The National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) joins the visual arts community to reflect on the passing of renowned and respected Jamaican painter, Alexander Cooper, O.D, who died on March 10, 2020. Among the most beloved of Jamaica’s visual artists, Mr. Cooper is described as a figurative painter with an interest in abstraction and contemporary styles of painting (Petrine Archer).
Born Joshua Alexander Cooper in Enfield, St Mary 1934, he realised his innate talent as a young boy at Elletson Elementary School in East Kingston (now the Vauxhall High School) though creating illustrations of Bible stories, requested of him by his teachers. Cooper’s talent also drew the attention of his family and friends who supported his journey into the artistic domain. The validation he received fuelled his passion to pursue the visual arts in a serious way. While growing up, Cooper admired and was inspired by the works of other Jamaican painters such as Albert Huie and Ralph Campbell. Following in their footsteps, Cooper excelled at painted genre scenes which documented the everyday happenings of Jamaican city and rural life (Petrine Archer).
At the beginning of his journey as a professional artist, Cooper was awarded a government scholarship and matriculated to the Jamaica School of the Arts (now the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts) where he received a substantial part of his training as an artist, graduating in 1959. Cooper then expanded his vision towards a more international perspective, when he moved to New York in 1963 to study at The Art Students League and the School of the Visual Arts. After receiving formal training from among the best internationally, he returned to newly independent Jamaica in 1967 to contribute to the national development of his nation through visual arts.
Cooper was accurately described by Petrine Archer as an artist that emerged “… from a generation of painters that were the children of a newly formed Jamaican nationalism”. Upon his return, “… he set about continuing the work of Edna Manley and the pioneers and, along with fellow artist Osmond Watson began mounting exhibitions and passing on their knowledge at the School of Art (1970s) and other institutions of learning, including Kingston College” (Jamaica Observer 2020).
Alexander Cooper has received numerous awards for his outstanding contribution to the development of visual arts in Jamaica. He was the recipient in 1962 and in 1964 of first prize in the Jamaica National Fine Arts Competition. Listed among his achievements, in 1965, at a very controversial time in American history for people of African descent, Alexander was the first Jamaican artist to be invited to hold an art show at the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C. (Olympia Gallery). He was presented with the Prime Minister’s Award in 1993 and the Institute of Jamaica’s Silver Musgrave Award in 2001. In 2016, Mr. Cooper was conferred with a national honour – the Order of Distinction (Officer rank) – by the Jamaican Government for his “outstanding contribution to the arts”. In 2017, the NGJ organized a tribute exhibition in honour of his career achievements, featured as part of the Jamaica Biennial of that year. In the accompanying article for the tribute exhibition, Monique Barnett-Davidson (then NGJ Assistant Curator) stated that,
“Cooper has painted numerous portraits of local and international public figures, including key figures in the Jamaican art world. Alexander Cooper is renowned and indeed beloved for producing genre paintings that present a nostalgic, gently humorous view of Jamaican life, as well as for his portraiture and landscapes”.
Mr. Cooper was well known for his love of displaying the richness and vibrancy of Jamaican life – its people, the landscape and moments in everyday life, both past and present. During his lifetime, Mr Cooper – while representing the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and the Arts Craftsmen Guild – served as part of the subcommittee used for the adjudication of annual exhibitions at the NGJ.
Alexander Cooper is celebrated as a well accomplished exhibitor locally the 1960s and has during his career, participated in most of the Annual National and Biennial exhibitions at the National Gallery of Jamaica. He has also exhibited internationally, including in New York, Mexico, Canada, London, and Germany. His latest exhibitions such as Celebrating Mothers 1999 and The Village 2002 demonstrated his interest in traditional values and using painting as a medium for social reform. These themes have also made his work attractive to collectors abroad such as Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Angela Bassett, collectors of African American Art who recognize the same strains of race pride in his work (Petrine Archer). One of his most notable exhibitions was his anniversary exhibition entitled 50 Years–Then and Now (2012), at the Mutual Gallery in Kingston, Jamaica (Barnett-Davidson 2017).
In this light, the NGJ’s Board of Directors, management and staff, honour Mr. Alexander Cooper – one of the founding fathers of the local art community – for his outstanding contribution to the national development of visual arts in Jamaica.
Archer, Petrine. “Alexander Cooper.” Art History, News and Reviews. n.d. http://petrinearcher.com/index.php/artist-bio/alexander-cooper
Barnett-Davidson, Monique. “Jamaica Biennial 2017 – Tribute to Alexander Cooper.” National Gallery of Jamaica Blog. 2017.
George A Smathers Libraries. “Alexander Cooper.” Artist Catalogue. n.d. http://exhibits.uflib.ufl.edu/aboutface/artists.html
Olympia Gallery. “Alexander Cooper.” n.p. n.d. http://www.alexandercooper.com/about.html