Notes on Jamaica’s Art Histories #3: Intuitive Art as a Canon, Redux

Tabois, Gaston Road Menders, 1956 - NGJ
Gaston Tabois – Road Menders (1956), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

As I continue my reflections on Jamaica’s art histories, I am now sharing some of my thoughts on the Intuitive art designation, which has been an essential but problematic and controversial part of Jamaica’s main art-historical narration. Earlier versions of this essay, which was itself extracted from my doctoral dissertation in progress (Emory, 2011 – Chapter 7), served as the basis for a public lecture which was delivered at the National of Jamaica on October 26, 2006 and an earlier version also appeared in Small Axe 24 (2007).

I am posting this essay again here, with updates and new questions asked, because I believe that this discussion needs to be ongoing, with new thinking about how the artists who have been labeled and canonized as Intuitives are to be located, named and understood, and with strategies to recover what was overlooked or misrepresented in the process. The issues I am raising here relate to the first two posts I made on the subject of Jamaica’s art histories and how to retell them, which can be found here and here. There is some overlap between these three posts but I have left this “as is” for the sake of cohesion in each post.


Articulating a Narrative

In the summer of 2006, the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) staged Intuitives III, a survey exhibition of what its Chief Curator of many years, David Boxer, had called Intuitive art, the work of a particular group of self-taught, popular artists from Jamaica. It was an important exhibition, not only in its own right but also in terms of the NGJ’s institutional history and the debates that have surrounded it, and the original version of this essay was written in response to the conversations that emerged in that moment.

Intuitives III was the NGJ’s third such exhibition of Intuitive art. The first one such, The Intuitive Eye, was held in 1979 and the second, Fifteen Intuitives, was shown in 1987. The NGJ had up to that time also presented four retrospectives of Intuitive artists: John Dunkley in 1976, Sidney McLaren in 1978 (although this one was actually shown at the St Thomas Parish Library), Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds in 1983, and Everald Brown in 2004. All but the latter, which I curated, were the curatorial work of David Boxer, the first Director/Curator and, later, Chief Curator of the NGJ.

The Intuitives have also been well represented in the rest of the NGJ’s permanent collection and many of its other exhibition. Kapo has a specialized gallery in the NGJ’s permanent collection since 1983 and was the first Jamaican artist to be so honored, more than six years before Edna Manley. In its initial form, this gallery featured the substantial collection of Kapo’s paintings and sculptures that had been amassed by the American owner of the Stony Hill hotel, Larry Wirth, which was acquired after the latter’s death with the help of Kapo’s most prominent patron, the then prime minister Edward Seaga. Today, this gallery features a selection of paintings and sculptures from the Larry Wirth Collection, along with paintings from the John Pringle Collection (a major donation of Kapo paintings which was received in 2011), a painting and two sculptures from the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection (a general general donation of Jamaican art and historical prints and maps in 1999), as well as a few works from the NGJ’s main collection.

The Intuitive Eye exhibition had in 1979 launched the concept and the term “Intuitive,” as a noun and an adjective and an alternative to more obviously problematic terms such as “primitive” and “naïve” (although it had, strictly spoken, already been used as such in the NGJ’s The Formative Years catalogue in 1978). The Intuitive Eye exhibition was part of a series of landmark exhibitions, The Formative Years included, that served to articulate the NGJ’s foundational narrative on Jamaican art. This articulation process was a necessary part of the early work of the NGJ, which had opened in 1974 and had been mandated to document and articulate a national (and nationalist) Jamaican art history.[i]

The process of articulating a comprehensive account of Jamaica’s visual art history, which had not been attempted prior to the establishment of the NGJ, had started with Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1975), David Boxer’s first major exhibition and the NGJ’s first survey, which provided an overview of art in Jamaica from the start of the Spanish period to the 1970s. It culminated with Jamaican Art 1922-1982, a survey of modern Jamaican art which was from 1983 to 1985 toured in the USA, Canada and Haiti by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and which was subsequently shown at the NGJ itself in 1985.

