Memoirs: Everald Brown (1917-2002)

Everald Brown at the Assembly of the Living, 82 1/2 Spanish Town Road, West Kingston, c1974 (photographer unknown)

This article was originally published in two parts in the Jamaica Monitor August 1 and 8, 2021, respectively. It is now posted here with minor editorial changes.

Part 1

Everald Brown – or Brother Brown, as his was commonly called – had his first exhibition at the Creative Arts Centre (now the Phillip Sherlock Centre) at the University of the West Indies – Mona in 1969. In 1972, his work was featured in Contemporary Art from the Caribbean at the OAS Art Gallery, the precursor of the Art Museum of the Americas, in Washington, DC, and by the mid-1970s, he was a well-respected Jamaican artist and culture bearer, whose work was regularly exhibited, collected, and written about, locally and internationally. In 1979, he was given a central position in the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Intuitive Eye, a landmark exhibition which launched the concept of “Intuitive Art”, as a designation for self-taught, popular art and an alternative to more problematic terms such as “Primitive”. The Intuitive Eye was curated by the National Gallery’s then Director/Curator David Boxer, who became one of Brother Brown’s most avid collectors and supporters.

It may appear that Everald Brown’s ascent to artistic recognition was swift and relatively easy, and that he received widespread support, but this leaves out many parts of his story. Despite the acknowledgement he received during his lifetime, he never acquired any wealth and today, nearly twenty years after his death, public awareness about his work and its context is surprisingly limited, certainly in comparison to other greats of Jamaican art, such as Barrington Watson and Edna Manley. As I have argued before, it takes continuous effort to keep the work of artists who are no longer active in the public consciousness. More needs to be done, by those who are entrusted with the country’s artistic heritage and, for that matter, all who are interested in Jamaican art, to keep alive the legacies of artists such as Brother Brown, who are not associated with social and political power in ways that will keep their memory active.

I do not recall exactly when I first met Everald Brown, but it must have been around the time I started working at the National Gallery. Olive Senior, who edited Jamaica Journal at that time, invited me to submit a research article on his life and work. The resulting article, titled The Rainbow Valley: The Life and Work of Brother Everald Brown (1988) became my first major publication on Jamaican art. In preparation for the article, I visited Brother Brown’s home in Murray Mountain, in southern St Ann, further inland from Alexandria and close to the Cockpit Country, near the geographic centre of the island. The experience gave me my first major exposure to the rich spiritual and cultural life of deep rural Jamaica and the evocative, almost primordial beauty of the karst landscapes of the island’s interior – a significant part of Brother Brown’s work as an artist was, in fact, about the relationship between the spiritual and the land. A lifelong working relationship and friendship with Brother Brown ensued, with many more visits to Murray Mountain and I curated a major retrospective exhibition of his work for the National Gallery of Jamaica in 2004.

Brother Brown was born not far from Murray Mountain and grew up in Sandy River, near Kellits, in Clarendon. His father was a beekeeper and herbalist, and Jamaica’s popular spiritual life was thus part of Brother Brown’s experience from birth. Like many poor, rural Jamaicans of his generation, Brother Brown and his wife, Sister Jenny, moved to Kingston in search of economic opportunity and settled in West Kingston in 1947, where he started working as a carpenter. While also working independently, he was employed on the construction site of the National Stadium, one of several major public works during the period around Independence. He eventually settled at 82 ½ Spanish Town Road, where the Spanish Town Examination Depot is now located, in a yard he shared with a Kumina and a Zion Revival group. This yard remained his home until 1974 when he moved back to the country.

During his early years in West Kingston, Brother Brown was exposed to the mystical teachings of Joseph Hibbert, one of the pioneers of the Rastafarian movement. Like many of those who were attracted to the spiritual, religious aspects of the movement, Brown gravitated to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest and furthermore African, Christian denominations. Around 1960, he established his own small church community, The Assembly of the Living, as an informal, self-appointed mission of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which involved mainly the members of his own family and persons in his immediate community. Although he became a member when the EOC was formally established in Jamaica in 1970, Brother Brown’s beliefs and practices were never orthodox but intertwined with elements from Rastafari, Kumina and Revival as well as his own, unique spiritual views – a great example of the complex “creolizations” that take place in popular religion in the Caribbean and defy clear-cut labels or categorizations. Brother Brown was not a Rastafarian in any narrowly defined sense, but he was associated, and entirely on his own terms, with the religious, spiritual side of the movement.

The first art works Everald Brown produced, were ritual objects, musical instruments and paintings for his small church at 82 ½ Spanish Town Road. It is these that first attracted the attention of Jeanette Grant-Woodham, who then worked as Folklore Research Officer at the Institute of Jamaica and who in 1968 started documenting the musical practices of Brother Brown and his family. The rest, so to speak, is history.

