YARD POWAH by Wayne Cox – Part I

elijah-for-blog

Elijah (photo Wayne Cox – all rights reserved)

Here is our second post from the catalogue of the exhibition Spiritual Yards: Home Ground of Jamaica’s Intuitives – Selections from the Wayne and Myrene Cox Collection, which opens on December 11 – part 1 of the catalogue essay by Wayne Cox.

Elijah

In the mid-1990s, if one turned east from Maxfield Avenue onto Brown’s Lane in the Rose Town neighbourhood of Kingston, the zinc wall lining the road on the right changed abruptly from raw and rusted to vibrant and painted—covered with murals depicting angels, conquering lions and biblical scenes such as the Magi. The bottom half of the zinc gate to the yard there was painted red. The whole gate was overpainted with admonitions and moral messages and quotations from the Bible. The sign above the gate identified the location as Elijah Tabernacle. Inside the yard, spiritual murals covered the walls of the buildings. I watched Elijah, leading a service, turn toward the outside gate, point with her rod and quote Jesus. “I want my blood to be painted on the gates of Zion.” Elijah added, “That’s why my gate is painted red…It is the blood of Christ.”[1]

Before she was Elijah, she was Geneva Mais Jarrett. As an adult, she decided to get baptized after an illness. The woman performing the baptism saw an overwhelming number of angels surrounding Jarrett during the baptism. She also saw the Prophet Elijah. Jarrett then began her life of spiritual service under her new name, Elijah.

Her Revival Zion service sought spirit possession as a goal. Her murals helped in drawing spirits, as did other physical aspects, such as water basins and poles through which spirits could enter from below the ground or within the water. Other poles contained chest-high platforms, referred to as seals, on which were placed offerings of food and libation to attract the spirits.[2] Music, singing, dancing, clapping and marching around the water basin counter clockwise were the welcoming call to the spirits.[3] In Revival Zion the spirits who might answer the call include the Holy Spirit, Old Testament prophets, and archangels.[4] A Swiss woman who admired her murals visited her and suggested she also paint these types of scenes on canvas. Elijah did and soon was included in international exhibitions and at the National Gallery of Jamaica.

Detail of Errol Lloyd Atherton's spiritual yard (photo Wayne Cox - all rights reserved)

Detail of Errol Lloyd Atherton’s spiritual yard (photo Wayne Cox – all rights reserved)

Home Ground

Barry Chevannes believed Jamaica’s Intuitives “draw inspiration from their native religions. In the cosmology of the Jamaican people, their worldview, there is no great distinction between this world and the next world. You can easily pass from one dimension to another.”[5] For many of the Intuitives, their first canvas often was their own yard. This practice occurs throughout the Pan-African Diaspora. Before these artists made works for patrons, they worked to transform their own space. Often, that is their greatest work. Visual enactments are known as yard show or yard work or home ground. Judith McWillie, Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia and a scholar of postcolonial art and visual culture, spent years documenting yards of this type in the United States. She said those who undertake to empower their yard with intensity are ones who “maintain the belief that life can be transformed through ritual intentionality (art) when it is celebrated by men and women who assume the epic history of a People and convert it to themselves as individuals. Theirs is the ability to live mythically and in depth, on an intimate scale, while holding on to the idea that such a life flashes brightly from the center of all life.”[6]

These yards are often complex places of protection, resistance, power, affirmation, spiritual invocation and healing, ancestral memory, creative invention, community improvement and much more. The noted scholar of African and African Diasporic culture and Professor of Art History at Yale University Robert Farris Thompson sees them as “acts of defense and affirmation. Black yard art…has emerged as an independent African-American aesthetic of immense consequence and influence.”[7] Scholar and curator Randall Morris believes this practice is diaspora-wide and he documented the yards of several Jamaican Intuitives. In his essay for his exhibition HomeGround-Art of the Pan-African Diaspora (2012), that included a number of Jamaica’s Intuitives, he wrote:

The artists in this exhibition are all culture-bearers (who) have taken upon themselves the weight of carrying tradition personally, and manifesting it by various means…it is an ancient calling.[8]

Leonard Daley (photo Wayne Cox - all rights reserved)

Leonard Daley (photo Wayne Cox – all rights reserved)

Leonard Daley

Much is known and popularly understood about street art in Jamaica, as most of it reflects well-known Rasta iconography and accessible subjects such as National Heroes, politics and popular culture. Intense yard shows are different. In 1979, Boxer saw his first painting by Leonard Daley when he viewed the wall in a garage on Donhead Avenue in Kingston. “The angst that streamed from the walls was tempered by the extra-ordinary inventiveness of the depictions of the various animal and human forms, and the distorted tortured heads…Bosch incarnate.”[9]

Daley created a new yard display whenever he moved. The “meanings” of his canvases are seldom apparent to a viewer. They were clearly understood to Daley, but he did not intend to present them didactically, rather as prompts or provocations for the viewer to deposit into his or her own mind to aid in their own transformation. It is like dub music without the tune as a guidepost. When he uses words it is to raise questions about society’s contradictions. “Which judge can have me not guilty when I am guilty?” he asks in his painting I Am a Wrongdoer/Who Can Judge the Seven Big Men? (1994-95).

