From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 1

Edna Manley – Paul Bogle (1965), ciment fondu, Morant Bay Courthouse, now removed (photo source:Wikimedia, Flickr: Dubdem Sound System :: Jamaican Tour 2009)

While I work on some urgent publication deadlines and some new blog posts (and mark papers!), here is another text from my personal archives: the first of a two-part excerpt from my PhD dissertation “Between National and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011). The excerpt is from the Introduction. Part two can be found here.

(c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved

Nearly fifteen years have passed since I drafted this chapter and there have been significant changes in the context since then – it would be interesting to hear from my readers what these changes may be.

One central assumption in almost all the literature on postcolonial culture, even in the most strident critiques of cultural nationalism, is the view that the arts can be mobilized to effect, or prevent, social and political change. Such ideas were first put forward by pioneering anticolonial and racial activists from the late 19th to the mid 20th century. It became the foundation of cultural and educational policy for postcolonial states and a strategy for popular resistance and liberation movements alike.

The idea that art has socially transformative potential appears in two general, overlapping forms, which are by no means exclusive to the postcolonial world. The first is the propagandist view, which posits that the content, form and presentation of art can and must make a direct intervention in society, for instance by protesting injustice, by promoting a particular political, religious or ideological perspective, or by extolling or denigrating certain political leaders. This view has been influential in the postcolonial Caribbean although there has been resistance against the more doctrinarian forms of propaganda art on the part of many artists and intellectuals. C.L.R. James, for instance, scornfully dismisses “socialist realism” in What is Art? (1993, 200), an essay in Beyond a Boundary, his famous 1963 book on the politics of cricket, in which he argues for the “high art” status of cricket by appealing to universalist aesthetic concepts such as “beauty,” “structural perfection,” and “significant form.”

A similar reluctance to dismiss ideals of artistic freedom and aesthetic universality can be seen in the Cuban constitution of 1976, which states that “there is freedom of artistic creation as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution. There is freedom of artistic expression.”[1] With other words, the form of art is free but its content is subject to state interference. When exactly the content of art comes into conflict with the principles of the Revolution is, of course, subject to interpretation and this has varied significantly over time. Cuban government patronage has also actively interfered with artistic form, by rewarding artists who work in certain styles. There were times when it advocated a more dogmatic “socialist realism” – as happened briefly in the early 1960s and again during the 1970s, when Soviet influence was at its peak. Formalist trends, in contrast, have been tolerated but not encouraged and have, at times, been criticized for their association with American cultural imperialism. But generally, Cuban artists have enjoyed a fair degree of artistic freedom and this has made Cuban art more diverse and vibrant than in most other Communist countries. Cuban poster art from the 1960s and 70s, for instance, combined classic propagandist content with experimental form, including abstraction, and sophisticated visual caricature. Artists have occasionally challenged the Cuban government with overtly critical and satirical works, as could be seen in contemporary art from the 1980s and 1990s, but such episodes have usually been short-lived and subject to censorship. (Camnitzer 1994; Block & Mosquera 2001)

Propaganda art is nonetheless very common throughout the Caribbean and ranges from the crudest political propaganda to more subtle pedagogic approaches that advocate certain lifestyles or world views. Much of what can be classified as propaganda art has, naturally, been initiated by the colonial and postcolonial governments of the region, as is illustrated by the ubiquitous, and often controversial, official monuments, but a lot of popular art also qualifies as propaganda, as in Rastafarian street art which assertively promotes Rastafarian religious and political views.

East street rasta murals
Mural paintings on the Monica Bernard Building, East Street, Kingston, photographed in 2011 (Photo copyright Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved)

The second cluster of ideas about the socially transformative potential of the arts is the more general and far less controversial view that expressive culture is essential to personhood and collective identity formation and that its production and consumption should therefore be encouraged and facilitated. It is for this reason that art is almost always included in school curricula and used for therapeutic purposes with the mentally and physically ill. The political and ideological implications of the belief that art is a fundamental human need rather than a luxury are wide-ranging and can, among others, be used to justify public expenditure on cultural programs and institutions, even to those who would be critical of obvious propaganda art. Notions of personhood and collective identity are, however, in themselves deeply political and the promotion of art for its edifying power therefore often amounts to indirect propaganda.