The Glory-I Band in performance at Murray Mountain, 2004 (photo: Veerle Poupeye)

Part 2

Brother Everald Brown’s development as an artist was associated with his religious and spiritual life as the founder and patriarch of the Assembly of the Living, a small, self-appointed mission of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which he had established in West Kingston around 1960. This association remained fundamental after he became an active participant in the Jamaican art world, although the work he produced for exhibition and sale was more consciously produced as “art”. He was practical enough to recognize the role of his art, and that of his other artist-family members, in providing materially for his family, even though he saw that, too, in spiritual terms. One of his paintings from the late 1970s, now lost, depicted himself with the then National Gallery Director/Curator David Boxer, showing how his paintings inspired by the spiritual presences in the rocky landscape of the Jamaica yielded sustenance for his family, Bread out of Stone, as its title said.

Brother Brown’s early production of ritual objects, musical instruments and paintings for his church community provided the foundation for his later work and the elaborate symbolic universe expressed in it. This included his carved prayer staff, which remained with him throughout his life and now belongs to his family, the seals and other ritual structures he constructed for his yard, and a group of paintings that featured the archangels ushering the believers to the Assembly of the Living. Although he also showed carved sculptures and his increasingly elaborate sculptural musical instruments, which were decorated with painting and carved elements, there was a strong shift to painting in more conventional formats when he started exhibiting his work.

Some of his early paintings, such as Niabinghi Hour (1969), represented the ritual practices of his church community, while others such as Ethiopian Apple (1970) and The Earth is the Lord (c1969) were more emblematic and symbolized his spiritual beliefs. All three paintings are in the collection of the National Gallery of Jamaica. An exquisitely carved early sculpture, Lion Rider (c1972), used to be in a major Jamaican collection but has recently been sold to a foreign collector. It is Jamaica’s loss and a good illustration that far more needs to be done by our cultural agencies to keep key examples of Jamaica’s artistic heritage in the island, and preferably in public collections. Along with the John Dunkley works that have also left the island recently, we have lost too much already.

The more significant shift however came when Brother Brown and his family moved to Murray Mountain, in deep rural St Ann, in 1974, after life in West Kingston had become too challenging because of the rapidly escalating crime and violence. It is there that he was able to delve fully into his belief in the spiritual interconnectedness of things, inspired by the landscape, the vegetation, and the capricious limestone formations of Jamaica’s heartland. In these works, the land was interpreted as the bearer of spiritual memories and messages, a living, spiritually active, communicative presence, as is perhaps best illustrated by the mesmerizing Bush Have Ears (1976), also in the NGJ collection.

Everald Brown was not the only artist in his family. He shared his spiritual and artistic life with his wife, Sister Jenny, and several of his children were also artists, Clinton, Joseph, Ruth, Sandra and Rebecca, and although they were all clearly influenced by their father, they developed their own artistic voice, the sculptor Joseph especially. The production of musical instruments drums and fantastically shaped string instruments such as the Star Banjos and Dove Harps (in effect lutes), and hybrid forms such as the Instruments for Four People, was an increasingly important part of this collective practice, in which Brother Brown took the lead but to which other family members also contributed. The musical instruments, while available for sale and exhibition, were part of Brother Brown’s vision for a divine orchestra, and were performed by himself and his family, under the name the Glory-I Band.

Brother Brown was a soft-spoken but charismatic character, a family and community patriarch in a positive sense, who managed to draw me into his visionary spiritual world even though I am not religious. Visiting him at Murray Mountain was always a special experience. It invariably involved a precarious climb to Meditation Heights, the sharp-edged limestone platform above his house that served as Brother Brown’s private space of connection with the spiritual and natural world. The view of the surrounding mountains was otherworldly, and the tall structures Brother Brown had built on the hilltop, which served as “spiritual antennas”, left no doubt about the spiritual significance of the place. If I was lucky there would also be a musical performance by the family, and in good Jamaican country style, I never left without being gifted some produce, usually a few sugar cane stalks and cabbages that had been grown in the patches of earth between the rock formations on his family land.

At the opening of the Everald Brown retrospective, two years after his death, the Glory-I Band played in his honour, in what became a very intense and extended performance which continued for nearly an hour after the planned closing time of the event. For those who stayed, it was an unforgettable experience. I could feel the powerful vibrations of the drums and the chanting in my body and soul for many hours after. The spirit was with us, and within us, that afternoon.

Everald Brown and his wife Sister Jenny are buried at the family property in Murray Mountain, in decorated, quasi-Ethiopian sculptural graves that are consistent with his beliefs and artistic vision. The family’s spiritual and artistic traditions are still upheld by his children and grandchildren – his granddaughter Venice Black, who works in ceramics, for instance exhibited in the 2017 Jamaica Biennial. It has been a while since I have visited Murray Mountain, but it is a special place, and one of very few sites associated with Jamaica’s self-taught, popular artists that were not destroyed after the artist’s passing. It deserves to be recognized and preserved as a heritage site, along with places where other artists have lived and worked, such as Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds’ church community at Ghandi Road in Olympic Gardens, in Kingston.

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