BY Rianna Jade Parker in Opinion | 05 JUN 24
Featured in
Issue 244

The Inward Yearning of Jamaica’s ‘Intuitive’ Artists

How a group of self-taught practitioners pioneered a national art form by mythologizing African traditions through religious divination

BY Rianna Jade Parker in Opinion | 05 JUN 24

In 1962, a new Jamaican consciousness and sense of self was reborn in fire through ceremonial state independence from Britain, its former enslaver and colonist. Not since the initiation of the Universal Negro Improvement Association – founded in 1914 by the internationalist political leaders Marcus Garvey and his first wife, Amy Ashwood Garvey – did the country’s Black majority overwhelmingly acknowledge themselves as the sons and daughters of the African diaspora and active participants in the global Black struggle for liberation, in tandem with the political selfhood they wished to attain. Central to these efforts were self-imaging and esteem-raising cultural work. As Jamaica-born historian Colin A. Palmer states in Inward Yearnings: Jamaica’s Journey to Nationhood (2016): ‘The timing of Jamaica’s birth, for good or ill, was essentially an accident of history […] its fate would depend largely on the people’s capacity to imagine, design and build their own passageways to the future.’

Leonard Daley, Peace and Love, c.1990s, mixed media on hardboard, 60 × 74 cm. Courtesy: Herman van Asbroeck

 A little over a decade later, in 1975, cultural polymath David Boxer returned to his birthplace of Kingston after studying art history at Cornell University, New York, and John Hopkins University, Baltimore, where he met American art historian Lowery Stokes Sims and the British artist Francis Bacon, who became the subject of Boxer’s doctoral dissertation. Soon after arriving back in Jamaica, Boxer was appointed the first director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, a position he retained until only a few years before his death in 2017. During his tenure, a significant history of Jamaican art was promoted through writing, curation and acquisitions by private and corporate collectors alike. By providing a broad curatorial scope and consistent scholarship, Boxer contextualized Caribbean artmaking within the larger art-historical canon. His prevailing legacy is his designation of ‘self-taught’ Jamaican artists at the nucleus of that national canon, formally including the material and interior emotional worlds of a journeying people.

Sidney McLaren, Highbury Avenue, Morant Bay, 1972, enamel on hardboard, 64 × 109 cm. Courtesy: Margaret Reckord Bernal Collection

In 1979, Boxer curated ‘The Intuitive Eye’, an innovative exhibition featuring 165 artworks, at the National Gallery of Jamaica. In the accompanying catalogue, he offered his definition of Jamaican artistic production:

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. They are, for the most part, self-taught. Their visions (and many are true visionaries), as released through paint or wood, are unmediated expressions of their individual relationships with the world around them – and the worlds within.

The term ‘intuitive’ was adopted by Boxer as an alternative to more popular but debasing definitions, such as ‘primitive’, ‘folk’ or ‘naïve’. More than 40 artists were dubbed ‘intuitive’ by Boxer, who became the sole authority on the subject.

A new Jamaican consciousness was reborn in fire through ceremonial state independence from Britain.

Working primarily at the turn of the 20th century and during the early modernist period, these intuitive artists were consolidated conceptually by Boxer, but lived and worked separately, crossing paths rarely, if at all. Using canvas, hardboard, stone, wood, zinc and other found materials, they captured the reality of daily life in Jamaica – from rural calm to urban bustle – largely through direct observation, reading and listening, rather than tutelage.

One of the earliest and most highly regarded intuitive artists is John Dunkley (1891–1947), who was a humble barber before he won the bronze medal in art at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Dunkley’s surrealist paintings of looming roads, paths or gullies that recede into the canvas, richly detailed with plants and animals indigenous to the Caribbean, are hallmarks of his practice. His contemporary Sidney McLaren (1895–1979) only began painting in his later years but his depictions of iconic streets and landmarks in downtown Kingston were an overnight success. In The Parade (1972), for instance, the city is almost unrecognizably clean and orderly, with an equal distribution of motorists and pedestrians filling the picture frame. While McLaren’s perspectives, forms and compositions may be slightly distorted, his detailed paintings convey a genuine sense of pride in the country’s growing modern capital.