The Intuitives concept played a major role in the articulation of the NGJ’s narratives and had started with the Dunkley retrospective in 1976, which consecrated this then near-forgotten artist as one of the masters of Jamaican art (and also launched him in the emerging local art market, with several of the works that were still in the family’s hands going to local private collections in the years that followed). Some of the artists that were thus labeled as Intuitives – John Dunkley, David Miller Sr and Jr, Sidney McLaren, Gaston Tabois, Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds and Everald and Clinton Brown – had already received some national and international acclaim as Jamaican “primitives.” Their position in the Jamaican artistic hierarchies was, however, ambivalent, especially vis-à-vis highly educated artists such as Barrington Watson who actively claimed recognition as professionals and modern masters and left little doubt that they considered themselves at the apex of the Jamaican art world.

In what was then a revolutionary counter-canonical move, David Boxer not only granted collective and individual recognition to the self-taught artists he labeled as Intuitives but placed them at the epicenter of the national canons. He defined them as follows in his catalogue essay for The Intuitive Eye:

These artists paint, or sculpt, intuitively. They are not guided by fashion. Their vision is pure and sincere, untarnished by art theories and philosophies, principles and movements. […] Their visions, (and many are true visionaries) as released through paint or wood, are unmediated expressions of the world around them – and the worlds within. Some of them […] reveal as well a capacity for reaching into the depths of the subconscious to rekindle century old traditions, and to pluck out images as elemental and vital as those of their African fathers.[ii]

Boxer thus seemed to imply that mainstream artists were somehow “tarnished” by “art theories and philosophies, principles and movements” and therefore, it could be construed, inferior to the “pure” Intuitives. Rex Nettleford, in his contribution to the same publication, wisely avoided suggesting that the Intuitives were necessarily the “better artists” but contended that their work provided a model for autonomous and relevant postcolonial cultural production. According to him, the Intuitives “must be closely observed as guides to that aesthetic certitude which must be rooted in our own creative potential if the world is to take us seriously as creators rather than as imitators.”[iii]

A Jamaican Culture War

Controversy had already started with the Intuitive Eye exhibition when the Gleaner art critic Andrew Hope had stated in his otherwise appreciative review that the artists would benefit from training, which resulted in a war of words between him and Boxer.[iv] The debate escalated when Jamaican Art 1922-1982 was touring in North America. This exhibition earned its most positive critical feedback for the work of the Intuitives, which comprised nearly 40% of the exhibition. John Bentley Mays of the Globe and Mail of Toronto, for instance, wrote:

The most intriguing paintings and sculptures here, however, are not the polished Euro-Jamaican descendants of [Edna Manley’s] the Beadseller, but the home-spun, punchy pictures of the self-taught Intuitives.[v]

Such critical responses derived, at least in part, from (white) North American preconceptions about the (black) Caribbean art, as “necessarily” separate from the Western mainstream – a reductive, primitivist view that must, as such, be questioned – but the Intuitive works in the exhibition undeniably made compelling, original aesthetic and cultural statements that overshadowed many of their mainstream counterparts.

The Intuitives were thus positioned as a threat to the Jamaican art establishment and those mainstream artists who felt most targeted responded by questioning their legitimacy and David Boxer’s professional judgment. This campaign was spearheaded by Barrington Watson and Andrew Hope, who devoted a significant portion of his biweekly columns to Boxer and the Intuitives in the mid-1980s. The following comments on the final showing of Jamaican Art 1922-1982 at the NGJ in 1986, is typical and also shows how this critic pointedly refused to use the term Intuitive. He wrote scathingly:

Judging from what we’ve seen, the 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.[vi]

Local class prejudices also played a role in this debate, not surprisingly since most of the artists who were labeled as Intuitives were poor, scarcely educated rural and urban black Jamaicans. In 1988, for instance, Andrew Hope bluntly dismissed them as “a group of elderly rustics,” who were presumably incapable of producing high art or representing Jamaica internationally in any respectable manner.[vii] This protracted polemic did not dampen the enthusiasm of the Intuitives supporters but actually bolstered them, as it united them in the conviction that they were the ones “in the know” who furthermore had a “cause” to defend, since something of crucial, defining value to Jamaican art and culture was being unfairly attacked and dismissed. This resulted, among others, in the organization of the Crisis in Criticism symposium in 1988, in which the NGJ launched a blistering counterattack on Andrew Hope and, in the process, questioned the quality and relevance of newspaper criticism in Jamaica at that time. I had organizational responsibility for this symposium and was among the defenders of the Intuitives cause at that time.[viii]

