Here is the first of five sectional introductions to the main themes in the Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art exhibition, which opened on July 31. The sectional introductions were written by the exhibition curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson, Assistant Curator at the NGJ:
Natural resources have been used for the creation of artworks in Jamaica for all of the island’s known history. The Jamaican Taino and their ancestors, who had begun settling in the island from as early as circa 650 AD, utilized wood, charcoal, plant fibres, animal bone, stone and clays. Later arrivals to the island, mainly Europeans and Africans, also imported and syncretised art-making traditions and techniques and in doing so made great use of the natural bounty this land of wood and water had to offer. The objects featured in this section explore the use by local artists of four materials that are available in Kingston and its environs: tortoise shell, wood, alabaster gypsum, and clay.
The 17th century tortoise shell objects in this exhibition exemplify a creative industry that thrived in Port Royal Jamaica from circa 1672 to 1692, until the earthquake disaster. The name “tortoise” is a misnomer, since these objects are made from sea turtle shells while tortoises are their land-dwelling relatives. Four species of sea turtle that appear in Jamaica’s coastal waters but the shell most suitable for the creation of these objects is the Hawksbill Turtle shell. The tradition of using these shells to create decorative objects no longer continues, as the animals are now legally protected. However, one cannot deny the mastery and elegance of the examples featured in this exhibition. The Port Royal tortoise shell objects, most of them coomb cases and trinket boxes, appear to have been produced as mementoes and have their place of origin and production year inscribed on them. Some also feature early versions of Jamaica’s Coat of Arms. It has been argued that they qualify as Jamaica’s first examples of “tourist art.”
Jamaica’s long tradition of sculpting has benefitted greatly from the island’s numerous woods such as cedar, mahogany, guango and the formidable lignumvitae. Most of these trees grow in Kingston and its environs and lignumvitae trees, in particular, thrive on the Liguanea Plains. The featured works by Hylton Nembhard, Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, Edna Manley and Winston Patrick provide but a small sample of the variety of beautiful and powerful woodcarvings that have been produced by many artists in Jamaica and specifically in Kingston. We cannot prove the origin of the woods used in the works featured here but it is likely that Kingston-based artists also used woods that were harvested in the area. Lignumvitae trees are now legally protected, with restrictions on the harvesting of wood for carving, because of the status of the Lignumvitae flower as a national symbol.
Clay is the most researched and documented material, represented here by the works of Cecil Baugh and an unknown yabba maker. The Liguanea Plains feature extensive red earthenware clay deposits, known as Liguanea Clay, which have been used in pottery production since the days of the Taino and are still used today by the makers of the flowerpots that are sold on the streets of Kingston. Cecil Baugh’s work is characterized by his promotion and use of indigenous clays and slips, as well as the development of sophisticated glazes from local materials, such as minerals collected from the Hope River, which runs from in the hills surrounding Kingston to the area’s south coast. Through his tireless experimentation, Baugh was able to introduce a range of colour combinations and textures that characterized his pots. His syncretised approaches to ceramics broadened the technical and aesthetic qualities of contemporary Jamaican works of clay for generations after him and for the ones to come.
John “Doc” Williamson, rounds out this section with his sensitively carved work in alabaster gypsum – a curiously dense yet fragile stone that has been used by Jamaican craftspeople to make a variety of other curios traded to locals and tourists alike. Alabaster is mined in Bull Bay near Kingston.