From the Archives: Ken Abendana Spencer (1929-2005)

empty-art-gallery-in-museum

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3] 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.

Endnotes

[1] 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).

[2] Personal communication, David Boxer, January 11, 2006.

[3] 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).

SOURCES

Greenland, Jonathan. “Remembering Ken Spencer.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1-2

Moo Young, Howard. “Jamaica Is My Gallery.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1

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From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 2

Eugene Hyde - Good Friday
Eugene Hyde – Good Friday, from the Casualties Series, 1978 (Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica)

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.

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From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 1

450px-PaulBogle-MorantBay
Edna Manley – Paul Bogle (1965), ciment fondu, Morant Bay Courthouse, now removed (photo source:Wikimedia, Flickr: Dubdem Sound System :: Jamaican Tour 2009)

While I work on some urgent publication deadlines and some new blog posts (and mark papers!), here is another text from my personal archives: the first 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 two can be found here.

(c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved

Nearly fifteen years have passed since I drafted this chapter and there have been significant changes in the context since then – it would be interesting to hear from my readers what these changes may be.

One central assumption in almost all the literature on postcolonial culture, even in the most strident critiques of cultural nationalism, is the view that the arts can be mobilized to effect, or prevent, social and political change. Such ideas were first put forward by pioneering anticolonial and racial activists from the late 19th to the mid 20th century. It became the foundation of cultural and educational policy for postcolonial states and a strategy for popular resistance and liberation movements alike.

The idea that art has socially transformative potential appears in two general, overlapping forms, which are by no means exclusive to the postcolonial world. The first is the propagandist view, which posits that the content, form and presentation of art can and must make a direct intervention in society, for instance by protesting injustice, by promoting a particular political, religious or ideological perspective, or by extolling or denigrating certain political leaders. This view has been influential in the postcolonial Caribbean although there has been resistance against the more doctrinarian forms of propaganda art on the part of many artists and intellectuals. C.L.R. James, for instance, scornfully dismisses “socialist realism” in What is Art? (1993, 200), an essay in Beyond a Boundary, his famous 1963 book on the politics of cricket, in which he argues for the “high art” status of cricket by appealing to universalist aesthetic concepts such as “beauty,” “structural perfection,” and “significant form.”

A similar reluctance to dismiss ideals of artistic freedom and aesthetic universality can be seen in the Cuban constitution of 1976, which states that “there is freedom of artistic creation as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution. There is freedom of artistic expression.”[1] With other words, the form of art is free but its content is subject to state interference. When exactly the content of art comes into conflict with the principles of the Revolution is, of course, subject to interpretation and this has varied significantly over time. Cuban government patronage has also actively interfered with artistic form, by rewarding artists who work in certain styles. There were times when it advocated a more dogmatic “socialist realism” – as happened briefly in the early 1960s and again during the 1970s, when Soviet influence was at its peak. Formalist trends, in contrast, have been tolerated but not encouraged and have, at times, been criticized for their association with American cultural imperialism. But generally, Cuban artists have enjoyed a fair degree of artistic freedom and this has made Cuban art more diverse and vibrant than in most other Communist countries. Cuban poster art from the 1960s and 70s, for instance, combined classic propagandist content with experimental form, including abstraction, and sophisticated visual caricature. Artists have occasionally challenged the Cuban government with overtly critical and satirical works, as could be seen in contemporary art from the 1980s and 1990s, but such episodes have usually been short-lived and subject to censorship. (Camnitzer 1994; Block & Mosquera 2001)

Propaganda art is nonetheless very common throughout the Caribbean and ranges from the crudest political propaganda to more subtle pedagogic approaches that advocate certain lifestyles or world views. Much of what can be classified as propaganda art has, naturally, been initiated by the colonial and postcolonial governments of the region, as is illustrated by the ubiquitous, and often controversial, official monuments, but a lot of popular art also qualifies as propaganda, as in Rastafarian street art which assertively promotes Rastafarian religious and political views.

East street rasta murals
Mural paintings on the Monica Bernard Building, East Street, Kingston, photographed in 2011 (Photo copyright Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved)

The second cluster of ideas about the socially transformative potential of the arts is the more general and far less controversial view that expressive culture is essential to personhood and collective identity formation and that its production and consumption should therefore be encouraged and facilitated. It is for this reason that art is almost always included in school curricula and used for therapeutic purposes with the mentally and physically ill. The political and ideological implications of the belief that art is a fundamental human need rather than a luxury are wide-ranging and can, among others, be used to justify public expenditure on cultural programs and institutions, even to those who would be critical of obvious propaganda art. Notions of personhood and collective identity are, however, in themselves deeply political and the promotion of art for its edifying power therefore often amounts to indirect propaganda.