Cultural institutions are a crucial part of the resources used to allow art to edify its designated audiences. The recent historical and critical literature on museums and exhibitions has paid significant attention to their social mission. According to Tony Bennett, in The Birth of the Museum (1995), the modern museum was established as a reformatory of manners, in which visitors were subjected to social rituals that are aimed at producing a good, self-regulatory sense of citizenship. Similar views were articulated in Carol Duncan’s Rituals of Citizenship (1995), which specifically focuses on the universal survey art museum as the prototype of the national art museum in the metropolitan West in which national artistic achievements are legitimized by their insertion into the grand Western cultural narratives and hierarchies. Andrew McClellan’s (1994) monograph on the establishment of the Louvre museum documented the direct relationship between the origin of the universal survey art museum and the very notion of modern citizenship in the context of the French Revolution. However, McClellan also usefully demonstrated that museums are not just the preconceived hegemonic plots of an abstract officialdom but have always depended on the efforts of dedicated individuals who have negotiated the actual terms of their operations and even their very existence against sometimes great odds.

The volumes Exhibiting Cultures (Karp & Lavine 1991) and Museums and Communities (Karp et al. 1992) shifted the focus of the discussion to museums’ function as public forums in which identities are not unilaterally imposed but actively negotiated between stakeholders, a perspective that makes much better sense of the recent culture wars. It is nonetheless necessary to remember that access to cultural resources such as museums is still a function of social and educational status and in effect helps to maintain those distinctions (Bourdieu 1984 & 1993; Bourdieu & Darbel 1990). What exactly the social function of the museum is and how this is viewed has varied over place and time but it is almost universally accepted that cultural institutions have considerable ideological and political potency, whether it is for the “greater good” or the pursuit of power. This explains why many postcolonies have a cultural infrastructure that seems disproportionate to their economic capabilities and insist on having “standard” institutions such as a national art gallery (Duncan 1995, 21 & 139 n2).

The idea that art serves a general purpose of personal and collective edification and empowerment takes on special urgency in the postcolonial world because colonialism imposed political, cultural and racial hierarchies that fundamentally challenged the personhood and cultural identity of the colonial subjects. This sense of urgency has been particularly pronounced in the Caribbean, where colonization started with the arrival of Columbus in 1492 and continues to the present day, since some of the islands are still overseas dependencies, which makes the region’s colonial history arguably the longest in the world. To add to this, the social and cultural transformations caused by colonialism have also been most profound. The indigenous Amerindians became virtually extinct in the early decades of colonization and the region was repopulated by involuntary and voluntary migrants from Africa, Europe and, in the 19th century, Asia. While the Spanish-speaking Caribbean has a higher proportion of European descent, the majority in the rest of the region descends from the West and Central Africans who were brought to the region as chattel slaves, mainly to work on the sugar plantations.

Consequently, it seemed that the Caribbean had no indigenous tradition to which its modern writers and artists could readily turn in their efforts to redress the social and cultural effects of colonialism. Because of this lack of a clear local “usable past,” the development of postcolonial Caribbean culture has been frustrated by deep-rooted insecurities about cultural legitimacy. The latter is perhaps best illustrated by V.S. Naipaul’s infamous statement in 1962 in The Middle Passage that: “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies” (2001, 20). According to Naipaul, Caribbean people are doomed to be “mimic men” (1967) who operate within “a borrowed culture” (2001, 64). Predictably, postcolonial Caribbean artists and intellectuals have devoted significant energy to refuting this dismal view of Caribbean culture, which leaves no hope for any real sense of personhood and cultural identity, but it remains one of the most sensitive and pressing cultural questions.

