This post is the NGJ’s tribute to Jamaican master painter and printmaker Albert Huie, who passed away on Sunday. It was written by David Boxer, Chief Curator, and Veerle Poupeye, Executive Director.
Albert Huie was born on December 31, 1920 in Falmouth, Trelawny, and moved to Kingston in 1936. Within months of his arrival in Kingston he completed his first painting The Dancers. This precocious painting by the sixteen year old was to be the “launching pad” of a prodigious career. Huie himself related his “discovery” by H. Delves Molesworth, the then Secretary of the Institute of Jamaica:
In the beginning I bought enamels in small tins from a hardware store and this was the medium I used to paint The Dancers after I had observed the scene in a downtown piano bar. Not long afterwards, I took this painting along with a couple others and my sketches, to the Institute of Jamaica to show them to Delves Molesworth. I was almost thrown out of the Institute. Mr. Molesworth himself interceded, looked at what I had brought to show him and expressed an interest. He invited me to his house and commissioned a portrait to be done of his wife. During this time he began introducing me to his circle of friends, which included the Manleys. His property adjoined Drumblair. My long association with the Manleys began after this.
Albert Huie’s first landscape was painted at Drumblair and is in fact titled Drumblair. A regular visitor to Drumblair in the late thirties, Huie also recalled that his first woodcut was done in Edna Manley’s studio.
Huie received his initial formal training from the Armenian painter Koren der Harootian, who organized art classes at his St Andrew home in the late 1930s, and served as a teaching assistant in Edna Manley’s Junior Center classes, which started in 1940. Manley’s classes, in particular, created a forum for young artists who were committed to expressing the ideals of the nationalist, anti-colonial movement in a representational modernist style. This group included, in addition to Huie, Henry Daley, Ralph Campbell and David Pottinger. Huie subsequently attended the Ontario College of Art in Canada and the Camberwell School of Art in London, for which he received a British Council scholarship. He was one of the founding lecturers in painting when the Jamaica School of Art and Craft — now the School of Visual Arts in the Edna Manley College — opened its doors in 1950. Huie’s significance as an artist was recognized from early on: his work was singled out for special praise along with that of John Dunkley in the first All Island Exhibition (the so-called St George’s Hall Exhibition) included, along with that of John Dunkley, in the twin exhibitions of world art sponsored by IBM at the New York World Fair, and the San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. In 1939 too, he copped a top award at the Institute of Jamaica Art and Craft exhibition and a solo exhibition of his work was staged at the Institute of Jamaica in 1943, where he was the first modern Jamaican artist to be granted such an honour. In opening that exhibition, the Colonial Secretary, Hon. Major W.H. Flinn remarked:
I have a vision of other Huie’s grouping themselves together in a school of Jamaican art. I feel profoundly that in Jamaica there is all the talent and all the needed subject matter for such a school. It may be as Mrs. Chapman [Esther Chapman] has suggested, that technical guidance from outside is necessary, but it is not necessary, indeed it is fatal, if that guidance should so impose itself on local work as to destroy its indigenous feeling and expression.
The National Gallery’s Chief Curator, Dr. David Boxer wrote about Huie’s early paintings and prints: “Albert Huie in these early days turned principally to portraits and to figure compositions which dealt with the everyday life of the average Jamaican. Baptismal scenes, the reaping of crops, market vending, washing by the river, all became subjects for his precocious talent.” His best known early portrait is The Counting Lesson (1938), which was shown at the 1939 New York World Fair. The girl, who appears to be in her early teens, is dressed in a pretty blue polka dot dress and her hair is neatly coifed with a red bow. She is counting on her fingers and looks intently at what is in front of her, perhaps her teacher or a blackboard. Bahamian art historian Krista Thompson has argued that The Counting Lesson represent an important turning point in Jamaican art: “By fitting the girl into the frame of art, Huie provided a rare representational mirror of black Jamaica, allowing black viewers to attribute to themselves the signs of distinction, prestige, and selfhood formerly reserved for the white colonial elite.” The Counting Lesson is now in the Wallace Campbell Collection and on extended loan to the National Gallery, where it is on permanent display.
By the early 1950s, Huie’s trademark style was fully developed. He abandoned the thick, heavily textured painting style that characterized his early works in favor of a more fluid style characterized by the thin application of muted colors, dominated by blues, greens and pale yellows. Crop Time (1955), a panoramic multi-figure depiction of the sugarcane harvest, in front of a large, modern sugar factory, is a relatively small painting but it has an epic, monumental quality that brings to mind Diego Rivera’s multi-figure murals on Mexican history. In Crop Time, David Boxer wrote, “Huie has subjected reality to an abstracting principle which imparts complex cross-rhythms as he compresses into a single composition the myriad activities of growing sugar cane, hoeing, planting, reaping, dressing, sorting, bundling, and carting, all enacted against the almost Cubist backdrop of the sugar factory.” Thanks to the dynamic, almost filmic quality of the painted scene, the sugar industry is not represented as an obsolete, exploitative relic of the plantation past but as a viable modern agro-industry and a pillar of the national hopes for economic and social progress.
Today, Albert Huie is locally and internationally acclaimed as a key figure in Jamaican and African Diaspora art and he is often hailed as the “Father of Jamaican Painting.” His work is well represented in the National Gallery’s collection, which includes masterpieces such as Crop Time, The Vendor (c1939), Noon (1943), and his 1940 Portrait of Edna Manley. A retrospective of his work, Albert Huie in Jamaican Collections, was staged at the National Gallery in 1979. Huie’s work was the subject of a monograph by Edward Lucie-Smith, Albert Huie: Father of Jamaican Painting (2003).
In the latter years of his life Albert Huie lived with his family in Baltimore, Maryland, where he continued painting until 2006. He passed away after a long illness on January 31, 2010. He is survived by his wife Phyllis, his daughters Evelyn, Christine and Alicia and three grandchildren. The Board and Staff of National Gallery of Jamaica extend condolences to his family and friends.