Here is the third and final of a three-part blog post series based on a lecture presented by NGJ Executive Director, Dr Veerle Poupeye, at the Jamaica Music Museum’s Grounation programme of February 16, 2014.
Everald Brown, to turn to my last and main case study, was born in Mado District, deep rural St Ann in 1917 and died in New York City in 2003, where he was visiting with one of his children. In another example of rural to urban migration, Brother Brown, who was a carpenter by trade, and his young wife Jenny moved to West Kingston in 1947. They settled at 82 ½ Spanish Town Road, at a yard which also housed a Zion Revival band and a Kumina community. The 1940s and 50s were a period of Rastafarian ferment in West Kingston and Brother Brown was attracted by the teachings of Joseph Hibbert, a pioneering exponent who emphasized the mystical, religious aspects of Rastafari. Like many religious Rastafari, Brother Brown found inspiration in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, as the authentic Christian church from the African Zion and around 1960 Brother Brown established an informal mission of the EOC, which he named the Assembly of the Living. Brother Brown and his family were baptised in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church when this denomination was formally established in Jamaica in 1970 and he was initially an active member, who for instance constructed the EOC cathedral’s Ark of the Covenant, but his beliefs and practices were far from orthodox, and combined elements of Rastafari, Revival, Kumina, and Freemasonry – all of which are also evident in his artistic work. The question thus arises whether Brother Brown can be labelled as a Rastafarian artist. As I wrote in the 2004 Everald Brown retrospective catalogue:
I believe that to insist that Brother Brown was a Rastafarian artist, in any narrow sense, would be as short-sighted and incorrect as to suggest that he wasn’t. First of all, it is inappropriate to impose any narrow, rigid definitions on Rastafari itself, a religious and political belief system that is, except for a few groups, devoid of the dogmatism that characterizes organized religion and allows for significant personal interpretation. While many Rastafarians have been critical of traditional Afro-Jamaican religious and magical beliefs and practices, especially Obeah, there is in fact considerable cultural and religious continuity between Rastafari and Revival and Kumina. Furthermore, religious Rastafari does not necessarily exist in opposition to Christianity but often incorporates it, hence the attraction to elements of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Inevitably, there are tensions and contradictions in such syncretic beliefs—the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, for instance, does not recognize the divinity of Haile Selassie I and no doubt takes a dim view of Jamaican spiritualism—but these are an integral and legitimate part of cultural and ideological dynamics of these beliefs. It is therefore more productive to think of Jamaican Rastafarian culture as a broad, fluid and open-ended cultural spectrum or sphere, which overlaps and interacts with other local and transnational cultural spheres, such as those of the traditional Afro-Jamaican religions. If approached from that perspective, it becomes a lot less problematic to define Brother Brown’s work as ‘Rastafarian art.’
Brother Brown’s small, self-built church on Spanish Town Road was decorated with paintings and Brown also produced various ritual objects and musical instruments which were used by his church community, which consisted mainly of his own extended family. He was discovered as an artist in the late 1960s, by Janet Grant-Woodham, who was Folklore Research Officer at the Institute of Jamaica, and some of the radical young intellectuals at the University of the West Indies, such as Timothy Callender, Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Eleanor Wint, who brokered his first exhibition at the Creative Arts Centre in 1969. Brother Brown started exhibiting regularly since then, in the 1970s often jointly with his young son Clinton Brown, who also painted and produced musical instruments.