Daley poupeye collection
Leonard Daley – Untitled (c1993), private collection

The debate about the NGJ’s promotion of the Intuitives was perhaps the main polarizing force in the Jamaican art world of the 1980s and concealed underlying divisive issues such as personal power struggles, egos, and political rivalries. It was independent Jamaica’s first 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 artistic community was well aware of the NGJ’s political vulnerabilities, as a perceived “Manley” institution, and despite Edward Seaga’s support of Kapo. While it is regrettable that this polemic prevented some from appreciating the undeniable value of much of what was labeled as Intuitive art, there are genuine problems with the concept that require more critical attention than they have thus far received.

Not all critical responses were as extreme as Andrew Hope’s and many in the Jamaican art world merely objected that all good artists are “intuitive,” although this is not necessarily precluded by the term, and which became fairly well established in Jamaica. The term has also gained broader usage and is now also used outside of Jamaica, often alongside or interchangeably with Outsider art. A noted specialized gallery in Chicago is named Intuit: the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, for instance, while the Anglo-American periodical Raw Vision, which was founded in 1989, states that it is dedicated to “outsider art, art brut, contemporary folk art, intuitive & visionary art from around the world.” The association with Outsider art sits uneasily, however, with the local definition of the Jamaican Intuitives as the ultimate cultural insiders but this tension provides a useful point of entry into the contradictoriness of the concept, which should, in my view, be the real focus of the critical debate.

Intuitive Art as a Canon

One notion that needs to be challenged is that Intuitive art is a genre that emerged spontaneously from collective and individual popular creativity, passively waiting to be discovered, nurtured and consumed by knowing patrons. Much of what was “discovered” as Intuitive art was originally created to promote religious or ideological beliefs or commercial services, or in response to a genuine inner compulsion. Once its maker was recognized, however, most of it was also created as “art,” in active response to the standards set and the demand created by local and overseas cultural institutions, patrons and markets.

The earliest works of Everald Brown, a religious Rastafarian who had established a self-appointed mission of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church were made as religious wall paintings, musical instruments and ritual objects for his small church. While he continued doing so throughout his life, once recognized as an artist in the late 1960s, he started consciously producing “proper paintings,” “proper sculptures” and more decorative musical instruments for his local and overseas patrons, although these continued to express the same mystical-religious beliefs.

The notion of Intuitive art is therefore best understood as a canon, that holds a special and highly contested position in the broader artistic and cultural canons that were negotiated in Jamaica and not just as a politically correct synonym for “primitive,” “naïve” or “outsider.” Recognizing the canonical nature of the category usefully reveals its main internal contradictions. While the concept certainly succeeded in elevating the status of the Intuitive artists and their work, decisions about what qualified as Intuitive art were made by a small corps of specialized scholars, curators, dealers and patrons and are usually based on narrow criteria of purity and authenticity – it was an artifact of the sort of exclusive connoisseurship that was previously associated with the concept of primitive art.

No other area of Jamaican art were policed with such strict and moralized standards. David Boxer often cited examples of artists who were “spoiled” by thoughtless exposure. For example:

An artist like Roy Reid, more knowing than others, has occasionally been sidetracked into an alien [emphasis added] form of expression – as was [William] Rhule who naively took the advice of a well wisher who showed him paintings by [Albert] Huie and implored him to start painting like the Jamaican master. The results were ghastly. Rhule stopped painting and slipped into oblivion for nearly five years.[ix]

The Intuitives concept may have represented a genuine attempt to remove the stigmas and marginalization from Jamaica’s “primitive artists” but unwittingly perpetuated some of the very same premises on which the notion of primitive art was based. The status of the Intuitive artists thus remained ambivalent, located in a no-man’s land between “high” and “low” culture, in which they were not empowered to take control over their representation which remained dependent on the artistic establishment.

