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

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In Retrospect: 40 Years of the NGJ – Introduction

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As has become customary for all our exhibitions, we are publishing the text panels in the In Retrospect: 40 Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica exhibition. Here is the introduction:

When the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) opened its doors on November 14, 1974 it was the English-speaking Caribbean’s first national gallery, and forty years later it is the region’s oldest and largest national art museum. The recent addition of National Gallery West at the Montego Bay Cultural Centre, has further added to its reach and size. Since 1974, the NGJ has held over one hundred and thirty exhibitions and established an encyclopaedic collection of Jamaican art. Through the process of amassing and exhibiting the art of Jamaica it has done more than preserve and display Jamaica’s artistic heritage. What the NGJ has truly excelled at is telling a story (‘the’ story, the NGJ has at times claimed) of Jamaican art, crafting the raw material of artists, artworks and anecdotes into a coherent narrative that resonates with how Jamaicans see and understand themselves in the world.

When the original two-hundred and sixty-two paintings and sculptures from the Institute collection arrived in 1974, the NGJ inherited a set of artworks but not a cohesive art history and its new Director/Curator, David Boxer, who joined the staff in 1975, embarked on articulating such an art history. What we now know about Jamaican art has been the product of dedicated research and, at times, fortuitous discovery, but still the process of compiling facts and perspectives into history is a storyteller’s art. This story has been told through our exhibitions and publications, through major donations, and even through the controversies that have swirled around the NGJ from its earliest years. It is a story about personalities, about nation building and competing interests and perspectives, and about articulating who Jamaicans are as a people.

The task we have set ourselves with In Retrospect: Forty Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica is to tell the story of that story, examining with a critical eye the role the NGJ has played in establishing how Jamaican art is understood. Since our acquisitions are an integral part of that story, the exhibition consists mainly of works from our collection, supplemented with a few loans and works that are presently in acquisition. For our examination of the NGJ’s history to be manageable, decisions had to be made about what to include and what to leave out. We do not claim that this exhibition provides an exhaustive overview of the NGJ’s history—this story, too, could have been told in a number of different ways—but we have sought to represent what we consider to be key events and developments.

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Michael Parchment (1957-2013)

Michael Parchment - Death of a Don (2010)

Michael Parchment – Death of a Don (2010)

The National Gallery of Jamaica deeply regrets the passing of the painter, sculptor and poet Michael Parchment on Tuesday, August 20, 2013.

Michael Parchment was born on August 13, 1957 to a Revival family and he lived in Seaview Gardens in Kingston for most of his adult life. Called by visions, he started painting in 1978 and had his first exhibition in 1983. He was a regular participant in the Festival Fine Arts Exhibition (later the National Visual Arts Competition and Exhibition), where he won many accolades, including Gold medals in 2006 and 2007. He regularly exhibited at Harmony Hall, the Mutual Gallery and the National Gallery of Jamaica in Jamaica, where he won the Tribute to Bob Marley Competition in 2005 with his relief panting No Woman Nuh Cry (2005). He was featured in the National Gallery’s Intuitives III exhibition in 2006. Parchment also exhibited internationally in the USA, Venezuala, England and Switzerland, and Canada and was recently featured in Contemporary Jamaican Art, Circa 1962/Circa 2012, which was staged on the occasion of Jamaica 50 at the Art Gallery of Mississauga near Toronto. He also self-published several volumes of his poetry, which had titles such as I Raged in Chains and The Inna Thoughts and Feelings of the Poet.

Michael Parchment - No Woman Nuh Cry, 2005

Michael Parchment – No Woman Nuh Cry (2005), Collection: NGJ

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Wilfred “Jabba” Francis (1924-2013)

Wilfred Francis - Ethiopia Stretches Forth Her Hand (1968), Collection: Wayne Chen

Wilfred Francis – Ethiopia Stretches Forth Her Hands (1968), Collection: Wayne Chen

The National Gallery of Jamaica deeply regrets the passing of self-taught artist Wilfred Francis on August 21, 2013.

Wilfred Francis, who was popularly known as “Jabba”, was born in Spanish Town on August 24, 1924 – he died just three days short of his 89th birthday – and started painting sometime in 1966. His first exhibition on record was the 1967 Festival exhibition, where his work was favourably received, but Francis withdrew from the formal art world shortly after although he continued working, reportedly because of negative experiences with art patrons. Nearly forty years later, he started exhibiting again, encouraged by art dealer and collector Wayne Gallimore, and in 2004 had his first and only solo exhibition at the Mutual Gallery. His unique style and eccentric, visionary imagination were a revelation to many in the Jamaican art world and late in life he acquired a small but enthusiastic following of collectors.

Wilfred Francis at his Kingston home and studio in 2006 (photo: Veerle Poupeye)

Wilfred Francis at his Kingston home and studio in 2006 (photo: Veerle Poupeye)

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In Memoriam: Gaston Lascelles Tabois (1924-2012)

Gaston Tabois – John Canoe in Guanaboa Vale (1962), Collection: NGJ

I put out my effort. Hopefully I’ll die very old having accomplished a lot of good for mankind.

Gaston Tabois, 1987

The National Gallery of Jamaica deeply regrets to announce that the Jamaican Intuitive artist Gaston Lascelles Tabois passed away earlier this week, on November 20, 2012.

Gaston Lascelles Tabois, circa 2010

Gaston Tabois was born in Trout Hall, Clarendon in 1924 but grew up in the small community of Rock River. He spent quite a bit of time on his parents’ small farm, but it was the solid work ethic that was instilled in him by instruction and example particularly that of his mother who insisted on the importance of him taking his educational opportunities seriously.

Gaston Tabois – Road Menders (1956), Collection: NGJ

His artistic talent was apparent from an early age as his elementary school teachers regularly tasked him with making charts for the classes. His dedication to self improvement saw him teaching himself Latin, Spanish, History and Mathematics but it was art that remained a constant in his life, even with his entry into the civil service.  Tabois eventually became the Acting Chief Draftsman in the Ministry of Construction but it was his artistic production that brought him national attention. As a self taught painter,he held his first solo show at the Hills Gallery in Kingston in 1955, where he was immediately hailed as one of the era’s most significant “primitive” painters. He continued exhibiting with the Hills Gallery for several years and his painting Road Menders (1956), which is now a prized part of the NGJ Collection, was originally shown there. Continue reading

Jamaica’s Art Pioneers: William “Woody” Joseph (1919-1998)

Woody in Stony Hill, early 1980s (NGJ files, photograph: Maria LaYacona)

Born May 1, 1919, in Castleton, St Mary, Jamaica, and died September 18, 1998, William “Woody” Joseph was one of modern Jamaica’s most original artists, although his work was firmly rooted in African-Jamaican religious and cultural traditions.

Life and Work

Woody was self-taught and started carving around 1965 or, as he put it, “two years after [hurricane] Flora”. He recounted:

I was farming … yam, banana, cocoa, thyme, cane, dasheen, potato … farming to get the food from the bushes … didn’t have no dependents to work the field wid me … and one day, I tek sick, the two legs cripple. Couldn’t walk, couldn’t stand up, couldn’t lay down … I go to the river-side and was praying. When mi was praying, I see a piece of wood coming down in de water … I see the piece of wood swimming in the water to mi. I tek it up….and form a bird.

(Homage to Woody, Mutual Life Galley, July 26, 1998) Continue reading