Notes on Jamaica’s Art Histories # 1: Critiquing the Main Narrative

Jamaica’s art histories have been on my mind recently, as part of broader considerations about the art histories of the Global Caribbean.

Most of the recent art-historical work in and about Jamaica (and the broader Caribbean) has consisted of reflecting on but, ultimately, rehashing what was already done with very little new primary research or new ideas or interpretations–the production of new scholarship and insights that is a necessary part of a vibrant and viable art world. Those few efforts to seriously build on the older art-historical work have, furthermore, focused on filling in gaps and elaborating on certain artists and issues, but insufficiently on rethinking those structures, hierarchies, and methodologies, and those underlying interests and ideologies that informed the foundational narratives. And this includes reflection on the need for and implications of national and, more specifically, nationalist art-historical narratives.

What really needs to be done is to consider HOW the stories of art in, around and about places like Jamaica can be re-conceptualized and, importantly, re-researched to be more relevant to their present cultural context and what is necessary for that to happen–a line of inquiry that has implications beyond the Caribbean. I want to encourage this very necessary conversation with a number of blog posts over the next few months. Here is my first contribution, an older critique of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s foundational art-historical narrative which I believe serves as a good starting point. It is excerpted and slightly adapted from Chapter I of my doctoral dissertation Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011 – all rights reserved). The chapter in question was completed in 2006.

David Boxer’s Jamaican Art 1922-1982 essay has been the main general historical text on Jamaican art since it was first published in 1983 and when Boxer was Director/Curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ). It was published in the catalogue of the like-named exhibition which was circulated from 1983 to 1985, in the USA and also to Canada and Haiti. by the Smithsonian Institution Travelling exhibition Service (SITES). It is useful to start this discussion with a closer look at this text, since it provides a benchmark to assess the rest of the published material on the subject as well as a brief introduction to conventional Jamaican art history, especially since that essay has also served as the basis for the NGJ’s initial permanent exhibition, which was put in place in 1983-1984 when the museum moved to its present location. Boxer’s narrative, which in effect merely amounts to a ten-thousand word essay, is relatively easy to summarize, as I have attempted below, with special emphasis on how his argument is strategized. For citation purposes, I have used the 1998 version of his essay, which was published in the book Modern Jamaican Art and which is more widely available than the original.

After first establishing that, Jamaican art was, in his view, “the art that has developed as an integral part of the nationalist, anti-colonialist consciousness underlying the cultural and intellectual life of the island since the 1920s” (1998, 11), Boxer moved on to sketching its “prehistory.” This started with a brief discussion of the art of the Taino, the Amerindians who inhabited Jamaica at the time of Columbus’s first arrival in the island in 1994. He particularly praised four woodcarvings of Jamaican Taino zemes (or divinities), three of which are in the British Museum and one from the Rockefeller Collection in the Metropolitan Museum. The Metropolitan Museum, based on recent scholarship (e.g. Kerchache 1994), now attributes the latter carving to the Dominican Republic but Boxer refused to accept this re-allocation, a good example of how nationalist agendas sometimes motivate attributions. The 1998 version of Boxer’s essay included a footnote in which he described three major Taino carvings that were recovered in the small town of Aboukir in central Jamaica in 1994 and are now housed at the NGJ (26). Another major carving, a dujo or ceremonial seat, has since been found in the Hellshire hills, not far from Kingston, and is now also on view at the NGJ. He then cursorily mentioned the Spanish period (1494-1670) and its main artistic relic, the so-called Seville Carvings (c1530), a group of decorative architectural stone and stucco carvings that were made to adorn the Governor’s mansion and other structures at Jamaica’s first capital of Sevilla Nueva.

