Jamaica is an island in the Caribbean Sea situated about 145 km (90 mi) s of Cuba. It has a total area of 10,990 sq km (4,243 sq mi) and an estimated population of 2.715 million.
In Jamaican art one will find all of the characteristics of the Afro-Caribbean art movements. During the early half of the twentieth century, many Europeans began turning to the Caribbean and Africa searching for inspirations. With this came the immigration of professionally trained artists with cultural ties to the island. These newly arrived artists brought in a passion as well as knowledge to the island that would make it possible for local artisans to soar to new heights. In addition, the indigenous people possessed an inherent passion for the land, even in the days in which they were forced to work the soil as slaves. Even with the oppression of slavery, by the beginning of the twentieth century ideas of Africa were retained and translated into the sculpture and paintings which focused on Jamaica as home.
The “spiritual concerns inherited from African art” act as the basis for the “primitive” movement in Jamaica. Also known as “intuitive,” the primitive artists took an approach to art that was evolved through the creation of pottery and other functional objects. These artists were originally of the lower classes. These “self-taught” artists would eventually embody the spiritual tie to Africa within their artwork.
Self-taught artist movements in all the islands share affinities. Their creativity was clearly suppressed during the colonial period. European “discovery” and patronage (as with Dewitt Peters in Haiti) was a big factor. Significant international success and the attendant problems of kitsch commercialism (especially where the art market is tourist based) compromised their integrity.
The intuitive approach to art was balanced by the scholarly approach. Included in this movement were those within the island art scene who were creating artwork based upon formal study as well as formal subject matter. These artists primarily consisted of the upper classes that had the resources necessary to study the methods used by the European masters.
However, during the mid-twentieth century, the art movement made a change, following the evolving self-image the island people had of themselves. It was during this period that the Institute of Jamaica, a long established office of the colonial government responsible for the promotion of arts, sciences and literature, came under new leadership. The new leader, H.D. Molesworth, took a much more active role in the development of artistic talent. Where his predecessor Frank Cundall was more concerned with documentation and research, Molesworth was more concerned with the ability of the local artistry. This combined with new cultural ideas that celebrated Afro-Jamaicans’ African ancestry, especially Marcus Garvey’s movement, international Pan-Africanism, and later, Black power and Rastafarian beliefs, resulted in a more confident black race. Furthermore, the rekindled interest in African heritage brought many to take to art as a form of both expression and exploration.
The artwork resulting from this cultural phenomenon was similar in characteristics. Much of the art was created in the style of African carvings and drawings. Moreover, the media used were basic and natural in physicality. During this period, prominent sculptures and potters emerged, bringing into the national and international limelight the work of the Jamaican artist that harkened back to the African heritage and self-image retained throughout slavery. This artwork would become known as primitive and intuitive. Although primitivism had had an influence on much of the artwork produced in Europe during the 1930’s and 1940’s, the style found in Jamaica and the Caribbean was one that was intuitive and not taught or researched for effect.
Through the involvement of H.D. Molesworth and the Institute of Jamaica, young local artisans were referred to established artists in Jamaica, creating an apprentice-master system that allowed for a formal training in the arts with the resources available the island. One such master was Edna Manley. Edna Manley. Pocomania. Considered a key figure in the Jamaican art movement, Edna Manley was born in Britain of a Jamaican mother, and emigrated to Jamaica in 1922. Having been trained in art formally at St. Martin’s School of the Arts in London, Manley had been sculpting prior to her arrival in Jamaica. “Her sculpture to that date was mainly of animal forms chiseled in the romantic vein emphasizing dynamism and movement. Upon arrival in Jamaica, she was quick to incorporate in her work an understanding of mass and African forms together with Jamaican archetypes.”
Manley’s artwork embodies the essence of the Afro-Caribbean male. Through her sculpture she took the African figure and adapted it to the medium, Kapo (Mallica Reynolds). Heaven and Earth.creating works that are primarily monolithic and iconic. Where Manley adapted the African figure to the three dimensional, many other artists have chosen to capture the essence of African heritage through the style of painting as well as the subject matter, primarily village scenes, portraits and landscapes. All of these subjects are at the root of African society.
The island’s artists were now, in many cases, being schooled at the institute, and the mentors and lecturers participating there were the islands’ primitives. As a result, the images that were seen began to be very African in their representational style. This idea of Africanism was one that was not lost through the Middle Passage or the numerous years’ slavery existed on the island. Although the practicing of art making was suppressed for much of the beginnings of the island history, the skills eventually began to thrive and finally express the African heritage that laid dormant throughout those early years. This was made possible through the celebration of religious holidays that involved the performance art and acted as the vehicle of preservation of heritage. Although the artists of the early twentieth century movements were not specifically addressing the issues of slavery, they did celebrate the African-ness within their selves through the subject matter. Many of these works consisted of images that glorified the African figure both visually and within the title of the work.
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Archer-Straw, Petrine & Robinson, Kim. Jamaican Art: An overview with focus on fifty artists. Kingston: Kingston Publishers Limited, 1990.
Archer-Straw, Petrine. Afro-Caribbean Art: 1914 to Present. http://www.panmedia.com.jm/art/articles/CaribbeanArt.htm
Archer-Straw, Petrine. Black is Colour: Colour is Race. http://www.panmedia.com.jm/art/articles/BlackisColour.htm
Archer-Straw, Petrine. In Tribute to David Boxer. http://www.panmedia.com.jm/art/articles/DavidBoxer.htm
Archer-Straw, Petrine. Jamaican Art. http://www.panmedia.com.jm/art/articles/JamaicanArt.htm
Archer-Straw, Petrine. Jamaican Art: A Social History. http://www.panmedia.com.jm/art/articles/SocialHistory.htm
Nettleford, Rex. Caribbean Cultural Identity: The Case of Jamaica. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies and UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1979.