Naipaul’s negative view of Caribbean culture can perhaps be attributed to his Indian-Trinidadian background. While Trinidadians of Indian descent represent about half of the current population and have acquired considerable economic and, more recently, political clout, the dominant notions of cultural and ethnic legitimacy in postcolonial Trinidad have been assertively African-Caribbean and this has disaffected many Indo-Trinidadians from that country’s national project. However, Naipaul’s views were shared, at least in part, by his compatriot C.L.R. James, who was African-Trinidadian. James identified the lack of an indigenous tradition as a particularly acute problem in the arts and stated in his 1959 lecture The Artist in the Caribbean, which he presented in Jamaica at the University of the West Indies (UWI):

Is there any medium so native to the Caribbean, so rooted in the tight association which I have made between national surroundings, historical development and artistic tradition, is there any such medium in the Caribbean from which the artist can draw that strength which makes him a supreme practitioner? […] So far as I can see, there is nothing of the kind in the Caribbean and none in sight to the extent that I, at any rate, can say anything about it. So far as I can see in the plastic arts, in musical composition, as well as in literature, we are using forms which have been borrowed from other civilizations (1977, 184).

This illustrates that such misgivings were not limited to those who were marginalized by Caribbean nationalism but there is one crucial difference: while Naipaul marked the “mimic men” syndrome as a fundamental existential state, James identified a way forward: “What the artist needs, [is] the creation of a national consciousness (Ibid., 189)” and he made it clear that he held the local intelligentsia responsible for effecting this change of climate. As we will see throughout this dissertation, the ultimately unanswerable question of the Jamaicanness, or Caribbeanness, of Jamaican art has been a crucial driving force of local artistic development.

It is not that there were no aspects of Caribbean history that could be mobilized as a usable past. C.L.R. James was among the first to identify the Haitian Revolution as a crucial enabling moment for African-Caribbeans in his The Black Jacobins, which was originally published in 1939 (1989; 2004). However, since the majority of the Caribbean population is of African descent, artists and intellectuals not only had to identify an indigenous past but they also had to address the region’s troubled relationship with Africa. About this, C.L.R. James wrote in 1963: “The first step to freedom was to go abroad. Before they could begin to see themselves as a free and independent people they had to clear from minds the stigma that anything African was inherently inferior and degraded. The road to West Indian national identity lay through Africa” (2004, 406). This quest has, however, been complicated by lingering Western notions of what constitutes civilization and the consequent lack of a civilizational discourse about “tribal” Africa (Karp & Masolo 2000).

Marcus Mosiah Garvey in 1934 (source: Wikimedia)

This was well illustrated by the cultural views of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaica-born Pan-Africanist and founder of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey was politically active in Jamaica from 1927 to 1934, after being deported from the USA, and was then probably the first in the island to publicly articulate the idea that the arts could help to address the injustices of racism and colonial society. The 1929 manifesto for his People’s Political Party called for the establishment of a cultural infrastructure in Jamaica, which included a “national opera house with an academy of music and art” (Gleaner, August 18, 1934, 27).

Garvey’s keynote speech for the 1934 UNIA convention, which was held in Kingston, was on the subject of art. He reportedly said:

The Negro has not engaged himself in the building up of a Standard Artistic Civilization. He has had only Tribal Civilizations. […] The Art of Sculpture has been raised by the White man. What do you have to compare. What expression of your art in sculpture? Nothing. […] You can still find in Egypt lasting monuments of Negro Art. But it is not a credit to us today. As much as we are trying to develop ourselves in Business, Religion, Politics and so on, we have to build up ourselves in Art. […] We must train the young Rubens, the young Rosetti, the young Reynolds, the young Michaelangelo [sic] of the Negro Race. (Gleaner, August 18, 1934, 27)


If you go through the homes of the Corporate area, you would not find a painting of any Negro Character on the walls, and for a person of our group to invest one hundred pounds in a painting of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Booker T. Washington or Frederick Douglas, that would be considered madness.[2] […] Some of us have things hanging on our wall, but they are cheap reproductions of the work of other races. (Ibid.)