Mallica ‘Kapo’ Reynolds, Poinciana Grove, 1979, oil on canvas on hardboard, 23 × 33 cm. Courtesy: The Suzie Wong Collection (Susanne Fredricks)

A lasting legacy of the British West Indian plantocracy is the awe with which the Black Jamaican population – and the African diaspora in general – came to regard the anima of carved objects with exaggerated West African phenotypes. But a recurring theme within Jamaican intuitive art is the practice of mythologizing African traditions and histories by way of Rastafari and Pan-Africanism, both of which remain prevalent in the country today. As British-Jamaican art historian Petrine Archer-Straw asserts in her essay ‘Desperately Seeking Africa in Jamaican Art’ (2003):

Africa remains an important touchstone for our artists, as a source not of mimicry but of inspiration. Look carefully and you will see how artists fill the voids in our history and our understanding by ritualizing our culture, mythologizing the past and packaging the horror of our history in the language and style of modernism […] Artists can only intuit the savagery of their past through an exploration of their own scarred remembrances, dull aches and contemporary anxieties.

Living in the countryside of Saint Mary Parish, north of Kingston, surrounded by the cedar trees that supplied his favourite sculptural medium, William ‘Woody’ Joseph (1919–98) made his first work of art using fragments of glass from broken bottles and a piece of wood that he found floating in a river. His popular terracotta-hued figures, such as Angel (c.1990), were carved human-animal hybrids stained with a self-made ‘Zambia Red’ dye, created from hibiscus flowers and the local, bauxite-rich earth. Woody’s reclusion meant he was not exposed to images of African art, or even works by other artists. Rather, guided only by feeling, his sculptures were arguably the purest example of African-Jamaican spirit and rhythm.

David Miller, Untitled, c.1960s, lignum vitae, 14 × 28 × 23 cm. Courtesy: Herman van Asbroeck

The famed painter-carver-preacher Mallica ‘Kapo’ Reynolds (1911–89) was born in rural Saint Catherine Parish. At age sixteen, while sitting under a cotton tree, he experienced a religious vision and felt the call to become an itinerant preacher. In the 1940s, having settled in Trench Town, he founded Saint Michael’s Revivalist Tabernacle. It was here he began carving figurative works in stone and wood, such as Sandra and Baby (c.1950), held in the collection of the National Gallery of Jamaica, where he is the only Jamaican artist with a dedicated gallery in the building. The liberatory Black vitality these pieces displayed was unnerving to his fellow countrymen, however, and, in addition to frequent raids on his house during which a number of his artworks were destroyed, he was also imprisoned on two occasions for accusations of practicing Obeah, the West African diasporic religion that decentres the white European vision of Jesus.

In addition to his sculptural works, Kapo also produced oil paintings that depicted his world of revivalist ceremonies, country life and romantic contortions between the sexes. Perhaps most impressively, however, as in Poinciana Grove (1978), his brushwork conveyed the breadth of Jamaica’s lush green hills and valleys. With the support of singer Roberta Flack, an avid collector of his work, he staged his first solo exhibition in New York at the eminent Black-owned Just Above Midtown Gallery in 1975.

The term ‘intuitive’ was adopted as an alternative to debasing definitions, such as ‘primitive’, ‘folk’ or ‘naïve’.

In contrast to many intuitive artists, father and son sculpting duo David Miller Sr. (1872–1969) and David Miller Jr. (1903–78) actively sought out books about African art at the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston. Using native lignum vitae (wood of life), the pair created more than 100 handsome geometric heads that drew closely on the sculptures they discovered during their research. Recognizing the head as the cognitive powerhouse of human anatomy, the Millers immortalized Afro-Jamaican facial physiognomy, with its pronounced physical features.