The discussion of the English colonial period, which officially started in 1670 when the island was formally ceded to Cromwell’s England, was divided into three short parts. In the first, Boxer discussed the work by major European artists that was commissioned and imported into the island by the plantocracy, especially the Neo-Classical commemorative and funerary sculptures, such as John Bacon’s 1790 Rodney Memorial in Jamaica’s former capital Spanish Town. In the second, he discussed the work of the itinerant naturalists and topographical artists, most of them Europeans but also a few US-Americans, who produced landscapes, depictions of the flora and fauna, and picturesque scenes, often as clients of major planters. In this section, he made special mention of Isaac Mendes Belisario, who, he stated, established a painting and printmaking studio in Kingston in 1835 (and who is the first documented Jamaica-born artist, although this was not yet established when this essay was written). The discussion of colonial art concluded with its most significant and controversial part, in which Boxer claimed that no African-Jamaican art of any significance had survived from before the 20th century and that very little such art ever existed, which he attributed to the forced deculturation of the African-Jamaicans under colonialism and slavery. This absence, he argued, set the stage for what “real” Jamaican art had to redress in the 20th century.

Boxer’s section on modern Jamaican art, then, sought to establish when, how and by whom this heroic cultural act was accomplished (and this section was, except for two minor comparative references, limited to artists who were actually in the exhibition). It started with a long discussion of Edna Manley’s early work which, Boxer contended, was the turning point in the “Jamaicanization” of local art production. He identified her arrival in the island in 1922 as the starting date of modern Jamaican art. He did cite the initial misgivings Norman and Edna Manley had about what they felt was the cultural barrenness of Jamaica but suggested that this had already been redressed by her own work. He also mentioned the critical acclaim her work received in England at that time and her early influence, in the 1930s, on young Jamaican artists such as the photographer Denis Gick, the furniture designer Burnett Webster, the sculptor Alvin Marriott and the painter Albert Huie, as the earliest stirrings of a national school. The Edna Manley segment concluded with a discussion of the group of carvings she produced between 1935 and 1937 – all Modernist and assertively black – which are signaled as the triumphant breakthrough of nationalist Jamaican art and coincided with her emergence as a prominent member of the nationalist intelligentsia who was now mainly addressing local audiences with her art. Most of this discussion focused on her best known sculpture Negro Aroused (1935), as the iconic art work of that period that has become central to the official Jamaican iconography. Edna Manley’s work, Boxer’s narrative implied, thus made up for the absence of African-Jamaican art from before the 20th century, although it was work about black Jamaicans made by an artist who was, for all intents and purposes, white, foreign-born and a member of the local elite.

Boxer’s discussion of the formative years of the nationalist school continued with a few paragraphs on “the Early Intuitives,” three self-taught artists to whom the term Intuitive was retroactively applied, namely the painter John Dunkley and the wood sculptors David Miller Sr and Jr. These artists were presented as personal discoveries of certain members of the nationalist intelligentsia – the “cognoscenti” (17) as Boxer called them – in search of evidence of “native talent” although he insisted on the individuality and, especially, the visionary quality of their work as the primary reason for their classification as Intuitives. Most of the discussion of the “Early Intuitives” was devoted to Dunkley, who was categorically labeled as “Jamaica’s greatest painter” (17) and whose work was reproduced on the cover of the SITES catalogue and the exhibition poster, which virtually positioned him on par with Edna Manley. Boxer shored up his claims about Dunkley’s national and international significance by citing Edmund Barry Gaither of the Museum of Afro-American Art in Boston, who had written in 1969 that Dunkley was “at best […] a little short of Henri Rousseau [and] the equal of American Primitives such as Grandma Moses and Horace Pippin” (17).

Boxer then continued with how the nationalist school developed during the 1940s and 50s and started with citing Norman Manley’s 1939 National Culture and the Artist essay as the foundational text of that period. Two sub-groups were identified. One was labeled “the Institute Group” and consisted of the young artists who were tutored by Edna Manley at her free adult art classes at the Institute of Jamaica (IoJ)’s Junior Centre during the 1940s, such as Albert Huie, Ralph Campbell, David Pottinger and Henry Daley, and who consciously pursued the development of an indigenous iconography based on popular life and the physical environment. The second group was presented under the heading “the Independents” and consisted of artists whose aesthetic and political pursuits departed from those of the Institute Group, such as Carl Abrahams and Gloria Escoffery, or who worked outside of Jamaica, such as Ronald Moody and Namba Roy, two sculptors who lived in England as adults. Boxer’s description of the work of the “Independents,” however, implied that there were significant parallels between their pursuits and those of the “Institute Group,” so that they could still be regarded as part of a Jamaican school.

