Religion and Spirituality: Ancestral Memories

Osmond Watson - Secret of the Arawaks (1977), Collection: NGJ

Osmond Watson – Secret of the Arawaks (1977), Collection: NGJ

The Explorations II: Religion and Spirituality exhibition, which is now open until April 27, 2014, is organized around six broad, overlapping themes, with a gallery dedicated to each theme. Here is the text panel for the second gallery, titled “Ancestral Memories”:

The work in this gallery looks at the way in which ancestral religious and spiritual practices have survived and have been imagined in Jamaican art, often in relation to modern identities.

Two of the selected works, Norma Rodney-Harrack’s Taino Heritage (1995) and Osmond Watson’s Secret of the Arawaks (1977) ponder the foundational absence/presence of the aboriginal Taino, of whom evocative traces have survived in ceramic objects, cave pictographs and other archaeological finds. Most Taino art forms were related to their religious beliefs and were used in ritual practices and their spiritual resonance is powerfully captured in Harrack and Watson’s modern interpretations.

Everald Brown - Mystical Sign (1c1974), Collection: NGJ

Everald Brown – Mystical Sign (1c1974), Collection: NGJ

Other examples, such as Clinton Brown’s Drum (c1975) and Everald Brown’s Golden Hand Staff (c1974), Everlasting King (1987), and Mystical Sign (1994) illustrate the persistence and constant reinvention of African beliefs and practices in the popular culture. The Browns’ work – and Clinton is Everald Brown’s son – also illustrates the relationship between older African-derived religions, such as Revival and Kumina, and religious Rastafari and the Jamaican incarnations of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Everald’s Mystical Sign and Golden Hand for instance combines the sort of Kongo cosmograms that are seen in Kumina with more personal symbols that speak to this visionary artist’s relationship with the physical environment of Jamaica, his engagement with Ethiopian Orthodox culture and symbolism, as well as his role as the spiritual leader of his family-based church community.

Mystical conceptions of African ancestry are also seen in mainstream Jamaican art, for instance in Christopher Gonzalez’s Mystic Conception (1977), which cites traditional African sculptural forms, and Samere Tansley’s Ancestral Memories, which imagines an ancient Black Goddess figure. It is of note that both works represent iconic ancestral figures as female, which also challenges the male-oriented gender biases in conventional religion.

Gloria Escoffery - Mirage (1987), Collection: NGJ

Gloria Escoffery – Mirage (1987), Collection: NGJ

The works in this gallery also reflect the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of Jamaica. Gloria Escoffery’s Mirage (1987), for instance, reflects on her Jewish heritage and, by implication, on her identity as part of a minority in Jamaican society while David Miller Senior Talisman (c1940) is obviously indebted to this artist’s East Indian heritage, although it possibly also alludes to Obeah symbols used in de Laurence related practices.

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