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.

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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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Memoirs: Visiting Leonard Daley

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Leonard Daley at his home in Fiddler Hill, St Catherine, with three of his paintings, 1996 (photograph Walter Rammelaere – all rights reserved)

My father-in-law, Walter Rammelaere, passed away recently. He was, among other things, an amateur photographer and when my husband, Marc, rummaged through his photographic files recently, he found photographs of a long-forgotten visit to the self-taught, “Intuitive” Jamaican artist Leonard Daley (1930-2006), who lived in the hills of St Catherine. I have reproduced a few of these here. They were taken in 1996, while my father-in-law was on a one-month visit with us. We took him to the usual tourist sites, but also to those nooks and crannies of the island that tourist visitors only rarely get to see — one of the advantages, I guess, of having a son who is a geologist and environmentalist and a daughter-in-law who is an art historian and curator, both of them actively involved in field research all over the country.

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Leonard Daley – Untitled, c1996 (Collection: Shari Cavin and Randall Morris; photograph: Walter Rammelaere, all rights reserved)

My father-in-law was game to go on those “adventures,” and furthermore had a genuine interest in art, although his own artistic tastes were  quite different from ours: most of the paintings he had at his home in Belgium were rather conventional, nostalgic paintings of our hometown, the city of Bruges, by local artists such as Leo Mechelaere. Surprisingly, he actually bought a painting by Daley, but it was not on view at his home when I was last there in May. No doubt it was too raw and too dissonant with the rest of the art and the furniture in the house, and others who visited or lived in the house may not have liked it or recognized its value.Read More »

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sane Mae Dunkley – Mat (c2017), photo: Jacqueline Bishop