The National Gallery of Jamaica Natural Histories exhibition, the first in a new series, Explorations, explores various thematic issues relevant to Jamaican art and culture.
Marston Bates (1954) has defined Natural History as “the study of animals and plants – of organisms … the study of life at the level of the individual – of what plants and animals do, how they react to each other and their environment, how they are organized into larger groupings like populations and communities”. Natural History has always been a significant theme in Caribbean life and was an integral part of the colonial project, which sought to categorize and exploit the natural and human resources of the regions affected. This is evident in much of the art that was produced in the Caribbean during the plantation period, which included natural history illustrations, estate views and ethnographic images that reflected colonial conceptions of race and ethnicity.
Natural History’s focus on taxonomy, naming and the environment has, in turn, made it an important site and vehicle used by modern and contemporary artists to explore the relationship between power and knowledge and articulate postcolonial critiques of enlightenment humanism and the systemic violence of slavery and colonialism. One such example was the installation An Account of a Voyage to the Island Jamaica with the Un-Natural History of That Place by the African-American artist Fred Wilson in the 2007 Materializing Slavery exhibition at the Institute of Jamaica, which recontextualized some of the Institute’s natural history and ethnographic collections.