Everald Brown's art and spirituality are intricately bound together. His painting, sculptures and patterned musical instruments, become more vivid as his understanding of his environment, the world and his place in the universe matures. His complex spiritual beliefs that come from a Baptist upbringing and his rastafarian faith, are reflected in imagery full of biblical references, signs, symbols and historical anecdotes. Now into his eighties, the wisdom and skill of his paintings show that he is an artist of special intuition and vision; a true elder of Jamaican art.
Born in 1917, Everald Brown's spiritual path takes a clear trajectory from a confining orthodoxy under colonialism to a world view that is now syncretic and distinctly Caribbean. Looking at his art in the context of Jamaican history, it is possible to see how his life, beliefs and paintings have been shaped by events significant to the island. It is also clear that his imagery and his role as a seer have had an impact on Jamaicans increasingly alienated from their history. His gifts are peculiar, he is a rare bridge between past and present, between one culture and another, between our daily realities and the spiritual world. He is a link with Jamaican self-hood that we cannot afford to lose.
Raised in rural Clarendon, Everald Brown's beliefs were influenced by a Baptist pentecostalism that had accommodated African rituals from Myalism, Revivalism and Kumina. Its evangelical tradition allowed for "speaking in tongues", personal testimonies, and ritual water cleansing and helped to retain similar African practices into the 20th century. Brown's Baptist upbringing was a fertile spiritual grounding, and while still young he began to have apocalyptic visions that would fire his artistic imagination.
Millenarianism, the belief in Christian prophesy that a Kingdom of God would be established with the second coming of Christ, was prevalent among the lower classes in the first few decades of this century. Seeing little escape from their social realities, the poor in the urban slums placed their confidence in spiritual escape. One after the other, charismatic figures marketed their utopia. Up to 1950, the self- proclaimed prophet Bedward, the Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey and the pioneer of Rastafarianism L.P. Howell, all attracted lower class mass support as Jamaica struggled to break colonial rule.
At twenty, Everald Brown's move to Kingston with new wife Jenny was typical of the urban drift by many young families in search of work and opportunity in the 1940's. He became part of the transient class that proved a captive audience for religious and political leaders. Brown fell in with Joseph Hibbert, whose followers, unlike those of L.P. Howell, did not wear "locks" or smoke ganja. Hibbert encouraged Brown to interpret his visions and respect this gift as an aspect of his divinity. Brown accepted Rastafarianism and its accommodatopm of elements of the revival practices, such as drumming and chant worship, that had featured in his childhood.
Brown's conversion came after a series of visions where the divinity of the then Emperor of Ethiopia Haille Selassie, was revealed to him. In the next fifteen years, Brown devoted his life to building a Rastafarian assembly and becoming an elder in the Ethiopian Orthodox ministry. He raised ten children, who, along with his wife, shared in his mystical experiences and formed the nucleus of his church community called "The Assembly of the Living". His visions or meditational "travels" as he calls them, became an important feature of his preaching that Haille Selassie was the Messiah, the returned Christ. Brown also began to paint seriously, using his works as a medium for his teachings. His paintings depicted Old and New Testament narratives reinterpreted to promote Rastafarian doctrines and themes from Jamaican history.
Wolde Dawit (1973), depicts some of Brown's earliest experiences and apocalyptic visions. It is a self-portrait titled after the mystical name given to Brown in one of his "travels". Small flat strokes, reminiscent of an impressionist style, show his inner world in symbolic form. The tree of life is at the centre of an edenic scene, lush with fruits ackees and foliage. A white dove pollinates the tree that represents the biblical lineage of King David and validates Selassie as Christ. At the top of the tree, the crowned lion mentioned in the apocalyptic book of Revelation stands for Selassie, "King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah". Over the tree there is a rainbow that refers to the one that encircled Selassie's throne at his coronation. Its red, green and gold are also the colours of the Ethiopian flag, and symbolise to Rastafarians the blood of slavery, the land and the riches pirated by Europeans during colonial rule of Africa.
Brown claims that the imagery in his painting came to him during his "travels". During these journeys to mystical realms he would be shown the secrets of life and the universe, and as his wisdom matured, his experiences became more spectacular. He was taken to other dimensions where he would be given signs, messages and "truths" that he was expected to bring back to this world. His artistic ability developed out of his need to visualise what he had been shown. In this way, he built the "ark of the church", a carved decorated alter piece, and made the wooden sceptre (akin to the gold sceptre that the Queen of Sheba carried to Ethiopia), that marked his spiritual leadership. But it soon became clear that not all Brown's visions were in keeping with the Ethiopian Orthodox church's doctrine. His own mysticism and divinity seemed to challenge their monotheism. His eventual departure from Kingston and the establishment of assembly at "Meditation Heights" marked his slow estrangement from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the development of a more personalised interpretation of his visions that set him on a path of mysticism that he is still walking today.
Bush Have Ears (1976), anticipates a style that would dominate his work in the next decade. Painted after his spiritual retreat to rural St. Ann, it is a response to this new environment. Nature breaths life across the hillside and there is no empty space. The green painted hills surrounding his Murray Mountain home are peopled with distorted and animated forms. They are fantasy images discerned by Brown in the shapes of rocks, trees and leaves. His title, 'Bush Have Ears' , implies that there can be no secrets from nature and shows sympathy with African pantheistic beliefs where God is seen in everything.
Visitors to Brown's Murray Mountain home can easily understand the direction of his recent paintings. Since his move there twenty years ago, he has become familiar with every nuance of the surrounding landscape. He is quick to point out the host of kings, queens and archangel characters that he visualises in the scenery around him. They are very real for him. His reference to these images, sometimes calling them by fond names, might seem schizophrenic if the anthropomorphic forms were not so evident. They form a universal realm that he interweaves with the symbols and "designs" that he has perfected over the years.
Like many artists in Jamaica never given formal art training, Everald Brown's ideas and imagery are profound because they develop outside mainstream thinking. The sophistication of his ideas counter exotic and pejorative labels such as "naive", "primitive" or "outsider" used often to describe self-taught artists. In Jamaica, the term "intuitive" is preferred because it suggests the unique inner vision that informs the imagination without negative judgment. In this sense, also, they are more insiders, than outsiders because they are rooted in the religious and popular culture that the majority of black Jamaican's identify with.
Intuitive artists like Everald Brown are becoming more popular as Jamaican's learn to accept their history. The National Gallery of Jamaica's role in nurturing, promoting and exhibiting the works of intuitives has been crucial to their appreciation. Their "insider status" has been sometimes controversial, however, because many of Jamaica's middle class patrons of the arts are ambivalent about Africa, blackness and Rastafarianism. In the 90's, as Jamaicans are increasingly enamoured with American popular culture, the skills and visions of artists like Brown are endangered. Seduced by the market and tourism in particular, many artists soon abandon their peculiar visions or fashion out of them kitsch art that is more profitable.
Fortunately, Everald Brown avoids such pitfalls. Surrounded by his family, his lifestyle is simple and ascetic. He works daily and consistently. He claims he can never have enough time to complete his work because he sees life in such detail. A painting of a single leaf can be as intricate, dramatic and full of imagery as many of his larger thematic works. He has learnt to paint his favourite themes using different designs. As his eyesight dims daily, he is anxious to pass on his skills and spiritual wisdom to younger family members. His children and grandchildren are trained as apprentices, and like an aging patron he oversees their artistic and spiritual development. His wife Jenny is now bedridden, but it is clear that the family rituals they established together in their Rastafarian assembly live on. Occasionally the family holds worship in the evenings, playing with the instruments that have become their livelihood.