Carl Abrahams – Thirteen Israelites (1975), A.D. Scott Collection, NGJ
Carl Myrie Abrahams was born in St Andrew, Jamaica, in 1911. He was educated at Calabar High School where he received basic art training and, encouraged by his headmaster Reverend Ernest Price, began to study the work of old masters such as Frans Hals and Sir Frederick Leighton.
On leaving school in 1928, Abrahams started his career as a cartoonist, under the tutelage of Cliff Tyrell, one of the pioneering cartoonists in Jamaica. Abrahams soon contributed regularly to local publications such as the Gleaner, the West Indian Review and WISCO magazine. The English painter August John, who visited Jamaica in 1937, encouraged him to take up painting. After three years of service in the Royal Air Force during World War II, Abrahams returned to Jamaica and started painting professionally while also continuing as a cartoonist and illustrator.
Carl Abrahams – Birthday Drive (1972), Collection: NGJ
Like John Dunkley, the Jamaican artist whom he most admired and who was an influence, Abrahams was an an individualist who opted not to participate in the art classes that were offered at Institute of Jamaica and, subsequently, the Jamaica School of Art and Craft and kept himself at a remove from the formal and informal artists’ groups that emerged in mid 20th century Jamaica. He essentially taught himself to paint, with the assistance of correspondence courses from England, and charted his own artistic course. It took a while before he found his painterly voice but when he did, he quickly emerged as one of Jamaica’s most original artists who produced ironic transformations of the great mythological and religious themes of the past, surreal commentaries on historical and contemporary events, and bizarre personal fantasies, in varying cartoonesque styles that defy art-historical classification and eccentrically challenge conventional rules of composition and representation.
Earlier this year the National Gallery launched a new exhibition series, Explorations, with the Natural Histories exhibition. The series explores major themes in Jamaican art, and in the National Gallery collection, and aims to allow our curators and our visitors to engage in new and more thoughtful ways with the artistic and cultural history of Jamaica. The series also serves as a platform for our curators to rethink how we exhibit our permanent collections, as we will soon be reinstalling our permanent modern Jamaican art exhibition and intend to do so along thematic lines. We are now presenting the second in the series, Explorations II: Religion and Spirituality, which will open on December 22, and several other editions are in planning for future showings.
Explorations II: Religion and Spirituality examines the themes of religion and spirituality in Jamaican art and will consist entirely of works from our collection. That we can mount such an exhibition without resorting to loans is in itself testimony to the pervasive role of religion and spirituality in almost all aspects of Jamaican history and life and, consequently, in Jamaican art. While predominantly Christian, Jamaica is also the birthplace of Rastafari and earlier African-derived forms – Revival and Kumina being two of the most well-known. Other world religions are also represented in Jamaica, namely Judaism, Hinduism and the Islam, albeit in small but at times influential minorities, who further add to the complex landscape of beliefs and religious practices found in the island. In these various incarnations, religious and spiritual practices and beliefs have played multiple social and cultural roles, as instruments of control and oppression in some instances and as tools for liberation and self-assertion in many others. Visual artistic forms have been an integral component of almost all religious practices on the island and many artists have been drawn to the subjects of religion and spirituality in their search for iconic Jamaica subject matter or, sometimes, as a target for critical or satirical commentary.
Milton Harley – Mayan 1, (c1976), Collection: NGJ
In March 1963, almost a year after Jamaican Independence, the late Rex Nettleford gave the main address at an art exhibition held at the now defunct Hills Gallery in Kingston. This public exhibition was considered to be the first of its kind in Jamaica to feature paintings and drawings that were solely abstract in nature. The works were created by a young Jamaican artist named Milton Harley and it was his first solo exhibition in the island, since graduating from the Pratt Institute in New York the previous year. In response to an expressed concern that the work of Jamaican artists must be relevant to the redefinition of Jamaican cultural identity at that time,, Nettleford was quoted as saying that, “The most we can demand of him is that he works to the pulse of Jamaica and that he allows Jamaican life to act as a catalyst for thought and expression in the arts.” Heavily influenced by the later exploits of the Abstract Expressionist movement, as an art student in New York during the 1960s, Harley remembers: “When I returned to Jamaica from New York I brought back all these ideas of painting from the New York School in particular, where I saw shows of the giants like Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.”
