Colin Garland was born on April 12, 1935 to a working class family in Sydney, Australia, during the period of the Great Depression. Garland described his family as poor but artistic and creative, coming up with ingenious ways of survival. As a youngster, Garland developed a love for exploring the outdoors and collecting the objects and small creatures he found. Additionally, his aptitude and noticeable talent for drawing, painting and modelling was encouraged particularly by his mother who allowed him to enter art competitions and use his prize money to buy more art materials. Eventually, he made the decision to study at the National School of Art in Sydney with the intention of studying theatre art. However, theatre art was not offered and he studied the fine arts instead. Theatre was a life-long interest of Garland, however, and he worked part-time as a performer and later designed and made costumes and sets for various theatrical groups. After five years at the National School of Art, Garland decided to go to England to continue his studies.
It was through his Caribbean theatre contacts in England that Garland first arrived in Jamaica briefly in 1962 – the year of Jamaica’s independence. Later that year, he decided to return to the Island permanently having secured a teaching job at the Jamaica School of Art (now part of the Edna Manley College). He eventually remained at the school for almost two decades. Initially living in Oracabessa, St Mary, Garland eventually relocated to nearby Boscobel where he spent the rest of his life. He also continued to work with theatre community in Jamaica. Notable among his contributions is the set design for the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC) production entitled Court of Jah held in 1975.
Art historians generally view Garland in terms of a surrealist aesthetic or approach. His visual narratives are allegories of actual situations, interpersonal relationships and psychological insights represented through fantastic juxtapositions of various objects with humans and anthropomorphic creatures. As essentially an academic painter, Garland studied the work of various European masters. Of particular interest to him were those painters who utilized scenes of fantasy and mythology. Such artists included early Renaissance painters Sandro Botticelli and Piero della Francesca as well as their Netherlandish contemporary Hieronymus Bosch. Garland was also interested in the work of Jamaican master intuitive painter, John Dunkley as well as the work of the Haitian self-taught artists.
Fascinated by the cultural practices and exotic natural environment of the Caribbean (particularly Jamaica and Haiti, where he was a regular visitor), Garland produced paintings as well as sculptural works that referenced the imagery and the socio-historical realities specific to his new environment and interactions. In the Beautiful Caribbean (1974), implies a multiplicity of contexts and themes including religion, colonisation, independence, imperialism, and struggling economies all within an exotic and colour-saturated environment. The painting End of an Empire (1971) similarly addresses in part a sub-theme of colonisation: the resultant assimilation and hybridisation of cultural identities and ethnicities. Garland’s ‘symbols’ and by extension visual rhetoric, was highly personalized, evidenced in part by the fact that many of the supporting objects painted in his compositions were items that he avidly collected and studied: organic objects, artefacts such as dolls and puppets, plants and even birds.
The work of Colin Garland has been credited alongside that of other Jamaican artists of the 1960s and 1970s who introduced new forms of imagery to the Jamaican palette as the evolution from traditional realist approaches begun to take place. Such artists included Eugene Hyde and Osmond Watson. Garland was also influential elsewhere in the Caribbean and taught the noted Haitian artist Bernard Sejourné at the Jamaica School of Art in the 1960s.
Garland exhibited extensively as a Jamaican artist both locally and internationally. His work was included in Jamaican Art 1922 – 1982, a touring exhibition organized through collaboration of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (S.I.T.E.S) and the National Gallery in 1982, and major local exhibitions such as the pioneering Six Options: Gallery Spaces Transformed at the National Gallery of Jamaica in 1985, the first exhibition of installation art in Jamaica. He was awarded the Silver Musgrave medal by the Institute of Jamaica in 1993 and inducted into the Caribbean Hall of Fame in 1999 for his contribution to the visual arts in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Colin Garland passed away in Jamaica after a long illness in 2007.
This post was compiled by Monique Barnett-Davidson, Curatorial Assistant, NGJ
Artist’s file – Colin Garland, Education Department, National Gallery of Jamaica
Archer-Straw, Petrine, and Kim Robinson. Jamaican Art Then and Now. Edited by Tina Spiro. Kingston: LMH, 2011.
Boxer, David and Veerle Poupeye, Modern Jamaican Art, Kingston: Ian Randle. 1998