Elijah (photo Wayne Cox – all rights reserved)
Here is our second post from the catalogue of the exhibition Spiritual Yards: Home Ground of Jamaica’s Intuitives – Selections from the Wayne and Myrene Cox Collection, which opens on December 11 – part 1 of the catalogue essay by Wayne Cox.
In the mid-1990s, if one turned east from Maxfield Avenue onto Brown’s Lane in the Rose Town neighbourhood of Kingston, the zinc wall lining the road on the right changed abruptly from raw and rusted to vibrant and painted—covered with murals depicting angels, conquering lions and biblical scenes such as the Magi. The bottom half of the zinc gate to the yard there was painted red. The whole gate was overpainted with admonitions and moral messages and quotations from the Bible. The sign above the gate identified the location as Elijah Tabernacle. Inside the yard, spiritual murals covered the walls of the buildings. I watched Elijah, leading a service, turn toward the outside gate, point with her rod and quote Jesus. “I want my blood to be painted on the gates of Zion.” Elijah added, “That’s why my gate is painted red…It is the blood of Christ.”
Before she was Elijah, she was Geneva Mais Jarrett. As an adult, she decided to get baptized after an illness. The woman performing the baptism saw an overwhelming number of angels surrounding Jarrett during the baptism. She also saw the Prophet Elijah. Jarrett then began her life of spiritual service under her new name, Elijah.
Her Revival Zion service sought spirit possession as a goal. Her murals helped in drawing spirits, as did other physical aspects, such as water basins and poles through which spirits could enter from below the ground or within the water. Other poles contained chest-high platforms, referred to as seals, on which were placed offerings of food and libation to attract the spirits. Music, singing, dancing, clapping and marching around the water basin counter clockwise were the welcoming call to the spirits. In Revival Zion the spirits who might answer the call include the Holy Spirit, Old Testament prophets, and archangels. A Swiss woman who admired her murals visited her and suggested she also paint these types of scenes on canvas. Elijah did and soon was included in international exhibitions and at the National Gallery of Jamaica.
Detail of Errol Lloyd Atherton’s spiritual yard (photo Wayne Cox – all rights reserved)
Barry Chevannes believed Jamaica’s Intuitives “draw inspiration from their native religions. In the cosmology of the Jamaican people, their worldview, there is no great distinction between this world and the next world. You can easily pass from one dimension to another.” For many of the Intuitives, their first canvas often was their own yard. This practice occurs throughout the Pan-African Diaspora. Before these artists made works for patrons, they worked to transform their own space. Often, that is their greatest work. Visual enactments are known as yard show or yard work or home ground. Judith McWillie, Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia and a scholar of postcolonial art and visual culture, spent years documenting yards of this type in the United States. She said those who undertake to empower their yard with intensity are ones who “maintain the belief that life can be transformed through ritual intentionality (art) when it is celebrated by men and women who assume the epic history of a People and convert it to themselves as individuals. Theirs is the ability to live mythically and in depth, on an intimate scale, while holding on to the idea that such a life flashes brightly from the center of all life.”
These yards are often complex places of protection, resistance, power, affirmation, spiritual invocation and healing, ancestral memory, creative invention, community improvement and much more. The noted scholar of African and African Diasporic culture and Professor of Art History at Yale University Robert Farris Thompson sees them as “acts of defense and affirmation. Black yard art…has emerged as an independent African-American aesthetic of immense consequence and influence.” Scholar and curator Randall Morris believes this practice is diaspora-wide and he documented the yards of several Jamaican Intuitives. In his essay for his exhibition HomeGround-Art of the Pan-African Diaspora (2012), that included a number of Jamaica’s Intuitives, he wrote:
The artists in this exhibition are all culture-bearers (who) have taken upon themselves the weight of carrying tradition personally, and manifesting it by various means…it is an ancient calling.
Leonard Daley (photo Wayne Cox – all rights reserved)
Much is known and popularly understood about street art in Jamaica, as most of it reflects well-known Rasta iconography and accessible subjects such as National Heroes, politics and popular culture. Intense yard shows are different. In 1979, Boxer saw his first painting by Leonard Daley when he viewed the wall in a garage on Donhead Avenue in Kingston. “The angst that streamed from the walls was tempered by the extra-ordinary inventiveness of the depictions of the various animal and human forms, and the distorted tortured heads…Bosch incarnate.”
Daley created a new yard display whenever he moved. The “meanings” of his canvases are seldom apparent to a viewer. They were clearly understood to Daley, but he did not intend to present them didactically, rather as prompts or provocations for the viewer to deposit into his or her own mind to aid in their own transformation. It is like dub music without the tune as a guidepost. When he uses words it is to raise questions about society’s contradictions. “Which judge can have me not guilty when I am guilty?” he asks in his painting I Am a Wrongdoer/Who Can Judge the Seven Big Men? (1994-95). Continue reading