Spiritual Yards – Introduction

The exhibition Spiritual Yards: Home Ground of Jamaica’s Intuitives – Selections from the Wayne and Myrene Cox Collection opens on December 11. As usual, we are posting texts that appear in the catalogue and serve as text panels in the exhibition. Here is the first installment of these posts, the catalogue introduction by Executive Director Veerle Poupeye.

The story of John Dunkley’s discovery by the emerging Jamaican cultural establishment of the late 1930s is well-known. The then Secretary of the Institute of Jamaica, Delves Molesworth, was impressed by Dunkley’s elaborately decorated barber shop on Princess Street, which included paintings and carved elements, and Dunkley was soon recognized as a major, self-taught artistic talent and included in exhibitions and collections. Dunkley’s work did not emerge from the popular tradition of the “spiritual yard,” which is the focus of this exhibition, although the mystical symbolism apparent in his work may have related to his Masonic beliefs. His barbershop however reflected a similar impulse to create a cohesive aesthetic and symbolic environment. Dunkley’s story also drives home that there must have been spiritual yards in various parts of the island at that time. However, none of the producers of the ritual and symbolic objects and images that would been part of such yards made the transition to the formal art world, even though popular culture, including Revival practices, served as iconic subject matter in the nationalist art of that era. This was clearly a function of how “art” was defined in the context of the early nationalist movement, which was premised on middle class cultural values, and what was deemed worthy of documentation and preservation or recuperation as “art,” to which Dunkley more readily conformed.

It took until the 1950s and 60s for this to change, thanks to the advances in the cultural anthropology of the Caribbean and changing public and official attitudes towards popular culture. Rastafari and Black Power were a major factor in this, as these movements challenged the old cultural hierarchies and assertively claimed space for all aspects of black culture. The young politician Edward Seaga, who had been trained in sociology and had done pioneering research on Jamaica’s Revival religions, became an influential advocate of the art of Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, who was a Zion Revival leader. Kapo also found an avid supporter in John Pringle, Jamaica’s first Director of Tourism. Aspects of the popular culture were, interestingly enough, used in the promotion of Jamaican tourism, as Jamaica was trying to assert a more distinctive voice in the lucrative but socially problematic and culturally reductive “sun, sea and sand” tourism industry which was emerging during that period. Some of the earliest photographs of Kapo and Brother Everald Brown, another self-taught artist who was associated with the religious side of Rastafari, were commissioned by the Jamaica Tourist Board, as well as being produced by, more predictably, the pioneering anthropologists and cultural researchers of that period. Kapo and Brother Brown had both established spiritual yards before they were recognized as major artists, and maintained such spaces throughout their lives, and several of these photographs document the early incarnations of their spiritual yards. Their work was also exhibited and collected by the Institute of Jamaica from the late 1960s onwards and the National Gallery inherited most of these early holdings.

Everald Brown at his church yard, the Assembly of the Living, photographed by Penny Tweedie for the Jamaica Tourist Board in 1972

Everald Brown at his church yard, the Assembly of the Living, photographed by Penny Tweedie for the Jamaica Tourist Board in 1972

The National Gallery in the late 1970s became the main institutional advocate of the self-taught artists in Jamaica and its then Director/Curator David Boxer coined the term “Intuitive” to describe them. The genre developed rapidly and this benefitted greatly from a cadre of enthusiasts, such as Annabella Proudlock of Harmony Hall gallery; Boxer himself, also in his capacity as a private collector; and, somewhat later on, Wayne Cox and Herman van Asbroeck. These Intuitives enthusiasts maintained close associations of patronage and support with the artists and helped to uncover new or previously unknown talent. The term Intuitive was a vast improvement over designations such as primitive or naïve but the conceptualization and promotion of the Intuitives was not without its problems and controversies. Here is not the place to dwell on those issues, several of which have already received attention as part of the critical evaluation of Jamaica’s art-historiography and are part of our ongoing self-evaluation, but one criticism that needs to be singled out is that the original Intuitives concept was too premised on the notion that such artists are motivated by inner compulsion, as individualist outsiders, and not enough on how they are rooted in the popular culture.

Wayne Cox’s approach to collecting Intuitive art is particularly noteworthy from that perspective, in that he has paid significant attention to the Intuitives’ cultural context and conducted extensive research and documentation, which has resulted in a unique archive of extended interviews, photographs and video material, which has added to the importance of his collection. Wayne has also collected and documented artists who had not yet received much mainstream attention or whose work conformed less readily with the lingering aesthetic biases that shaped the Intuitive canon. We are therefore very excited to exhibit selections from the Wayne and Myrene Cox Collection and to do so in a way that interprets the featured artists in their cultural context, by focusing on their involvement in the creation of spiritual yards—an important but as yet under-documented aspect of Jamaica’s cultural heritage. Spiritual Yards features the work of ten such artists, namely Errol Lloyd “Powah” Atherton, Vincent Atherton, Everald Brown, Pastor Winston Brown, Leonard Daley, Reginald English, Elijah (Geneva Mais Jarrett), William “Woody” Josephs, Errol McKenzie, and Sylvester Stephens, as well as an introduction to the concept of the spiritual yard, which is illustrated with works from the Cox collection that that depict such yards and related practices.

The theme of the Spiritual Yards exhibition was suggested by Wayne Cox himself, who has also contributed the main catalogue essay, much of the biographical material on the artists, and the high resolution photographs of the artists and the video material that help to contextualize this exhibition, as well as sixty works from his collection. We are immensely grateful for Wayne’s generosity in facilitating and supporting this exhibition, and should acknowledge that it is not the first time we have benefited from his goodwill—he also contributed significantly to our Everald Brown retrospective in 2004 and our Intuitives III exhibition in 2006. It has been a real pleasure and privilege to work with Wayne again and we thank him, and his wife Myrene, for their enthusiastic and very generous support.



One thought on “Spiritual Yards – Introduction

  1. Pingback: Spiritual Yards – Introduction – black artists online

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