The criteria of purity and authenticity that shaped the definition of Intuitive art are, furthermore, untenable and insufficiently considered its exposure to various influences. Most of what was labeled as Intuitive art is hybrid rather than pure and insulated, and this hybridity is, in fact, a big part of what makes the work so appealing. Insufficient attention was, for instance, paid to the role of market forces in the development of Intuitive art. Several key Intuitives, the carvers David Miller Sr and David Miller Jr and the painter Gaston Tabois chief among them, started their career in the tourist market, which helped to shape the direction of their work without compromising its quality.

Kapo at the Hill’s Gallery, Kingston, Jamaica, with Governor Sir Hugh Foot (left) and Christopher Hill, 1956 (image source: Wikimedia

The Millers had started out as curio carvers and vendors in the 1920s but continued making and selling such items, which contributed greatly to the family income, after they had been recognized as artists and were producing more ambitious “art” carvings. Gaston Tabois had his first exhibition at the Hills Gallery on Harbour Street in Kingston in 1955. This gallery, which was located near the famous Myrtle Bank Hotel, targeted tourist and local buyers alike and its clients included celebrity visitors such as Elizabeth Taylor.

In a telling illustration of the primitivist foundations of the Intuitives concept, concerns about purity and contamination were already part of the debate when the Intuitives were still labeled as “Primitives.” The Jamaican art and theater critic (and later diplomat) Norman Rae wrote in 1965:

The tourist temptation has sometimes proved calamitous for some promising painters. Gaston Tabois once charmed with his fresh, naïve, gaily primitive vignettes of country and city life, but he found it hard to recover after Elizabeth Taylor had bought some of his work.”[x]

Tabois seemed to have survived his brush with celebrity patronage just fine, however, and continued to produce compelling paintings, although his style evolved over time and at least partly in response to patronage.

Gaston Tabois was, at least to my knowledge, the only artist who had been categorized as an Intuitive who ever objected to being so labeled. Unlike the others, who received little or no formal education, he was educated at tertiary level and worked as an architectural draftsman at a government office.[xi] He insisted that the designation had been an obstacle to his desired ascent into the hierarchies of the Jamaican art world. Tabois’ observations are, as such, insightful although, ironically, the formal qualities and subject matter of work embodied common expectations about “naïve” art. In his admittedly unique case, it is the work far more than the person that determined the classification but may indeed have prevented him from using his more advantageous social background to get “up there with Barrington Watson”, as he put it.[xii]

There are several other artists who could have been labeled as Intuitives, considering the nature of their work, and it is instructive to consider why there were not so labeled. One such was the painter and sculptor Carl Abrahams, a contemporary of Edna Manley, who came from a privileged social background but whose eccentric, self-taught idiom had much more in common with John Dunkley or Kapo than with Manley or Albert Huie. In his case, his social background along with his familiarity with the Western art canon, which he referenced in some of his work, were the obvious reasons why his work was not labeled as Intuitive. Later examples were the sculptor Hylton Nembhard, who briefly attended the Jamaica School of Art, and the painter and assemblagist David Marchand, who attended the Art Students League when he lived in New York City and who, like Abrahams, came from a more privileged family. Both lived in the margins of mainstream society and produced work that, as with Abrahams, could have been easily classified as Intuitive but their fleeting encounter with formal education appears to have been enough to exclude them (and in the case of Marchand, social background may also have played a role.)

The question arises what was achieved by insisting on dogmatic delineations that contrast strikingly with the relaxed and open-ended definitions that shape the rest of Jamaican art, and from granting the artists who were designated as Intuitives so little agency in how their work was classified, named and interpreted. This stands in marked contrast to the mainstream artists, who generally have more control over the representation of their work, and often actively contest such representations when they do not agree with them. This, in itself, illustrates the extent to which the Intuitive canon was the product of an uneven social dynamic between artist and patron.

Reflection and Evaluation

The “war” over the Intuitives gradually subsided during the 1990s and was replaced by new polemics, such as the NGJ’s perceived over-promotion of contemporary art. There also seemed to be a loss of interest in the Intuitives cause on the part of the NGJ’s curators, perhaps as a result of understandable battle fatigue. The Everald Brown retrospective and Intuitives III exhibition represented a return to the subject but the tenor of these new exhibitions was quite different from before. Intuitives III was the largest and most inclusive Intuitives show thus far and was far less dogmatic than the previous ones. It even included two artists, Llewellyn “Bongo” Johnson and Ralph Cameron, who work primarily in the tourism industry. Cameron was, in effect, a producer and vendor of the notorious “Big Bamboo” carvings in Fern Gully near Ocho Rios – phallic carvings of Rastafarian figures that many in Jamaica find offensive – although he was represented by a safe carving of a horse and carriage instead.

