Religion and Spirituality: In Our Own Image

Osmond Watson - Jah Lives (1984), Collection: NGJ

Osmond Watson – Jah Lives (1984), Collection: NGJ

The Explorations II: Religion and Spirituality exhibition, which opened on Sunday, is organized around six broad, overlapping themes, with a gallery dedicated to each theme. Here is the text panel for the third gallery, titled “In Our Own Image”:

The works in this gallery explore how “white” colonial religious representations, and the power structures these represent, have been implicitly and explicitly challenged in local religious and artistic practice. The prevalence of assertively Black religious imagery in Jamaican art is heavily indebted to the teachings of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, who stated:

If the white man has the idea of a white God, let him worship his God as he desires. If the yellow man’s God is of his race let him worship his God as he sees fit. We, as Negroes, have found a new ideal. Whilst our God has no colour, yet it is human to see everything through one’s own spectacles, and since the white people have seen their God through white spectacles, we only now started out (late though it be) to see our God through our own spectacles. The God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. We Negroes believe in the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, the One God of all ages. That is the God in whom we believe, but we shall worship Him through the spectacles of Ethiopia.

This perspective is classically illustrated by Osmond Watson’s Peace and Love (1969), which draws from Orthodox Christian icon painting traditions, and the related Jah Lives (1984), which was chosen as the lead image of this exhibition and is on view in the entrance. In both instances, Christ is represented as dreadlocked Rastafari, a powerful acknowledgement of the movement’s defining role in Jamaican culture. Peace and Love is also a self-portrait, in an illustration of the Rastafari concept of “Godmanliness,” or the divine nature of the individual. We had originally placed Rastafari artist Albert Artwell’s 33 ½ Years Story of Christ (2005), which narrates the main events in the life of Christ in a style indebted to Ethiopian icon painting, in “A Chapter a Day,” but we moved it to this section  because of the assertive Blackness of the imagery, which also has autobiographical allusions.

Ebony G. Patterson - Di Real Big Man (2010), Collection: NGJ

Ebony G. Patterson – Di Real Big Man (2010), Collection: NGJ

While not as such a religious image, we also selected Ebony G. Patterson’s Di Real Big Man (2010) for this section, since it similarly and more provocatively adopts the traditional language of religious icon art to comment on the predicament of Black masculinity in contemporary Jamaican popular culture. In particular, it makes reference to the sexually ambiguous male beauty ideals in Dancehall and, using imagery that evokes martyrdom, also brings to mind the memorial murals to slain gang and “corner crew” members that can be seen in many inner-city neighbourhoods (and are now regularly over-painted by the Police).

While two of the examples chosen represent Black Madonnas, none of the examples in this section question the traditional gender biases in religious art and iconography but there are works by Jamaican artists, not represented here, that have done exactly that: Renee Cox’s controversial Yo Mama’s Last Supper (1999), for instance, shocked the New York religious establishment when it was first exhibited there because the artist provocatively inserted her own image, fully and frontally nude, as the Christ figure in the Last Supper. A version of this work was shown in our 2007 Materializing Slavery exhibition.


One thought on “Religion and Spirituality: In Our Own Image

  1. Pingback: National Gallery of Jamaica: Religion and Spirituality—In Our Own Image | Repeating Islands

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