Our current Natural Histories exhibition includes John Dunkley’s “Back to Nature” (c1939) and this prompted the following reflection on Dunkley and his work.
John Dunkley – Back to Nature (1939), mixed media on board, Collection: NGJ
John Dunkley’s life was typical of that of many Jamaicans of his generation. He was born in Savanna-la-Mar on December 10, 1891 and died in Kingston on February 17, 1947. As a young man, Dunkley travelled to Panama, Costa Rica and Cuba and also worked as a sailor, before returning to Jamaica in 1926 where he settled in Kingston and established a barber shop. His early biography is sketchy but it is well possible that Dunkley worked on the Panama Canal or with the United Fruit Company – a personal connection to the banana industry is suggested by his best known painting, Banana Plantation (c1945). According to his widow Cassie, Dunkley started painting while he was outside of Jamaica and was introduced to art by a well-known Panama-based photographer, Clarence Rock, but we have to date not been able to identify this photographer. (Dunkley 1948)
The book A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica with the Natural History of the Herbs, and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles &c. of the Last of Those Islands (Volume I: 1707, volume II: 1725) provides a remarkable account of the travels and observations made by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) while he was in Jamaica for fifteen months between 1687 and 1689. Sloane was the founder of the British Museum, which is the model on which our own Institute of Jamaica is based. Sloane’s life and work provide a rich opportunity to see the overlaps between the slave trade, emergent plantation systems and new scientific knowledge. The son of a colonial official, Sloane was born and raised in Ireland, and trained in London and France as a physician and botanist. He eventually established himself as a leading member of British society and academy. In 1719, he became President of the Royal College of Physicians; in 1727, succeeding Isaac Newton, he was elected President of the Royal Society. He also became the preeminent collector of his time, amassing many thousands of books, manuscripts, specimens and objects, gathered by numerous hands from around the world.
Everald Brown – Cotton Duppy Tree (1994), mixed media on board, Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection, NGJ
The work of self-taught painter and sculptor Everald Brown is best understood in the context of religious Rastafari and African-Jamaican spirituality. Like many other religious Rastafarians, Brother Brown was attracted to the teachings and ritual practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and in the early 1960s established the Assembly of the Living, a self-styled mission of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which was located at 82 ½ Spanish Town Road. The beliefs, ritual practices and symbols of Brother Brown and his church community were however far from “orthodox’” and freely combined elements of religious Rastafari, Freemasonry, Kumina, Revival, and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.
Shoshanna Weinberger – Collection of Strangefruit, gouache & mixed media on paper, 18 panels, ea. 51 x 42 cm
Shoshanna Weinberger’s work takes beauty and sex appeal and turns them on their head. Her swollen, awkward humanoid creatures have all the trappings of beauty- gold chains, stilletos, and curves aplenty- but for all their glamour and glitter they are decidedly ugly, a potent and pungent distillation of stereotypes and female and racial objectification. Her use of grids, and titles like A Collection of Strange Fruit illustrate her interest in scientific discourse, and her own mixed race background fuels a fascination with hybridity.
Hope Brooks’ Slavery Trilogy is a combination of three series: (from left to right) Kings and Princes, Backra Pickney and Trilogy. The work explores the history and development of racial identities, imposed and self-chosen, in the context of the African Diaspora. Originally the artist presented the work with extended text labels that provided extensive reference material about the slave trade and the experience of the enslaved as well as the verbal vocabulary that evolved from this context. Of particular interest is a list of ethnic slurs taken from Wikipedia, one for each letter of the alphabet.
The grid installation and repetition of the work with its subtle variations in facial expression and colour spectrum also recall the Casta paintings of colonial Latin America. Casta is the origin of the English word “caste”, the paintings were common in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in Mexico, where they were used to depict and classify the various racial categories and mixtures. Casta paintings were not merely artistic exploration, they shaped people’s social experience significantly. The racial groupings they depicted had an accompanying set of privileges and restrictions, both legal and customary.
Anonymous – Las castas (18th century), oil on canvas, 148×104 cm, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.
Esther Chin is a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts, Edna Manley College. Her work “Yisitie” was part of her final year show and was subsequently shown in the 2012 National Biennial. It is one of the works that inspired the Natural Histories exhibition, in which it was reinstalled in a new, more fluid configuration.
Esther Chin’s Yisitie though apparently simple, has a number of possible readings. In her artist statement, she describes her use of petals in the work as “part of a post modern language which helps to develop different visual claims.” Such claims may reference the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1960’s which sought to challenge Western art history’s masculinist and culturally prejudiced distinction between craft and fine art (among other things).
The work also seems to be an exploration of the artist’s Chinese-Jamaican heritage. This is most strongly indexed in the work’s title which is the Pinyin translation of her name, Esther. The fact that the petals are from the bougainvillea flower is also significant. The plant is endemic to Jamaica and known for its beauty and hardiness, particularly in times of drought. It is also significant in China where it is the official flower of a number of cities in the Guangdong Province (the part of China where many Chinese Jamaican families originate).