The call for portraits of black historical figures reflected Garvey’s views about the need for positive black images in art to foster racial pride and dignity and his emphasis on the necessity of cultural development was consistent with the general ideas about the redemptive social function of artistic development that are being explored here. The blatant Eurocentricity of Garvey’s remarks was, however, out of step with the logic of anticolonialism, especially since he was dedicated to the rehabilitation of Africa in the minds of its diaspora. That Garvey chose to focus on the artistic achievements of Egypt, while denigrating those of “tribal” Africa, illustrates that he was only comfortable with what matched his assumptions about civilization and “high culture.” Likewise, Garvey expressed no interest in African-Jamaican popular culture as a potential source of cultural empowerment, because it did not meet his standards of cultural respectability. What he wished to encourage instead was the development of a black “high culture” that would, from his conflicted perspective, be on par with the achievements of Western civilization.

The view that developing the arts was essential to nation-building was shared by the Jamaican nationalist intelligentsia of that period, although many of them did not take Garvey seriously or were worried by the socially subversive potential of his popular movement, which focused on a transnational sense of black solidarity and on Africa rather than Jamaica as “home.” Prominent among that emerging intelligentsia were Michael Manley’s parents, Norman and Edna Manley. Norman Manley was a former Rhodes Scholar and a successful lawyer who became an influential nationalist political leader in the late 1930s; the sculptor Edna Manley was not only influential as an artist, but also as an organizer, advocate and patron of the nationalist Jamaican art movement.

Between 1934 and 1937, Edna Manley published several articles in the Gleaner, the daily newspaper of the Jamaican elite, that aimed to raise the artistic consciousness of her readers, to make them more aware of modern Western and traditional African art, and to sensitize them to the need for an indigenous art movement (Boxer 1990, 57). The first one of these appeared about a month after Garvey’s 1934 speech had been published in the Gleaner and may well have been written in response to it. Like Garvey’s, her article started with a negative appraisal:

Who are the creative painters, sculptors and engravers and where is the work which should be expressions of its country’s existence and growth? A few anaemic imitators of European traditions, a few charming parlour tricks, and then practically silence. 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. To go into the cause for this barrenness is too big a subject for a newspaper – perhaps it is a still unrealized island consciousness; of one thing I am sure it is not – that there is nothing to be expressed (Manley E. 1934).

The article concluded with a call for a Jamaican art gallery and national collection.

Merely five years later, in his 1939 essay National Culture and the Artist, Norman Manley presented a more positive perspective on local art production and, in doing so, articulated the classic Creole Nationalist position on culture:

National culture is a national consciousness reflected in the painting of pictures of our own mountains and our own womenfolk. […] Becoming one people […] is the ultimate good; absorbing all the influences from outside and remaining sturdily ourselves. […] The immediate past has attempted to destroy the influence of the glory that is Africa, it has attempted to make us condemn and mistrust the vitality, the vigour, the rhythmic emotionalism that we get from our African ancestors. It has flung us into conflict with the English traditions of the public schools and even worse it has imposed on us the Greek ideal of balanced beauty. […] Instead we must dig deep into our own consciousness and accept and reject only those things of which we from our superior knowledge of our own cultural needs must be the best judges. (Manley N. 1971a, 108-109).

Clearly, Norman Manley was confident that Edna Manley’s earlier anxieties and appeals were already being addressed by a sudden “flowering” of national consciousness that challenged the imposed cultural values of English colonialism.

