The National Gallery at Forty

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The National Gallery of Jamaica is the oldest and largest public art museum in the English-speaking Caribbean and opened its doors, originally at historic Devon House, on November 14, 1974 and the Gallery will thus be celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. Much has happened since the Gallery first opened and the fortieth anniversary provides us with an opportunity to remember and celebrate; to reflect on what has been achieved, and what is left to be done; and in doing all of this, to plot the most productive future trajectories.

Devon House was a beautiful and popular location but the National Gallery quickly outgrew these premises, because of its expanding collections and exhibition programme. The Gallery thus moved to its present, much larger and modern premises on the Kingston Waterfront in 1982 and while there have been plans for a new National Gallery building, our present location has become our de facto long term home. We are about to start a programme to develop our present building to current museum standards and recently, we have also added an extension in Montego Bay: National Gallery West, which opened on July 11 at the Montego Bay Cultural Centre on Sam Sharpe Square.

The National Gallery’s early exhibitions focused mainly on mapping out the story of Jamaican art, as was done in the first major survey of Jamaican art, Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1976), and the even more influential Jamaican Art 1922-1982 exhibition, a more definitive survey of Jamaican art history which was organized with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and which toured the USA, Canada and Haiti from 1983 to 1985. The process of articulating the stories of Jamaican art continues today, for instance by organizing retrospective exhibitions to honour major artists, such as Barrington Watson in 2012, although the curatorial emphasis has shifted to include exhibitions that provide exposure to young and emerging artists, for instance in the Young Talent exhibition series, the most recent of which was Young Talent V (2010) and last year’s New Roots exhibition. Initially focused on the traditional “fine arts” – painting and sculpture – the Gallery has also widened its interests to include a variety of other media and art forms, including installation art, video, performance, graphic design, popular visual culture, and, most recently, street art in the Anything with Nothing: Art from the Streets of Urban Jamaica exhibition.

This widening scope has also been evident in the development of the National Gallery’s collections, which started with two hundred paintings and thirty sculptures that were transferred from the Institute of Jamaica Collection. Today, the collection comprises just over two thousand works of art in a wide variety of media and genres. Most of it is arguably Jamaican, in the sense that it is made by artists who have been active in Jamaica or who have lived elsewhere but are of immediate Jamaican descent, and a significant part of it addresses themes that are directly relevant to Jamaican history and culture. Over the years, the National Gallery has depended heavily on donations to develop its collections and these have come from artists, collectors and corporations. Some of the most significant donations have been: the A.D. Scott Collection, the Edna Manley Memorial Collection (to which several individual and corporate donors contributed), the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection, and, most recently, the Guy McIntosh Donation.

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Jamaica’s Art Pioneers: Milton Harley and the Right to Abstraction

Milton Harley - Mayan 1, (c1976), Collection: NGJ

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 – 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”.

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