In Memoriam Maria Layacona (1926 – 2019)

Maria LaYacona – Image courtesy of Donnette Zacca

The National Gallery of Jamaica received the sad news of the passing of celebrated photojournalist and portrait photographer Maria LaYacona on Sunday April 28, 2019.

Born on November 18, 1926 in Cleveland Ohio to Italian parents, LaYacona first studied photography with her father Mario LaYacona and later trained at the Winona School of Photography in Warsaw Indiana. She went on to work as a photojournalist for LIFE magazine and travelled around the world documenting life in the 1950s for the magazine. She first came to Jamaica in 1955 while on an assignment for LIFE magazine to photograph Australian Cricket team’s first match –and also the first night game – at Sabina Park.  She fell in love with the island and in her own words “felt she had a tremendous future here” and made Jamaica her home until her passing.

She was the official photographer for the National Dance Theatre Company from its inception in 1962 until 1992. From that association, the books Roots and Rhythms and Renewal and Continuity – The National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica – 1962–2008 were developed with both books benefitting from the extensive visual repertoire she had developed for the NDTC over the years.

Maria LaYacona – Rex Nettleford (1965/1993), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

Though known primarily for her beautifully lit black and white photography, she was also a founding member of the Colour Photographic Club of Jamaica in 1964 which became one of the leading promoters and innovators of the art form in the island.  With her black and white photography however, she felt that without the distractions of colour, the beauty of her subjects was more evident to her audience.  LaYacona made quite an impact as a commercial photographer. She was one of the early advocates for the use of Jamaican models in local advertising campaigns for such companies as Berger Paints, Milo and Captain Morgan’s Rum, which led to increased local success for these companies.

Video courtesy of Frame By Frame Productions 

Her commercial work led to portraits and she was known for her sensitive and engaging portraiture which she felt “showed the identities and personalities of her subjects.” She was the professional portraitist for many of Jamaica’s Prime Ministers including Alexander Bustamante, Norman Manley and Edward Seaga; her portrait of Prime Minister Michael Manley was also used for the One Thousand Dollar bill. LaYacona also photographed many of Jamaica’s visual artists including David Pottinger, Mallica Kapo Reynolds and Edna Manley and major cultural figures such as Sir Phillip Sherlock, Millie Small and  Paul Campbell, but it was her photographs depicting everyday Jamaicans: fishermen, vendors and children that proved to be her most iconic.

Maria LaYacona – Anthony Simpson, Richard Brown, Jason Clare and Ronald Francis Green Hill Portland (1981)

Her first major exhibition – which featured photographs of the National Dance Theatre Company – was held at Devon House 1972, the same year that she was awarded the Silver Musgrave Award.  Her second major exhibition, a survey of Jamaican portraits, was held at the National Gallery of Jamaica in 1993 (LaYacona would later serve on the National Gallery’s Board of Directors from 1998 to 2004). Her long career of capturing images also led to the production of two collections of her photography Jamaican Portraits and Jamaica Reverie which showcased her enduring passion for the people of Jamaica and its landscape.

The Board of Directors and the staff of the National Gallery of Jamaica wish to extend their sincere condolences to the family, friends and caregivers of Maria LaYacona.

The NGJ Pays Tribute to Rex Nettleford

Maria LaYacona - Rex Nettleford (1965/1993), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

The heart has been ripped out of Jamaican nationalist culture, but the soul remains. His is an incredible legacy of providing us practitioners with a range of strategies for self-definition in both the personal sense and in the national sense.

David Boxer

The Board and Staff of the National Gallery of Jamaica are deeply saddened by the passing of that giant among Jamaica’s creative artists and men of letters, Rex Nettleford. His prodigious writings and achievements as a scholar and educator and his role in fashioning this nation’s premier performing ensemble, the National Dance Theatre Company will be much remarked on in the weeks to come; and any quick perusal of his biography on the internet will yield up the awesomely impressive statistics of this much honoured son of Jamaica who carried this country’s name high wherever discussion and debate about the renaissance of  a true and honourable Black identity took place. We will not recount these facts and statistics here; we would like instead to simply record our own deep gratitude for Rex Nettleford’s continued interaction with this institution from the early days of our gestation when he worked with Edna Manley and Michael Manley, Maurice Facey and Jean Smith and dozens others to establish this Institution.

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