The public reception of the Intuitives III exhibition was surprisingly positive and there were no controversies in the press this time around. This suggests that the Intuitives debate entered a new phase in which more even-handed, reflexive and hopefully productive discussion has finally become possible, although it may also be that the critical debate about art has, generally speaking, become less intense and less inclusive: newspaper criticism, which typically reaches and engages the widest audiences, has been practically non-existent in Jamaica since the late 1990s and the critical debate that appears in academic journals and the occasional panel discussion or symposium only reaches very limited audiences. Another factor may however be that narrow, dogmatic canons such as the Intuitives canon have an inherently limited lifespan, as the product of a particular moment and debate.

While the conceptual weaknesses and contentiousness of the Intuitives concept need to be acknowledged and critiqued, its effects on Jamaican art production have not necessarily been detrimental. The canonization of the Intuitives has, in fact, created opportunities for the creation and exposure of often-amazing art that would otherwise never have existed and from which the artists certainly benefited. Everald Brown would, for instance, probably never have made his spectacular Instrument for Four People (1985) – a large, intricately painted and carved combination of a guitar, harp, rumba box and drum incorporated into the overall, symbolic shape of a dove – if he had not been emboldened by the recognition and support he received from the NGJ and specialized dealers and patrons. In turn, he would not have made at least five more versions of it, some of them even more beautiful than the original, were it not for the market demand and his need to make a living for his family. That is no mean achievement and the cultural and aesthetic significance of such work should be recognized, no matter what position one takes on the categorizations.


Since Intuitives III, two other exhibitions have been held that have further changed the conversation. One was Spiritual Yards: Home Ground of Jamaica’s Intuitives, Selections from the Wayne and Myrene Cox Collection (2017-2018), which was co-curated for the NGJ by Wayne Cox, O’Neil Lawrence and myself and shown at the NGJ in Kingston and subsequently, in a smaller version, at National Gallery West, the NGJ’s new branch in Montego Bay. The second one was John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night which opened in 2017 at the Perez Art Museum in Miami, for which it was curated by its then associate curator Diana Nawi, with the Jamaican independent curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson. David Boxer served as curatorial advisor (he was already very ill at that time and died a few days after the exhibition opened). The exhibition subsequently traveled to the NGJ in Kingston, where it was shown in 2018, and it was in 2018-19 also shown at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. It was the first retrospective for a Jamaican self-taught artist to be initiated by a museum outside of Jamaica.

Spiritual Yards consisted in its entirety of works of art, photographs and video documentation amassed by Wayne Cox, an American who had a house in Jamaica for many years and who in the 1990s established himself as one of the main specialized collectors of Intuitive art. The Intuitives concept was not, as such, questioned in Spiritual Yards – the designation was even used in the extended title – but the exhibition nonetheless departed in significant ways from how such art had been previously presented at the NGJ. One of the criticisms of previous Intuitive art exhibitions had been that insufficient attention was paid to cultural context but in Spiritual Yards, specific aspects of this cultural context took the upper hand, as was explained in one of the press releases:

Spiritual Yards explores how many of the self-taught, popular artists – or “Intuitives,” as they are now conventionally called in Jamaica – have their roots in religious and spiritual practices such as Revival and Rastafari. Several of these artists have produced or contributed to so-called “spiritual yards,” or sacred spaces that feature ritual and symbolic objects and images that are meant engage or represent the spirits, which was either the start of their artistic practice or remained as its main focus.[xiii]

The exhibition also included video-interviews by Wayne Cox with the featured artists, which gave them an active voice and physical presence in the exhibition (all the more valuable since the majority of these artists had passed away since the interviews were recorded.) While mediated by a patron and particular ideas about Jamaican popular culture, the display implied that the artists could, in fact, speak for themselves, beyond the eccentric quotes and quips that occasionally appeared in the earlier literature on the subject.

