Explorations IV: Masculinities – Gallery 4: The Athlete and the Worker

Barrington Watson - Athlete's Nightmare II (1966), Collection: NGJ

Barrington Watson – Athlete’s Nightmare II (1966), Collection: NGJ

The Explorations IV: Masculinities exhibition runs from December 6, 2015 to March 5, 2016. Here is another text panel from the exhibition:

This gallery focuses on the artistic representation of two archetypal figures with particular resonance in postcolonial Jamaica: the athlete and the worker. In both instances, it is generally assumed that these figures are male and black, which further illustrates the extent to which the black male figure tends be represented in terms of its physicality.

While sports, and track and field athletics specifically, hold significant importance in Jamaican life, artistic representations of this theme are relatively rare and are limited mainly to official commissions, particularly in the form of monuments to Jamaican athletes and sports. The first such monument – Alvin Marriott’s The Jamaican Athlete (1962) at the National Stadium – represents a male runner, which confirms that the default assumed gender of the athlete is indeed male and it is only recently that there have been monument commissions to honour Jamaica’s female athletes.

Alvin Marriott - Banana Man (1955), Collection: NGJ

Alvin Marriott – Banana Man (1955), Collection: NGJ

This exhibition features several works of art that provide alternative perspectives on the subject. Barrington Watson’s Athlete’s Nightmare II (1966), for instance, offers a haunting image of athletic failure – the inability to finish the race –that has broader implications as a representation of the precarious nature of masculinity. Omari Ra’s Race for Ben (n.d.) refers to the Jamaican-born sprinter Ben Johnson, who was publicly disgraced and stripped of his world records after it was discovered that he took performance-enhancing drugs – a sad tale of the enormous pressures that occur in the hyper-masculine world of top athleticism.

The figure of the manual worker, and particularly the black male worker, comes with even more baggage, because of its association with centuries of servitude and low social status. The artists of the nationalist school sought to wrest this image from its negative historical associations by representing the worker in a monumentalized, heroic form, for instance in Edna Manley’s Diggers (1936), Albert Huie’s Crop Time (1955), and Alvin Marriott’s Banana Man (1955). In these works of art, the workers are represented as proud agents of economic progress for the emerging nation, even though this obscures how socio-economic divisions are perpetuated in the process.

Albert Huie - Crop Time (1955), Collection: NGJ

Albert Huie – Crop Time (1955), Collection: NGJ

Such imagery continued to resonate in post-Independence art, as can be seen in Eugene Hyde’s Banana Man (1960) and Jelly Man (1959), Vernal Reuben’s Construction Workers (1976), and Barrington Watson’s epic Fishing Village (1996). Other major themes in Jamaican art have, as can be seen elsewhere in this exhibition, been subjected to significant critical scrutiny by contemporary Jamaican artists, but only a few have tackled manual labour and its race and gender dynamics. Leasho Johnson’s satirical “banana men” works in the first gallery to some extent address this subject but we have not been able to secure any other suitable examples for this exhibition.

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