BY Tiana Reid in Opinion | 16 JUL 20

What Barrington Watson’s Paintings of Jamaican Women Reveal About Pan-African Legacies

The artist’s works may embody the ‘values’ of revolution, but heroine-worship of the mass blunts its struggle

BY Tiana Reid in Opinion | 16 JUL 20

This mother and child are a mother and child because the title tells us so. Without that staticizing information, without our gendering eye, without the stranglehold of the nuclear family, these two figures in Barrington Watson’s painting could be siblings, they could be grandparent and grandchild, they could be cousins. In its 2016 obituary to Watson, Jamaica’s national newspaper, The Gleaner, referred to him as a ‘master artist’. And, as offerings to social realism, his ‘masterworks’ represent feminine figures feminized further by their titles, which often lend an undertone of the drudgery of domestic labour – Mother and Child (1958–59), Washer Women (1966) or even Conversation (1981) – the laba-laba that women, especially, are said to do. On view in the National Gallery of Jamaica’s permanent collection, these paintings memorialize the women of this country – through that hushed moment, that sharing of a rumour, that brief rest from labour – as anti-monumental. Watson’s works are a kind of cognate to what Saidiya V. Hartman advances in her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019) as ‘the chorus’.

Barrington Watson, Mother and Child, 1958-59, oil on canvas. Courtesy: The National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston

The feminization of the masses has been significant in not only representing but also describing the failures and vitalities of post-independence. The figuration of these women (and women like them) stand in stark contrast to the artist’s portrayals of individual, black, male figures from our recent history of the struggle for freedom. Watson’s small, didactic picture book The Pan-Africanists (1999) presents a series of oil paintings of leaders standing in various poses – hands clasped, fingers pointed, one hand in pocket – in praise of a steely and dignified intellectual life. In total, there are 17 portraits of Pan-African thinkers from the 20th century, including Muhammad Ali, W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. Fifteen men and two women – that is what gender studies professor Katherine McKittrick termed in her 2014 'Mathematics black Life' essay ‘the uncomfortable mathematics of black life’. The Pan-Africanists contains a foreword by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan – that is the uncomfortable appropriation of black social life by geopolitics. Across these two different nodes of Watson’s practice emerges a public, international attempt to contain the country’s women, contain the masses, and transform them into members of a liberal democratic society – one that never materialized.

From that future – from what literature professor Nijah Cunningham termed, in his eponymous 2017 essay, ‘the nonarrival of black freedom’ – I am not saying anything that we don’t know, either through intense study or hard living. Spectacular representations of brutality against black people in liberal media elude the quotidian violence meted out across the gendered globe. No matter how beautifully Watson portrays these Jamaican women – no matter how much gratitude is bestowed upon them for their labours in post-independence nation-building projects, in forging supportive social relationships, in promoting the ‘values’ of revolution – liberation and insurgency do not altogether countermand gender-based violence.

Barrington Watson, Washer Women, 1966, oil on canvas, 71 x 101 cm. Courtesy: The National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston

In writing this piece, I attempted to answer the following question: What do Watson’s exemplary depictions of unnamed women in the Caribbean postcolonial canon do for our understanding of bonds and of gathering? I refuse to redeem them. I also hesitate at wanting these anonymous women to do anything at all: heroine-worship of the mass blunts its struggle.

Black women bear the burden of racialization, sexualization and nationalization by effectively and theoretically being excluded from those categorizes (black, woman, citizen). I say this with the awareness that, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak said in conversation with Angela Davis during the 2018 ‘Planetary Utopias’ symposium: ‘The United States is not the model of the world.’ Even as the world’s superpower enacts its terror through media, monolingualism, forever war.

Barrington Watson, The Conversation, 1981, oil on canvas, 141 x 106 cm. Courtesy: The National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston

As today’s many-gendered black masses dance and fight in the face of the police, from Minneapolis to Port of Spain, I recall Kingston’s Tivoli incursion of 2010 – sparked by armed conflict between police and a major drugs cartel – and the killing of Susan Bogle, a 44-year-old disabled woman murdered by police in her August Town home in May. Just as, before that, my Jamaican father recalled during the 1970s the aftermath of US anti-communist policies, the violent export of democracy. But I also remember other things my father left me. I was born into an intimate violence I now see invoked by socialists and liberals alike in a bid to destroy abolition. Revisiting Watson’s Mother and Child, I find myself preoccupied by promises of home and family, while living their failures and attempting to refuse them.

Main image: Barrington Watson, Washer Women, 1966, oil on canvas, 71 x 101 cm. Courtesy: The National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston

Tiana Reid is a PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York City. Her writing has been published in Art in America, Bookforum, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review and elsewhere.