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From the Archives: “Big Bamboo” and the Politics of Space in Fern Gully

 

Here is a second excerpt, on a more controversial subject and with some minor edits, from my chapter on art and tourism in my doctoral dissertation “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (2011, Emory University). The first post can be found here. I have not been back to Fern Gully since the opening of the North-South Highway, which bypasses the area, but an update is long overdue since the site now probably attracts less traffic, as this must have affected the dynamics with the vendors, but I thought it was nonetheless still worthwhile to publish these observations from the 2000s. All rights reserved by the author (C).

One major illegal vending area is Fern Gully, a rare and delicate rainforest ecosystem that has served as a tourist attraction since the late 19th century and that is, controversially, also a busy traffic thoroughfare and part of the main road between Kingston and Ocho Rios. An attempt in 1997 to relocate the vendors, some of whom had occupied their spot for more than 20 years, to a nearby but less visible authorized vending site led to violent riots in which the road was blocked for an entire day and the vegetation and fixtures allegedly vandalized by protesters (Gleaner March 12, 1997, A3 & March 14, 1997, A2). While environmentally regrettable, this incident made a strong statement about the vendors’ sense of ownership of the site (Walsh 1997). Thus far, the various attempts to remove the vendors have not been successful: some were temporarily relocated but have since returned and several others have joined them. Fern Gully thus remains as a prime illegal craft vending site.

Among the most remarkable items seen in the Fern Gully stalls are life-size carvings of dreadlocksed, ganja-pipe smoking males with giant erect penis, which is often detachable, lest there be any doubt about the reference to the commodification of black male sexuality in tourism. Phallic carvings are fairly common among the exotic tourist arts but in Jamaica their life-size, publicly displayed and specifically Rastafarian incarnation seems to date from the late 1990s. While they have also appeared in other formal and informal craft markets, they seem to have occurred first and foremost in Fern Gully.[1] The carvings have been controversial in the local public sphere, much more so than the (admittedly more modest) sexy tourism posters from the early 1970s and 1980s. In 2002, the then Minister of Tourism Portia Simpson-Miller, expressed her outrage at the lewd statues when she visited various tourist sites and the journalist Barbara Gloudon waged a campaign against them on her radio call-in programme during 2003. The Fern Gully vendors have countered that tourists like the carvings and stop to have their photographs taken with the larger, less saleable examples – they can do so for a small fee – turning them into scandalous attractions that bring much-needed attention to the stalls.[2]

The carvings are in potential breach of Jamaica’s Obscene Publication (Suppression of) Act (1927) which prohibits the making, trading or public exhibition of “any obscene writings, drawings, prints, paintings, printed matter, pictures, posters, emblems, photographs, cinematograph films or any other obscene objects.” This law may seem stringent but does not define what constitutes obscenity and the punishment is a maximum of 40 Jamaican dollars fine, less than 50 US cents, or imprisonment for up to three months. Not surprisingly, the attempts at censoring the carvings have thus far been ineffective and, to my knowledge, nobody has been taken to court over them. Explicitly erotic art is regularly shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica, where it is sheltered from accusations of obscenity by its “high art” status. This does not mean that such work can readily be taken into the public domain, as was illustrated by the furore about the Emancipation monument in 2003. Several critics then made comparisons to the “Big Bamboo” or “Ready Freddy” carvings, as they are popularly known, and expressed concern that the monument would reinforce tourists’ already problematic perceptions about black and, specifically, black male sexuality. Interestingly, Gloudon was one of the defenders of the monument, which reflects the double standards that are typically applied to high and low culture, although the fact that Facey’s nudes were not actively sexual of course also played a role.

Obviously, the public and comical representation of black male sexuality for tourist consumption strikes a raw nerve with many Jamaicans but the controversy reveals several other interesting issues. It is noteworthy, for instance, that criticisms have mainly come from middle class commentators, which supports Peter Wilson’s (1969 & 1973) argument that the conflict in Jamaican popular culture between “respectability” and “reputation” is class- and gender-driven. To their critics, the “Big Bamboo” carvings also represent an affront to Rastafarian dignity – an example of the high moral burden imposed on the figure of the male Rastafarian in Jamaican society.

The least recognized aspect of the controversy is, however, that the objections are not so much about the production and sale of the carvings per se but about their public display, in a place where Jamaican audiences are confronted with them. Portia Simpson-Miller, for instance, plainly stated: “But I am saying that if, as they claim, they have a good market for it and people are buying (they can be allowed to sell in selected areas) but we are not supporting the public display” (Clarke C. 2002). A similar position was implied in a 2007 editorial in the industry weekly Hospitality Jamaica, a supplement of the Gleaner. It stated:

Whatever is in the minds of the merchants who peddle this type of ware, in my mind it is pornography being forced on the public, our innocent children and the people who take the route through this beautiful gully. It is sad that some of our so-called artisans cannot find more innovative ways to attract the lucrative tourist trade. Our Jamaican men and their supposed ‘big bamboos’ are already an attraction; we don’t need wood carvings on the streets. (Silvera 2007)

The carvings thus also represent a rare and, to many in Jamaica, unwelcome public admission that sex is an integral part of what is transacted in contemporary tourism.

