Many baby boomers around the world share a certain conceit about Jamaica. Because they can sing Bob Marley's greatest hits, because they've seen "The Harder They Come" and filled their dorm rooms with smoke while pretending to be Rastas, because some of them have vacationed there, they think they know the country, its people and its culture.
It's a pathetically fanciful notion, as is quickly made clear by a visit to "Under the Curtain of Heaven: Visions of Jamaica," an exhibit at Fondo del Sol by 20 self-taught artists from the island. The Jamaica that emerges from the paintings and sculptures in this mind-opening show is an incredibly diverse place with a complex culture that defies the stereotyping of mass media or drug-muzzy minds.
The works come from the collection of Wayne and Myrene Cox, who have homes in Minnesota and Jamaica and have been patrons of the island's leading self-taught artists for years. Unlike many collectors of similar art from the Caribbean and the United States, the Coxes have made significant contributions to scholarship by interviewing the works' creators, among them William "Woody" Joseph, Albert Artwell and Elijah, who can be seen on video in the exhibit.
Viewing that video may be the best starting point for anyone visiting the show because it provides immensely valuable context. Many of these artists live deep in Jamaica's mountainous countryside, and seeing where and how they create is fascinating and telling.
Their existence is about as far from tropical seas, sunny beaches and reggae concerts as one can get. To a painter like Ras Dizzy, an adherent of Rastafarianism--a Jamaican religion in which white culture is rejected, Ethiopia's Haile Selassie is deified, marijuana is a sacrament and Ethiopia is seen as the spiritual home of the faithful--ganja isn't a recreational drug but a key component of his existence and his art.
For the artists in the exhibit who are Rastafarians, making art is part of a complicated belief system that even many Jamaicans have trouble comprehending. "Some work to be a master," painter Leonard Daley says in the show's catalogue. "I work to be a servant all days of my life. Whatever I have is not for me alone. No. I have to be voiced. Have to be used. But it takes very long for the people to understand the situation. No, very long."
The paintings in the show look, at first glance, a lot like those by folk artists from Haiti or other parts of the Caribbean basin. That similarity begins with the materials but doesn't extend much further. Like their Haitian counterparts, these Jamaican artists tend to use vividly colored oil paints on hardboard or canvas. Stylistically and thematically, however, their paintings are far more varied, less mannered and more challenging. Nowhere in this show does one get the feeling that these artists were working with one eye on the commercial market. The same can't be said for much of the art coming out of Haiti in recent years.
The differences in style and subject reflect the histories of the two nations. Both were colonized by Europeans, but while Haiti booted the French out almost two centuries ago, Jamaica gained independence from Britain only in 1962. Where Haiti's culture is dominated by the dichotomy between Catholicism and Vodou, Jamaica's is a melange influenced by the indigenous Tainos, the Africans of various tribes who arrived as slave labor, and the repression of British rule. As a result, Jamaica's self-taught artists seem more concerned with their personal visions than with national identity.
Everald Brown's luminous oil-on-hardboard "Stem of Jesse," for example, contains imagery that refers to Rastafarianism, Christianity, Masonic rituals, African tribal religions and the flora and fauna of the mountainous area in which he lives. Like a baroque masterpiece, it insistently pulls the viewer's gaze to the top of the picture, where an all-seeing eye looks out from the palm of a pink hand extended from Heaven. It's the sort of sophisticated, brilliant work that exposes the pretentiousness of terms like "folk art" and "outsider art."
The figurative cedar carvings by Woody Joseph, who may be the best-known artist in the show, are another case in point. The sculptures look almost as if they came from West Africa--but not quite; there are other aesthetic strains at work. The lines are strong, simple, assured. Some of the figures are vaguely reminiscent of sculptures by European expressionists.
Joseph bases his work on real people as well as mythological figures like river maids, and all of them are imbued with a kind of effervescent spirituality that makes them appear to be on the verge of singing, shouting or simply ascending to Heaven.
Sculpture with such spiritual resonance and evocative power is rare in this world. It is produced only by great artists. If you think you know Jamaica but you've never heard of Woody Joseph, you'd better think again. Maybe when Bob Marley sang about "observing the hypocrites" he was talking about his clueless boomer fan base. Maybe we're not too old to learn.
Under the Curtain of Heaven: Visions of Jamaica at Fondo del Sol, 2112 R St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 12:30-6 p.m. through Sept. 28. Call 202-265-9235.
CAPTION: Everald Brown's "Stem of Jesse," on view at Fondo del Sol's exhibit of self-taught Jamaican artists.
CAPTION: Woody Joseph's "River Maid" cedar carving is an example of the mythology and spirituality depicted in the work of many Jamaican artists.