The NGJ is planning to develop a Caribbean film programme and, eventually also, collection and as our first steps in this direction, we have started integrating film screenings into our Last Sundays programme. We started with Storm Saulter’s Better Mus’ Come in January and have continued today with an earlier Jamaican film Dickie Jobson’s Countryman (1982). Below is Nicole Smythe-Johnson’s introduction to the film and its relevance to the themes of the Natural Histories exhibition.
You could describe Countryman (1982) as one of two things, depending on how generous you’re feeling. You could call it a B movie … or you could call it an arthouse film. To my mind, those descriptions are equally appropriate, though the self-proclaimed “a bush movie’ is probably best.
This is a ninety-minute, overtly low budget film made in Jamaica in 1982. Though there is some gratuitous nudity – early in the film, the female lead (Kristina St Clair) surrenders her blouse to be used as a weapon against an alligator, revealing her bountiful bosom – a great deal else is happening here. There are the stunning vistas, mystical aspects and a narrative that is almost anti-progress, unusual in early 80s Jamaica. For me, all this does not fully emancipate Countryman from B movie status but makes it endearingly so. In the vein of other cult classics such as The Little Shop of Horrors or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it is refreshingly off-beat.
The director of the film- the late, great Richard ”Dickie” Jobson – was a close friend of both Perry Henzell and Chris Blackwell. So Countryman is very much part of that moment of indigenous film exploration that produced the earlier and more popular The Harder They Come (1972). Born in St Ann, Jobson lived in England for much of his life working with the Island group of companies, including a stint as Bob Marley’s manager. Countryman was Jobson’s only feature film, though at the time of his death in December 2008 he was said to be working on a screenplay based on Bob Marley’s song Mr Brown. Continue reading →
Colin Garland – In the Beautiful Caribbean (1974), oil on canvas, Collection: NGJ
One of the theoretical pillars of the Natural Histories exhibition is our interest in how artists have utilised natural history motifs to speak about the different aspects of human history and experience. Perhaps informed by his childhood fascination with nature and collecting specimens in his native Australia, Colin Garland makes eloquent use of the inherent beauty and symbolic content of natural elements found in his compositions. There are three works by Garland in this exhibition: Venus Reliquary (1977), Patoo (1994) and the thematically rich In the Beautiful Caribbean (1974).
Looking at the contents of the jewel box-like container represented in Venus Reliquary, one is inevitably reminded of the collections of species of exotic marine life amassed by pioneering natural history scientists like Sir Hans Sloane, the so-called cabinet of curiosities. Seemingly opened for the viewers’ perusal, the massively scaled work magnifies its precious contents, a variety of seashells and coral, the shells represent prosperity, the feminine as well as the spiritual aspect of life, rebirth and baptism. The coral referred to as the sea tree was a symbol of the Great Goddess and was linked to fertility, like Venus whose reliquary it is. Born of sea foam and depicted in classic works like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1486) journeying to land on a scallop shell, the variety of shells here could be representative of the many transatlantic journeys that transformed the Caribbean.
Colin Garland – Venus Reliquary (1977), oil on board, Aaron & Marjorie Matalon Collection
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TOM CRINGLE’S COTTON TREE: This Ceiba, or Silk Cotton, tree is of a type common to many parts of Jamaica. Its majestic spread of branches provides shade and shelter, and you will notice, a host of many types of parasitic plans. This particular tree was mentioned in ‘Tom Cringle’s Log” a 19th century novel by Michael Scott. Cotton trees are believed by the superstitious to be the haunt of “duppies” (ghosts)
Jamaica Tourist Board, Kingston, Jamaica
The Silk Cotton tree or Ceiba Pentandra is indigenous to the tropical Americas, Jamaica included, and a variety is also found in West Africa. One of the largest and most visually spectacular indigenous trees, the Silk Cotton tree takes more than a century to reach its typical size – up to 40 metres high and with the diameter of its trunk up to 3 metres – and to develop its dramatic buttress roots. The tree blooms annually and produces fruits that burst open to reveal a ball of silky white fibres inside.
