"Jamaican Art: 1922-1982," on view in the art gallery of the Inter-American Development Bank, is a fascinating exhibition--the artistic analogue of Jamaican nationalism, which led to independence in 1962, and the visual aspect of the island's homegrown cultural consciousness, which has produced, among other things, reggae music.
Few nations can date so precisely the beginnings of their art. Jamaica's artistic awakening started in 1922 with the arrival of sculptor Edna Manley, the daughter of an English clergyman and a Jamaican woman, and the wife of Norman Manley, the nationalist politician. (Norman Manley died in 1969. Their son, Michael Manley, was the socialist prime minister of the country from 1972 to 1980.)
Edna Manley, born in 1900, was a gifted artist who created an important work during her first few months on the island, which she perceived as her true home even while growing up in England. This bronze piece, "The Beadseller," combining sharp Cubist planes, an Art Deco sense of style and an authentic Jamaican subject, makes a fitting beginning to the exhibition.
Her description of artistic life on the island during these years rings with impatience and a spirited vision of the future. "A few anemic imitators of European traditions, a few charming parlor tricks, and then practically silence," she wrote in 1934. "Nothing virile, nor original, nor in any sense creative, and nothing, above all, that is an expression of the deep-rooted, hidden pulse of the country--that thing which gives it its unique life."
The Manleys' home became the artistic center of the culturally sleepy island. It was through Edna Manley's encouragement and teaching that the first generation of truly Jamaican artists emerged and her own work continued to develop, as seen in the fine, dream-image wooden sculpture "Horse of the Morning" (1943) and the moving bronze "Ancestor" figures (1978).
The sculptural prowess of Jamaican artists, remindful of African carving traditions on many levels, is especially impressive. Besides works by Manley, the list includes the expressive, four-faced wooden figure, "Talisman" (c. 1940) by David Miller Sr.; the strong, humorous, ethnic heads created over three decades by David Miller Jr.; heads carved from wood by Alvin Marriott with a forceful realism recalling Benin sculpture; a massive head with a strongly oriental flavor by Ronald Moody (1965); the Yoruba-like relief carving, "Revival Kingdom" (1969) by Osmond Watson; a tremendously rhythmic female figure, "Spirit of Change" (1979), carved in relief by Christopher Gonzalez; and totemic wooden figures, somewhat pre-Columbian in character, carved in the last two years by William Joseph.
This list is all the more amazing because it omits the best artist of the group, Mallica Reynolds, known on the island as Kapo, a revivalist preacher and self-taught artist whose extraordinary wooden figures seem to fulfill Manley's call for an "expression of the deep-rooted, hidden pulse of the country."
Two primary strains of Jamaican art, the mainstream (meaning works by artists educated in and influenced by European traditions) and the "intuitive" (meaning works by self-taught artists), are identified in a catalogue essay by David Boxer, curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica. In painting the "intuitive" strain seems the more vigorous and fresh, with an impressive list of artists, including Kapo (who also paints), John Dunkley, Sidney McLaren, Albert Artwell, Everald Brown and Clinton Brown. To the American eye too many of the mainstream painters are overpowered by their sources, although there are exceptions, including original, forceful works by Albert Huie, Karl Parboosingh, George Rodney and Colin Garland.
The catalogue ($10) is must reading for serious viewers of the show, which was organized by Boxer and Vera Hyatt for the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service. The exhibition will travel in the United States for two years after it closes in Washington on Aug. 6. The gallery of the Inter-American Development Bank is located at 801 17th St. NW and is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.