From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 2

Eugene Hyde - Good Friday
Eugene Hyde – Good Friday, from the Casualties Series, 1978 (Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica)

Here is part two 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 one can be found here. (c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved

Partha Chatterjee has pointed out that the challenge facing anticolonial cultural nationalism was to “to fashion a ‘modern’ national culture that is nevertheless not Western” (1993, 6) and added that “the search for a postcolonial modernity has been tied, from its very birth, with its struggle against modernity” (75). Anticolonial and postcolonial Modernist art has indeed developed in a conflicted dialogue with Western Modernism, reinforced by the fact that many postcolonial artists and cultural scholars have studied or worked in the metropolitan West. Still today, it is one of the most charged questions in the postcolonial mimicry debate, as is illustrated by the Indian expatriate art critic Annie Paul’s argument that mainstream Jamaican artists and art narratives “parrot” Western, high Modernist models, with a particular predilection for abstraction (1997).

Paul’s position is, in itself, highly problematic. First of all, the relationship between non-Western cultural nationalism and Modernism cannot be understood if Modernism is conflated with the formalist, High Modernist notion of art as an autonomous aesthetic preoccupation. Modernism is a much broader, more multifaceted phenomenon and the aspects of Western Modernism that attracted anticolonial and postcolonial nationalists are those equally important ones that accommodated social and political content and intent, such as expressionism and realism. While there has been some experimentation with abstraction, as is illustrated by the Cuban propaganda posters and a few “formalist rebellions” among artists who felt confined by cultural nationalism, representation has been the norm in most anti- and postcolonial art and this has certainly been the case in Jamaica, where art has always had a strong figurative focus.

Furthermore, the tendency to concede the authorship and rightful ownership of Modernism entirely to the metropolitan West needs to be challenged (Stam & Shohat 1998, 40). Modernism was a fundamentally transnational phenomenon, in which non-Western artists and intellectuals such as Wifredo Lam and Aimé Césaire and their international travels played a defining role. Latin American Modernism, in particular, has developed simultaneously with and sometimes ahead of European and US-American Modernism (Ades 1989, 125-149). While these contributions need to be reclaimed, the effects of Western metropolitan dominance in Modernism should not be downplayed either. There is an unresolved tension in anticolonial nationalist art movements between the desire to satisfy the cultural requirements of nationalism and those of the Western-focused “aesthetic internationalism” of Modernism (Shohat & Stam 1998, 40).

The primary means to make Jamaican Modernism “not Western” has been, to use Chatterjee’s term, the “appropriation of the popular” (1993, 72) but it has been a selective, vertical appropriation that relegates popular culture to being a “low culture” source for “high art” rather than a full-fledged part of the national culture. Norman Manley’s 1939 speech suggests that the artists – and he called them “our best young men,” in a remarkable, gender-biased failure to acknowledge the role of female artists such as his own wife in the nationalist movement – belonged to a separate category from “the people” whose culture they embraced and ennobled in their work, although several of the young members of the nationalist Jamaican art movement they mentored originally came from poor rural and urban backgrounds. Such views about the exceptional status of the artist are also evident in the work of C.L.R. James, who wrote in The Artist in the Caribbean: “A supreme artist exercises an influence on the national consciousness which is incalculable. He is created by it but he himself illuminates and amplifies it, bringing the past up to date and charting the future” (1977, 185).  The underlying issue is that nationalist art movements such as Jamaica’s have, in spite of the populist rhetoric and aversion to formalism, not fundamentally challenged the notion of “high culture” itself. The Jamaican nationalist movement may have originated in a genuine desire to transform society but it generated what was ultimately a new elite culture.

The ambivalence that surrounds popular culture in anticolonial cultural nationalism not only pertained to its cultural status but also to its apparent lack of modernity. Deborah Thomas has denounced the construction of African-Jamaican culture in creole nationalism as “folk blackness” (Thomas 2004), a traditionalist, folkloric view of popular culture that negates its political potency in the present. While popular culture has indeed been “folkorized” in nationalist Jamaican art, this assessment does not account for its thematic focus on the quintessentially modern figure of the black factory worker and urban dweller, with which the nationalist intelligentsia had formed relatively successful political alliances through the labor union movement. Nor does it account for the kinship of the Manleys’ cultural views with Alain Locke’s New Negro concept, with which they shared their Modernist focus.

John Dunkley – Banana Plantation, c1945 (Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica)

The question nonetheless arises whether genuine cultural and political common cause can exist between the postcolonial elites and popular masses. Frantz Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, was among the first intellectuals from the Caribbean to sound the alarm about the reductive and elitist tendencies in anticolonial cultural nationalism. He had particular misgivings about intellectuals’ ability to fully grasp popular culture:

The culture that the intellectual leans toward is often no more than a stock of particularisms. He wishes to attach himself to the people; but instead he only catches hold of their outer garments. And these outer garments are merely the reflection of a hidden life, teeming and perpetually in motion (1963, 223-224).

Fanon also cautioned against an unproductive traditionalism in dealing with popular culture but expressed some confidence that radical intellectuals and the people could productively collaborate on a revolutionary art that existed in the now.

Rastafari, which had gained considerable public visibility in Jamaica by the late 1950s, posed a serious challenge to the social, cultural and racial hierarchies of colonial and postcolonial Jamaica and made it very clear that resistance and even outright revolution could take place without enlightened elite leadership. The challenge facing the intelligentsia and mainstream artists of the 1960s and 1970s in Jamaica was thus how to position themselves vis-à-vis the new political assertiveness of the black masses. The young politician Edward Seaga, a Harvard graduate in sociology and anthropology who had conducted research on Revival religions in Jamaica (e.g. 1983), used his political clout to advance the scholarly study and public validation of traditional African-Jamaican culture, among others by setting up a Folklore Research unit at the IoJ.[1] He also publicly accused the older nationalist leadership of cultural elitism. The aggrieved Norman Manley retorted that Seaga, as a member of the white business elite, was merely engaged in a populist repackaging of what had pioneered by his own generation (Manley N. 1971c). In fact, Seaga can be accused of “folklorizing” popular African-Jamaican culture to a greater extent than the Manleys’ generation, because his focus was on its traditional rather than its modern aspects (Thomas 2004, 69-70). Furthermore, he used his association with the rural and urban communities where he had conducted his field research to build an intensely loyal political support base in a way that contributed to the development of the garrison communities in the inner cities (Gunst 1996, 79-85; Gray 2004, 47-49).[2] Despite the one-upmanship, there was virtual consensus among post-independence political leaders and intellectuals that African-Jamaican culture should be validated as a foundational part of the national culture and that fostering social and cultural egalitarianism was the only way forward (Manley M. 1990; Nettleford 1972 & 1978).

More strident challenges of the local socio-cultural hierarchies came from the core of young radicals at the University of the West Indies (UWI), led by the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney who was banned from Jamaica in 1968.[3] Rodney summed up their concerns in The Groundings with My Brothers:

The beneficiaries of [the nationalist, anticolonial] struggle had been were a nation’s middle class sector whose composition was primarily brown, augmented by significant elements of white and other groups, such as Syrians, Jews and Chinese. Of late, that local ruling elite has incorporated a number of blacks in positions of prominence. However, irrespective of its racial or colour composition, this power-group is merely acting as representatives of metropolitan-imperialist interests (1969, 12)

The middle class was thus accused of having replicated and perpetuated the colonial social order and many of these young (middle class) radicals embraced Rastafari as a popular movement that embodied their ideals of social and racial equity.

ebrown ethiopian apple
Everald Brown – Ethiopian Apple, 1969 (Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica)

The Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite[4], who lived in Jamaica at the time and was part of the radical core at the UWI Mona Campus, called for cultural and political solidarity and collaboration between the intelligentsia and the populace. Brathwaite wrote, in an essay on the self-taught artist and Zion Revivalist leader Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, after first dismissing the conventional elitist model of culture:

But there is another way of looking at the artist and at society; and that is a view which begins by looking upon society as made up of elite and the masses (the people or folk); in according them an equality of consideration, equilibrium of attention. Within this more balanced framework, priest, politician, judge, critic, artist, inhabit the fulcrum of our consciousness, mediating that gap and gulf between the one and the other, creating a continuum between elite and folk, requirement of a healthy society (1971, 5).

In keeping with the egalitarian ethos of the period, the artist was thus no longer hierarchically separated from “the people” but was still accorded special status as a social mediator and spiritual leader. Popular culture was thus increasingly seen as a model, rather than a source, that was in many ways superior to elite culture. Nonetheless, the high culture status of the official national culture was well-entrenched and the NGJ’s Intuitive category can be seen as an attempt to selectively elevate aspects of the popular culture to such cultural status.