Sylvester Stephens (photo Wayne Cox - all rights reserved)

Sylvester Stephens (photo Wayne Cox – all rights reserved)

Sylvester Stephens

One shouldn’t judge a yard show by its cover. At a roadside stand on the main road in Hopewell, Hanover, Sylvester Stephens makes and sells works of open-fired terra cotta. The sign at the road says flower pots and wedding gifts for sale. But his yard serves a further purpose. The sign on his building said “Riding into Jerusalem.” Stephens maintains a highly spiritualized yard designed to help him draw forth strength from his ancestors. He displayed his works on platforms similar to some Revival seals, like those in Elijah’s Revival yard—head-high bamboos poles implanted in the ground with platforms to hold the clay works. In a Pukkumina yard, the function of the pole is one of a passageway for the sprits below to come forth.[10] He marked the poles with spiritual symbols. The works themselves weren’t flower pots, nor conventional wedding gifts. They were usually spiritual works and large-scale homages to his ancestors and spiritual leaders, such as Henry/Spirit of the Clay and Elsie. Come to buy a pot, take a ride with Sylvester into Jerusalem instead.

Reginald English (photo Wayne Cox - all rights reserved)

Reginald English (photo Wayne Cox – all rights reserved)

Reginald English

Reginald English’s roadside stand in Boscobel in the 1990s displayed works of carved metal. The culture English was bearing was Jonkunnu. He was a Jonkunnu performer—Cowhead. He carved out figures from Jonkunnu and spirit figures such as River Mummas. Some others he called “whoodies,” spirit figures from deep in the countryside, ones he often depicted naked.

William "Woody" Joseph (photo Wayne Cox - all rights reserved)

William “Woody” Joseph (photo Wayne Cox – all rights reserved)

William “Woody” Joseph

Joseph one day went to the river near his home on a hillside overlooking Castleton, St Mary, to heal his foot by washing it with water. He grabbed hold of a piece of wood in the water and was inspired to carve it. He continued carving wood for the next 30 years as a spiritual service. “I carve to capture the heart of justice,” he told me in the early 1990s. He did not elaborate his house and yard except for adding a large inside sign: “Human Woody Creation Peace and Justice.” Ferdinand Protzman of the Washington Post in a review said his carvings were “imbued with a kind of spirituality that makes them appear to be on the verge of singing, shouting, or simply ascending to heaven. Sculpture with such spiritual resonance and evocative power is rare in this world. It is only produced by great artists.”[11]

#     #     #

About Wayne Cox

Wayne Cox and his wife Myrene have collected and documented the work of Jamaica’s Intuitives for 30 years. Their homes in Port Maria and in Royal Palm Beach, Florida, serve as important repositories of the work of these artists. Works of the Wayne and Myrene Cox Collection have been widely exhibited internationally. Wayne has written exhibition catalogue essays for a number of exhibitions, including “Intuitives III” at the National Gallery of Jamaica. He has presented at symposiums including “Taking the Road Less Traveled: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists” at the Kohler Art Center and “Uncommon Visions” at the American Folk Art Museum in the United States. In 2005, Art and Antiques named the Coxes to their list of the “Top 100 Art Collectors in the United States.”  Wayne Cox’s email is artjamaica2@yahoo.com.

References

[1] Wayne Cox interview with Elijah, 1996

[2] In Jamaica’s Revival religions the word “seal” generally refers to a site imbued with particular spiritual presence. This may refer to the yard as a whole, which is also known as the “seal ground” or to specific locations and objects, such as a centre pole, water basins, spiritual constructions and ground drawings. (See for instance: Edward Seaga. Revival Cults in Jamaica. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1969).

[3] Dr Clinton Hutton refers to “an altar, a seal, as it is adorned with objects to induce spiritual possession.” In: Paul Williams. “The Symbolic Revival Turban,” Gleaner, March 22, 2015.

[4] Diane Austin-Broos. Jamaica Genesis/Religion and the Politics of Moral Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997, p62-63.

[5] Remarks at Art for Life’s Sake, a symposium on Jamaican Intuitive Art, National Gallery of Jamaica, October 26, 2006.

[6] Judith McWilllie. Another Face of the Diamond: Pathways through the Black Atlantic South. New York: INTAR Latin American Gallery, 1989, p10.

[7] Robert Farris Thompson. Black Art: Ancestral Legacy. New York: Dallas Museum of Art/Harry N. Abrams, 1989, p123.

[8] Randall Morris. HomeGround—Art of the Pan-African Diaspora. New York: Cavin-Morris Gallery/ISSUU, 2012, p2.

[9] David Boxer. Fifteen Intuitives. Kingston: National Gallery of Art, 1987, p8.

[10] While Zion Revival engages mainly with Biblical or “heavenly” spirits, Pukkumina engages the ancestors or “ground” spirits. (See: Edward Seaga. Revival Cults in Jamaica. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1969).

[11] Ferdinand Protzman. “Jamaica’s True Colors,” Washington Post, September 2, 1999.

 

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “YARD POWAH by Wayne Cox – Part I

  1. Pingback: YARD POWAH by Wayne Cox – Part I – black artists online

  2. Pingback: YARD POWAH by Wayne Cox – Part I – black in construction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s