The third part of Boxer’s essay dealt with the decades following Independence, namely the 1960s and 1970s. Under the header “Mainstream,” Boxer pointed out that many of the pioneering artists were still active (in 1982) and briefly reviewed Edna Manley’s later work. He presented the period as one of continuity and change, in which younger artists, who had almost all studied abroad, in Europe, North America or Latin America, built on but also challenged the legacy of the older generation. He then proceeded to discuss what he described as the three dominant artists of the 1960s, namely the painters Eugene Hyde, Karl Parboosingh and Barrington Watson, who were more ambitious and adventurous about the formal aspects of their work than their predecessors and insisted on being recognized as professionals. The discussion started with Watson’s academic landscapes, and history and genre paintings on Jamaican themes which, Boxer mischievously stated, appealed to “those whose artistic eye had been trained by the museums of Europe [and who] quickly elevated Watson to the role of the Jamaican painter par excellence” (19). The subsequent reference to the local commercial popularity of Watson’s formal portraits, nudes and erotica was also subtly disparaging – submerged affronts that reflected the personal and professional antagonism between Watson and Boxer at that time. The discussion then shifted to Hyde and Parboosingh, who were presented as artists who successfully applied the lessons of Modernist expressionism, whether abstract or figurative, to innovative and often provocative Jamaican subject matter, such as Parboosingh’s sympathetic portrayals of ganja-smoking Rastafarians of the early 1970s. Boxer wrote with great appreciation about Hyde’s Casualties series of the late 1970s, which related to his own artistic sensibilities, although these works openly criticized the social deterioration during the Michael Manley government.

The next part, a subsection of the larger section on the 1960s and 70s, was headed “Surrealism and other Influences” and two artists were highlighted. One was the Australian expatriate painter Colin Garland, who was credited with pioneering the sort of fanciful, meticulously executed Caribbean Surrealism that has been very successful in the upper echelons of the Jamaican and Haitian art markets, which may be the reason why Surrealism was foregrounded over other influences in this part of the essay. The other artist was the painter and sculptor Osmond Watson (no relation to Barrington Watson), whose Black Nationalist work was labeled as a hybrid of Cubism and Surrealism, to which he was exposed while studying in London. Finally, Boxer discussed what was headlined as “the Younger Generation within the Mainstream,” younger artists who had emerged in the 1970s, most of them after studying abroad or as graduates of the Jamaica School of Art, which had started as an informal, part-time institution in 1950 but introduced full-time diploma programs in 1962. This group included the sculptors Winston Patrick and Christopher Gonzalez (also spelled Gonzales) and the painters Milton George and Hope Brooks. Their formally and conceptually innovative work more decisively departed from the nationalist tradition and announced directions that would become more dominant in the 1980s. Boxer would probably have situated his own work here, had it been discussed in the essay (it was, in fact, included in the exhibition).

The section on the 1960 and 70s ended with a long and enthusiastic discussion of the “Later Intuitives,” who were discussed in what seemed to be their order of appearance on the national scene from the late 1940s onwards, starting with Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, Gaston Tabois, Sidney McLaren and Everald Brown, who were all clearly flagged as “masters,” and followed by several younger, less well-known names who are discussed in less detail. As with Dunkley, Boxer made it a point to mention the support some of the artists had received from well-known international “Primitive art” enthusiasts such as José Gomez-Sicre, a Cuban émigré who was in charge of the art programs of the Organization of American States and during the 1970s acquired several Jamaican Intuitive works for the OAS collection, and the Haitian “Primitive art” promoter Selden Rodman, who, it was reported, had ranked Kapo “as a painter […] probably equal to the late Hector Hypollite of Haiti” (24). Boxer also mentioned Kapo’s close association with Edward Seaga, who had been that artist’s most influential patron since the 1950s, and included personal recollections of Sidney McLaren that foreground his own friendly relationship with that artist. The Later Intuitives were informally divided into realist (Tabois and McLaren) or symbolist (Kapo and Brown). Some attention was paid to the religious background of the “symbolists” – Kapo was a Zion Revivalist while Brown was a religious Rastafarian – and Boxer mentioned the growing importance of Rastafari in Jamaican culture. Boxer rounded off the section on the “Later Intuitives” with mentioning his Intuitive Eye exhibition of 1979, as the landmark event that finally led to the naming and recognition of the Intuitives, and added a jab at what he called the “conservative critics” (25) in Jamaica who had, in his view, failed to appreciate their cultural significance.

