There are many examples in this exhibition of art works in which the male body serves as an icon that represents a particular ideal or cause. Such representations are common in nationalist Jamaican art, which preoccupied itself with the representation of nationhood and selfhood in the form of deliberately iconic images.The literary scholar Belinda Edmondson has argued that the Caribbean nationalist imaginary had been primarily concerned with “making men,” in a way that uncritically associated masculinity with maturity, autonomy and personhood and, by implication, femininity with dependence and passivity – or alternatively, that juxtaposed the “manhood” of national independence with the “boyhood” of colonial dependence.
There is indeed a strong masculine bias in nationalist Jamaican art, which privileges an assertive black masculinity as its default iconic identity. In this gallery, this is exemplified by Edna Manley’s Negro Aroused (1935) but it is also evident in related, less famous works such as Archie Lindo’s Irish Moss Gatherers (c1950). Closer scrutiny however reveals that these nationalist icons replicate some of the same colonial racial stereotypes they seem to challenge, such as the tendency to represent the black male in terms of his physicality, as an anonymous, objectified and, it is implied, mindless body. Several of these iconic images are also subject to alternative readings: for instance, the possibility of an erotic subtext in Lindo’s Irish Moss Gatherers.
Other related works present a more overtly troubled and troubling picture. Albert Huie’s illustration The Island (1972) critiques the exploitative aspects of tourism and alludes to the commodification of black (male) bodies in that context. The most oppositional response arguably appears in Cosmo Whyte’s Ginal (2014), which interprets the classic photographs of the archetypal ”bad man” Ivanhoe Martin from the film The Harder They Come (1972). In the film, the photographs represented a highly subversive act of visual provocation of the establishment and its values and Whyte adds to this by associating this imagery to the iconic trickster figure in Jamaican popular culture, Anancy.
Leasho Johnson’s Lost at Sea II (2015) and Varun Baker’s Journey 6 (2013), finally, remind us of the precarious nature of assertions of masculinity, especially in terms of how black masculinity is positioned in the contemporary world. Johnson’s work speaks about the marginalization and victimization of alternative masculinities and sexualities, while Baker offers a more hopeful image of survival and resilience in the face of extreme adversity.