Stanford Watson was born in Lucea, Hanover in 1959 as one of eight children. He enjoyed his time growing up in the country, engaging in activities such as swimming in the rivers or the sea, catching crabs and fish, and going to Sunday school, although he outgrew the latter as he expanded his education through reading many books. He attended Ruseas High School and came to Kingston in 1979 to attend the Jamaica School of Art (now Edna Manley College) where he studied painting, which is still his primary medium of visual expression today. As a young man during the socio-political upheavals of the 1970s, Watson became fascinated with ideas of cultural and social revolution, wishing to see the appearance of, and to be involved in, radical movements to challenge the status quo. He soon associated with a group of contemporary artists, which included Omari Ra, Khalfani Ra and Eric Cadien, who shared similar Black Nationalist views and pursued varying modes of expressionism in their works.
His career as an exhibiting artist began with his final year exhibition at the Jamaica School of Art in 1983. From there, he continued to maintain his artistic presence through group exhibitions at venues including the Mutual Life Gallery and eventually the National Gallery of Jamaica. He has also exhibited internationally and is represented in art collections in the Caribbean region, in Africa, the United States, Europe and Latin America. Watson began teaching art at the Wolmer’s Girls School in 1984, and also taught a year at Jamaica College in 1985, returning to Wolmer’s thereafter, all the while staying true to his passion for painting, continuing to produce and exhibit.
Upon leaving art school, Watson for a while maintained academic painting traditions such as realism in his works, painting landscapes and the like. However, he always felt that there were other options in painting for him. He therefore began to explore the work of Latin American artists such as Wifredo Lam from Cuba, Fernando Botero of Columbia and the Mexican artist, Rufino Tamayo and was energized to move away from his academic approach and to create an artistic identity of his own. Lam, Botero and Tamayo also reflected strong connections to indigenous culture and reflected on the socio-political contradictions and conflicts in their countries. Inspired by these ‘Third World’ artists, Watson developed a visual rhetoric to communicate his feelings about the dilemmas and problems of Jamaican society in his paintings. African identity, especially within the African diaspora, is another recurring theme in Watson’s oeuvre – often incorporating signs and symbols from African pictorial languages as part of his compositions.
In terms of the iconography used in his work, Watson is perhaps most famous for his dog imagery. The symbolism of the dog was inspired by an experience he had in 1988 while living in a Downtown Kingston tenement. As the story goes, police officers had raided the ‘yard’ he lived in. They searched him and the premises but apparently found nothing of interest. As they made their way to the back of the premises they encountered a small barking dog. One of the officers shot the animal, killing it instantly. According to Watson, it occurred at a time when the police were given unlimited power. He stated in a 1997 interview: “This dog’s life and death [was] similar to a lot of people in this world who are unrepresented, unprotected.” Malnourished Dog from an Independent State (1996) is a triptych that uses the dog as its primary image and presents a scathing critique of the inequalities in Independent Jamaica. The schematic depiction of the dog, intentionally or not, is reminiscent of depictions of animals in pre-Columbian pictograms such as those produced by the Tainos on cave walls.
Watson’s work involves alternative techniques such as collage and assemblage and non-art materials such as dirt, along with or added to his paints. He also keeps his colours as raw or pure as possible, avoiding tinting them. Watson coined the term “conceptual intuitivism” to describe the raw informal appearance of his work. It is his way of working from a place of pure expression without the restrictions of formal artistic influence. He admits, however, that he could never totally negate his academic training and finds it important to his process.
The use of materials like dirt and newspaper with text, is symbolic to the subject matter of Watson’s painting – dirt, a natural unrefined element and newspapers or text, symbolic of information, social propaganda and control, implied but not directly expressed. Phobia (1996) appears to contain no recognizable imagery. Dark hues of black, blue and red pervade the composition, their dominance seemingly overwhelming an area of superficial white. Articulating I and I is another mixed media diptych seemingly to portraying a conversation, or the connective relationship, of two canvases. The title of the work alludes to the Rastafarian way of referring to the self in tandem with the Spirit, as all individuals being equal under the single divinity, Jah or as a way of reaffirming individual identity.
Watson is currently a part-time lecturer at the Edna Manley College of the Visual Performing Arts. He also works with the MultiCare Foundation as the co-ordinator of the Visual Arts programme. There he is responsible for children’s art programmes such as “Art on the Waterfront,” which is held every summer in conjunction with the National Gallery of Jamaica, and “Art on the Street,” which is held on weekends, both of which invite children, particularly from the downtown area, to participate in art-related activities. Stanford Watson is also responsible for outreach programmes in which visual art workshops are conducted at various public schools that have been adopted by the MultiCare Foundation. He recently completed a master’s degree in community arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Watson is highly committed to the idea of art as a tool for social change. He is well aware that art, especially contemporary art, is not readily understood by many people but believes that this provides an opportunity for dialogues that are beneficial for not only the audience but the artist as well. He believes that that exposure to art and art-making involves valuable learning experiences and this is where his work as an artist, art teacher and community art activist find common ground.
This post was written by Monique Barnett, who is a Curatorial Assistant at the NGJ. It is based on a recent interview with Stanford Watson.