On Tuesday, we received the sad news of the passing of David Marchand, just short of what would have been his seventy-third birthday. Marchand was one of the most unique Jamaican artists, legendary for his eccentricity (and at times bellicose personality) but even more so for his brilliant, quirky visionary paintings and assemblage boxes. The National Gallery of Jamaica’s pay tribute to him and his unique body of work.
David Marchand was born in Old Harbour, St. Catherine, in 1944. He studied art in New York City in the 1960s but he found that the city had too many distractions and returned to Jamaica. His first solo exhibition was at the Contemporary Artists Association Gallery on Oxford Road in 1970. He briefly worked for a local advertising industry but soon retreated from formal employment to focus on his art and, arguably, to live life on his own unconventional terms. In recent decades, his studio and home was in Runaway Bay, St Ann, where he shared space with a large number of cats in the burnt-out shell of what must once has been a glamorous beachfront residence, a family property.
Marchand’s “big break” as an artist may never have come, as he frequently lamented, but his artistic work was well respected in the local artistic community and he had the support of several loyal friends and collectors. The producer and art collector Maxine Walters was arguably his greatest champion and her daughter, the film-maker Chloe Walters-Wallace, has been working on a documentary on Marchand and his work, titled Tsunami Scarecrow. The title of the documentary refers to Marchand’s often-told vision of a major tsunami, approaching not from the sea in front of his home, as one would have expected, but from over the hills behind him—a cataclysmic event that would have destroyed the island of Jamaica and perhaps the rest of the world. The title also refers to his unusual appearance—a thin, scarecrow-like figure with wild, wiry hair.
Marchand’s paintings and assemblage boxes comment, with provocative, satirical humour, on the spectacle of human life—with often autobiographical subjects that spoke about relationships, sexuality, politics, freedom, and about being an artist—set against the much bigger spectacle of the cosmos and its celestial bodies, and the uncontrollable forces of nature. While his paintings have similar qualities, his unique visionary imagination is most evident in his boxes—mini-dioramas constructed from bought and found objects and hand-built elements, to produce surreal scenes such as a group of tooth and paint brushes in a romantic slow dance scene, or the artist-prophet in contemplative dialogue with the apocalyptic spectacle of the universe, as a modern, decidedly irreverent St John the Apostle.
David Marchand regularly exhibited at the National Gallery of Jamaica, in the Annual National and Biennial exhibitions, and was most recently featured in the 2014 Jamaica Biennial, which included two of his boxes. He was also one of the artists featured in the National Gallery’s Curator’s Eye I exhibition in 2004, which was guest-curated by the noted African-American art historian and curator, Lowery Stokes Sims. He also participated regularly in exhibitions at Harmony Hall in Tower Isle, St Mary. His most recent exhibition was organized as part of the KOTE (Kingston on the Edge) festival in 2015, presented under the title Tsunami Scarecrow, a retrospective of his work which was shown at the Devonshire at Devon House.
David Marchand appears as a side character in the French music journalist Helene Lee’s book The First Rasta (2003), a travelogue which follows the trail of Leonard Howell, and it seems appropriate to close this tribute with a quote from this book, which captures the uncanny poetry of Marchand’s relationship with the cosmic universe, which he has now fully rejoined:
In Runaway Bay, in 1999, David Marchand is watching the sky. A purple bank of clouds on the western horizon has swallowed up the sun, and the first pale stars have appeared. David is perplexed. He is looking at an unfamiliar constellation. One of the stars isn’t supposed to be there, but it’s still early and the sky remains too transparent to be sure of this celestial apparition he thinks he sees. David waits on the shore, his copper features shining in the orange light under a halo of crazy hair. Maybe he’s mistaken, but…this strange star!