Jamaica’s Art Pioneers: Milton Harley and the Right to Abstraction

Milton Harley - Mayan 1, (c1976), Collection: NGJ

Milton Harley – Mayan 1, (c1976), Collection: NGJ

In March 1963, almost a year after Jamaican Independence, the late Rex Nettleford gave the main address at an art exhibition held at the now defunct Hills Gallery in Kingston. This public exhibition was considered to be the first of its kind in Jamaica to feature paintings and drawings that were solely abstract in nature. The works were created by a young Jamaican artist named Milton Harley and it was his first solo exhibition in the island, since graduating from the Pratt Institute in New York the previous year. In response to an expressed concern that the work of Jamaican artists must be relevant to the redefinition of Jamaican cultural identity at that time,, Nettleford was quoted as saying that, “The most we can demand of him is that he works to the pulse of Jamaica and that he allows Jamaican life to act as a catalyst for thought and expression in the arts.” Heavily influenced by the later exploits of the Abstract Expressionist movement, as an art student in New York during the 1960s, Harley remembers: “When I returned to Jamaica from New York I brought back all these ideas of painting from the New York School in particular, where I saw shows of the giants like Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.”

Milton Harley - Nocture (1962), Collection: NGJ

Milton Harley – Nocture (1962), Collection: NGJ

Milton Harley was born in Kingston 1935, and at a young age migrated with his family to the USA. One of the earliest pioneers of modern abstraction in Jamaican art, Harley’s visual rhetoric seemed to contrast with the cultural aspirations of other prominent Jamaican artists, social theorists and the general populace of the early Independence period. His aesthetic approach introduced the act of painting as directly engaged with its own material and elemental possibilities, without the illusion of objective imagery. As an abstractionist, he identifies and utilizes the elemental essences of the ‘real’ (such as form, texture, colour, etc.) to create an alternative but equally fascinating visual perspective to subject matter. In fact, according to the artist, though his work is abstract, the subject matters he deals with are all based on observations of actual people, places and environments. This may have been the case for one of his earliest paintings Nocturne (1962) which is an abstraction of “three women carrying containers of water on their heads as they are crossing a river at moonlight”.

Harley belongs to a generation of Jamaican artists whose approach to art practice was largely shaped by their international experience and education. Harley, like contemporaries Karl Parboosingh and Eugene Hyde, broadened his understanding of modern art through international fellowships, exhibitions and educational opportunities. Mayan 1 (c1976) from his Mayan series, for instance, was inspired by his time spent in Mexico during the late 1960s to the early 1970s. During this time, he was able to visit the site of Teotihuacan, a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican city renowned for its exceptionally well-preserved architecture, sculpture and painted murals. For a viewer, the presence of red, white and green in the painting may be reminiscent of the Mexican national flag. However, considering the convolution of gestural marks and shapes at the centre of the painting, one may ponder upon Harley’s response to the ancient Mayan culture, given that Jamaica’s own pre-Columbian history is characterised by the presence of another Amerindian civilisation, the Taino.

Milton Harley - Untitled (Face 1, n.d.), acrylic on paper, Collection: NGJ, Guy McIntosh Donation

Milton Harley – Untitled (Face 1, n.d.), acrylic on paper, Collection: NGJ, Guy McIntosh Donation

Milton Harley’s artistic philosophy, along with that of his contemporaries, challenged the conservative Jamaican visual art culture and aided in initiating a significant evolutionary development. There was now the option of pure or semi-abstract expressionism as a tool for intellectual engagement. This is evidenced in the work of later artists including David Boxer, Hope Brooks, George Rodney, Milton George, Laura Facey, Margaret Chen, Omari Ra, Stanford Watson, Khalfani Ra and several others. Additionally, it heralded the adoption of other post-modern approaches like assemblage, installation art and digital art which now form the basis for contemporary artistic approaches in twenty-first century Jamaica. Additionally, as an educator of art history, methodology and practice, Milton Harley has contributed to the development of future generations of artists, art theorists and art educators in many institutions locally and internationally. Some of these include the Jamaica School of Art and the Moneague Teacher’s Training College in Jamaica as well as the Royal Grammar School in the UK and the University of Victoria in Canada. Milton Harley currently lives and works in Kingston, Jamaica.

Monique Barnett-Davidson
Curatorial Assistant


  • Milton Harley, Artistfile Education Department, National Gallery of Jamaica
  • Hucke, Claudia, Picturing the Postcolonial Nation, (Inter)Nationalism in the Art of Jamaica 1962 – 1975, Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston 2013

3 thoughts on “Jamaica’s Art Pioneers: Milton Harley and the Right to Abstraction

  1. most beautiful art work Milton I remember your paintings from when I was child my mother is also a painter you may remember her Margaret bonneau pls contact us if you get this so we can chat about artistic ways of painting

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