While these were small but important steps, John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night had more potential as a game-changer. The curators, in their catalogue introduction, clearly identified the representational problems associated with the Intuitive label and called for a revision of Jamaica’s art-historical canons and categorizations. They raised the issue of the agency of the artist, claiming his right to opacity – the first time, to my knowledge, that such critical issues were explicitly acknowledged in an exhibition of a self-taught Jamaican artist’s work. The project however had its own contradictions. The first two venues were general art museums, and by implication opened Dunkley’s work to dialogues that went beyond the Intuitive label, and an adjunct exhibition Daylight Come…Picturing Dunkley’s Jamaica at the NGJ actually did just that, bringing Dunkley’s work into dialogue with the history and artistic and cultural developments that occurred in Jamaica during his lifetime. The showing of Neither Day nor Night at the American Folk Art Museum however reinserted him into a more limited, specialized context and this sent mixed messages about how Dunkley was being positioned.

David Boxer’s lengthy catalogue essay further added to these contradictions. It had always been obvious that John Dunkley was a visually literate artist, who responded in his work to the visual culture that surrounded him, and Boxer’s essay very usefully identified his photographic sources. Far more problematic was the manner in which Boxer in this new essay inserted Dunkley into the genealogies of mainstream art history, and insisted that he would have been exposed to these sources through his “informed” patrons. Petrona Morrison had the following to say in her review of the book:

The persistent and frequently tenuous suppositions about what influenced specific works is part of an overarching effort to place Dunkley in the canon of Western art and to validate him through this location. While the influence of Adolphe Duperly’s photography is supported by archival material, the comparisons with the paintings of El Greco and Michelangelo are tortuous. This insistence on positioning Dunkley within the Western canon challenges or undermines his agency and is inextricably linked to subalternity and the issues of hegemony that are still relevant to current discourse on Caribbean art and its reception.[xiv]

What Boxer did in this essay amounted to quite a remarkable U-turn, since it is almost certain that he had Dunkley in mind when he wrote in 1979 about the Intuitives that “their visions, (and many are true visionaries) as released through paint or wood, are unmediated expressions of the world around them – and the worlds within.”[xv] From not acknowledging Dunkley’s visual sources at all, Boxer swung to another extreme and untenable position, by ascribing sources that are of doubtful relevance to Dunkley’s work and furthermore over-asserting the probable role of patronage in its development. If anything, it illustrates the extent to which Boxer was wedded to conventional art-historical genealogies and the challenges he thus faced trying to situate artists such as Dunkley.

Boxer’s passing in 2017 marked the end of an era in the story of Intuitive art and it certainly marked the end of the sort of patronage and talent-scouting he had advocated and represented. Several other specialized patrons and collectors have also passed away recently, and others, such as Wayne Cox, have stopped collecting and are quietly selling parts of their collections. There is a sense that the Intuitive era has ended altogether and that no new names of any consequence have appeared. While it is indeed so that there have been significant cultural changes in Jamaica that may inhibit the production of the sort of work the Intuitive art patrons were looking for, the lack of “new names” again illustrates the extent to which the Intuitive canon was the product of its patronage. There are in fact a number of newer self-taught artists who could qualify as Intuitive, such as the sign painter Kemel Rankine in St Elizabeth, but the organized interest is not there for him to be so consecrated. It is as yet unclear whether this is a gain or a loss, as it appears that at least one major mechanism through which valuable popular artistic talent is given broader exposure has been lost.[xvi]

Rankine - close up signs- December 28, 2017
Signs at Kemel Rankine’s roadside shop near Bamboo Avenue, St Elisabeth (photo: Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved)

The question arises whether the Intuitive designation still has any relevance. Surely, the art itself needs to be recognized and valued, but the question is how to name and interpret it. Do we keep it as an art-historical descriptor, for a specialized canon that emerged and ended in a particular context? Do we just call them self-taught or self-taught, popular artists going forward? Do they need to be grouped together at all? And how can we best situate these artists in the histories of Jamaican art?

