Jamaican Art Goes Outernational

Together with broader exhibitions of Caribbean art, exhibitions of art from Jamaica such as Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora are a relative rarity in England, taking place since the mid 1990s, on average, much less than once a decade.

The first exhibition of Jamaican art to be shown in this country took place within a year of the Caribbean island’s independence, granted in 1962. Titled Face of Jamaica, the exhibition toured Germany and the UK in 1963 and 1964. Another significant contribution to the showing of work from the Caribbean in this country, was the opening, in the early 1960s, of the Commonwealth Institute in London. Over the course of the next several decades, the Commonwealth Institute became an important venue for the showing of work by artists from the wider Caribbean, and Jamaica itself. One such important early exhibition was Caribbean Artists in England.(i) The exhibiting artists included a number of practitioners from Jamaica: Karl Craig, Errol Lloyd, Ronald Moody, Vernon Tong, and Ricardo Wilkins (later known as Kofi Kayiga). Exhibitions such as Caribbean Artists in England continued in a variety of iterations for a number of years, and for the most part they were organized by the artists themselves. The next major undertakings were shows organised in conjunction with the Caribbean Focus festival of 1986, the centrepiece of which was Caribbean Art Now, which billed itself as Europe’s first exhibition of contemporary Caribbean art.(ii)

Notable exhibitions since have included Petrine Archer Straw’s New World Imagery: Contemporary Jamaica Art in 1995 and Back to Black: Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary (2005), an exhibition for which she was one of the curatorial team, held at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, as part of the Africa05 festival, Though exhibitions such as New World Imagery: Contemporary Jamaica Art and Back to Black tended to operate in an uncomfortable space between an art world ill at ease with dealing with Black artists, particularly Black-British ones, and an art world anxious and determined to declare a certain internationalism, they were, even so, exhibitions that gave gallery audiences a sense of the vibrancy and originality of Jamaican art. There have, of course been an equivalent number of these exhibitions held in the US and Canada, one of the first of which was Jamaican Art Since the Thirties, held at Spelman College, Atlanta University Center, in 1969. In this respect, a particularly fascinating undertaking was Veerle Poupeye’s Contemporary Jamaican Art, Circa 1962 / Circa 2012, held at the Art Gallery of Mississauga, Mississauga, Ontario, in 2012. This overview of Jamaican art was very much a part of international celebrations of the country’s fifty years of independence.

(i) Commonwealth Institute Art Gallery, Kensington High Street, London, 22 January - 14 February 1971. The exhibition featured some seventeen practitioners, showing fabrics, paintings, sculpture and ceramics.

(ii) Commonwealth Institute Art Gallery, Kensington High Street, London, 17 June – 4 August 1986. Jamaican artists were amongst the Caribbean practitioners represented in such exhibitions.

The above extracts are from “Jamaican Art Goes Outernational,” text for the exhibition catalogue Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, 25 June - 11 September 2016