On September 4, 1975, an exhibition entitled Ten Jamaican Sculptors opened at the Commonwealth Institute Art Gallery in London. Guest curated by David Boxer – who later became the Director/Curator of the newly opened National Gallery of Jamaica – the exhibition was meant to showcase Jamaican sculptural traditions using the works inspired by, or otherwise contemporaneous with the Nationalist movements of the 1920s. The exhibition included seventy-five works, thirty of which were by Edna Manley, whose work was arguably used as a touchstone for the other nine artists exhibited.
Though also conceptualized using the social and political milieu of the 1920s as its initial point of departure, this significantly more modest but ambitiously titled exhibition, The Art of Jamaican Sculpture also looks at the artistic developments in the pre and post-Independence period in Jamaica. The influence of that groundbreaking 1975 exhibition can of course be seen in this more contemporary incarnation. Nine of the original ten artists are represented here at National Gallery West; with at least one work that had been in that exhibition. This of course speaks to the significance of the works exhibited in the Ten Jamaican Sculpture exhibition, as several of them were subsequently acquired by the National Gallery after 1975.
Sculptural traditions in Jamaica date back as far as the Taino period; but the modern expressions of these traditions coincide with the emergence of the nationalist movements – particularly during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Black Nationalist rhetoric of Marcus Garvey, with its promotion of social and political self-actualization, is captured in the following quote from his newspaper the Blackman
At last the Negro has become aroused to the consciousness of his racial weakness through disunion, and is making the effort to so adjust himself as to leave no loop-hole through which the enemy may continue in the future to destroy him as they have done in the past. [i]
This ideology was in line with the intellectual debates about the “new negro” during the Harlem Renaissance and resonated particularly with the creolized Jamaican middle class during the 1930s and 1940s.[ii] Edna Manley’s sculpture Negro Aroused (1935) – the 1982 bronze is on display here – was arguably influenced by this. “Indeed it might be thought that Negro Aroused was both a response to [..] Garvey’s programme of black upliftment, embodied in his Universal Negro Improvement (founded in 1914) and a harbinger of the riots of 1938.” [iii] The work eventually became a symbol of the burgeoning Trade Union movement and “gave this fledgling cultural nationalist movement an icon and suggested new forms of cultural expression.”[iv]
Despite the emphasis on black intellectual engagement, Jamaica’s nationalist artistic imagery focused primarily on the physicality of the strong black worker; perhaps informed by the romanticized but still anthropological view of manual labourers which was mobilized during the 19th Century. Marriott’s exquisitely carved Banana Man/Banana Cutter (1955) represents the epitome of conventional masculinity and can be firmly placed in the category of genre sculpture, forming part of the pre-independence ideology within the circles around Edna Manley. Though created some twenty years later, Boxer in his introductory essay to Ten Jamaican Sculptors described Kay Sullivan’s Star Boy, (1972) as having “a naturalism based on the perusal of Jamaican types and attitudes”[v] and though stylistically different, the same might be said of Roy Lawrence’s Market Scene also completed in 1972. Both artists are not however, simply inheritors of pre-independence nationalist iconography; Lawrence’s work remains celebratory with regard to the reality of the working class Jamaican and his stylization captures the rhythm and movement of the marketplace. In contrast Sullivan’s emaciated, pleading Star Boy is evocative of the harsh reality of many black Jamaican youth in the 1970s.
This more sober viewpoint is also seen in Christopher Gonzales’ Man Arisen, (1966). Utilizing a comparably heroic visual language to that of Negro Aroused with its upturned head and strained musculature, Gonzales’ sculpture contrasts with Manley’s work, evoking a feeling of disempowerment with its seemingly bound arms and protruding ribcage.
There were of course alternative narratives that co-existed with Jamaican cultural nationalism in the pre-independence era; this is evidenced in the work of Ronald Moody and the Millers. Moody’s Tacet, 1938 was not a work directly connected with the almost pervasive cultural nationalism of the time; rather his “work reflected his interest in ancient and world ideas of metaphysics (the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space)”.[vi] David Miller Snr and David Miller Jnr both explored two branches of their own identities with the younger Miller focused on his African heritage using photographic representations of people who, in his estimation, exhibited features that were distinctly African – realized in his sculpture Head (1958) while his father’s imaginative sculpture Talisman (c. 1938) evokes East Indian spiritual beliefs through in its posture, form and multiple faces.
Of course, with the prevalence of spiritual beliefs grounded in Christianity, quite a few Jamaican sculptors have given this expression in their work. The Intuitive artists Mallica ‘Kapo’ Reynolds with Adam and Eve (1967) and John ‘Doc’ Willamson with Sacrifice of Isaac (1980) almost faithfully depict aspects of the bible stories their works were inspired by, but like Namba Roy with his Accompong Madonna (c 1958), they have reimagined the biblical figures in more afro-centric guises. Osmond Watson’s Revival Kingdom (1969) on the other hand, could be seen as more of a documentation of observed spiritual practice; evoking and possibly critiquing the almost bacchanalian rites in Kapo’s own Revivalist worship ceremonies.
The monumental sculptural installation Goddess of Change (1993) by Laura Facey, belies the intimacy of its subject matter. The thin surreal figure emerges from the burnt background and cools below in an almost phoenix-like rebirth; it is in many ways a cathartic sculpture both in its iconography and its execution, documenting as well as enabling the healing process after the artists own battle to overcome anorexia nervosa.[vii] The theme of healing is continued in her more abstracted work Radiant Comb (2011) – a distinctly organic form which evokes an oversized comb meant to smooth out, untangle and transform the troubles of the viewers with its meditative presence. Similarly, the more abstracted works in this exhibition also tend to be more meditative. The elegant sweeping forms of Ted Williams’ Mahogany Form – Bass Solo (c2006) are not only a celebration of the material used, but with its rhythmic shapes and negative spaces is evocative of the movement of sound through a musical instrument, transmitting in some way a sense of harmony to those who view it.
An exhibition of this scale could never hope to be a survey of Jamaican sculptural art and there are many other artists and themes that could have been explored. We have instead selected works that will tease out particular themes and trends that demonstrate one part of the history and evolution of the art form in our island. It is our hope that this exhibition will not only contribute to, but also stimulate the dialogues surrounding sculpture in the Jamaican artistic narrative.
The works in this The Art of Jamaican Sculpture are primarily from the holdings of the National Gallery of Jamaica and are supplemented with generous loans from collectors in both Kingston and Montego Bay. The exhibition features critically acclaimed work by the following artists, Lawrence Edwards, Laura Facey, Christopher Gonzales, Fitz Harrack, Roy Lawrence, Edna Manley, Ronald Moody, Alvin Marriott, David Miller Snr, David Miller Jnr, Winston Patrick, Mallica ‘Kapo’ Reynolds, Namba Roy, Kay Sullivan, Osmond Watson, Ted Williams and John ‘Doc’ Williamson.