Black is Colour : Colour is Race

BlackColour.jpgIn Black as Colour, Dr. David Boxer aptly shows the importance of black to the Jamaican artist's palette. His iconographic perspective brings to the National Gallery of Jamaica an exhibition of enormous scope. This lecture lends to his vision a social context for the artistic use of black. With an art historical view, I hope to unify many of his ideas under the single theme of race. Jamaicans share with others a racialised response to colour inherited from colonialism. Our lives, and particularly our artists, are constantly engaged with the colour and its historical and symbolic significance whether we are asserting, denying, embracing or ignoring it. It is evident in images of black sexuality downstairs, black death in the lobby, black politics in the temporary gallery, or black religion on the mezzanine.(Throne for Justice, Sentinel, Flight from Egypt, Judgement)

Expanding themes already introduced in the exhibition, let's begin by considering how European ideas about the colour black shape our language, visual expression, and imagination. Then, exploring history and more specifically, Jamaican art history, we can examine the significance of black as a political and racial statement looking at artists who use the colour black as an affirmation of race. How black came to be an adjective of derision, how attitudes to colour were communicated under colonialism, how Marcus Garvey's advocacy of the Negro redefined the colour black, the impact of black power and rastafarian philosophies on later generations of artists, and the use of black in contemporary Jamaican art can all be considered. Finally, this lecture suggests that our artists today cannot avoid the significance of black as an indicator of race.

In his introductory essay David Boxer has written:

"... This exhibition [examines] a wide array of works which utilize black in a variety of ways (...) Black as signifier of night, night suggesting the unknown; night equated with the pleasures of sex; black as mystery; black as symbol of the consciousness; black as signifier of as the colour of mourning; black as the colour of the abyss, of nothingness; black as the colour of Satan and evil; black as the colour of God and good, black as part of the Ancestral home, Africa; black as racial signifier; black as a part of the Jamaican tricolour; black as dread; black as the colour of oppression, yes, black as strength; black as the colour of love...and simply as a colour, or signifier of form."

This passage eloquently describes the contents of the exhibition and defines the curatorial approach. In his writing, Dr. Boxer takes us thematically from dark into light, from our more negative perceptions of the colour black as dark, sinful, sexual, satanic and mournful to more positive abstract associations with God, race pride, dignity, love. And if we view the exhibition as a journey through history, we find similar transitions, where we move from primal and negative responses to the colour to contemporary enlightened views where black is beautiful. That sense of progression is inherent in much of our thinking. We unwittingly assume that to move from ignorance to knowledge means we have been "enlightened." Even black people consider someone dark if they are ignorant or bright if knowledgeable.

The reason we think in this linear and hierarchical fashion is rooted in the "dark ages" of western history and related to primitive man's fear of the dark and difference. By the "middle ages" these fears were translated into real terms like, black magic- the magic practiced by conjurers and witches, black- bile a middle age malady of the spleen creating melancholy, a blackguard - an unscrupulous foul mouthed person, and blackamoor-a dark-skinned person or Negro. These negatives were further rationalised and absorbed into Western thinking after the enlightenment.

 When Europe encountered blacks and their carvings they considered them as fetishes. Both the black image whether real or represented in carving, signified racial difference, magic and mystery. Negro is the Spanish and Portuguese word for black. Europeans called the art they found in Africa l'art negre, feitico, or in West African pidgin fetisso. That term meaning fetish was used generally to describe any carving, it was more specifically applied to metal and nail covered wooden figures from central and western Africa created by the Kongo people. These objects were essentially medicine containers, and their contents used for healing, protecting, punishing or divining, and usually administered by a local priest or doctor to the individual or community. The authorities banned the use of such carvings under slavery and severely punished their adherents. Those who knew how to create such objects and had the medical knowledge that empowered them went underground or disguised them in Christian forms now recognised in Obeah, Santeria and Voodoo.

