Notes on Jamaica’s Art Histories #3: Intuitive Art as a Canon, Redux

Tabois, Gaston Road Menders, 1956 - NGJ
Gaston Tabois – Road Menders (1956), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

As I continue my reflections on Jamaica’s art histories, I am now sharing some of my thoughts on the Intuitive art designation, which has been an essential but problematic and controversial part of Jamaica’s main art-historical narration. Earlier versions of this essay, which was itself extracted from my doctoral dissertation in progress (Emory, 2011 – Chapter 7), served as the basis for a public lecture which was delivered at the National of Jamaica on October 26, 2006 and an earlier version also appeared in Small Axe 24 (2007).

I am posting this essay again here, with updates and new questions asked, because I believe that this discussion needs to be ongoing, with new thinking about how the artists who have been labeled and canonized as Intuitives are to be located, named and understood, and with strategies to recover what was overlooked or misrepresented in the process. The issues I am raising here relate to the first two posts I made on the subject of Jamaica’s art histories and how to retell them, which can be found here and here. There is some overlap between these three posts but I have left this “as is” for the sake of cohesion in each post.


Articulating a Narrative

In the summer of 2006, the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) staged Intuitives III, a survey exhibition of what its Chief Curator of many years, David Boxer, had called Intuitive art, the work of a particular group of self-taught, popular artists from Jamaica. It was an important exhibition, not only in its own right but also in terms of the NGJ’s institutional history and the debates that have surrounded it, and the original version of this essay was written in response to the conversations that emerged in that moment.

Intuitives III was the NGJ’s third such exhibition of Intuitive art. The first one such, The Intuitive Eye, was held in 1979 and the second, Fifteen Intuitives, was shown in 1987. The NGJ had up to that time also presented four retrospectives of Intuitive artists: John Dunkley in 1976, Sidney McLaren in 1978 (although this one was actually shown at the St Thomas Parish Library), Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds in 1983, and Everald Brown in 2004. All but the latter, which I curated, were the curatorial work of David Boxer, the first Director/Curator and, later, Chief Curator of the NGJ.

The Intuitives have also been well represented in the rest of the NGJ’s permanent collection and many of its other exhibition. Kapo has a specialized gallery in the NGJ’s permanent collection since 1983 and was the first Jamaican artist to be so honored, more than six years before Edna Manley. In its initial form, this gallery featured the substantial collection of Kapo’s paintings and sculptures that had been amassed by the American owner of the Stony Hill hotel, Larry Wirth, which was acquired after the latter’s death with the help of Kapo’s most prominent patron, the then prime minister Edward Seaga. Today, this gallery features a selection of paintings and sculptures from the Larry Wirth Collection, along with paintings from the John Pringle Collection (a major donation of Kapo paintings which was received in 2011), a painting and two sculptures from the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection (a general general donation of Jamaican art and historical prints and maps in 1999), as well as a few works from the NGJ’s main collection.

The Intuitive Eye exhibition had in 1979 launched the concept and the term “Intuitive,” as a noun and an adjective and an alternative to more obviously problematic terms such as “primitive” and “naïve” (although it had, strictly spoken, already been used as such in the NGJ’s The Formative Years catalogue in 1978). The Intuitive Eye exhibition was part of a series of landmark exhibitions, The Formative Years included, that served to articulate the NGJ’s foundational narrative on Jamaican art. This articulation process was a necessary part of the early work of the NGJ, which had opened in 1974 and had been mandated to document and articulate a national (and nationalist) Jamaican art history.[i]

The process of articulating a comprehensive account of Jamaica’s visual art history, which had not been attempted prior to the establishment of the NGJ, had started with Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1975), David Boxer’s first major exhibition and the NGJ’s first survey, which provided an overview of art in Jamaica from the start of the Spanish period to the 1970s. It culminated with Jamaican Art 1922-1982, a survey of modern Jamaican art which was from 1983 to 1985 toured in the USA, Canada and Haiti by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and which was subsequently shown at the NGJ itself in 1985.