Hailing from a younger generation of intuitive artists, both Leonard Daley (1930–2006) and Ras Dizzy (c.1932–2008) were Caribbean expressionists and noble-minded Rastas, neither concretely figurative nor abstractive. In Peace and Love (c.1990), Daley depicts himself as a John Crow – the scavenging vulture that Jamaicans love to hate – in the throes of an argument among ghouls and spirits. While the expression ‘Dutty John Crow’ is a common insult – used to compare someone to the creature primarily associated with ugliness, shame and Blackness – Daley reportedly believed that the despised bird was useful since it ‘cleans up the place’. Dizzy, who was a poet as well as a painter, suffered throughout his life from untreated paranoid schizophrenia. Nonetheless, he remains one of the most fondly remembered of the intuitive artists, whose works, such as A Surprize to the Big Race Day (1993), feature lustrous fields of colour populated with limbless bodies.

Ras Dizzy, The Ink is White, The Chark is Black, 1987, mixed media on hardboard. Courtesy: Rianna Jade Parker

A carpenter by trade, Everald Brown (1917–2003) worked on the construction of the National Stadium in Kingston, which hosted Jamaica’s independence ceremony in 1962. He came to art later in life, envisioning the scenes he painted while in a deep spiritual trance – a process documented in the self-portrait Meditation (1983). Sometimes describing himself as a ‘Churchical Rasta’ – a more ascetic form of Rastafari according to the precepts of author J.N. Hibbert – Brown established The Assembly of the Living, a 30-person offshoot of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in the early 1960s. He and his congregation eventually left the city for rural living on Murray Mountain in the hills of Saint Ann Parish. Made some years before that relocation, Heavenly Waters (1970) shows Jamaica at her best: untouched by machines, teeming with living organisms, a blessed and bountiful land.

Although very few women – no more than six in total – were included in Boxer’s grouping of self-taught artists, Geneva Mais Jarrett (b.1952) – subsequently known as Elijah – is one of the few still alive. Received by her community as a prophetess, Elijah chose to turn her home and the surrounding streets into a spiritual space, painting the zinc fences of the once-forlorn Rose Town in Kingston with murals of angels and biblical scenes, as a means of blessing all who lived there.

Common to all intuitive art is an aesthetic rooted in African and Jamaican folk expressions, the collective unconscious and the notion of a Black psyche.

Common to all intuitive art is an aesthetic rooted in traditional African and Jamaican folk expressions, an involvement of the collective unconscious and the notion of a Black psyche. The power and impact of place in these works cannot be understated, neither can the lasting spirit of material cultures, nor the use of local colour. The uninitiated viewer needs to divest themselves of the belief that Jamaica’s cultural wealth peaks at contemporary music, cuisine and athleticism; it also encompasses an indigenous school of art which can compete with any of those that evolved in our great cultural capitals. So much so, in fact, that these artworks of lived experience, historical consciousness and new-world narrative have not only toured the Caribbean, South America, North America and Europe since the 1940s, but are featured in numerous international collections, including: Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum, Miami; Commonwealth Institute, London; Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Everald Brown, Meditation, 1983, acrylic on hardboard, 64 × 50 cm. Courtesy: Herman van Asbroeck

Despite their freeform style and individual intentionality, the Jamaican intuitives were deeply culturally grounded. Working in the shadow of a brutal recent history, these artists used artistic and intellectual practices to fragment the self in a bid to reinterpret the Caribbean crucible and memorial consciousness. While a persistent loyalty to both the British Head of State and North American intervention is sustained through economic manipulation and sociopolitical apathy, today’s Jamaican artists, whether at home or overseas, are yearning inward – variably informed by their intuitive forebears – committed to sovereignty for themselves and, by extension, for their country.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 244 with the headline ‘Inward Yearnings’

'Riddle: What is a Man? - Paintings by Leonard Daley' will be on view at Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York until 15 June 

Main image: Sidney McLaren, The Parade (detail), 1972, enamel on hardboard. Courtesy: Andrew Phillips Collection

Thumbnail image: Albert Artwell, Nyabinghi, oil on hardboard, 60 × 30 cm. Courtesy: Herman van Asbroeck

Rianna Jade Parker is a writer, historian and curator. Her first book, A Brief History of Black British Art, was released by Tate Publishing in 2021, and her second is forthcoming from Frances Lincoln. She is an advisory board member for Forensic Architecture, a contributing writer of frieze and a contributing editor of Tate Publishing.