As understood by Europeans, fetishism was born in the "cross cultural spaces" created by trade between Europe and Africa. Feitico referred to the art and rituals that the Portuguese encountered and interpreted in their own language. As such, ideas about fetishism held no significance in the traditions of central or western Africa, but gained local currency and meaning through exchange with Europeans. There is even a suggestion that nkisi nail "fetishes" came from crucifixion images given to the Kongo peoples by European missionaries. Research also shows that superstitions surrounding these objects more reflect European medieval occult practices and witchcraft than beliefs held in Africa. Blacks in the Americas inherited Europe's fear of the dark and effectively a fear of themselves, the colour of their skin, the black image in the mirror, on canvas or in carving.

(Parody 1896) In the 17th century, the image of the black became a popular addition to European painting. The black image suggested everything that was unknown, threatening or different. The inclusion of black people in paintings summarised all the subliminal fears and phobias that threatened western society. This erroneous symbolism linked "blackness" with sin; death; ignorance; sexual deviancy; virility; fecundity; traits that validated "whiteness" as pure, chastened and enlightened. The slave trade also did much to denigrate European perceptions of blacks, transforming them from docile curiosities into the barbaric and the violent. The image of the black then became a coverall for any element of disaffection in bourgeois society striving to establish norms of civilised behaviour. Freaks of nature, nonconformists, and the female nude were tarred with the same brush, often with their "otherness" being underscored and projected by merely placing them in the same physical or mental space as the black.

 The presence of blacks in painting demonstrate their importance in artistic and symbolic terms. In seventeenth and eighteenth century portraiture, the black image is often smudged in merely for purposes of tonal contrast, to highlight the white subject in the foreground. The black recedes into historical anonymity, a mere stereotype of blackness. The care and proportionate attention that an artist paid to these images indicated his values, and that of wider society. Very rarely were these images given their own personalities. Usually, blacks were images of contrast being smaller, darker, less defined or cruder but never equal to their white counterparts. They remain an anonymous "other", complimentary accessories to the white subjects of a painting.

 The female nude, whether magnificently decked with cherubs or more casually exposed for gentlemen's titillation, was more than a familiar subject to the 19th century viewer. But in 1863, when Eduard Manet exhibited his painting Olympia in the French Salon, he knew it would be controversial. Despite Manet's choice of a classical figure and a monumental theme in this painting, he made no attempt to disguise the identity or idealise the body of his model Victorine. French salon audiences were stunned, however, not only by Victorine's vulgar nakedness, but because they recognised her. That recognition collapsed the distance between the viewer and the model previously respected in classical painting. Victorine's engaging stare brought many viewers too uncomfortably close to reality. Still, it became a landmark in modern painting.

Manet's Olympia is also significant for black imagery because of the many roles the black servant Laura plays in the painting. From a purely pictorial point of view, this French-Caribbean maid acts as a point of contrast to Victorine. Like the cat, flowers, and wooden panelling of this room she is a background feature employed to demonstrate Manet's deft handling of a darker palette. As a servant, she reinforces the status and the theme of Olympia. Finally, as a black servant she underlines Victorine's sexuality and her prostitution. All three roles were familiar to the 19th century audience, and they were consistent with how non-Europeans, especially black people, had been represented historically. Later, the pseudo-scientific theories of social Darwinists advanced these representations, along with other stereotypes, as arguments against the abolition of slavery.

(Self Portrait of Henry Daley) In the same way that black imagery in European painting raises many racial issues, black imagery also figures significantly in Jamaican art but it carries different, more positive, meanings. The presence of the black, and particularly the black male in painting and sculpture is a symbol of race pride and nationalism. This is mainly due to the influence of two important figures, Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey and the artist Edna Manley.

