The National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) is the oldest and largest public art museum in the English-speaking Caribbean, established in 1974. It was borne out of a need to showcase the excellent talent and beauty of the Jamaican art scene, sending a powerful message to the ex-colonial powers that we too are capable of creating technically sound masterpieces to uniquely depict the Jamaican story. This gallery bears a comprehensive collection of early, modern and contemporary local art alongside smaller Caribbean and international holdings, with a significant part of its collections on permanent display. There are also frequent temporary exhibitions– the most recent of which was John Dunkley’s ‘Neither Day nor Night’ which ended on July 29.
Located at 12 Ocean Boulevard, Block C in Downtown Kingston, the National Gallery is rather easy to find. Downtown often gets a bad rap for its depressed inner city communities, but this bustling metropolis has been making a comeback in recent years from the efforts of government and local private sector bodies. The Gallery is open Tuesdays to Thursdays from 10am–4:30pm, Fridays from 10am–4pm and Saturdays from 10am–3pm. That means they’re closed on Sundays and Mondays, but for every last Sunday of the month, the gallery hosts a popular ‘Last Sundays programme’ where they’re open from 11am–4pm and entry is free of cost with tours, musical performances and children’s activities. Otherwise, entry costs J$400.00 per person. Paid parking is available at an adjacent car park for an hourly rate but since I visited on a Sunday, I’m not sure how much that costs.
John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night
John Dunkley’s Neither Day nor Night had a two month run at the NGJ from April 29-July 29, 2018, following its eight-month run at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami (PAMM) where it was hailed as one of “the most exciting museum shows around the US in 2017”.
John Dunkley (b. 1891, Savanna-la-Mar — d. 1947, Kingston) is considered one of Jamaica’s first and finest ‘Intuitive’ or self-taught artists and the title of the show is a reference to his work’s idiosyncratic mood and palette: detailed, haunting imageries of landscapes, with psychologically and psycho-sexually suggestive underpinnings.
This collection transported me to a Jamaica of yesteryear, one I am too young to know and one for which my great-grandparents would be nostalgic despite the strides in advancement our nation and people have made since the late 1800s–early 1900s. It was delightful to see the faces of ordinary families going about their daily living; some transporting goods to the market, haggling or participating in recreational activities. Others were posed portraits of families from the various ethnicities which make up the Jamaican melting pot of races, namely Indian, Chinese, African and European. Back then, they might not have identified as Jamaican but their offspring surely do, despite the fact that each ethnic group today experiences a Jamaica which can be starkly different. The photographs were equally as stunning as the paintings– through them, a piece of the Jamaican landscape was immortalized. There were too many stunning pieces to take pictures of but here are the few I took which unfortunately do little to capture the sensory experience (sorry!).
The next two pieces aren’t apart of Dunkley’s collection but were some of the other fantastic artwork I came across before venturing upstairs.
The Permanent Galleries
Currently, the Gallery runs four permanent exhibitions upstairs, namely the Kapo, Historical, Edna Manley and A.D. Scott Galleries.
1) The Kapo Gallery
This gallery is dedicated to the life, work and cultural significance of Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds – considered to be one of our greatest Jamaican Intuitives. Showcasing the wide range of Kapo’s subject matter and iconography, in painting and sculpture, this permanent exhibition incorporates selections from the Larry Wirth Collection, a comprehensive collection of paintings and sculptures by Kapo which was first put on view in 1983, and the John Pringle Collection, a recent donation of Kapo paintings. It also includes additional works by Kapo from the National Collection.
Here are a few of the pieces from this gallery which caught my eye.
Even the corridors leading from one gallery to another are decorated by art pieces. Here are two striking pieces I found en route to the next two galleries.
2) The Historical Gallery
This features artwork from each distinct period of Jamaican history:
- The Tainos (c.1000-1400AD): Their artwork centred around their religious beliefs which saw them incorporating zemis (carvings representing their god) in everything– their stools (duhos), combs and other tools. Many intact pieces have been recovered from archaeological sites around the island, and as such, I got to marvel at life from the first set of Jamaicans.
- The Spanish (1494-1655): Their artwork included elaborate busts, columns and watercolors and can be found almost unscathed today.
- The British (1655-1900): Again, quite a few paintings are available from this era, showcasing the art style that was en vogue for the relevant decades.
- Emancipation (1838-): This period is rather lacking in art due to all the social upheavals that erupted in Jamaica at the same time the enslaved Africans and African descendants were. FREE. At. Last. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Jamaican art got its rebirth.
3) The Edna Manley Gallery
Edna Manley is often regarded as the Mother of Jamaican Art, as her sculptures and paintings contributed significantly to the birth of Jamaica’s 20th century art scene. As such, it’s fitting that she has one entire gallery dedicated to showcasing her pieces, many of which are about empowerment and upliftment, inspired by the social upheavals and civil unrest of the mid-1900s.
4) The A.D. Scott Galleries
Two sets of artworks share the title “The A.D. Scott Collection”: a donation of twenty-five works to the University of the West Indies (UWI) in 1994, which are on view in its Main Library, and his collective donations to the National Gallery, a group of sixty-two works. Both collections are quite pleasing to the eye.
The National Gallery is a fixture in Downtown Kingston which I’m quite happy exists. It must be a great feeling as an artist to have your work displayed at a national level, and serves as encouragement to budding and current artists. For anyone who appreciates visual art, the Gallery is well worth a visit and it’s amazing that the artwork isn’t static with new temporary displays happening every couple of weeks. As such, I rate here full stars, ☆☆☆☆☆.
‘Til next time! ✌🏽
Keep up with the National Gallery and its events through their:
- Website: http://natgalja.org.jm
- Blog: https://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com/
- Facebook Page: @NationalGalleryofJamaica