The National Gallery of Jamaica deeply regrets the passing of self-taught artist Wilfred Francis on August 21, 2013.
Wilfred Francis, who was popularly known as “Jabba”, was born in Spanish Town on August 24, 1924 – he died just three days short of his 89th birthday – and started painting sometime in 1966. His first exhibition on record was the 1967 Festival exhibition, where his work was favourably received, but Francis withdrew from the formal art world shortly after although he continued working, reportedly because of negative experiences with art patrons. Nearly forty years later, he started exhibiting again, encouraged by art dealer and collector Wayne Gallimore, and in 2004 had his first and only solo exhibition at the Mutual Gallery. His unique style and eccentric, visionary imagination were a revelation to many in the Jamaican art world and late in life he acquired a small but enthusiastic following of collectors.
It may seem surprising that an artist of the calibre of Wilfred Francis was not included in the National Gallery’s seminal Intuitive Eye exhibition in 1979, even though he was producing work at that time, and he was also not represented in the Gallery’s next major survey of the genre, Fifteen Intuitives in 1987. The Intuitives III exhibition in 2007 was the National Gallery’s only exhibition of Intuitive art in which Francis was featured. It certainly took long for Francis to be included in the Intuitive art canon but he played an active role in his exclusion from the mainstream art world. While there was always some awareness of his work among specialized collectors of Intuitive art, Francis notoriously priced his works much higher than most would have been willing to pay, which may have been a strategy to maintain his personal and artistic independence from the demands and patronage of the formal art world. It is of note that he kept most of his works until late in life to serve, as he put it to Sana Rose in 2004, as “a gallery for myself [to] have my paintings to look at, surround me and give me a sense of comfort.”
The hesitations that surrounded Wilfred Francis’ work in the Jamaican art world, on the other hand, may also have stemmed from his choice of materials: he worked mainly on paper and often used media such as felt pen, which were until recently not recognized as legitimate fine art media and which may have caused collectors to fear that their investments would be subject to rapid deterioration. This unorthodox choice of media was yet another indication of how Francis “marched to his own drummer” but it was also an essential part of his unique aesthetic. His most spectacular works are intricately patterned drawings, in which felt pens was used as the sole medium or in combination with brightly coloured painted patterns.
With these unorthodox media, Wilfred Francis created eclectic, fantastic worlds that drew freely from a multitude of sources, real and imagined, including Sci-Fi, his family, the local environment, girly magazines, and, of course, the Bible. His early work Ethiopia Stretches Forth Her Hands (1968), for instance, is a beautifully delicate invocation of Psalms 68:31, a Bible verse which has been particularly influential in African Diasporal popular culture and reflect his groundedness in that context, but he was equally at ease producing wild outer-space fantasies such as Monstrosity in Space (1980), which a fanciful space station is surrounded by equally fantastic star-ships in what appears to be another universe altogether.
The recognition of Wilfred Francis’ artistic worth may have taken a long time to come, and still needs to be fully established, but the story of his life and art remind of one of Rex Nettleford’s most poignant statements: “If the people of the Caribbean own nothing else, they certainly can own their creative imagination which, viewed in a particular way, is a powerful means of production for much that brings meaning and purpose to human life.” Wilfred Francis’ oeuvre is arguably an expression of the individual freedom that is to be found in artistic expression and the joy and self-actualization that comes with claiming that freedom. It should come as no surprise that Wilfred Francis’ solo exhibition at Mutual Gallery was called Freedom.
The Board and Staff of the National Gallery of Jamaica extend their sincere condolences to the family and friends of Wilfred Francis.