Boxer’s essay then concluded with a short section on “Art Schools, Associations and Galleries” in Jamaica, which includes the NGJ itself. The final paragraph somewhat deflated the confident assertions of cultural nationhood that were made at the start of the essay, by arguing that the process of national self-discovery was still ongoing and full of “contradictions and tensions” but ultimately concerned with forging links with the “wider community of man” (26).

To understand Boxer’s essay, we first need to consider why and in what context it was written. It was commissioned to serve as the main catalogue text for the like-named touring exhibition, Jamaican Art 1922-1982, which was circulated in the USA, Canada and Haiti by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). While not the first overseas touring exhibition of Jamaican art, it was, and still is, the most ambitious and widely circulated such survey ever held. It came about after Vera Hyatt, a Jamaican who had been the Deputy Director at the NGJ since 1974, migrated to the USA in 1980 to take up a registrar position with SITES. The selection and logistics of the exhibition were jointly directed by Boxer and Hyatt and the whole project received significant support from the Jamaican embassy in the USA and its US counterpart in Jamaica (Smith-McCrae 1986, 1-2).

The SITES exhibition was thus one of those friendly cultural exchanges between nations and served as a promotional effort to give more visibility to Jamaican culture. Its timing related to the rapprochement between USA and Jamaica after Edward Seaga’s defeat of Michael Manley in the 1980 elections. The latter affected the NGJ, which was viewed as a “Manley institution,” in several ways, ranging from the abrupt relocation from its original building to rumored plots to remove Boxer from his position. The high-profile exhibition and catalogue thus not only served to place the NGJ’s narratives on record for the sake of scholarship, education and marketing but indirectly asserted the importance and achievements of the institution – and, with that, the Manleys’ cultural legacy – in the national and international arena, in a way that would preclude political interference. The Manley-centeredness of the project was counterbalanced by its focus on the Intuitives, an interest Seaga shared with Boxer, which ensured that a workable sense of common cause was maintained.

The exhibition was mainly shown at community-based and university galleries as well as the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Museum of the Centre of Afro-American Artists in Boston, and the Inter-American Development Bank Gallery in Washington D.C., where it actually premiered in June 1983. It was generally well received in North America, where it attracted approximately 117,000 visitors (Smith-McCrea 1986, 2), and was reviewed in major newspapers such as the Washington Post (Forgery 1983) and the New York Times (Raynor 1984). The overseas reviews were almost unanimous in their praise of the Intuitives but several critics expressed reservations about what they saw as the Eurocentricity of the mainstream. John Bentley Mays of the Globe and Mail of Toronto wrote: “The most intriguing paintings and sculptures here, however, are not the polished Euro-Jamaican descendents of [Edna Manley’s] the Beadseller, but the home-spun, punchy pictures of the self-taught Intuitives” (Smith-McCrea 1986, 11).

While the project was supported by many, it was lambasted by some very prominent members of the local art community. Their objections were not so much about its focus on Edna Manley – who was still alive at the time and probably too much of a venerable elder in the local art community to be publicly tackled – but about its perceived over-promotion of the Intuitives, who were represented with 27 out of 76 works and thus made up about 37 % of the exhibition (Smith-McCrea 1986, 2). Chief among the critics was Barrington Watson, who did not take kindly to the North American critical response and, no doubt, Boxer’s provocations of him in the catalogue essay. Watson found a willing spokesperson in Andrew Hope (a Polish expatriate whose birth name was Ignacy Eker), who was then the lead critic of the Gleaner newspaper and the “conservative critic” Boxer had alluded to in his essay.

