The heart has been ripped out of Jamaican nationalist culture, but the soul remains. His is an incredible legacy of providing us practitioners with a range of strategies for self-definition in both the personal sense and in the national sense.
– David Boxer
The Board and Staff of the National Gallery of Jamaica are deeply saddened by the passing of that giant among Jamaica’s creative artists and men of letters, Rex Nettleford. His prodigious writings and achievements as a scholar and educator and his role in fashioning this nation’s premier performing ensemble, the National Dance Theatre Company will be much remarked on in the weeks to come; and any quick perusal of his biography on the internet will yield up the awesomely impressive statistics of this much honoured son of Jamaica who carried this country’s name high wherever discussion and debate about the renaissance of a true and honourable Black identity took place. We will not recount these facts and statistics here; we would like instead to simply record our own deep gratitude for Rex Nettleford’s continued interaction with this institution from the early days of our gestation when he worked with Edna Manley and Michael Manley, Maurice Facey and Jean Smith and dozens others to establish this Institution.
It was Rex Nettleford, then the Chairman of the Institute of Jamaica, who interviewed the young artist/scholar David Boxer for the job of the Gallery’s first Director and Curator. And it was Rex Nettleford who in an impassioned speech convinced the young David Boxer to return to the country of his birth, to team up with a committed Jamaican, Vera Hyatt, and help to define Jamaican art in Jamaican terms.
In those heady days of the National Gallery’s beginnings Nettleford became a true sounding board on which the young Curator could test his ideas. He fully supported the National Gallery’s wish to take over the myriad art exhibitions offered by the Institute of Jamaica and meld them into a single monumental and more “democratic” Annual National Exhibition. And he was more than supportive: he was very much a collaborator in the processes that led in the late 1970s to the definition and canonization of that indigenous movement of artists hitherto partly hidden and grossly undervalued that clearly existed alongside the so-called mainstream. This “other” stream of artists now known as the Jamaican Intuitives, took their name from the landmark exhibition The Intuitive Eye (1979) that Boxer conceived and presented with Nettleford’s blessing and heavy commitment in the form of a published opening speech that remains one of the primary texts in defining the Intuitive genre. We quote from that brilliant essay:
[T]hese Intuitive painters and carvers must be closely observed and keenly studied as guides to that aesthetic certitude which must be rooted in our own creative potential if the world is to take us seriously as creators rather than as imitators. Those intuitive artists have indeed found what to paint with and what to paint on, what to carve with and what to carve on, despite the economic marginality most of them have suffered in a society that has not functioned largely in their interest. But instead of taking refuge in flight they have pursued their art with vigour and as a form of action against both material poverty and threats to spiritual survival, by drawing on their own resources which include the diverse dimensions of everyday living, the deep and poignant inspiration of the Jamaican experience, the mythology and lore of transplanted and creolized people and the dynamic recall of suppressed cultural memories.
This last fact of our Jamaican existence renders these artists as highly sophisticated guardians of aspects of our heritage which is here celebrated in paint, in wood, and in alabaster – with an elegance which is sometimes savage, sometimes serene, often with a hieratic quality that asserts the dignity of self and the elevation of the human spirit, and always with the ancestral rhythms which are bold and emphatic even at their subtlest.
As a creative artist, he established close associations with several of our sculptors and painters many of whom provided sets and costume designs for his choreography or inspiration for specific dances, among them Edna Manley, Howard Parchment, Eugene Hyde, Colin Garland, Osmond Watson, David Boxer, Susan Alexander, Kay Sullivan; and the products of the company that he fashioned, in turn provided visual stimulus for many of these same artists and many, many others. From 1964 right up until his death he forged too an incredible partnership with the great photographer Maria LaYacona, enabling her to produce a remarkable dance-photography oeuvre and three publications. LaYacona’s forty year photographic essay of the National Dance Theatre Company in performance stands today as one of the true glories of Jamaican photography.
In 1982, Rex Nettleford proposed a collaborative effort with the National Gallery to mark the National Dance Theatre’s twentieth anniversary. The end result staged in the early months of 1983, was the Gallery’s first multi-media exhibition Art and Dance. Curated by the then Assistant Curator, Rosalie Smith-McCrea, it utilized film and video and a host of art works, including sets, set designs, costumes, paintings, sculptures and of course photographs and sought to present in Smith McCrea’s words “the effervescent interplay between the various disciplines of the plastic arts and the dance, as both areas have traditionally and universally fed upon each other.”
There were many other National Gallery projects with which Nettleford was associated. He was entirely supportive of the establishment of the Edna Manley Foundation and was a constant advisor on the staging of the Manley retrospective in 1990, allowing his brilliant tribute to Edna Manley on the occasion of her funeral in 1987 to be published in the Monograph on her work, Edna Manley Sculptor, which was published on the occasion of the retrospective. He was also the guest speaker at the celebration of the opening of the Edna Manley Galleries on the occasion of the centenary of her birth in 2000.
Most recently he took on the case of Isaac Mendes Belisario, the first known Jamaican-born painter who was the subject of an extensive exhibition at Yale University Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and his World and the amended version of the exhibition that was subsequently shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica, in 2007 and 2008, respectively. He was the principal speaker both in New Haven and in Kingston. He was also the principal speaker when a second study of Belisario, the Jackie Ranston and Valerie Facey monograph, Belisario – Sketches of Character, A historical biography of a Jamaican artist (2008) was launched at the National Gallery.
Rex Nettleford visited the gallery often and viewed most of our essential exhibitions over the past thirty-five years. After viewing the third edition of the Intuitive Eye in 2006, titled Intuitives III, he was moved to pen the following lines of encouragement to the Curator:
So many who attended the opening of Intuitives III insisted that I view the exhibition without delay that I had to rush to the Gallery yesterday to see it. It is magnificent. Curatorially brilliant, it serves to confirm that despite the despair that assaults the collective consciousness in this noisy isle of ours, there is quiet, effective outpouring of joy, serious reflection on life, faith in self and much that surrounds us, among individuals of real talent and with a sense of personal certitude.
What more should a society ask of itself? Much more no doubt but I was again moved by your spin on those Intuitives who exhibited back in 1979 revealing, as you wrote, “a capacity for reaching into the subconscious to rekindle century old traditions, and to pluck out images as elemental and vital as those of their African fathers.”
This is to say thanks for helping to keep hope alive.
A letter like this from Rex Nettleford was his way of helping us at the National Gallery to “keep hope alive” and we thank and honour him not only for that but for his entire thirty-five years of leadership, guidance and constant encouragement.
This tribute was produced by the NGJ’s Curatorial Department.