Silk Cotton trees can survive for centuries and, as Olive Senior points out, often harbour “on its branches a great variety of wild life – orchids, wild pines, parasites, birds’ nests, creepers – which contribute to its almost supernatural appearance.” (134) The Silk Cotton tree also has a number of practical applications: its light wood and large size made it the material of choice for the Taíno dugout canoes; it is a source of kapok and was used to make cloth by the Taíno; and various parts of the tree are used for medicinal purposes.
Not surprisingly, the Silk Cotton Tree has considerable cultural significance, as is evident throughout the Caribbean. The trees were considered sacred by the Taíno, as the dwelling place of spirits and hold similar significance in African-derived popular religion, which may have incorporated some Taíno beliefs. In Jamaican culture, the Silk Cotton tree is associated with duppies and serves as a site for gatherings, rituals and revelations in Revival and Kumina. Because of their size and longevity, Silk Cotton trees stand as silent, giant witnesses to centuries of history and serve as landmarks that provide shelter and shade.
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Cecil Baugh – Egyptian Blue (1992), Earthenware, Collection: NGJ (Gift of Sonia Jones)
The work of Cecil Baugh, Jamaica’s master potter, holds an important place in the history of Jamaican art. Though there is a long tradition of pottery in Jamaica dating back to the Taino, Baugh was the first to systematically explore pottery as fine art; researching and utilising local clays and forms extensively and developing a number of glazes such as Egyptian Blue shown here. As a young man, Baugh’s work consisted largely of traditional Jamaican pottery- yabbas and monkey jars- used for domestic purposes. He soon began to experiment with developing his own style. In his book, Baugh: Jamaica’s Master Potter (1986) co-written with Laura Tanna, he writes:
I thought of glazes but the transparent lead glaze was the only one available. So I started off to experiment. None of the other traditional potters were making coloured glazes but I could see the imported pots were coloured and I thought, ‘Well I’m using clay. Why can’t my pots be coloured also?’ I’d never done science in school so I had to learn by trial and error. […] Then by accident one night I discovered the Egyptian Blue. […] So I found the original method that potters in Egypt had developed, without my ever reading a book about it.
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Margaret Chen – Steppe IX (1982-89), mixed media on plyboard, Collection NGJ
Steppe IX is part of a larger series of 17 works by Margaret Chen. In her 1995 essay, Many Rivers Crossed for the catalogue New World Imagery: Contemporary Jamaican Art curator and art critic, Petrine Archer-Straw offered the following reading of the work:
Like many Chinese families in Jamaica, the Chens’ lives function around their business, that of furniture making. It was the proximity to materials and the possibility of studio facilities within their showroom-cum-factory that fostered Margaret Chen’s interest in sculpture or, more specifically, a type of relief carving of overall large surfaces. Through these works, Chen expresses her own understanding of the family’s work ethic, which is at once laborious and creative. There is something incredibly meditative and deceptively light about the quality of her carving in the Steppe Series (1981-82), which instantly draws parallels with Chinese watercolour brushwork. However, the evenness of her chipped strokes disguises the time and effort which must go into the preparation of these works. Continue reading →
Power comes from the map and it traverses the way maps are made. The key to this internal power is thus cartographic process. By this I mean the way maps are compiled and the categories of information selected; the way they are generalized, a set of rules for the abstraction of the landscape; the way the elements in the landscape are formed into hierarchies; and the way various rhetorical styles that also reproduce power are employed to represent the landscape. To catalogue the world is to appropriate it, so that all these technical processes represent acts of control over its image which extend beyond the professed uses of cartography.
J.B. Harley (1989)
The NGJ holds a fine collection of fourteen historical maps of Jamaica and the Caribbean region, which are part of the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection. One of these maps the 1786 Carte de l’Ile de la Jamaïque, which was based on an English survey and published by the Dépôt de la Marine in France, a publisher of nautical maps, is currently featured in the Natural Histories exhibition. Several others, including the earliest known, 1528 map of Jamaica by the Venetian Benedetto Bordone, can be viewed in our permanent galleries, where they invite interesting ideological and aesthetic comparisons with the topographical art of the colonial period, the estate and city views. While not usually intended as “art” and more obviously significant as historical documents, the historical maps in our collection possess a peculiar visual poetry, as diagrammatic representations of a changing vision of the world, and in this case, of the island of Jamaica.
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