Jamaican Taíno Art at the NGJ

Zemi carving on staff (Yucahu?), Jamaican Taino culture, Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

This week, we celebrate the earliest beginnings of art in Jamaica, the art of the Jamaican Taíno, and the earliest works in the NGJ’s permanent collection, four very rare Taíno woodcarvings. The introductory text below was prepared by the NGJ’s Education Department.

They are a people so full of love and without greed… that I believe there is no better race or better land … they love their neighbours as themselves…

— Christopher  Columbus.

The Jamaican Taíno shared much of the culture of the so called Classic Taíno of Hispaniola, having originated from the same roots in South America.

It is believed that at the time of Columbus arrival here there were dozens of large Taíno settlements, some with hundreds of multifamily huts. Estimates of their number range from sixty thousand to six hundred thousand. Each village was controlled by a Cacique. It appears that there was a principal Cacique or “Cacique of the Caciques” for the entire island.

The Taíno were an agricultural people. They also hunted iguanas and coneys, fished and reaped shell food. But central to their way of life was the growing of cassava, their staple food. Highly important were the rituals associated with the growing and preparing of cassava (yucca), which involved the expelling of poisonous juices. In fact, the name Yucahu, given to their supreme Deity, translates as “spirit of cassava.”  In general they worshiped a wide range of sub-deities in the form of idols or zemis, who controlled all aspects of their lives and supervised the land of the dead, but they were in effect monotheistic as they believed in a single Supreme Deity, Yucahu.

The Taíno did not wear clothes in the conventional sense but decorated their bodies in fantastic ways with small patches of cotton cloth which they wove, palm fronds and capes of highly coloured feathers and ornaments of shell and gold. They sang and danced. They had musical instruments fashioned from wood and seashells and they played a ball game similar to that played in Hispaniola. No ball courts however have been found in Jamaica, but the British Museum possesses a stone “collar” associated with the ball game which was found in Jamaica.

Carving of Bird (Pelican?), with Cohoba platform, Jamaican Taino Culture, Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

By 1655 when the British forces landed in Jamaica, the Jamaican Taíno had all but vanished through their indiscriminate slaughter by the Spanish colonizers and their enforced exportation to other colonies. Their susceptibility to European diseases and their constant resorting to suicide (usually by drinking the poisonous juices of the cassava) only hastened their extinction.

Of the material culture of the Taíno, the carvings mostly in wood, but some in stone, associated with religious practice and the authority of the Cacique and his priests are of special importance. Most are carved with deities called zemis. While the best known examples, which reside in the British Museum, were discovered in the eighteenth century, the four important examples now in the NGJ’s collection are all recent discoveries, made in the 1990s.

The NGJ’s Dujo, a ritual stool approximating the form of a Taíno hammock which was usually used by Caciques, may in fact be the oldest known anthropomorphic dujo of all the Taíno and has been carbon-dated to AD 1000-1170. The dujo is surmounted by a zemi head which originally had inlays for the eyes, ears and mouth (only one of the ear inlays survives) and terminates in the humanized feet. The body is schematically represented by etched arms in the body of the seat. The dujo was found in a cave in St. Catherine.

Dujo (Ceremonial stool), Jamaican Taino Culture, Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

The three other sculptures were all found in the same highly inaccessible cave near Aboukir in St. Ann. They appear to constitute an ensemble associated with worship and the ritual use of the hallucinogenic cohoba . The small spoon for placing the drug on the cohoba platform that surmounts the carved pelican, is fashioned with the face of Maquetaurie Guayaba, the Lord of the Land of the Dead.

The large staff may be the actual symbol of authority of the principal Cacique of the Jamaican Taíno and probably represents Yucahu Bagua Maorocoti , the supreme deity. The three names translates literally as “giver of Yucca (cassava)”, thus indicating the central role of the staple in Taíno cultural customs and beliefs, “master of the sea”, and “conceived without male intervention”. It is known that in worshiping Yucahu, the zemi was always presented with freshly prepared cassava bread.

All three of the so-called Aboukir Zemis have been carbon-dated and predate the arrival of Columbus on the island by at least a century.

Ritual Spoon, Jamaican Taino culture, Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

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8 thoughts on “Jamaican Taíno Art at the NGJ

  1. Pingback: Currently on View « National Gallery of Jamaica Blog

    • As indicated, the article was produced by our Education Department and the same text also appears on the text panels in our permanent gallery.

  2. Pingback: Religion and Spirituality: Elsewhere in the National Gallery | National Gallery of Jamaica Blog

  3. “The Lost Kingdoms of Central America” series by Dr Jago Cooper on the BBC is highly recommended in giving insight into the Taino ancestry in the Caribbean with most references to the surviving Taino communities in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Hardly any ref to Jamaican Tainos which needs following up, especially regarding the “Aboukir Zemis”. Colin Jackson’s DNA test in “Who do you think you are”, (BBC) shows a 7 per-cent Native American ancestry (also 55 p/c African, 38 p/c European). This means that more research should be done in Jamaica.

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