 Marcus Garvey was the champion of the peasant, working and immigrant classes who were more rooted in an African tradition than Jamaica's brown middle class. It was Marcus Garvey who conceptually promoted black as a colour of dignity. He wrote "Black Queen of Beauty though hast given colour to the world." and his emphasis on black awareness challenged African-Americans and Caribbeans to redefine themselves in relation to Africa rather than Europe. Garvey scholar Tony Martin tells us that although Garvey's direct involvement in the visual arts was limited, his "Race First" doctrine was the ideological underpinning of race issues for Jamaicans in the 1920's and 30's. This was accomplished through his work as a councillor and his activities at Eidelweiss Park in Kingston where gala evenings with all-black operas, spiritual singing, comedy and folk culture, and poetry reading (including his own) were attended by thousands from all walks of life.

In the 1920's, Garvey spearheaded the UNIA, a Pan-African, millenarian movement that aimed to repatriate the post-slavery black Diaspora back to Africa. This would be done through a black owned shipping company significantly called the Black Star Line in contrast to the popular Cunard White Star line. The project attracted many dislocated blacks experiencing urban and industrial shifts in the Caribbean and North America. It also mobilised blacks economically and politically. Garvey's ambitions floundered despite heavy financial support. His eventual imprisonment in 1925 for "mail fraud", was a serious blow to his followers. Nevertheless, his message of Pan-African unity was absorbed into the "new Negro" intellectual debates of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920's and 30's, and later, the ideals of the Black Power and Rastafarian movements.

Ideas of the "new Negro" also fed into the circle that gravitated around Edna Manley, and had broadest appeal to the creolised Jamaican middle class during the 1930's and 40's. As with the Harlem Renaissance, emphasis was placed on matching Negro and European standards. This manifested itself in literary terms, with black subject matter written in a European prose style. In the arts, it meant the creation of a Negro aesthetic that was heavily stylised, and rendered in popular impressionist and post impressionist modern styles of the day. Significantly, the term Negro then was used more regularly as a descriptor than the word black, which would become more popular after the 1960's. But even without a strident advocacy of black as colour, emphasis was placed on the Negro as a symbol of blackness.

 Edna Manley's monumental Negro Aroused gave this fledgling cultural nationalist movement an icon and suggested new forms of cultural expression. This sensibility was cultivated in many younger artists who met at her home in Drumblair. Closest to Edna was Koren der Harootian, an Armenian painter, a guest of both the furniture designer Burnett Webster and the Manley's between 1929-33.  Influenced by Edna Manley's work and philosophy, his preference for drawing negroes was deliberate, and a comparison of Manley and der Harootian's works during this period reveal close correspondence. They employ line with a similar clean "art deco" quality. But they also believed that their work should be rooted in black imagery as reflected in Edna Manley's Negro Aroused 1935 and Prayer 1936 and der Harootian's Male 1936. Their images were conceptually more brown than black, and compared to the craftsmanship of artisans such as the Millers, their work was refined, stylised and more closely related to modern art's interest in a kind of "soft " primitivism, rather than an assertion of blackness.

The race consciousness of the cultured middle class during the 1930's is also reflected elsewhere. In Una Marson's play, The West Indian, there was a collective involvement of artists that included Burnett Webster, Lieutenant Bradley, John Pike, Kenneth Royes, Koren der Harootian, Blanche Savage, Ethel Hart, A. A. Ableton, Eric and Ivy Coverly, George Smith, OT Fairclough and Philip Stegman. The production shows how the interdisciplinary skills of artists, designers, poets and actors cross-fertilised around a race theme that was integral to the group's philosophy. Set at a dinner party, a "coloured" artist played by a "blackened" Koren der Harootian, is forced to choose between the company of his white hosts or their black servant. The final scene where the artist exits with his new black ally, reflected a a change in political position for this group; that a leader of the black man was emerging who was essentially, brown, middle class and intellectual. Many of this group would become affiliates of the People's National Party. Significantly, the PNP's emblem, the rising sun, appropriately reflected their political aspirations for the "new negro" indicating black man's progress out of darkness into light. Similarly, Edna Manley's, Into the Sun, depicts a brown man astride a white horse that leaps towards the glowing orb and in Growth 1958, she shows the nation symbolically thrusting upwards towards light, and wisdom.

