed out that the challenge facing anticolonial cultural nationalism was to “to fashion a ‘modern’ national culture that is nevertheless not Western” (1993, 6) and added that “the search for a postcolonial modernity has been tied, from its very birth, with its struggle against modernity” (75). Anticolonial and postcolonial Modernist art has indeed developed in a conflicted dialogue with Western Modernism, reinforced by the fact that many postcolonial artists and cultural scholars have studied or worked in the metropolitan West. Still today, it is one of the most charged questions in the postcolonial mimicry debate, as is illustrated by the Indian expatriate art critic Annie Paul’s argument that mainstream Jamaican artists and art narratives “parrot” Western, high Modernist models, with a particular predilection for abstraction (1997).
Paul’s position is, in itself, highly problematic. First of all, the relationship between non-Western cultural nationalism and Modernism cannot be understood if Modernism is conflated with the formalist, High Modernist notion of art as an autonomous aesthetic preoccupation. Modernism is a much broader, more multifaceted phenomenon and the aspects of Western Modernism that attracted anticolonial and postcolonial nationalists are those equally important ones that accommodated social and political content and intent, such as expressionism and realism. While there has been some experimentation with abstraction, as is illustrated by the Cuban propaganda posters and a few “formalist rebellions” among artists who felt confined by cultural nationalism, representation has been the norm in most anti- and postcolonial art and this has certainly been the case in Jamaica, where art has always had a strong figurative focus.
Furthermore, the tendency to concede the authorship and rightful ownership of Modernism entirely to the metropolitan West needs to be challenged (Stam & Shohat 1998, 40). Modernism was a fundamentally transnational phenomenon, in which non-Western artists and intellectuals such as Wifredo Lam and Aimé Césaire and their international travels played a defining role. Latin American Modernism, in particular, has developed simultaneously with and sometimes ahead of European and US-American Modernism (Ades 1989, 125-149). While these contributions need to be reclaimed, the effects of Western metropolitan dominance in Modernism should not be downplayed either. There is an unresolved tension in anticolonial nationalist art movements between the desire to satisfy the cultural requirements of nationalism and those of the Western-focused “aesthetic internationalism” of Modernism (Shohat & Stam 1998, 40).
The primary means to make Jamaican Modernism “not Western” has been, to use Chatterjee’s term, the “appropriation of the popular” (1993, 72) but it has been a selective, vertical appropriation that relegates popular culture to being a “low culture” source for “high art” rather than a full-fledged part of the national culture. Norman Manley’s 1939 speech suggests that the artists – and he called them “our best young men,” in a remarkable, gender-biased failure to acknowledge the role of female artists such as his own wife in the nationalist movement – belonged to a separate category from “the people” whose culture they embraced and ennobled in their work, although several of the young members of the nationalist Jamaican art movement they mentored originally came from poor rural and urban backgrounds. Such views about the exceptional status of the artist are also evident in the work of C.L.R. James, who wrote in The Artist in the Caribbean: “A supreme artist exercises an influence on the national consciousness which is incalculable. He is created by it but he himself illuminates and amplifies it, bringing the past up to date and charting the future” (1977, 185). The underlying issue is that nationalist art movements such as Jamaica’s have, in spite of the populist rhetoric and aversion to formalism, not fundamentally challenged the notion of “high culture” itself. The Jamaican nationalist movement may have originated in a genuine desire to transform society but it generated what was ultimately a new elite culture.