The ideals of solidarity between the people and radical intellectuals were inevitably compromised by the end of Jamaica’s Socialist experiment in 1980 and the failure of Third World ideology globally. New developments in cultural theory and criticism, especially the critiques of the elitist, hegemonic nature of official postcolonial culture, have also contributed to the loss of interest in those ideals. This has contributed to a marked separation in the scholarship on mainstream and popular postcolonial culture and the focus of the latter has increasingly been on its function as resistance (e.g. Scott J. 1985 & 1990; Chatterjee 1993). Popular resistance has obviously played a crucial role in the development of Jamaican culture since the plantation era but construing popular culture entirely as resistance is as reductive as not paying attention to its political implications. While there has been one fairly substantial book on Rastafarian art which was published by German scholars (Bender 2005)[5], this new literature on popular culture has paid very little attention to visual art, perhaps because it is assumed that its elitist status is irredeemable but probably also because of the intellectual conservatism of the field of Anglophone Caribbean art history itself, which has been resistant to recent critical and theoretical developments.

The idea that there can be a consensual model for social upliftment and progress has been virtually abandoned in the recent scholarship on Jamaican culture. Scholarly publications such as Carolyn Cooper’s studies of Dance Hall culture (1995 & 2004) or Deborah Thomas’s Modern Blackness (2004) increasingly cast black popular culture in Jamaica as an autonomous domain that is indifferent to the social and cultural values of the elite, which harks back to M.G. Smith’s plural society model (1965). While there is undeniable evidence for its relative autonomy, this newer scholarship fails to address the question of the social efficacy of that resistance. Paul Willis (1977) has poignantly demonstrated that behavior that was construed as resistance by working class youths in England in the 1970s served to entrench rather than to challenge the social order, by keeping them locked in their “designated” social position, and this question certainly needs to be posed for Jamaica. Furthermore, romanticizing the aggressively oppositional character of much contemporary Jamaican popular culture overlooks that a society needs at least some shared values to remain viable. If not, the consequences are devastating for all involved and open the way for political and criminal manipulations and abuses, as Jamaica’s current nightmare of crime, violence and civic disorder may suggest (Gray 2004). I thus have to ask with Shalini Puri (2004) whether the current scholarly focus on hybridity and resistance does not represent a “cop out” on the social and political responsibilities of postcolonial scholars, who are still well placed to explore and critique what could lead to a more just and equitable society.


[1] The African-Jamaican Revival religions are conventionally divided in two major, related categories. One is Zion Revivalism, which combines elements of inspirational Protestant Christianity with spiritual beliefs and practices of predominantly West and Central African origin; the other is Pukumina which is more African and less conventionally Christian. There are also smaller but related traditional African-Jamaican religious practices such as Kumina, which originated in those parts of the island where Central African indentured laborers settled in the second half of the 19th century (See Chapter 5).

[2] The first such community was Tivoli Gardens in West Kingston, which was established by Seaga as a “model community” after the predominantly Rastafarian Back-O-Wall slum was bulldozed in 1965. The development consisted of modern low-income housing and facilities and was populated with hand-picked party supporters.

[3] He was prevented from re-entering the country after traveling abroad for a Black Writers’ conference in Montreal, Canada, in October 1968.

[4] He was still known as Edward Brathwaite at the time, a name he now refutes.

[5] The full length version of this study had originally appeared in German in 1992. A shorter version had been published in 1984. Both German publications accompanied exhibitions of Rastafarian art.


Ades, Dawn, ed. Art in Latin America. New Haven: Yale University, 1989.

Bender, Wolfgang, ed. Rastafarian Art. Kingston: Ian Randle, 2005.

Brathwaite, Edward. “Art and Society: Kapo, a Context.” In Jamaican Folk Art, 4-6. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, c1971.

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Cooper, Carolyn. Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

———. Sound Clash: Jamaican Dance Hall Culture at Large. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Referenced as (Cooper 2004a)

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, 1963.

Gray, Obika. Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2004.

Gunst, Laurie. Born Fi’ Dead: A Journey through the Jamaican Posse Underworld. New York: Owl, 1996.

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

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

Nettleford, Rex. Identity, Race and Protest in Jamaica. New York: William Morrow, 1972.

———. Caribbean Cultural Identity. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1978.

Paul, Annie. “Pirates or Parrots: A Critical Perspective on the Visual Arts in Jamaica.” Small Axe 1 (1997).

Puri, Shalini. The Caribbean Postcolonial: Social Equality, Post-Nationalism and Cultural Hybridity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Rodney, Walter. Groundings with My Brothers. London: Bogle-Louverture, 1969.

Scott, James. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

———. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Seaga, Edward. Revival Cults in Jamaica. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1983 (reprinted from Jamaica Journal 3, no. 2 (1969)).

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. “Narrativizing Visual Culture: Towards a Polycentric Aesthetics.” In The Visual Culture Reader, edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff, 27-48. London: Routledge, 1998.

Smith, M.G. Plural Society in the British West Indies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

Thomas, Deborah. Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Willis, Paul. Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

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