 A sort of local version of the British Museum, the Institute of Jamaica was the main cultural outlet in the 1940's, whose authority and eurocentric approach was gradually usurped by these young liberals who nurtured a more local and dynamic vision. A small group of ex-patriates and local teachers that included Manley, Vera Cummings, Vera Alabaster and John Wood, started Saturday morning classes tutoring youngsters such as Albert Huie, Henry Daley, and David Pottinger. (Fisherman) The black physiognomy was the focus of these classes where they were taught how to render tonal values of black skin, how to capture black features and facial expressions. The concern however was not the use of the colour black but the symbolic nature of the black image as something local and relevant. The Institute fostered a nationalist expression that was both colour and race conscious, and had a profound effect on a later generation of painters, facilitating the liberation of the black vision and the black image in painting. In this lineage one can also include Osmond Watson (The Lord is my Shepherd) Barrington Watson Women at the Well), Karl Parboosingh (Baby Mothers) , and later Kofi Kayiga (Untitled) and Christopher Gonzalez (Tree of Life). Although exposed to art movements and tuition abroad, these artists cultivated a more local vision directly related to race pride and Africa. In discussing their use of the black image, all these artists relate similar battles, at home and abroad, for acceptance of the black themes in their painting.

 By the 1960's, despite a message of race unity in Jamaican art, it is possible to discern a split within the fledgling art movement based on divisions of class and colour, between an approach to creativity which has been labelled "mainstream" and self taught artists. Mainstream art is characterised by a preoccupation with Jamaican iconography, an emphasis on more formal artistic training and an openness to art historical styles from abroad but reinterpreted to suit the Jamaican context. These mainstream artists participate in what Stuart Hall and other scholars have called a "black aesthetic", "an aesthetic grounded in the idea of a new, that is post-emancipation and post colonial, black identity which, from Jazz Age-Harlem and Montparnasse, to the 'sound system' societies of West Kingston, south London, and south central Los Angeles, thrives in black communities where creativity and performance are the basic cultural currencies". Stimulated by Western artistic trends, mainstream Jamaican art's black aesthetic can be questioned in a way that work of our self taught artists cannot be. Their work is not so influenced, and might be regarded as distinctly Jamaican and even African in source.

This second strain which has been labelled "intuitive", like Garveyism, maintains stronger links with African forms of expression. In the work of many self-taught painters, black symbology and black imagery are completely integrated. There is no divorce between black the colour and our blackness as a people. Intuitive work relates more closely to an African aesthetic, that is traditional and spiritual, as opposed to a black aesthetic that is Diaspora, urban and modern. It is characterised by a tendency to overall patterning, a varied and integrated use of colour, flatness of forms reminiscent of textile design, and decoration.


Kapo's work is a fusion of magic rituals and Christian content historically associated with obeah philosophies, but today is better understood as representing his visions as a shepherd of a revivalist church. His use of black is real and symbolic. Hard dark woods surrender their tree forms to become everyday black people from his community. When these works were first viewed in he 1950s, they were considered "devilish" because they represented a tradition of fetish carving that had been outlawed under colonialism. Jamaican artists from lower class and rural backgrounds such as Everald Brown and Woody Joseph's were viewed similarly. In their communities, tied more closely to African suspicions than the middle class, art, and sculpture in particular, is seen as a black science associated with devious African practices. A perception, of course, carried over from the colonial period.