Milton Harley – Nocture (1962), Collection: NGJ
Milton Harley was born in Kingston 1935, and at a young age migrated with his family to the USA. One of the earliest pioneers of modern abstraction in Jamaican art, Harley’s visual rhetoric seemed to contrast with the cultural aspirations of other prominent Jamaican artists, social theorists and the general populace of the early Independence period. His aesthetic approach introduced the act of painting as directly engaged with its own material and elemental possibilities, without the illusion of objective imagery. As an abstractionist, he identifies and utilizes the elemental essences of the ‘real’ (such as form, texture, colour, etc.) to create an alternative but equally fascinating visual perspective to subject matter. In fact, according to the artist, though his work is abstract, the subject matters he deals with are all based on observations of actual people, places and environments. This may have been the case for one of his earliest paintings Nocturne (1962) which is an abstraction of “three women carrying containers of water on their heads as they are crossing a river at moonlight”.
The National Gallery of Jamaica is staging another educational event associated with its New Roots: 10 Emerging Artists exhibition, namely a tour of the exhibition with five of the participating artists, namely Deborah Anzinger, Varun Baker, Camille Chedda, Nile Saulter and Ikem Smith, who will each talk about their work. This event is scheduled for Thursday, October 31, starting at 2:30 pm.
New Roots features work in a variety of new and conventional media by 10 artists under 40 years old, Deborah Anzinger, Varun Baker, Camille Chedda, Gisele Gardner, Matthew McCarthy, Olivia McGilchrist, Astro Saulter, Nile Saulter, Ikem Smith, and The Girl and the Magpie. The exhibition samples some of the most dynamic and innovative directions in the Jamaican art world, by artists who are questioning conventional understandings of art and the artist while presenting a socially engaged perspective on contemporary Jamaican society.
Thursday’s artists’ tour of New Roots is free and open to the public. The New Roots: 10 Emerging Artists is closing on November 2, so this event also represents one of the last opportunities to view the exhibition. For more information, see: http://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com/tag/new-roots/
Matthew McCarty – I Took the Liberty of Designing One (2013)
We are pleased to present the opening remarks delivered by Petrona at the opening of New Roots: 10 Emerging Artists on July 28, 2013.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to share some observations on what is an exciting and challenging exhibition. This exhibition is significant in a number of ways. The National Gallery has had a long history of providing opportunities for artists to show work which challenge prevailing ideas and reflect new thinking, as seen in the Young Talent exhibitions. This exhibition, however, is groundbreaking in that it presents bodies of work which do not have the curatorial framing based on chronology, and presents the body of work on its own terms. This is the realisation of the concept of the “project space” which allows artists to present proposals for recent work, and allows us to focus on their ideas in a given space.
Varun Baker – Journey (2012), digital photograph
The exhibition reveals some interesting developments taking place in contemporary Jamaican Art. Taken as a whole, there is a prevailing denial of traditional notions of the “art object”. The space in which we are now located cannot be bought, collected or sold. The site-specific work of Matthew McCarthy and the New Jamaica collective is defiant in its emphasis on collective engagement, and forces the audience to re-evaluate their ideas about “art” in the museum space. What we see in this exhibition are investigations with a diverse range of media which challenge the hierarchies of the singular precious “object”, and do not privilege one form or media over another. The site-specific installations, video installation, photo-based work and animation sit beside painting and collage, each presented on its own terms. Continue reading
Peter Johnson – Want Freedom (2012), alabaster
The NGJ regrets the passing of the sculptor Peter Ralph Johnson. He was born on April 4, 1960 and most recently lived at 17 James Street, in downtown Kingston, where he operated his sculpture workshop.
Johnson was essentially self-taught as an artist, although he attended some leisure classes at the Edna Manley College. He also worked in the studio of artists such as Fitz Harrack and Judith Salmon. He collaborated with the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission for many years, mounting exhibitions and doing set, costume design and restoring antiques. He also worked with Mutual Gallery, Gallery Pegasus and Grosvenor, mainly assisting with the mounting of exhibitions. He was a regular participant in the National Visual Arts Competition and Exhibition and was awarded bronze medals in 1982 1993 and 1996 and he had also exhibited at the NGJ in 2012 National Biennial. Johnson exhibited at various other galleries, including the Grosvenor Gallery and Gallery Pegasus. Most recently he was collaborating with the children’s workshops organized by OAaSIS International in downtown Kingston. Continue reading