The contrasts and similarities between the views of the Manleys and those of Garvey are instructive. First of all, it is no coincidence that Garvey and Edna Manley both called for the establishment of national cultural institutions. These institutions, they both obviously felt, would provide their constituents with the kind of cultural and civic edification they needed to be transformed from colonial subjects into assertive, dignified citizens. This is consistent with the view that early museums and related institutions primed their audiences to be productive members of modern society, although Garvey and Edna Manley seemed concerned with the capacity of these institutions to empower and foster a vibrant civil society rather than to consciously exert social control. Jamaica, in fact, already had a major cultural institution, the Institute of Jamaica (IoJ), which had been established as a members’ society in 1879 and was dedicated to the study of Jamaican history, natural science and society, be it initially from a decidedly colonial and elitist perspective. The nationalist intelligentsia, which belonged to the social group that had privileged access to the IoJ, made active efforts to insert its agenda into the policies and programs of the institution and had, by the 1940s, been quite successful in this campaign, which shows that the political orientation of cultural institutions can change significantly when there are changes in their operational context (McClellan 1994).

Second, the Manleys did not share Garvey’s overt ambivalence about the status of African culture. Norman Manley specifically made reference to the need to redress colonial prejudices about African culture and proposed a positive, even idealized reading of the “glory that is Africa” – which presumably meant “tribal” Africa – as a legitimate and defining part of Jamaican heritage. The Manleys were, however, not African nationalists but were specifically concerned with the promotion of a Jamaican culture. Therefore, they represented their relationship to Africa and Europe as a kind of cultural smorgasbord that was available for them to freely pick and choose, with emphatic confidence in the collective capacity of Jamaicans to use these resources to forge a new, modern and uniquely Jamaican culture. Unlike Naipaul, they believed that the Caribbean condition facilitated invention and innovation and this, to them, was the real challenge facing the modern Caribbean artist.

Third, and finally, Garvey and Edna Manley shared concerns that their constituents had not yet achieved the desired cultural consciousness and artistic development that was necessary to foster the desired sense of individual and collective self. However, in contrast with Garvey, Edna Manley did not suggest that Jamaican artists should endeavor to measure up to European historical models, but instead urged them to draw on the here and now, to reveal “the deep-rooted, hidden pulse” of Jamaican culture. To this end, they saw popular African-Jamaican culture as the main legitimizing resource available to local artists. Norman Manley later wrote: “We suddenly discovered that there was a place to which we belonged and when the dead hand of colonialism was lifted a freedom of spirit was released and the desert flowered. Our best young men plunged deep into the lives of the people and came up with poems and paintings and with vivid and powerful books” (Manley N. 1971b, 111).

I have elaborated the cultural views of Garvey and the Manleys here because they are still tremendously influential in Jamaica today. The anxiety about the “high culture” status of Jamaican art as black, postcolonial art is, for instance, a major reason for the polemics about the NGJ’s promotion of the Intuitives. It also explains the popularity with local art patrons of the artist Barrington Watson, who paints black imagery in a grand academic style. Norman Manley’s 1939 essay virtually served as a blueprint for cultural policy in the 1970s, except for a shift towards the more egalitarian political rhetoric of that era and a greater focus on the African origins and blackness of Jamaican culture (Nettleford 1978; Manley M. 1990). Even the 2003 cultural policy is still rooted in the general ideas and rhetoric of the elder Manley’s essay, to which a new concern with building the culture industries has been superimposed. This does not mean that these foundational cultural views have escaped criticism. To the contrary, the weaknesses and contradictions of creole cultural nationalism have been a prime subject for debate in Caribbean cultural scholarship and criticism since the 1960s (Garvey’s equally conflicted cultural views seem to have escaped such critical scrutiny.)

