He was Archimedes revealing his Principle.
Columbus landing in Discovery Bay, Jamaica.
Michelangelo finding his David in a block of marble.
After nearly two hours, all the joy of discovery was his.
“I know what that abstract is!! It’s a nose!” Great certainty underscored every word.
Then there was a pause, as the eight-year-old stopped to reconsider.
“Either a nose or a pepper,” he continued thoughtfully.
“Are you crazy? What are you even talking about?” responded one of his classmates, swiftly proving that “behind every man there’s a woman . . . rolling her eyes.”
“That abstract – it’s a nose or a pepper,” he insisted. “I can see it!”
Fortunately for the peace of the rest of the class, intent on their interpretations of the masters, not all the works in the National Gallery of Jamaica were quite so ambiguous.
For example, Karl Parboosingh’s Young Mothers:
and this scene of City Life by Osmond Watson:
These were paintings that I was happy to look at just for the sake of looking, enjoying the vibrant colors, and seeing the resemblances to the streets that I walked daily.
Other pieces made me feel.
One room displayed the prim drawings of Jamaican sugar plantations that were commissioned by British landowners.
I looked at idyllic scenes of peaceful, orderly fields and magnificent houses and well dressed horseback riders. And glanced over to the next wall to see this:
In my mind’s eye, I was imagining the terror and the pain and the heat and the beatings that the artists never drew.
I hated these delicate renderings for the lie they told and I despised the artists for the suffering they covered up with a few deft strokes of the brush.
They had the ability to tell a story but chose instead to perpetuate a lie. Even now, weeks later, I can feel the heat of the anger that filled me, closing my throat and warming me against the chill of the AC.
“They didn’t win! They failed.” I told myself. The reminder flowed out of a wild, half mad satisfaction that somehow calmed me.
Their attempts to subjugate the Maroons failed completely. There were unable to destroy the Africans they bought and sold and worked like animals. They couldn’t break the Indians they brought over as indentured servants.
The other works of art are a testimony to that fact. They trace the progression from strictly “European forms” to ethnically influenced expressions to the modern movement towards broad interpretations of what can constitute “Caribbean” art.
I left the room. Went and stood in front of Edna Manley’s Negro Aroused:
Returned downstairs to Carl Abrahams’ Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah:
And listened to the children.
Teacher: All right, everyone! Come sign the attendance sheet.
Boy, aghast: Do we have to write our whole names? Even middle!?
Teacher, suppressing a long suffering sigh: No, your first and last names are fine.
Girl, proudly: My name is Shamika Awesome Walters.
And I’ll bet you she wrote it all down, too!
IYG (If You Go): Take a bus to Downtown. Start walking towards the Waterfront then turn right and keep walking until you arrive at Orange Street. Look to your right and you’ll see the Gallery. I took the time to look at everything and was there for about 3 hours. There’s a nice gift shop where you can buy t-shirts, art books, Jamaican handcrafts, and reasonably priced prints. The coffee shop has a limited selection (most of which came from a local supermarket). If you’re extremely hungry and not ready to leave yet, it’s worth stopping for a muffin or a bag of banana chips. Otherwise, plan on eating at one of the places around Parade. Click here for opening hours. Cost: $400 JA. (Admission is free on the last Sunday of each month.)