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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