A significant proportion of Hope’s reviews and columns of the 1980s was dedicated to questioning the NGJ’s promotion of the Intuitives, along with Boxer’s professional abilities and intentions. The following excerpt from his bi-weekly Gallery Guide column, which commented on the 1986 Jamaican showing of Jamaican Art 1922-1982, is typical and also shows how Hope pointedly refused to use the term Intuitive: “[T]he exhibition lacks a guiding intelligence and seems to have been thrown together with the objective of demonstrating that our Primitives are superior to those painters and sculptors who have received formal training and were ‘contaminated’ by European influences” (1986, 16). The controversy about Jamaican Art 1922-82 and the Intuitives amounted to a full-fledged culture war, a struggle for control over the production of the dominant canons and narratives which erupted at a moment when the local art community was well aware of the NGJ’s political vulnerabilities.

Boxer’s essay fulfilled several purposes. One was, obviously, to contextualize the exhibition for its viewers and the “In Jamaica when we refer to Jamaican art …” opening sentence suggests that Boxer addressed non-Jamaican audiences, not familiar with the basics of Jamaican culture and history. The exhibition was, however, deliberately toured to areas that had large Caribbean Diaspora populations and was also sent to Haiti before it was finally shown at the NGJ in 1986, so its audiences were not exclusively North American (Smith-McCrea 1986, 2). The long-term purpose of the catalogue was something the NGJ had thus far been unable to do on its own: namely to provide local readers with a well-illustrated survey text that recorded its emerging narrative on Jamaican art – overseas exhibitions of postcolonial art often serve such long-term purpose. By the late 1980s, the catalogue had sold out and the continued local demand for such a survey text led to it being republished in the coffee-table book Modern Jamaican Art, with only minor updates and corrections (Boxer & Poupeye 1998) — I contributed an essay on contemporary art in Jamaica.

Boxer, a traditionally educated art historian with a 1974 Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, wrote the history of Jamaican art in the terms he had been trained to use. He gave full reign to his classificatory impulses and structured his story as a set of labeled trends and groups that were incorporated into a larger evolutionary framework that reflects the cultural logic of Jamaica’s progression from colony to independent nation-state. His carefully periodized essay reflected a conscious effort at creating a national canon and a master narrative that ultimately, in the telling final sentence, inserted the “Jamaican school” into the artistic achievements of the “community of man,” which is the strategy for the consecration of the national culture that has also characterized the development of the universal survey museum and its attendant narratives in the metropolitan West (Bennett 1995; Duncan 1995). Boxer thus asserted, by implication, that postcolonial Jamaica had a full-fledged “art history” of its own, on par and compatible with the grand narratives of the metropolitan West.

Boxer’s focus was, also implicitly, on “high art” and the discussion of the Intuitives, in particular, was couched in a legitimizing language of exclusive connoisseurship which implied that its detractors were lacking the necessary insights. The exhibition itself was restricted to painting, sculpture and a few works on paper – the traditional “fine arts,” much to the chagrin of some prominent local ceramists – and there were very few references in the essay of work in other media or the relationship of Jamaican fine art to a broader visual culture. A fair amount of general cultural and historical contextualization was provided but the race and class background of artists and their patrons was virtually absent from the discussion. Boxer’s narrative on the Intuitives, for instance, paid disproportionate attention to its patrons and thus revealed that the Intuitives were more unilaterally dependent on patronage than their mainstream counterparts but this was not explicitly recognized or explained. The Intuitives are generally poor black Jamaicans, many of them of rural origin, while the “cognoscenti” who discover and support them are often white expatriates or light skinned elite Jamaicans. However, acknowledging the resulting race and class dynamics and the inevitable tensions and conflicts that surround these relationships would have disrupted the presented image of a diverse but essentially harmonious national culture.

The amount of space dedicated to pre-20th century art, most of it colonial, may at first seem contradictory to Boxer’s nationalist project but this is, as Tony Bennett has argued, a characteristic part of national history narration in new nations:

In so far as they are “imagined communities” – ways of conceiving the occupants of a particular territory as essentially unified by an underlying commonality of tradition and purpose – nations exists through, and represent themselves in the form of, long continuous narratives.  […] This process of stretching the national past so as to stitch it into a history rooted in deep time is particularly evident in the case of new nations where, however, it also gives rise to peculiar difficulties. In the case of settler societies which have achieved a newly autonomous post-colonial status, this process has to find some way of negotiating – or leaping over – their only too clearly identifiable and often multiple beginnings (1995, 148)

The negotiating strategy used by Boxer was twofold: namely to argue for the crucial absence of African-Jamaican art from before the 20th century, in spite of an otherwise rich Amerindian and colonial art history, and to insist on the essential Jamaicanness of Edna Manley’s early work as the pioneering solution to that problem.

