Jamaica’s Art Pioneers: Carl Abrahams (1911-2005)

Carl Abrahams - Thirteen Israelites (1975), A.D. Scott Collection, NGJ

Carl Abrahams – Thirteen Israelites (1975), A.D. Scott Collection, NGJ

Carl Myrie Abrahams was born in St Andrew, Jamaica, in 1911. He was educated at Calabar High School where he received basic art training and, encouraged by his headmaster Reverend Ernest Price, began to study the work of old masters such as Frans Hals and Sir Frederick Leighton.

On leaving school in 1928, Abrahams started his career as a cartoonist, under the tutelage of Cliff Tyrell, one of the pioneering cartoonists in Jamaica. Abrahams soon contributed regularly to local publications such as the Gleaner, the West Indian Review and WISCO magazine. The English painter August John, who visited Jamaica in 1937, encouraged him to take up painting. After three years of service in the Royal Air Force during World War II, Abrahams returned to Jamaica and started painting professionally while also continuing as a cartoonist and illustrator.

Carl Abrahams - Birthday Drive (1972), Collection: NGJ

Carl Abrahams – Birthday Drive (1972), Collection: NGJ

Like John Dunkley, the Jamaican artist whom he most admired and who was an influence, Abrahams was an an individualist who opted not to participate in the art classes that were offered at Institute of Jamaica and, subsequently, the Jamaica School of Art and Craft and kept himself at a remove from the formal and informal artists’ groups that emerged in mid 20th century Jamaica. He essentially taught himself to paint, with the assistance of correspondence courses from England, and charted his own artistic course. It took a while before he found his painterly voice but when he did, he quickly emerged as one of Jamaica’s most original artists who produced ironic transformations of the great mythological and religious themes of the past, surreal commentaries on historical and contemporary events, and bizarre personal fantasies, in varying cartoonesque styles that defy art-historical classification and eccentrically challenge conventional rules of composition and representation.

Carl Abrahams - The Ascension (c1978), AD Scott Collection, NGJ

Carl Abrahams – The Ascension (c1978), AD Scott Collection, NGJ

Carl Abrahams is most acclaimed as a religious painter who somehow managed to combine genuine and deeply felt religious sentiments with irreverent satire, as can be seen in his versions of The Last Supper, Thirteen Israelites, The Ascension (1976), Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah and Backyard Preacher (c1975). He was also fascinated with the dramatic events that shaped Jamaican history – such as the ascent of Marcus Garvey and Rastafari and, most of all, the destruction of Port Royal, as the richest and wickedest city in the world – all lovingly depicted but seen through the lens of his uproarious satirical imagination.

Carl Abrahams - The Destruction of Port Royal (c1975), AD Scott Collection, NGJ

Carl Abrahams – The Destruction of Port Royal (c1975), AD Scott Collection, NGJ

While mainly known as a painter, cartoonist and illustrator, Carl Abrahams occasionally also sculpted and produced his own picture frames, whimsically designed and constructed to match the aesthetic of his paintings, although few of these have survived the ravages of time and termite infestation. Abrahams also painted the back-drop for the first Jamaican Pantomime, Jack and the Bean Stalk (1969) and executed several murals, the main example of which is a large, two part mural on Jamaican history he painted for the Norman Manley Airport in 1985. His final decades saw few new developments in his work, however, and he replicated many of his earlier paintings in copies and variations.

Carl Abrahams at work on the airport mural, photographed by Deryck Roberts, c1985

Carl Abrahams at work on the airport mural, photographed by Deryck Roberts, c1985

Carl Abrahams was the recipient of several national honours including the Order of Distinction and the Gold Musgrave Medal. His work is well represented in the collections of the NGJ and he was the first artist to be granted a full retrospective by the NGJ in 1978. His master work, Woman, I Must be About My Father’s Business, was loaned to the City of Edinburgh’s Light of the World exhibition commemorating the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, while two of his religious works, were featured on Jamaican stamps marking the advent of the new millennium. The NGJ also staged a special tribute exhibition after Carl Abrahams passed away in 2005 and he will be prominently featured in the upcoming Explorations II: Religion and Spirituality exhibition.

 (Collated from the Carl Abrahams file in the NGJ Education Department)

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2 thoughts on “Jamaica’s Art Pioneers: Carl Abrahams (1911-2005)

  1. Pingback: The Destruction of Port Royal – Wednesday Group 9 History of Art Survey 2016

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