Although the Tainos left paintings on cave walls and visiting British artists captured the colonial era on canvas, Jamaican art really only came into its own in the twentieth century. The island’s modern art movement was led by Edna Manley (1900–87), an English sculptor who had married prime-minister-to-be Norman Manley and moved to Jamaica in 1921, and whose arresting work has come to be seen as a turning point in Jamaican art. In 1939, she led a group of artists who stormed the annual meeting at the Institute of Jamaica to demand an end to the domination of Anglophile attitudes to art, and the replacement of the colonial portraits that hung in the galleries with works by local artists. Though more symbolic than revolutionary, their gesture did galvanize Jamaican painters and sculptors, and Manley’s classes at the Jamaica School of Art (now the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts), which she co-founded, helped give direction to a new wave of local artists.

There were two distinct artistic styles in the work of this new crop of Jamaican artists. Most studied in England at one time or another and followed a classical European approach. Albert Huie (1920–2010) and Barrington Watson (born 1931) used natural forms and landscapes as reference points, incorporating the lives of black Jamaicans into their work for the first time, while Gloria Escoffery (1923–2002) played with abstract themes, depicting a range of subjects, from quiet pastoral scenes to the traditional Saturday market.

The paintings of the self-taught artists, known as “intuitives”, were perhaps more distinctive. The prodigious John Dunkley (1891–1947) made his name by covering every inch of his Kingston barber shop with pictures of trees, vines and flowers; his later paintings (now much sought after) continued his obsession with dark, brooding scenes from nature. Many intuitive artists focused their work around religious imagery. Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds (1911–89), the shepherd (head) of a Revivalist group in Kingston, became the first self-taught Jamaican painter to be fully accepted by local and foreign audiences, and is still seen as the island’s foremost intuitive sculptor and painter. Other artists such as Albert Artwell (born 1942) and Everald Brown (1917–2002) – a priest in the Ethiopian Coptic Church – concentrate on Rasta beliefs.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jamaican art became more experimental, most noticeably in the surrealism represented by the work of David Boxer (born 1946) and Australian-born Colin Garland (1935–2007). Today, Jamaica’s art scene continues its diversity. At the bottom end, it’s dominated by the huge carving and painting industry that has grown up around mass tourism, and although much of it is relentlessly mediocre, there is some decent art at the craft markets in Kingston and across the north coast, and in Kingston’s clutch of galleries. The establishment of the National Gallery in 1974 gave the art scene an important institutional infrastructure, and the regular exhibits of Jamaican art continue to encourage the development of young painters and sculptors, as witnessed by the proliferation of studios and galleries islandwide. You can also see the best of contemporary Jamaican art during the annual Kingston on the Edge arts festival.

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