The Manleys’ cultural self-confidence decisively separates them from Garvey and this may stem from differences in social background. While Garvey was an ambitious descendant of poor black peasants, the Manleys fully enjoyed the “cultural capital,” to use Bourdieu’s term, of the Anglo-Jamaican elite. More specifically, their views on the sort of cultural modernity that was desirable for Jamaica were informed by their exposure to European artistic Modernism, an exposure which Garvey obviously lacked. Edna Manley’s Modernist sculptures had received critical acclaim when they were exhibited in England in the 1920s and 1930s, so she had been directly involved in early British Modernism as an emerging artist (Brown 1975; Boxer 1990). The Manleys’ idealized view of African culture, to which they attributed a psychological authenticity and cultural vigor that seemed to be lacking in modern Western culture, was therefore as indebted to Modernist Primitivism as to their anticolonial nationalist convictions (Price 1989; Karp 1991; Errington 1998). The same applies to their position on Jamaican popular culture. This simultaneous rejection of Primitivist stereotypes and the internalization of some of the foundational ideas of Primitivism is one of the key contradictions of the kind of anticolonial cultural nationalism that emerged in Jamaica.

To read part 2 of this post, please click here.


[1] The official English translation of the Cuban constitution is available from

[2] The term “the Corporate Area” refers to the “Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation,” the proper administrative name for Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city.


“Holding of the Convention of Negro Peoples.” Gleaner, August 18, 1934, 27.

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

Block, Holly, and Gerardo Mosquera, eds. Art Cuba: The New Generation. New York: Harry Abrams, 2001.

Boxer, David. Edna Manley: Sculptor. Kingston: Edna Manley Foundation and National Gallery of Jamaica, 1991.

Brown, Wayne. Edna Manley. The Private Years: 1900-1938. London: Andre Deutsch, 1975.

Camnitzer, Luis. New Art of Cuba. Austin: Texas University Press, 1994.

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

Errington, Shelly. The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

James, C.L.R. “The Artist in the Caribbean.” In The Future in the Present: Selected Writings, 183-190. London: Allison and Busby, 1977.

———. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

———.  “What Is Art?” In Beyond a Boundary, 195-211. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

———. “From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro.” In The Birth of Caribbean Civilisation: A Century of Ideas About Culture and Identity, Nation and Society, edited by Nigel Bolland, 396-420. Kingston: Ian Randle, 2004.

Karp, Ivan. “High and Low Revisited.” American Art, Summer (1991).

Karp, Ivan, and Dismas Masolo. “Introduction.” In African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry, edited by Ivan Karp and Dismas Masolo, 1-18. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Karp, Ivan, Christine Mullen Kraemer and Steven Lavine, eds. Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Karp, Ivan, and Steven Lavine, eds. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Manley, Edna. “Jamaican Art.” Gleaner, September 13, 1934, 18.

Manley, Michael. The Politics of Change: A Jamaican Testament. Washington DC: Howard University Press, 1990.

Manley, Norman. “National Culture and the Artist, 1939” In Manley and the New Jamaica, ed. Rex Nettleford, 108-09. London: Longman Caribbean, 1971. Referenced as: (Manley N. 1971a)

———. “The Creative Artist and the National Movement.” In Manley and the New Jamaica, 110-12. 1971. Referenced as: (Manley N. 1971b)

McClellan, Andrew. Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics, and the Origins of the Modern Museum in 18th Century Paris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Naipaul, V.S. The Middle Passage. London: Picador, 2001.

———.  The Mimic Men. London: Penguin, 1969.

Nettleford, Rex. Caribbean Cultural Identity. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1978.

3 thoughts on “From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 1

Add yours

  1. National cultural art makes me think of the grossly misinterpreted myths used in conjunction with futurism to institute fascist ideology in Germany. I think what these theorists are doing is deferring to Europe by claiming this cutural identity is nondescript, when in reality it is so pronounced that it becomes shadowed in caricature. Then again this critique reflects its time whereas if you were to ask someone now if there is a cultural consciousness they could point out a slew of symbols which are unique to the region that, functional or not, form an identity. Garvey and Manley I think were too close to the fire to see the flames.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: