DISCLAIMER: this is a research essay i wrote for my English class last semester.
Jamaica’s art scene over the last 100 years has been influential towards its political landscape and society’s ideals. Sculptors Edna Manley and Laura Facey Cooper, singer Bob Marley and various street artists have influenced major social change. Their art was and is aimed to influence the communities of the black Jamaican and raised issues like the Eurocentric-beauty ideals and why they are so coveted by black Jamaicans, the Redemption Song and the internalized racism throughout the island, the political landscape of the day, and one’s simple daily struggles and hopes. These artists reach into the hearts of Jamaicans who struggle with issues that stem from colonialism.
Mixed race artist Edna Manley moved to Jamaica when she married Norman Manley, a lawyer and political activist. She is considered (partially) responsible for introducing Black Art to Jamaica. Manley changed her artistic style immediately upon arrival ‘“just dropped off like a skin as I saw the first woman walk up Prince’s Street. . . . I knew that that was the kind of person I wanted to carve”’ (Thompson 22). Manley was also influenced by a school visit. She saw the children’s art and quickly perceived it to be what had become the forced ideal beauty standard; Eurocentric features: A Jamaican child had created an accurate scene of a Jamaican market, yet the local women in the scene had bleached blond hair and blue eyes. Manley knew that women in the market definitely did not look like that. “For Manley this visual racial hybrid signaled a wider crisis in self-perception for the black population in Jamaica in the early part of the twentieth century, one brought on, she suspected, by “the glorification of the white conqueror” in the British colony” (Thompson 2). She makes a statement about how the oppressors from the past have handed down unrealistic expectations of beauty and that it harms the way that the black population view themselves. African features such as dark skin, tightly coiled hair and wide noses are looked down upon. Manley was “pouring new wine into new bottles” (Thompson 3). Her art spoke of remnants of leftover white superiority stemming from a colonialist past. The colonial past of Jamaica also made it hard for any black Jamaicans to imagine themselves in popular artwork, because it would have been white slave masters, aristocrats or other higher ranked people of European descent who were depicted. Over the years her sculpting style changed. She had focused early on women. An early sculpture of hers called Eve was criticized for oversaturation of blackness: the voluptuous black woman created out of local dark mahogany. But her later work Negro Aroused was critically accepted. Thompson wrote that in contradistinction, the black males of Manley’s oeuvre offered a self-determined vision of black labour and a national future outside of colonial rule, as signified through the upraised eyes and uplifted arms of Negro Aroused. Thompson also wrote that cultural nationalists, Rastafarians, and political parties, with the aid of artists, had so successfully remade or reimaged the social, political, and racial landscape that Manley moved to disassociate herself from signs of whiteness and Britishness.
Bob Marley, a famous singer song-writer, wrote “Redemption Song” encouraging peace and love to spread throughout Jamaica and to put an end to the bloody violence that ran throughout his country. He tells his listeners to free themselves from mental slavery and provides a political message to the people asking them to let go of their colonial past and to come together as a nation. Marley was a Rastafarian. The Rastafarians are often outsiders within their own country. Rastafari is a young Afrocentric religion that emerged in the 1930’s and put emphasis on spiritual wealth rather than on material wealth; Material wealth is more commonly attributed to colonialist ideals. Marley held these ideals close to his heart. He wanted social change and he reached out to people through his rhythmic music and lyrics.
In Kingston, Jamaica an eleven foot bronze sculpture called “Redemption Song” was given the same name as the popular Marley song. The monument depicts two Afro-Jamaicans standing nude in a body of water as they both look up towards the sky. For Laura Facey Cooper, the creator of the monument, her decision to have the two people standing in water was not just for aesthetic appeal. She chose to have them standing in water to symbolize that they were trying to “wash away the pain and suffering of the past. They [the figures] would stand together in strength, unity, and reverence” (Dacres 2). Stripping the figures of clothing, symbols or material goods brings them together showing them as equals. Having no material objects to classify each person enables the viewer to come to the conclusion that they are not so different from everyone else. Monuments such as these help to create and bring forward “Afro-Jamaican culture and history [to] enlist [and] to shape a sense of national identity. More specifically, a new cultural policy, developed after independence”( Dacres 2). The monument also helps to showcase the impact that a Rastafarian has had on the community by naming it after a song by Bob Marley. The statue and the song were seen as controversial political statements.
Art is often a vehicle for political messages, be it loud or whispered. From cave art to the renaissance to modern day contemporary art it all has a motive whether good or bad. Art usually exists to create awareness or capture important moments in time, for example “contemporary art in Jamaica panders to the cultural values of a middle class that rejects a politicized agenda, and resists encounters with issues such as class, gender, and sexuality” (Douglas 7). Even though Jamaican contemporary art rejects a politicized agenda it still sends a political message. It says that they are not happy with how things are being run or how they (the people) are living. The rejection of politics through art is a unique way to send a message without having to say anything out loud. An important point that art often makes is that it can lead to more questions than answers, as Boxer argues “Contemporary Jamaican art questions rather than reassures” (Boxer 8). Art Coexists with politics to document it and to always keep prodding for answers, like Socrates describing himself as the gadfly that kept Athens from any rest sleeping.
Street art or public art is found all over the world. Since it can be found anywhere, each place has adopted something different about it. Donnette Zacca describes Jamaican street art as being “bright, giving some hope and light to the areas in which they are painted” He says that children become involved in the paintings and while the underlying stories may be jumbled the colors are bright and give hope and light to the areas in which they are painted. It is never the same anywhere one travels, in some Jamaican communities artists paint obituaries on the walls, they “become oversize death announcements, providing the same function as the death column in the newspaper, but more people from the area get a firsthand opportunity to appreciate the message” (Zacca 3). It is a sad way to hear of someone’s death, but it also may provide closure to a family. It is a good place to gather and mourn and pay respects without disturbing someone’s grave site, its final goodbye for the community. Street art in Jamaica is often a better medium of communication than a traditional newspaper, it can be said that “the walls told stories to a larger audience, including the poor and unintelligent, and a far larger number of people in the community were reached than by any newspaper” ( Zacca 1). Unlike a newspaper, a piece of street art usually does not require much reading. It caters to anyone who has time to look momentarily and appreciate it. It is effective for anyone no matter what level of education one has. Another benefit of street art is that it remains in its place long after it is finished. Unlike a story written in a newspaper it is not here one day and gone the next. It can remain until someone decides to paint over it with another message.
In conclusion, Jamaica’s art scene focuses on the black Jamaican. Even though slavery may be over, the effects of colonization still marks the daily lives of the people. Manley, Marley, Cooper and the various street artists reach into the minds and hearts of the Jamaicans. They inspire hope and challenge the politics of the day. Internalized racism and societal struggles are eased and fired with their art. The political nature of Jamaica makes it easily subjectable to art that either embraces its politics or denies it and its colonialist background, triggering a response in political art that makes the viewers question their society. This island home for so many people has given them gifts of such versatile works, which can only be described as powerful.