The Jamaican painter and designer Rhoda Jackson is usually mentioned in accounts of Jamaican art history, but has not received the more comprehensive attention her work warrants – her story is one of a number of untold stories in Jamaican art. While filling this gap requires a longer term research project, we are now presenting this short, initial feature on her work. We invite members of the public who have information about her life and work, and photographs of her extant work in painting and design, to contact us, so that we can expand and update this feature.
Rhoda Jackson (1913 – 1971) was a Jamaican artist and designer who was active from the mid 1930s to the 1960s. She was born in Gilmock Hall, St Elizabeth and was based in Mandeville for most of her life. She attended the Hampton High School in Malvern, St Elizabeth in Jamaica and subsequently trained in art at the Reading University Arts School in England, and the Art Student League in New York City. Her uncle Cyril G. Jackson was a watercolourist of some note and was also based in Mandeville.
Rhoda Jackson is best known for the murals and designs she did mainly for the tourism industry, for instance at the Tower Isle Hotel, where she also had regular exhibitions. She also did designs for embroidery, including for the Allsides workshop, and other textiles and designed advertisements, postcards and book covers. She was one of the first professional designers on record in Jamaica – the art deco furniture designer Burnett Webster being another.
There are many things about Rhoda Jackson’s life that warrant further research: during her student years in England, for instance, she was friendly with the famous Scottish photojournalist George Rodger, one of the founders of the Magnum photographic cooperative. Rodger visited her in Jamaica in 1950 and made several noteworthy photographs of the island during his visit. The African-American sculptor Richmond Barthé, who owned a house in St Ann and lived in Jamaica from 1947 and for about 20 years, did a portrait bust of her circa 1960. Rhoda Jackson also appears to have been friendly with the English painter Eve Disher, who was a repeat visitor to the island.
The following appraisal of Rhoda Jackson’s work is adapted from Veerle Poupeye’s doctoral dissertation Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica:
“Rhoda Jackson was an undeniably talented and innovative designer. Her work represents Jamaica by means of a repertory of iconic images consisting of picturesque gingerbread cottages, idyllic fishing beaches and waterfalls, and rollicking cane-fields and mountain-scapes, peopled with pretty ladies, dandyish men and cute children, depicted in frilly “native” costumes. Her work is colorful and forms are simplified and stylized into patterned compositions that often have a tapestry-like quality. This made her designs very versatile and suitable for large panoramic paintings and small embroidery motifs alike.”
“Jackson is best known for tourism-related work but she was also involved in the mainstream art world. She taught art at the prestigious St Hilda’s High School for Girls in Brown’s Town, St Ann where Gloria Escoffery was among her students. Her work was included in Institute of Jamaica exhibitions and she was a member of its influential Art and Crafts Committee, which also included Edna Manley and among others spearheaded the establishment of the Jamaica School of Art”
“It is nonetheless telling that, other than some complimentary reports on her exhibitions, there was no substantive critical response to her work in the local press, while significant efforts were made to engage Edna Manley’s work at an intellectual level. She is also virtually unmentioned in the later art narratives. This suggests that her work has not been taken seriously as significant “art” by Jamaica’s emerging art establishment.”
“Jackson’s iconography, with its focus on rural life, is similar to that of the nationalist school but the tone of her work could not be more different. Her painting
Washing by the River (1945) was bought by the IoJ and is part of the permanent exhibition of the NGJ, compares strikingly with Albert Huie’s Noon (1943). Jackson’s painting depicts women and children washing clothes in a river while Huie’s features a group of sugar factory workers who are lounging under a tree while on their lunch break, with the factory and a mountainous landscape in the background. In Jackson’s painting, the figures are frolicking, carefree and anonymous “natives” while in Huie’s they are dignified modern workers and citizens.”
“A mural Rhoda Jackson produced for what was then the Jamaica Folk Museum, now the People’s Museum, depicts plantation life as if it was an idyllic picnic, with picturesque water wheels and handsome, nicely dressed and cheerful field workers.That this appears to have been a commission from the Institute of Jamaica in itself warrants some critical attention and illustrates the ambiguous position the Institute has held between colonial and modern national culture.”
“One of the reasons why Rhoda Jackson is not more recognized as a Jamaican artist seems to be that the cheerful, touristy depictions of Jamaica she produced did not match the nationalist ideology that dominated mid-twentieth century Jamaican art and art history. The artists of the nationalist school and Independence generally sought to distance themselves from any tourist aesthetic. As the art and theatre critic Norman Rae wrote in Ian Fleming Introduces Jamaica (1965):
‘Jamaican painters generally do not aim at the titillatingly decorative ‘native’ object or art/craft, the stylish decorations designed for the tourist market that one finds proliferating in many other Caribbean and tropical countries. The ever-present determination not to let the glittering island vistas lead them astray makes them avoid this. (169-170)’
“That this statement was made in what was, for all intents and purposes, a guide book, points towards the complex and contradictory dynamic that has existed between mainstream art and tourism, which has after all always provided a market for Jamaican art, and complicates the relationship between the seemingly contrasting cultural ideologies of those two worlds.”
Rhoda Jackson’s outlook may have been “colonial” and her work may have perpetuated stereotypes modern Jamaican artists have sought to challenge but she is certainly worthy of more attention as an artist, if only because of how her work and ideological choices compare with those of contemporaries such as Albert Huie or Edna Manley.