The Intuitives concept played a major role in the articulation of the NGJ’s narratives and had started with the Dunkley retrospective in 1976, which consecrated this then near-forgotten artist as one of the masters of Jamaican art (and also launched him in the emerging local art market, with several of the works that were still in the family’s hands going to local private collections in the years that followed). Some of the artists that were thus labeled as Intuitives – John Dunkley, David Miller Sr and Jr, Sidney McLaren, Gaston Tabois, Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds and Everald and Clinton Brown – had already received some national and international acclaim as Jamaican “primitives.” Their position in the Jamaican artistic hierarchies was, however, ambivalent, especially vis-à-vis highly educated artists such as Barrington Watson who actively claimed recognition as professionals and modern masters and left little doubt that they considered themselves at the apex of the Jamaican art world.

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Art Museums and Social Hierarchy – Epilogue

Daylight Come…Picturing Dunkley’s Jamaica at the National Gallery of Jamaica

Sometimes you think you said everything you had to say on a particular subject, and perhaps too much–my two-part post on Art Museums and Social Hierarchy was not exactly short (you can find part I here and part II here). But then something else happens, and you are forced to rethink some of your assessments, and then you have a few more things to say.

Today was one such instance, when I attended part of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Last Sundays programme, which involved the opening of a new exhibition, Daylight Come…Picturing Dunkley’s Jamaica. This new exhibition is offered as an adjunct to the John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night exhibition, and also continues until July 29, and was curated by National Gallery Assistant Curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson.

The May 23, 2018 press release on the opening and Last Sundays programme rather unhelpfully stated that:

This new exhibition Daylight Come… explores themes such as tourism, immigration and the emergence of cultural nationalism in Jamaica during Dunkley’s lifetime. The exhibition provides further context to Dunkley’s creative output; exploring the works of his contemporaries David Miller Snr and David Miller Jnr, Carl Abrahams, Albert Huie, David Pottinger, Ralph Campbell and Henry Daley among others.

And if I may digress for a moment, the National Gallery really needs to do better with communications: an upcoming exhibition is not a state secret, to be disclosed only at the eleventh hour and in the vaguest possible terms, as seems to have become the norm. Members of the public have a right to know what to expect, with reasonable notice and in sufficient detail.

Wall quote, gallery 1

Based on the description in the press release, I was not particularly excited at what I feared was going to be a boilerplate presentation on photography and other art during Dunkley’s lifetime. And the title of the exhibition was not exactly encouraging either, as it was of course taken from Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (Day-O) (1956) which, while very popular and musically engaging, represents an exoticized and sanitized vision of Jamaican life, polished and prettied up for the consumption of North American audiences and tourists. I had to wonder what the National Gallery was up to.

Wall quote, gallery 2

The exhibition I saw this afternoon, as such, contains few surprises, in terms of the contents or presentation, but I was excited by it, and that was a function of the simple but sophisticated and subtly provocative way in which the exhibition is framed. Divided over three galleries, the exhibition consists of a selection of photographs, archival film footage, paintings and sculptures, and a selection of objects that include a slide lantern and the toolkit of David Miller Jr. Together, these displays explore issues such as the living conditions and economic exploitations that prevailed during Dunkley’s lifetime and which contributed to the labour migrations of that period; the emergence of tourism and what Krista Thompson has called the “tropicalization” of places like Jamaica to suit tourist expectations; and then, in the final gallery, the work of the nationalist school around artists such as Edna Manley, more independent artistic figures such as Carl Abrahams, and the other two self-taught artists who came to the local art world’s attention then, David Miller Sr and Jr.Read More »

Art Museums and Social Hierarchy – Part II

Last Sundays at the National Gallery of Jamaica, December 31, 2017, feat. Nexus Performing Arts Company (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

This is the second part of a two-part blog post. The first part can be read here.

