Our current Natural Histories exhibition includes John Dunkley’s “Back to Nature” (c1939) and this prompted the following reflection on Dunkley and his work.
John Dunkley’s life was typical of that of many Jamaicans of his generation. He was born in Savanna-la-Mar on December 10, 1891 and died in Kingston on February 17, 1947. As a young man, Dunkley travelled to Panama, Costa Rica and Cuba and also worked as a sailor, before returning to Jamaica in 1926 where he settled in Kingston and established a barber shop. His early biography is sketchy but it is well possible that Dunkley worked on the Panama Canal or with the United Fruit Company – a personal connection to the banana industry is suggested by his best known painting, Banana Plantation (c1945). According to his widow Cassie, Dunkley started painting while he was outside of Jamaica and was introduced to art by a well-known Panama-based photographer, Clarence Rock, but we have to date not been able to identify this photographer. (Dunkley 1948)
In Jamaica, Dunkley was discovered around 1937 by one of the talent scouts of the early nationalist art movement, Institute of Jamaica Secretary Delves Molesworth, who saw the unusual paintings he had produced to decorate his barber’s shop on Princess Street and encouraged him to exhibit his work. Dunkley was one of two Jamaican artists, along with the young Albert Huie, whose work was included in the IBM international art exhibition at the 1939 New York City World Fair. While he obviously received some recognition during his lifetime, he was an outsider to the artistic mainstream and appears to have preferred for things to remain that way – it has been reported that he was invited to attend Edna Manley’s art classes at the Junior Centre but declined, stating that he saw things “a little differently.” (Boxer 1998, 17) Today, Dunkley is canonized as one of the most important Jamaican artists of the 20th century. This reputation is based on less than fifty known paintings, most of them landscapes, and a few figural sculptures, all dating from the late 1930s and 1940s, which reflect a unique, visionary artistic imagination.
Dunkley’s landscapes are at least in part based on observed realities in Jamaica, Cuba and Central America but have rightly been described as “landscapes of the mind.” They present a dark, brooding vision of the tropics, in which narrow gorges and gullies are populated with oversized vegetation and mysterious nocturnal creatures, such as crabs, spiders, frogs and rabbits, and it is impossible not to notice the frequent phallic and vaginal references. Dunkley’s landscapes may seem claustrophobic and impenetrable but their visual density is almost always intersected by winding paths that forcefully guide the eye into the depths of the painting, and into the unknown.
Dunkley was obviously preoccupied with the cycles of life – fertility and mortality – and one major, related theme seems to be the tension between the indomitable forces of nature and humankind’s often-futile efforts to get the upper hand. This may have been influenced by his sojourn in Central America, where he observed one of the most ambitious engineering feats in history, the construction of the Panama Canal, a project that was beset by various calamities and cost some 25,000 human lives, and the development of a major agro-industry, the banana industry, which has always been particularly vulnerable to natural catastrophes. Dunkley was a Freemason and it is possible that Masonic symbolism concerning the journey of life also played a role in his work.
Dunkley’s work in the Natural Histories exhibition, Back to Nature (c1939) is one of Dunkley’s few signed paintings and the title is inscribed in the lower right hand corner. Back to Nature is one of two paintings in which he uses the heart shape as a compositional device – the other is Diamond Wedding (1940) – and in Back to Nature this creates perhaps the strongest tension between surface pattern and deep, receding perspective seen in Dunkley’s paintings. This visual tension adds to the metaphoric tensions between the carefully manicured landscape and the enormous plants, giant Spanish jars and almost vertiginous illusion of space, in which the two paths along the sides of the heart-shape meet and end in what appears to be a gate. In the forefront, there are footprints in the path around the flower bed – the only allusion to a live human presence, but their small size suggests that this human would have been dwarfed by the enormous plants. These footprints may refer to the popular poem A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Voices of the Night, 1838) that is often read at funerals and in remembrances. Part of it reads:
Lives of great people remind us we can make our lives sublime and, departing, leave behind footprints in the sand of time. Footprints, that perhaps another, sailing o’er life’s solemn main, a forlorn and shipwrecked brother, seeing, shall take heart again.
These references suggest that the heart-shaped bed of flowers in the centre is in actuality a grave and the spatial pathways suggested by the work seem to invite us into what lies beyond, as an inevitable destination. Back to Nature is perhaps the clearest illustration of Dunkley’s thematic preoccupation with life and death – a reminder that, no matter what our human endeavors, we all go “back to nature” in the end.
- Dunkley, Cassie. “Life of John Dunkley.” In Memorial Anniversary Exhibition of the Late John Dunkley, Artist and Sculptor, n.p. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1948.
- Boxer, David. “Jamaican Art 1922-1982.” In Modern Jamaican Art. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle and the University of the West Indies Development and Endowment Fund, 1998.