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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The Mat-Making Tradition of Sane Mae Dunkley

Tapestry Smaller 53 x 50 Joseph Coat of May Colors
Sane Mae Dunkley – Tapestry “Joseph Coat of Many Colours” (c2017), photo: Jacqueline Bishop

Sane Mae “Mama Lane” Dunkley, who passed away unexpectedly just before the end of 2017, was a significant culture bearer from Jamaica. Of rural origins from St Elizabeth but based in Jones Town, Kingston for most of her adult life, she was part of an extended family in which popular textile and fibre traditions had been kept alive across generations. She made mats and tapestries from colourful strips of fabric, recovered from old clothes and other textile items, and turned these humble materials into new, utilitarian objects that added comfort and visual splendour to the humble domestic environments for which they were created.

Sane Mae 2 Smaller
Sane Mae Dunkley – photo: Jacqueline Bishop

The use of recycled fabric strips also appears in other cultural forms in Jamaica, which points to deeper origins and meanings. One such form is the Jonkonnu masquerade in Jamaica, which has equivalents throughout the Caribbean and is mainly derived from West African masquerade traditions (and which is also disappearing). One major character in the Jonkonnu bands is Pitchy-Patchy, who wears a costume made from fabric strips, produced in a way that is technically and aesthetically similar to the fabric strip mats, and the fabric strips of this colourful costume bounce and swirl, amplifying the movements of the masquerader as he dances down the streets. Such costumes have several equivalents in West Africa and there is evidence, for instance in Isaac Mendes Belisario’s Emancipation-era lithographs of Jonkonnu bands and characters, that Pitchy-Patchy has its origin in costumes made from plant materials that were replaced by fabric, some have suggested, as the tradition became more urbanized.

John_Canoe_Dancers_Jamaica_1975_Dec_ver06
Jonkonnu Dancers, Jamaica, 1975 – Pitchy Patchy is to the right Photo by WikiPedant at Wikimedia Commons [Attribution or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Jonkonnu, which was historically held during the Christmas season, when the enslaved received some time off, involved the satirical appropriation of various aspects of colonial culture and was thus also a way to speak back to power, symbolically, which reveals that there is a subversive quality to the culture of recyclage. There is also evidence, for instance in the accounts of the 18th century planter-historian Edward Long, of the use of red fabric strips that were hung at the entrance of slave dwellings as part of what he labelled as Obeah, or spiritual practices concerned with providing protection, and the colour red is in fact a dominant colour in traditional mats and the Pitchy-Patchy costumes alike.

Sane Mae Mat 4 25 x 17
Sane Mae Dunkley – Mat (c2017), photo: Jacqueline Bishop

The mats that Sane Mae Dunkley created represent a once-prevalent form that is now disappearing, as it is being replaced by cheap imported, mass produced domestic goods, but it is an important cultural tradition that has to be recognized as such. The mat-making tradition may in itself have been primarily utilitarian and decorative, with possible submerged meanings, but Sane Mae herself saw them as something more, at least at the aesthetic level. She indicated that she could not bear the idea that people would be walking all over these beautiful mats, which was one of her reasons for moving towards the production of more ambitious wall tapestries and other, wearable items. Her desire to “do more” with this traditional prototype also reflects the reinventions and reimaginations that constantly take place in the popular culture of the Caribbean, in which there is always ample room for personal creativity. Her trajectory suggests that, once there is room for creativity and innovation, there will be a productive artistic future for what would otherwise have been a doomed tradition.

Sane Mae Mat 1 23 x 15
Sane Mae Dunkley – Mat (c2017), photo: Jacqueline Bishop