How can [art] participate in networks of power that its content willfully rejects? Often, so-called ‘political art’ simply aestheticises protest or resistance. Sometimes, it has the effect of moral licensing – instilling in its viewer a false sense of having accomplished something. Art and  power have always been begrudging bedfellows.Annie Godfrey Larmon

When I moved to Jamaica in 1984, I encountered a very different situation, where colonialism and its aftermath had put into question the sort of cultural ownership I had taken for granted when going to museums while I was growing up. There has been some progress with that since then but museums are still faraway institutions in the lives of most in Jamaica, visited only in the event of a compulsory school trip or heard about on the news, if at all. That is the hard reality everybody who works in this field should face, and seek to address. There is no glossing it over.

This question of cultural ownership and identification, of articulating a cultural “us,” no matter how complex and fraught this process may be, has been a driving force in the development of postcolonial Jamaica’s cultural production, including the visual arts. It certainly explains the immense popularity of works of art such as Barrington Watson’s painting Mother and Child (1958), a very relatable, intimate representation of a black mother and her young child, or the ceramic and bronze head sculptures of Gene Pearson, which represent a classical, aestheticized vision of blackness with which Jamaicans identify as readily as my family and I did with the Petrus Christus portrait of a young girl.

Gene Pearson – untitled ceramic head (c2000), Private Collection

But perhaps even with these very popular art works, the sense of identification is often too unquestioning, and it is not appreciated sufficiently how this is mediated by other factors, such as the ability to own such works of art, or to have comfortable access to them by feeling “at home” in the museums that own them. And such affirmative, collective artistic images have, historically, also proven to be problematic for other reasons, because they leave no space for otherness, for minorities that do not fit the image projected, and because they promote a static, often even reductive sense of self, that leaves little or no room for change, complexity and critical engagement.

One of the oldest and most basic criticisms of postcolonial cultural nationalism—of which postcolonial public museums are typically both products and agents—is that this ideology has served the interests of postcolonial elites under the guise of cultural populism, that it promotes an ostensibly seamless, consensual cultural identity that is appropriated from the popular but fails to empower the popular masses or to recognize the complex, dynamic and often oppositional nature of the popular culture. Museums in the postcolonial Caribbean are, far more so than in my native Belgium, regarded as organizations that serve the interests of the privileged few (or serve as attractions for the tourists, but I’ll leave that for another post). This perception is particularly strong for art museums, since art patronage, in its traditional form (and there are other options), is almost inevitably associated with wealth and social status.

It does not help that the museum concept itself is, historically, deeply rooted in the colonial enterprise, in the histories of conquest, empire, and exploitation, and the self-justifying, propagandist cultural narratives that have been spun around that. That is not only so for colonial museums such as the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, but also for the larger, well-known “universal survey” museums that were set established to celebrate the ascent and dominance of Western culture, such as the Louvre, the British Museum and, for that matter, the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Several major museums and cultural institutions in the Caribbean also have their origins in the colonial era and this casts long shadows, especially in terms of how these institutions are seen by the public and, arguably even, how some of them still operate. The Institute of Jamaica, for instance, was established in 1879 under the patronage of Governor Anthony Musgrave and initially served as the cultural arm of late colonial policy in Jamaica.

Central galleries, National Gallery of Jamaica (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

Caribbean museums of more recent vintage are, furthermore, often based on models that are derived from those histories. I have, for instance, always been fascinated by the rather uncritical adoption of the “National Gallery” concept and designation in the establishment of public art museums in the region, although this was obviously motivated by the sense of national prestige and validation that comes with that designation. While the actual practice of these art museums deviates in crucial ways from their models, I am left to wonder why there has been no greater effort to rethink the concept, and naming, of those public art museums, in ways which would have been more relevant to the postcolonial Caribbean and which would have come with less problematic ideological baggage.Read More »