Boxer’s toed a difficult line between his efforts to simultaneously establish the necessary autonomy of postcolonial Jamaican art and a legitimizing relationship with mainstream Western art history, and this is evident in his choice of vocabulary and cross-references and his insistence of a developmental taxonomy that conforms to the conventional Western art historical narratives. While he went through great lengths to introduce a few “Jamaican” terms and concepts, such as his own “Intuitives,” his descriptive and analytical vocabulary is essentially that of modern Western art history and he made liberal use of labels such as “Cubist,” “Symbolist” and “Abstract Expressionist.” The discussion of the Intuitives, the exhibition’s most contested component, relied heavily on references to prestigious outside endorsements that seem designed to counter local objections, mostly by ranking the artists on par with internationally recognized “Primitives.”

The self-conscious mannerism of Boxer’s text is striking and suggests a desire to literally force it into canonical status. The essay includes statements such as “historians today date the beginning of the Jamaican Art Movement to the arrival in Jamaica [in 1922] of an especially gifted artist [Edna Manley]” (13), although the only “historian today” who then systematically used that date was Boxer himself, or “Sidney McLaren, affectionately called the ‘Grandpa Moses’ of Jamaican art” (23), although I have found no evidence of any generalized use of such a nickname (which, again, implies a comparative ranking in the international pantheon of “Primitive art.”)  Likewise, labels such as “the Institute Group” and “the Intuitives” were presented as if these were well-established in Jamaica while they were in effect still very tentative and even contested, perhaps in the hope that these labels would acquire greater credibility if endorsed in an international arena. While this “sleight of hand” proved relatively effective in shaping the critical reception of the exhibition in North America, where the terminology was mostly unconditionally accepted, it only added to the controversies in Jamaica. Problematic as it may be, Boxer’s essay is nonetheless a crucially important text and represents the culmination of what had previously been written on Jamaican art. It has been a point of departure, and a problem, for most of what has been written on the subject since then.


Bennett, Tony. The Birth of the Museum. London: Routledge, 1995.

Boxer, David. Jamaican Art 1922-1982. Washington DC and Kingston: Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and National Gallery of Jamaica, 1982.

Boxer, David, and Veerle Poupeye. Modern Jamaican Art. Kingston: Ian Randle and the University of the West Indies Development and Endowment Fund, 1998.

Duncan, Carol. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. London: Routledge, 1995.

Forgery, Benjamin. “Jamaican Artistry.” Washington Post, July 14, 1983.

Hope, Andrew. “Gallery Guide.” Gleaner, March 31, 1986, 16.

Kerchache, Jacques. L’art Des Sculpteurs Taïnos: Chefs-D’oeuvre des Grandes Antilles Precolombiennes. Paris: Musée Du Petit Palais, 1994.

Raynor, Vivien. “Works from Jamaica Show an Island Evolution.” New York Times, August 12, 1984.

Smith-McCrea, Rosalie. Jamaican Art 1922-1982 Returns. Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 1986.

8 thoughts on “Notes on Jamaica’s Art Histories # 1: Critiquing the Main Narrative

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  1. I have taught Bixers founding narrative essay many times and by and large students have uncritically accepted It – until this year. This year It elicited a level of debate regarding its assertions I had never been before. It was refreshing.


  2. I believe it is high time to ditch the ‘intuitive’ title. It has long outlived its functionality and now actually creates a secondary tier or is used an excuse to relegate those artists to a marginal status. Boxer left a groundwork that extremely needs to be taken up and expanded, especially on the cultural intricacies of some of the self-taught work. Many labels are being taken down now like Confederate statues in the US. The Jamaican work was kept insular but now is being seen by more and more outside Jamaica and its context in Jamaica culturally is more important than ever….especially in tandem with Brazil, Cuba, Haiti and the Southern United States. There are connections and continuities that Boxer did not have the time to get to.

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