Many definitions of 'Jamaican art' have been proposed, but it seems to me that whatever might be 'Jamaican' about Jamaican art is, ultimately, undefinable. (In the same way, incidentally, that whatever might be 'Caribbean' about Caribbean art is similarly undefinable.) Given the difficulty, the impossibility of defining Jamaican art, I choose instead to refer to art in Jamaica. And given the fluidity and the elasticity of art practice in Jamaica, to speak of 'Jamaican art' is to unintentionally perhaps downplay the complexities of the island's artistic traditions. Jamaica plays host, for longer or shorter periods of time, to artists born and raised elsewhere, who have chosen to make Jamaica their temporary or permanent home. Likewise, countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States play host again, for longer or shorter periods of time to artists born in Jamaica and artists of Jamaican parentage. Given the seemingly perpetual and multiple movements of people both into and out of the country, it seems to me that Jamaica's artistic product is far too indelibly international and far too fluid in its migratory impulses to be prefixed with something suggestive of well-defined, monolithic, and universally accepted national characteristics. The term 'Jamaican art' suggests a checklist of national definitions that are generally agreed and uncontested. But no such checklist credibly exists. So I choose therefore to refer to 'art in Jamaica', in the belief in the hope even that the term better accommodates the diversity, the fluidity, and the contradictions of the island's artistic traditions.
...Perhaps the single most recognisable touchstone for a number of these artists is the memory of slavery. There are those who might regard slavery as something from the dim and distant past, but for many Black people the world over, and many artists in Jamaica, the experience seared itself on the psyche in a way that few non-Black people could understand or even comprehend. As ever, it was the Jamaican poet and prophet Bob Marley who had the measure of it when he sang 'Ev'ry time I hear the crack of the whip, my blood runs cold. I remember on the slave ship, how they brutalised our very souls...'. Isn't that something? A century and a half after the abolition of slavery in Jamaica, and Bob Marley still remembers 'the slave ship'. And such memories are triggered by a range of thoughts, sights and sounds - most obviously 'the crack of the whip'. Within this song (Slave Driver), Marley links historical memories of the slave trade to poor Black people's modern-day poverty, degradation and servitude. This is one of the most profound ways in which slavery has, for many people of the African diaspora, become a signifier of identity. So slavery and its continued consequences have provided fertile subject matter for this country's artists. I have, over a number of years, been profoundly moved by the use of the slave ship motif by artists such as Charles Campbell and Christopher Clare, and the ways in which their treatment of the slave ship encapsulated and signified much in the way of Black history and continually developing diasporic cultural identities. The signifiers of enslavement, exploitation, bondage, torture and death are never far from our readings of the slave ship image. Nor are the redemptive signifiers of survival, perseverance and the struggle for humanity. We need to thank these artists and others for the fascinating ways in which they continue to bring ever more contemporary readings to 'historic' images.
The above extracts are taken from the exhibition catalogue for:
Curator's Eye II
Identity & History:
Personal and Social Narratives in Art in Jamaica
December 11 2005 - March 18 2006
National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston