This post is our tribute to Jamaican painter and sculptor Osmond Watson, who passed away in 2005, at age 71. This post is adapted from a paper by O’Neil Lawrence, Curatorial Assistant, and an obituary for Osmond Watson written by Veerle Poupeye, Executive Director.
As an Afro-Caribbean man who resides in the Caribbean and is faced with Caribbean problems, my philosophy on art is simple. My aim is to glorify Black people through my work with the hope that it will uplift the masses of the region, giving dignity and self-respect where it is needed and to make people more aware of their own beauty.
– Osmond Watson, 1995
It is one of the most frequently quoted statements by the artist Osmond Watson; most likely because it is one that resonates as strongly now as it did in 1995. The identity of the Afro-Caribbean man/woman is one that is in a permanent state of flux but few of us even properly understand or acknowledge the unique position that Caribbean people hold within the African Diaspora. Jamaica is populated by a people whose ancestors struggled to maintain their cultural history and who are now willingly letting that history be subsumed by North American influences.
Who was this man Osmond Watson who seems even after his recent passing to act as a cultural beacon to a generation – of not only artists – in need of guidance? He was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1934 grew up in Jones Town in a period when the Marcus Garvey Pan-African Movement’s impact was still being felt (especially considering the fact that his mother was from Sierra Leone) and had, by the tender age of nine, proven that he had significant potential as a painter. His talent was nurtured at the Institute of Jamaica’s Junior Centre and in 1952 he received a scholarship to attend the Jamaica School of Art and Craft (J.S.A.C., later the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts). He apprenticed with Jamaican master painter Ralph Campbell and later shared a studio with another well known Jamaican painter Alexander Cooper.
In 1961 Osmond Watson went to England to study at the St. Martins School of Art and it was there in his own words that he discovered “himself.” The experience of London changed him in a fundamental way: exposure to British racism and what he termed as the [naked] capitalist exploitation changed him significantly but rather than sink into despair he decided to face the “enemy” squarely and taking inspiration in his state of despair from the Rastafarians in Jamaica and making the British Museums’ African displays, his refuge against the forces that were buffeting at him and threatening to shipwreck his development.
He turned the forces that challenged his sense of identity as an Afro-Caribbean Jamaican man and channeled them into creating his own identity: especially as it related to his artistic expression. He told Alex Gradussov in a 1969 interview forJamaica Journal that he felt sorry for “his pals back home, happy, smiling, working away like mad at European art […] Think of the many Jamaican artists whose work you can’t differentiate from those of European painters.”
But this was not to be a wholesale rejection of the conventions of European art by Osmond Watson but rather a redevelopment if you will a creolization of those conventions infusing them with the trends from African arts – claiming or reclaiming the Cubist-like style that he became known for as a true inheritor of the style. His other sources included Byzantine icons, stained glass windows and early Flemish painting. Jazz music and the Afro-Cuban artist Wifredo Lam were also important influences.
Osmond Watson returned to Jamaica and set about developing his style (a process he continued up to his death) his subject matter and inspiration the Jamaican people for he felt it was his duty to represent the unique life of the people of Jamaica, the poor and the suffering: the class that he maintained as his own; the people whose business was that of survival. His most important source was indeed Jamaican popular culture; the aesthetic of his work enabled him to combine painting and woodcarving with found objects, such as plastic mirrors and costume jewellery, thus lending dignity to these tokens of local pop culture.
Osmond Watson’s distinctly black Jamaican imagery resonated deeply with Jamaican audiences, especially the upcoming, black middle-class, whose cultural values and racial politics it embodied. The popularity of his black religious images, market vendors, Jonkonnu dancers and Rastafarian drummers should not allow us to overlook, however, that many of his images originated in radical political gestures. For example, Peace and Love (1969) depicts Christ as a Rastafarian, a provocative merging of identities produced at a time when Rastafarianism was still marginalized in Jamaican society. The painting is also a self-portrait, which places Watson at the center of the Black Nationalist politics he embraced. It points to the personal side of his work, which included more realistic self-portraits and intimate portrayals of women, couples and children that often allude to his relationship with Daphne, his wife of 49 years.
Watson’s style is characterized by geometrically stylized forms, luminous colours and heavy outlines, which give many of his paintings a stained glass appearance. Some, such as Rainbow Triptych (1978), were actually painted to look like stained glass windows. He was also an accomplished sculptor, who worked mainly in wood, which he sometimes tinted with brilliant colours. His paintings often include sculptural elements, such as the hand-carved wood and metal frame that is an integral part of Peace and Love.
Watson’s work can be found in most collections in Jamaica, including the National Gallery of Jamaica, where he is among the best represented artists. Reproductions of his best known paintings, such as De Lawd is my Shepherd, can be seen in many local and Jamaican Diaspora homes. He represented Jamaica in many overseas, including in Britain, the Face of Jamaica (1964); Three Decades of Jamaican Painting (1971), Ten Jamaican Sculptors (1975) and Remembrance (1983), at the Commonwealth Institute, London and Back to Black (2005) at the Whitechapel Gallery. In the USA, he was also represented in Jamaican Art 1922-1982 (1983-1985) and Caribbean Visions. Among his many awards were the Jamaican Order of Distinction (1986) and the Institute of Jamaica’s Silver and Gold Musgrave Medals.