The moralistic condemnation of these carvings, however, obscures other aspects of their significance as culturally expressive objects. The public, road-side display of the carvings can also be read as a carnivalesque gesture in service of the politics of informal vending: the “Big Bamboo” man, for all his obvious problems, forcefully claims space and visibility in a tourism industry that has marginalized his producers and vendors, and it is probably no coincidence that he has appeared primarily in the contested space of Fern Gully.

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From the Archives: Dangerously Close to Tourist Art

I have not posted as often as I’d like recently, even though I have several new posts working on, as I have been bogged down with project and publication deadlines (and a nasty bout of flu) – not complaining about anything, except for the latter. So instead of a new post, I am presenting another piece from my archives, a slightly edited  excerpt from the chapter on art and tourism in my doctoral dissertation, Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica (2011, Emory University), as it involves a subject that has been central to my practice as an art historian and cultural researcher. The chapter is based on research I conducted in the early to late 2000s and also presented when I served as visiting faculty at New York University (2003) and, subsequently, as Research Fellow at the Edna Manley College (2006-2009).  More such excerpts will follow, as well as,  in due time, new research on the subject. All rights reserved by the author (C)

While the popular, despite the ambivalence and contention that surround it, is generally recognized as the source of cultural truth and authenticity in Jamaican culture, tourism is seen as its negation. Phrases such as “this is dangerously close to tourist art” have been part and parcel of the critical discourse about Jamaican art, as if “tourist art” were some dreadful disease from which true Jamaican culture had to be quarantined. Much of what is discussed in this chapter is “airport art” and emphatically “for sale” and thus challenges my own prior assumptions about cultural authenticity, aesthetic value, the ideological role of art, and good taste – moralized judgments which are shared by many core players in the mainstream art world and which have caused tourist art not to be recognized as a part of modern Jamaican art production. Scholarly attention has been paid, recently, to early Caribbean tourist imagery (e.g. Thompson 2006), and there are now a few collectors of early Jamaican tourist art and imagery, aided by the eBay internet auction craze. While these vintage items have been consecrated as “Jamaicana” – an effect of their rarity and age – tourist art as such remains virtually unstudied, save for a few criticisms of its often racist and sexist content. There can be no credible analysis of the dynamics of the Jamaican art world without considering tourist art on its own merits, however, and for this purpose, preconceptions have to be put aside.

The term tourist art covers a wide range of possibilities, from cheap, mass-produced souvenir trinkets – much of which is now imported from East Asia or Haiti and only tenuously customized for the Jamaican market – to works that conform to the norms of mainstream art but are marketed to tourists, usually because the subject matter and formal characteristics match the expectations of that market. Somewhere in the middle are handmade but standardized items such as the Rasta-themed woodcarvings that are currently the most “typical” locally made tourist art. Not all of what I have listed here as tourist art would be defined as “art” by their makers, sellers or buyers but I regard them as such because they have, as Ruth Phillips and Christopher Steiner have argued, “all the communicative and signifying qualities of ‘legitimate’ or ‘authentic’ works of art” (1999, 15) and generally employ the same media and techniques.

Tourism is a quintessentially capitalist and, in postcolonies such as Jamaica, neo-colonial endeavor, of which tourist art has been an integral part. To quote Phillips and Steiner again: “The inscription of Western modes of commodity production has been one of the most important aspects of the global extension of Western colonial power. Moreover, the role of this process in transforming indigenous constructions of the object has intensified rather than diminished in many parts of the world since the formal demise of colonial rule” (1999, 4). I am therefore skeptical of the celebratory tone of some of the literature on tourism, cultural commodification and cultural agency (e.g. Appadurai 1986; Carcía Canclini 1995). Too often, it is implied that commodification is inherently empowering for all involved and that the global spread of capitalism into every aspect of human life is as desirable as it has been inevitable. I believe that the jury is still out on both counts. As Jamaica Kincaid has powerfully argued in A Small Place (1988), tourism and economic need make an unwholesome combination in poor postcolonial societies, especially those that were shaped by the experience of slavery, the ultimate form of human commodification. Tourism poses serious social and cultural challenges in such countries and any critical appraisal of tourist art must be regarded in that context.

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Notes on Jamaica’s Art Histories # 2: African-Derived Sculpture from the Colonial Period

skull cap with cowery shells, port royal collection
Cowrie Shell Skull Cap, late 17th century?, found in Port Royal, Collection: National Museum Jamaica (photograph courtesy of the Institute of Jamaica)

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 that 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.)

ma lou pot
Louisa Jones “Ma Lou” – yabba, c1985, private collection

Introduction

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.

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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 now-extinct 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 in 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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