Jamaica’s Art Pioneers: Roy Reid (1937-2009)

Roy Reid - A Pig is a pig (1986), Collection: Herman van Asbroeck

Royland Reid was born in Portland, December 12, 1937, one of five children. His father was a cultivator and at the age of twelve, having dropped out of school, young Roy began his work in the field as well – a task that he said he didn’t enjoy much. Leaving school at such an early age was detrimental as he remained illiterate during his teens and well into adulthood. It can be assumed that Reid may have inherited his artistic and creative flair from his father, who he described as something of an artist himself; a musician who played the guitar, bass and other stringed instruments, as well as building the instruments himself. Roy Reid was also interested in music and much later on in life would experiment with building speakers, substituting the customary wooden box with an oil drum to “…give one a better sound”. He eventually left home in 1960 to settle in Spanish Town, making a living from doing odd jobs.

Reid described the sixties as his most important and exciting time as it was then that he started to seriously pursue artistic endeavours. “In this time, I taught myself to print using, initially, household enamel and brushes made from goat’s hair.” In 1968 he was employed to the Ministry of Works and Communication. In that same year, he decided to begin publicly promoting his artwork. First, he approached the Director of the Hills Galleries and later Miss M. McGowan of the Junior Centre at the Institute of Jamaica. In 1971, he made his first entry into a public exhibition at the Institute and became a regular entrant for the Institute’s Self-Taught and Annual National Exhibitions up until 1978. He was awarded for his 1972 entry, Happy Reunion Jason Whyte. During this time, he also conquered his illiteracy, teaching himself to read using the Bible. His work was promoted in the United States and he also exhibited in Cuba for the exhibition entitled Jamaican Primitives in 1976. His career as an exhibiting artist quickly and steadily developed and towards the eighties Reid began exhibiting in the UK. Reid was selected as a participating artist in the NGJ’s inaugural Intuitive Eye exhibition of 1979 as well as its two editions since then, Fifteen Intuitives in 1987 and Intuitives III in 2006. In 1987, he was awarded the Institute of Jamaica’s Bronze Musgrave Medal.  In 1999, Roy Reid was inducted into the Caribbean Hall of Fame in the category of the Visual Arts along with Collin Garland, Osmond Watson, Susan Alexander and Carl Abrahams. His work is represented in private collections and the NGJ Collection. Roy Reid, who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and diabetes for some time, succumbed to illness on the morning of January 10, 2009 at his home in the Olympic Gardens area.

Roy Reid - Deadly Serious

Roy Reid - Deadly Serious (c1971)

One of his earliest paintings, Deadly Serious (c1971), displays a level of geometric abstraction rarely observed in his later pieces. The appearance of the faces in the painting brings to mind the geometric facial characteristics of certain West African tribal masks; evidence of a primordial connection to retentive African aesthetic common to most, if not all, Jamaican intuitives. Long-time associate, Mr Eric Whittingham encouraged Reid to focus on representing social scenes, “…pictures of everyday life in the raw.” He set about pursuing his own style of journalistic painting, earning him the title of the ‘grassroots philosopher’. Some of his compositions included the use of text to question issues or to literarily express his own perspectives on a subject. Gun Court, done in 1976, speaks of the South Camp Adult Correctional Centre also known as the Gun Court established in 1975 as crime and violence peaked in the 70’s. In it there is a depiction of a beast or monster representing a malevolent spirit let loose among the populace and in the vicinity of the Gun Court. Reid writes a comment at the top of the composition, “We want a Gun Court or somewhere special for a gunman was the cry [in] 1973 – 74 – but what happen until later?” Written on the tongue of the beast is seemingly a response: “I am the Great Destroyer and I am come to move this Gun Court.” Other similar works include Eventide Home Unforgettable Fire (1981) and A Dim View of Life (1995 – 1996).

Roy Reid - Gun Court (1976)

Reid’s use of colour strong, sometimes contrasting, colour in his works, often depicted as flat solid hues. For Reid, each colour was symbolic: red for action and love, blue for peace and tranquillity, yellow for hope and warmth, green for fertility and vegetation and white for purity. In addition, Reid often represented the intangible by using animal imagery as symbolic iconography. Indeed, one can appreciate his colour symbolism at work in thematic works of politics, social welfare, religion and spirituality. Black, for instance, often racially identified the human characters he painted. Dually, the colour, along with certain animal imagery, was at times used to represent spiritual conditions or destructive forces in examples such as The Mystical Order, Undercover (1984-1986) and A Pig is a Pig (1987) respectively. Curiously, the Devil’s Disciples (c.1975) does not display dark use of colour. The colourful palette seems to communicate the superficial lure of evil or false doctrine as it influences the naïve. One notes, however, the skulking grey dog-like creature in the bottom left-hand corner of the composition.

Roy Reid - The Mystical Order Under Cover (1984-86)

In an interview with the Gleaner newspaper in 2001, Reid states, “We cannot just give way to the downside of life…And we need to persevere and be thankful amidst the stress and troubles.” In the same interview, Reid expressed a desire to see artists produce works unshackled by the demands of commercialism, “…artists continue as victims in the survival game”. Despite his challenges, he remained grateful for the support that he got, feeling it inspired him to do more.

Roy Reid - Devil's Disciples (c1975)

This post was written by Monique Barnett, Curatorial Assistant at the NGJ

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One thought on “Jamaica’s Art Pioneers: Roy Reid (1937-2009)

  1. wow….great artist indeed. Great use of colors and lively portrayal. I am not too interested in abstract art so works that tell an easy to read story are my favourites.

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