This is the first of two posts on Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds. In this segment, we focus on Kapo’s work in the collections of the NGJ. The second post will focus on his biography.
In 1974, when the National Gallery of Jamaica was established and the collections of modern Jamaican art transferred from the Institute of Jamaica, Kapo in terms of numbers was one of the better represented artists. There were five sculptures and seven paintings but the quality was uneven and there had been little attempt at exploring the wide range of Kapo’s iconography, his subject matter. While the fledgling National Gallery went on to acquire two further paintings directly from the artist – the large Orange Paradise and the superb Silent Night, Kapo’s unique treatment of the traditional Christmas nativity scene – it was clear that the very best Kapos of the previous decades resided in private collections. In Jamaica none could rival the collection deposited in the rooms and public spaces of the Stony Hill Hotel, domain of the inveterate Kapo collector, Larry Wirth.
In a 1976 published essay that assessed the National Gallery’s Collection as it stood then, Dr. David Boxer, the newly appointed Director/Curator, described the Kapo holdings in sculpture thus:
Kapo is represented by five lively works but none are of the order of his Angel or the Three Sisters in that very special collection of his work at the Stony Hill Hotel.
An indication of the importance of the Wirth Collection and Boxer’s admiration for the sculptures in particular can be gleaned from the catalogues of two important exhibitions where Kapo was a major contributor: the Commonwealth Institute’s Ten Jamaican Sculptors of 1975, which was curated by Boxer, and the first exhibition of Jamaican Intuitive art, the National Gallery’s own The Intuitive Eye exhibition of 1979. In the Commonwealth Institute showing, four of the six Kapo sculptures were borrowed from the Wirth Collection, while for the The Intuitive Eye no less than twelve of the fourteen Kapo sculptures came from the Wirth collection.
The importance that David Boxer attached to the Wirth collection became further evident when Larry Wirth died and rumours surfaced that the collection would probably be acquired by one of Kapo’s American supporters, the singer Roberta Flack. Boxer started a campaign to acquire the collection for the National Gallery and thus to preserve it for the Jamaican public. He knew that he had to act quickly as the very work that he considered the finest in the entire collection, the so-called Angel (titled Winged Moonman by Kapo himself) had already been taken to New York by Roberta Flack.
Dr. Boxer began negotiations with Larry Wirth’s widow, Yvonne, who finally settled on a purchase price of US$450,000. Efforts were made to obtain private sector support and it became clear that it would not be possible to obtain sponsorship for the purchase of more than one or two pieces. Boxer was adamant that the collection should remain intact and decided to go directly to the then Prime Minister, the Hon. Edward Seaga, who was a pioneering supporter of Kapo’s work and a scholar on Revival religions in Jamaica. Mr. Seaga fully supported the effort and approved the Government of Jamaica purchase of the works for the National Gallery.
There was one last hitch that had to be sorted out: Boxer insisted that the Angel had to be included. Mrs. Wirth was given the un-enviable task of retrieving it from Roberta Flack who in the end recognized the importance of keeping the collection together in Jamaica. She returned the work.
The major works of the Larry Wirth Collection have been on view in their own designated gallery within the National Gallery for the past twenty-five years only rarely being disturbed when the gallery was needed for other exhibition projects.
Since the acquisition of the Larry Wirth Collection, six further works have been added to the National Gallery’s Kapo holdings. Four works including the quite unique pair of sculptures The Cripples, and the fine painting Mango Walk entered the collection with the Matalon donation while the Gallery purchased the exquisite Peaceful Quietness from another prominent Kapo collector, Deryck Roberts, shortly before his death in 2003.
The National Gallery is currently in negotiation with the heirs of another major collector of Kapo’s work, to finalize the gift of twenty-five major paintings from that collection. After being shown en bloc as an exhibition in September 2010, the major works will be integrated into a new permanent Kapo Gallery which will provide a comprehensive overview of Kapo’s work, life and cultural significance. It is anticipated that this new gallery will be readied in time for the Kapo Centenary on February 11, 2011.