Jamaican Taíno Art at the NGJ

Zemi carving on staff (Yucahu?), Jamaican Taino culture, Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

This week, we celebrate the earliest beginnings of art in Jamaica, the art of the Jamaican Taíno, and the earliest works in the NGJ’s permanent collection, four very rare Taíno woodcarvings. The introductory text below was prepared by the NGJ’s Education Department.

They are a people so full of love and without greed… that I believe there is no better race or better land … they love their neighbours as themselves…

— Christopher  Columbus.

The Jamaican Taíno shared much of the culture of the so called Classic Taíno of Hispaniola, having originated from the same roots in South America.

It is believed that at the time of Columbus arrival here there were dozens of large Taíno settlements, some with hundreds of multifamily huts. Estimates of their number range from sixty thousand to six hundred thousand. Each village was controlled by a Cacique. It appears that there was a principal Cacique or “Cacique of the Caciques” for the entire island.

The Taíno were an agricultural people. They also hunted iguanas and coneys, fished and reaped shell food. But central to their way of life was the growing of cassava, their staple food. Highly important were the rituals associated with the growing and preparing of cassava (yucca), which involved the expelling of poisonous juices. In fact, the name Yucahu, given to their supreme Deity, translates as “spirit of cassava.”  In general they worshiped a wide range of sub-deities in the form of idols or zemis, who controlled all aspects of their lives and supervised the land of the dead, but they were in effect monotheistic as they believed in a single Supreme Deity, Yucahu.

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