Modern Art – Before Independence
Edna Manley’s Negro Aroused (1935) was the first work from a modern Jamaican artist to enter the Institute of Jamaica’s collection of art in 1937 and, by extension, represents the start of what later became the National Gallery of Jamaica collection.
Prior to that acquisition, the Institute had been primarily concerned with works that had historical significance, which in most cases reflected Jamaica’s colonial past, and the early Institute’s colonial outlook. Negro Aroused was acquired by public subscription, an initiative by some of the principals of the emerging nationalist, anti-colonial movement. A powerful image of social and political upliftment, Negro Aroused has become symbolically associated with the widespread race and labour activism that challenged the colonial in Jamaica in the 1930s.
Edna Manley was a leading figure in the Jamaican nationalist movement and advocated art that used the language of modernism to represent iconic Jamaican subject matter – the landscape, scenes from daily life and, perhaps most of all, the people. Her Beadseller (1922), which was thematically inspired by a visit to the Mandeville market, was the first modernist sculpture produced in Jamaica and stands out for its radical use of Cubist, Vorticist and Art Deco style elements.
The Institute of Jamaica’s programmes gradually became more receptive to modern and nationalist Jamaican art. The adult art classes that were offered, initially by Edna Manley, at the Junior Centre became a gathering point for the emerging nationalist school and the young artists who were associated with this programme – the painters Albert Huie, Ralph Campbell, Henry Daley and David Pottinger chief among them – are now known as the Institute Group. The sculptor Alvin Marriott and the furniture designer Burnett Webster were other early exponents of the National School. There were also artists, such as Carl Abrahams and Rhoda Jackson, who pursued more independent ideological and aesthetic trajectories but whose work is nonetheless related.
Then, as now, Jamaica was a cosmopolitan society and migration played an important role in the development of the Nationalist School – the interactions with the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, are still to be fully explored. Several Jamaican artists made their careers abroad, with Ronald Moody in England as a key example, while foreigners who lived in Jamaica during this period, such as the Armenian refugee Koren der Harootian and the Englishmen John Wood and Hector Whistler, produced work that existed in close dialogue with that of the Nationalist School.