Petrine Archer-Straw, In Memoriam, (1956 – 2012)

Professor Petrine Archer-Straw, who died recently and unexpectedly, was one of the most active and accomplished historians of Caribbean Art. In her work as an artist, academic, art historian, writer and curator, Archer-Straw consistently challenged the prevailing orthodoxies that treat Caribbean artists and cultural practice in geographical, racial and artistic isolation. In essence, her position was that we cannot fully understand or appreciate the practice of Caribbean artists without due consideration of broader factors such as migration, history, identity and, above all diaspora – the scattering of many black people beyond their ancestral homeland of Africa. Archer-Straw travelled widely within the United States, the Caribbean region, Europe, and elsewhere in the world. Thus her keenly observed constructions of the role of diaspora within cultural identity and practice were built on very real experiences and engagement with diverse communities of people and artists, the world over, and not just in her native Jamaica. Archer-Straw was responsible for authouring many texts on artists' practice, including several books, and cocurating several important exhibitions for galleries in London and around the country.

... She gained a theology, history and sociology B.A. from the University of the West Indies, Mona, graduating in 1978. She then studied at the Jamaica School of Art (later called the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts), securing a diploma in painting in 1982. This began a long and fruitful affiliation with this leading Caribbean art school. An M. Phil in cultural history from University of the West Indies, Mona, followed some years later, in 1987. In 1994 she was awarded a doctorate from Courtauld Institute, University of London, for her critical study of Negrophilia (the somewhat skewed white embrace and love of things black and African), with particular emphasis on Paris, France in the early part of the 20th century. Archer-Straw was primarily known and widely respected as a historian of Jamaican and Caribbean Art, a writer, a curator, a university professor and a college lecturer. Perhaps less well known is her work as an accomplished artist in her own right. Her work made its way into a number of important collections, including that of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Her first major contribution to the study and research of Jamaican art was her collaborative work with Kim Robinson, Jamaican Art: An Overview - With a Focus on Fifty Artists. Published by Kingston Publishers in 1990, the book is still unsurpassed as a comprehensive and authoritative introduction to the visual arts of Jamaica. An updated version of the book was published in the summer of 2011.

Archer-Straw also wrote art criticism and exhibition reviews, demonstrating her wider interest in the complex interplay between diaspora, migration, travel, artistic production, history, and identity. Her interest in such matters was further reflected in her very sizable body of scholarship, research, writing, and curatorial practice undertaken since the early 1990s.

... In addition to reviews, essays and catalogue texts, Archer-Straw was responsible for several books, in addition to Jamaican Art mentioned earlier. These books include Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s, published by Thames and Hudson in 2000. In the following year she edited Fifty Years-Fifty Artists, (Ian Randle Publishers, Jamaica, 2001), about the history of artists associated with the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica, the art school at which she had studied. Education was an important part of her life and for a number of years Archer-Straw maintained an adjunct position at Cornell University. Most recently, Archer-Straw was working on a project revisiting the very first postindependence international exhibition of Jamaican art, and a curatorial undertaking to critically assess the art and visual culture of Rastafari.

The full version of the above obituary on Petrine Archer-Straw was published in Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, 32, Spring 2013.