While I work on some other projects (about which more soon), here is another short excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011) – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.
Unlike [Albert] Huie, David Pottinger’s talent was entirely homegrown: he attended Edna Manley’s free art classes at the Institute of Jamaica (IoJ)’s Junior Centre and was among the first students at the Jamaica School of Art and Craft (JSAC), where he subsequently also taught. Pottinger’s primary subject has always been the life in the streets and yards of Downtown Kingston, his own living environment. The people in his paintings are, as in Huie and Manley’s work, represented as black Jamaican types rather than as individuals but his true focus is on the city of Kingston itself, as the cultural crucible of 20th century Jamaica where the traditional and the modern have made a potent mix. In contrast with Huie’s serene, idealized Jamaica and, more so, the colorful fantasies of tourist art, Pottinger depicts Kingston’s overcrowded inner-cities and the decaying, ramshackle infrastructure with unsparing realism and a keen sense for the old city’s dark, turbulent moodiness. Nine Night (1949), one of his best known works, depicts a streetside wake with Pukumina cultists dancing around a single standing oil lamp, the first of several such scenes by this artist. Pottinger was not the first nationalist Jamaican artist to depict Pukumina ceremonies. Edna Manley and Huie had done so before him but their stylized, aestheticized interpretations are far removed from Nine Night’s naturalist grit.
Like most of Pottinger’s works, Nine Night is an outdoor scene. The sociologist Diane Austin (1984) has observed the public, “outside” nature of the lives of the West Indian poor, which contrasts with the discrete, “respectable” privacy and domesticity enjoyed and valued by the middle classes. Krista Thompson (2004) has rightly observed that Huie’s early portraits celebrate middle class domesticity and even his later outdoor scenes celebrate middle class values of progressiveness and respectability. Pottinger’s work, in contrast, implies that there is dignity and respectability in the “outside lives” of the urban poor that needs not be “corrected” by aspiring to the status and lifestyle of the middle classes. Pottinger was less self-consciously concerned with creating national icons than Manley or Huie but instead depicted his lived experience of the popular urban culture, which is unembellished but no less nationalist [in intent].
Except for a handful of landscapes, Pottinger remained faithful to his main subject, Downtown Kingston, and, like Huie, developed a highly recognizable style which did not change much over time. His outlook was limited but he was less dependent on extraneous sources than Manley and Huie, which makes him one of the most original voices in the nationalist art movement. Some works from the late 1950s and early 60s, however, reveal an idiosyncratic interest in the formalist innovations of Modernism. The corrugated metal roofs and fencing of the slum dwellings in Trench Town (1959), for instance, are stylized into a tight, tectonic Cubist structure of interlocking planes that brings the image to the brink of abstraction. In actuality, all of Pottinger’s compositions are structured along vertical and horizontal gridlines – the sort of focus on structure that was advocated in post-impressionism [an art movement from which the Jamaican nationalist school derived much of its stylistic language]. Even the seemingly informal composition of Nine Night is anchored by the verticals of the standing oil lamp and dancers and the horizontals of the streetside curbstone and the throng of onlookers. Pottinger may be exceptional among his generation because of his proximity to the popular culture but he is not actually an outsider to the aesthetic pursuits of mainstream Jamaican art.
Pottinger came from a poor urban background and, like most of the Junior Center painters, struggled to survive as a young artist, mainly making a living as a sign painter. Despite the national recognition he has received and the popularity of his work in the local art market (be it at prices that are still well below Huie’s) Pottinger lived in modest circumstances in Downtown Kingston until the end of life although he could surely have afforded to move out. He thus seems to have refused the opportunities for social mobility that came with his artistic recognition, which is consistent with his ethos as an “artist of the people.” Pottinger’s case also illustrates that the generalizations that are often made about nationalist art as a hegemonic instrument of the emerging middle classes should be questioned, since these mask the actual diversity of backgrounds and agendas involved.
Austin, Diane. Urban Life in Kingston, Jamaica: The Culture and Class Ideology of Two Neighborhoods. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1984.
Thompson, Krista. “‘Black Skin, Blue Eyes’: Visualizing Blackness in Jamaican Art, 1922-1944.” Small Axe 16 (2004): 1-31