As part of the re-installation of our permanent exhibitions, which is currently in progress, we have recently re-conceptualized and re-installed the entrance alcove to the main permanent exhibition, now named Art in Jamaica: The 20th Century, which provides a comprehensive overview of modern Jamaican art. The entrance alcove has for many years housed Edna Manley’s famous Negro Aroused (1935), which we have retained but remounted on a display table by Jamaican Art Deco designer Burnett Webster, which was specifically commissioned and designed by the Institute of Jamaica to accommodate the sculpture.
Edna Manley’s Negro Aroused is a key work in the NGJ collection, for several closely related reasons. The first is that it is Edna Manley’s best known work and, and given her significance in the development of Jamaican art, a key work in Jamaican art history.
Second, the work is closely related, in terms of its original symbolism and the manner in which it has been used since then, with the nationalist, anti-colonial ferment of the late 1930s which culminated in the island-wide labour unrest and riots of 1938 and, more generally, the growth of racial consciousness and labour unionism in Jamaica. A large-scale version of the work, created posthumously in 1991, now stands on the Kingston Waterfront, where it serves as a monument to these historical events.
Third, Negro Aroused was the first modern Jamaican work of art to be acquired for the Institute of Jamaica Collection and thus represents the start of what is now the NGJ Collection. The work was acquired by public subscription in 1937, an initiative which was initiated privately and illustrates that the Institute of Jamaica, previously an institution with a decidedly colonial outlook, was being pressured to accommodate the new developments in Jamaican art and politics.
David Boxer has written about Negro Aroused:
[N]owhere in Edna Manley’s oeuvre do we find such as balance, such integration “form” and “content.” [...] It is surely this, an absolute clarity of meaning through form, that allowed the early acceptance of Negro Aroused as a symbol, as the very icon of an age. Book jackets, postage stamps, posters, logos, a monument; all have used this famous image to great effect.
Negro Aroused, a symbol of what? We have spoken of a surging upwards; a dawning. This half figure of an unmistakably black man, his gaze turned shkywards, is a symbol of a search; a vision of a new social order, a New Day, to a new consciousness of self, of race and of nationhood.
Negro Aroused is also used as the logo of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts – the College was named after Edna Manley in tribute to her seminal role in the development of that institution, especially its School of Visual Arts, of which she was a founder in 1950.
In the new permanent installation, Negro Aroused is mounted on a table, made from wild tamarind wood, which was commissioned by the Institute of Jamaica from the Jamaican Art Deco designer Burnett Webster to accommodate the sculpture. The sculpture and table were both sent to London for Edna Manley’s 1937 solo exhibition at the French Gallery. The Art Deco style which had become fashionable in Jamaica in the 1930s, of which Koren der Harootian, Burnett Webster, Alvin Marriott and Edna Manley herself were exponents. Art Deco was the first emphatically modern design style to gain popularity in Jamaica and its influence could be seen in many aspects of the visual culture, most notably in the Carib Theatre in Cross Roads, which was designed by the American architect , graphic designer and artist John Pike. By using this original Art Deco display table, Negro Aroused is thus also placed in its aesthetic context, as an early example of Jamaican modernism.
Boxer, David. Edna Manley: Sculptor. Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica and Edna Manley Foundation, 1991
Leyva, Irina. Jamaican Art Deco: The Designs of Burnett Webster. Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 1999.