If we dispense with the Intuitive categorization, how do we do so without unwittingly perpetuating the underlying thinking? The last thing we need is a “the artist formerly known as Prince” situation, a cumbersome cosmetic vocabulary change that only displaces the underlying problems of the categorization and the social dynamics that shaped it — the same thing that happened when the Intuitive label was introduced. More fundamental rethinking is in order and as the tensions and contradictions within the John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night exhibition and catalogue illustrate, this is not at all an easy or simple matter. It goes to the broader challenge of how to rethink the art histories of places such as Jamaica, in a way that yield productive new insights and interpretations, and how to get institutional and critical buy-in for these new art-historical and curatorial approaches.

As an educator of some experience, I am well aware that learning craves structure, and that art history’s conventional labels, classifications and developmental trajectories are regarded by many as indispensable didactic tools. When I get questions such as “is this impressionism or expressionism” from persons in Jamaica (or in Belgium, and I do in fact get such questions with remarkable frequency in both locations), they usually come from teachers, students or general audience members who feel bewildered and let down when the conventional explanatory tools are absent or challenged, as if the already tattered rug of understanding art has been pulled from underneath them. The question arises, though, whether this kind of conventional structure is really necessary in art history education, or whether it is being perpetuated as a necessity by a particular, narrow way of thinking about education, and about art and art history. I am inclined to believe that it is the latter, but nonetheless, it is an important consideration for art historians, curators and museum educators: how do we maintain a necessary level of didactic clarity while questioning and replacing old and problematic art-historical narratives and labels?

In the next and final installment in this series of posts, I will examine some of the alternative models that could be used to articulate the histories of art in and of Jamaica.



[i] The 1974 articles of association of the National Gallery of Jamaica more specifically mandated it to concern itself with the art that came out of the ferment of 1938. This narrow focus was challenged by Boxer, who joined the staff as director/curator in 1975, when he insisted on adding pre-twentieth century art and modern art from 1922 onwards to the narratives.

[ii] Boxer, David, “Foreword,” The Intuitive Eye (Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 1979), 2.

[iii] Nettleford, Rex, “Introduction” in The Intuitive Eye, 5.

[iv] See: Hope, Andrew, “Art View: The Intuitive Eye,” Gleaner, August 26, 1979, VII; and: Anonymous Eye, The, “Intuitive Eye (Letter to the Editor),” Gleaner, November 11, 1979, 11.

[v] As quoted in: Smith McCrea, Rosalie, Jamaican Art 1922-1982 Returns (Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 1986), 11.

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

[vii] Hope, Andrew, “The Crisis in Leadership (Part II),” Gleaner, February 28, 1988.

[viii] This event took place on February 2, 1988 and the speakers were Rex Nettleford, Sonia Jones, Pamela O’Gorman, David Boxer and Gloria Escoffery. Andrew Hope’s Crisis on Leadership columns, which appeared in three instalments, were written in response.

[ix] Boxer, David, Fifteen Intuitives (Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 1987) 4.

[x] Rae, Norman, “Contemporary Jamaican Art,” In Ian Fleming Introduces Jamaica (London: Andre Deutsch, 1965), 169.

[xi] He attended Dillard University in New Orleans. His wife was a teacher.

[xii] Interview with Veerle Poupeye, January 12, 2001.

[xiii] See:

[xiv] Morrison, Petrona. “John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night.” CAA Reviews, October 31, 2018. Available from:

[xv] Boxer, David, “Foreword,” The Intuitive Eye (Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 1979), 2.

[xvi] I have published an essay on his work: Poupeye, Veerle. “Signs of Progress: The Art of Kemel Leeford Rankine.” Raw Vision 98, 2018. Rankine’s work has been marketed by Jacqueline Bishop’s Antillian online gallery.

5 thoughts on “Notes on Jamaica’s Art Histories #3: Intuitive Art as a Canon, Redux

Add yours

  1. Thank you for your research! I started studying Caribbean art a few years ago and noticed similar issues. One thing I’ve noticed in my years of studying Caribbean art is that intuitive art (naive art, primitivism) is always illustrative/figurative, not abstract. And illustration is vernacular and stylized in nature, influenced by local/folk culture. I know what it is to have people assume you’re not knowledgeable of art history because you don’t work from “western” high-art influences. (In truth, I lived in Europe as a child but my inspirations are from the decorative arts – which isn’t typically considered art.) I have been working on my own definition for these terms here:ïve-art-or-illustration. Would love to know what you think!


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