The sense of dread related to the black image was to be exploited still further by the Rastafarians, whose belief in a Garvey type Pan-Africanism combined with an interest in Emperor Haille Selassie of Ethiopia and the idea of Africa as home. Rastafarianism dominated Jamaican sub-culture through much of the 60's and 70's paralleling and reinterpreting the African American black power movement of the same period. (Dread Song) Their Africanicity was marked by the wearing of red, green and gold and characteristic dreadlocks that identified them uniquely with King Solomon of the Tribe of David whose locks were according to the Bible "black and comely." (Bob Marley)

Christopher Gonzales' controversial sculpture of Bob Marley is the archetypal black image of this period. The events surrounding its eventual rejection show our fear of blackness remained deeply rooted even in a period of heightened race consciousness. Commissioned in 1981 by the government to honour the late singer, this work is decidedly black in its symbolism despite its brown tones. Ambiguity and tension are communicated by the constant interchange of forms: head and loins are embraced by root-like forms that flow from head to base. It is rigid, phallic, bulbous and yet lean, naked, but clothed in symbolism. Its rejection on the grounds that it did not resemble the mixed race features of Bob was all the more telling because it so aptly captures the philosophy and stridency of his lyrics. Gonzales sculpture is as black as Bob's music.

In the 1980's and 90's, between these two strains of intuitive and mainstream art has sprung up a group of young artists far more rooted in their blackness as a Pan-African and regional experience. Their imagery reflects an eclectic mix of stylistic and conceptual sources. Their local art school training is subverted by a gutsy, raw response to art-making sympathetic to intuitive or self taught practices. (Psychoacoustic Landscape) Fused with this, is a self-conscious promotion of black awareness, political issues and a refreshing approach to Garvey's Pan-African ideals. Add to this a spiritual polemic informed by rastafarianism, popular culture, santeria and voodoo and the result is a uniquely articulated brand of black philosophy and imagery that has been successfully exhibited both here and abroad. It is these artists who take centre stage in the temporary exhibition gallery behind me. Forerunners in the group are Nettifnet Maat, Stanford Watson, Kalfani Ra and Omari Ra. Both Kalfani Ra and Omari Ra teach at the the Edna Manley School for Visual Arts, suggesting that their influence on a younger generation of artists is germinating.

Much attention has been paid to Omari Ra, recognised as being the chief instigator and philosopher in the group. His peculiar brand of black separatism and his use of the colour black are stridently communicated in works such as Three Black Heads for Marcus Garvey, Race First for Ben and the Damballa Series. It might be useful to look at the imagery of this group collectively to discern what it is about their work that communicates "blackness" to the viewer even when it is multi-coloured. Nefitnet, Kalfani and Omari appear to be working with a network of images that even when not black, signify black.

These artists delve into European history as well as African history and embrace those images and icons that the civilised have been taught to fear.  Like Petrona Morrison (Sanctuary), they revel in discarded materials. But unlike this sculptor, who strives for an ordered classical dignity, they cultivate crudity and celebrate chaos. (How the New World was Scaped) Conceptually, their work is about regression and transgression similar to the white dissident surrealist of the 1930's. Their work is more valid, however, because they are espousing their own culture, rather than flirting with another. What they paint is trangressive because of what it stands for and where it attempts to take the viewer, into what Conrad has called "the heart of darkness".

It is a journey backwards to recover a lost heritage. Occult practice and imagery found in regional syncretic spiritual groups such as obeah, santeria and voodoo, are all employed. The retention of imagery from ritual practices that connote the sadistic and cannibalistic are also drawn upon: blood, faeces, hair, all drip, sweat and protrude, bringing drama and a visual impact that leaves some viewers perplexed. Like the surrealists who were fascinated with the occult and alchemy, the imagery of these Jamaican artists are shrouded and layered with mystery. From their obscure naming of themselves and their work, punning, and secret society symbolism, they suggest that an understanding of the mystery they create is a remedy and transformative process of renewal for black souls.

It is this conscious fetishising of their blackness in names, dress and creativity, and the sense of the unknown that plays on the subliminal fears of the European viewer, and evoke memories for the black viewer. The negativism these images provoke are now turned against their creators in true poetic justice. Words and names are thrown at us, sometimes arbitrarily, sometimes consciously. Nietzche, Damballa, Wagner, Garvey, Ogun, God, death, sin and the phallus are all rolled into one. Perhaps the greatest fear that this work provokes is the possibility that this hidden knowledge is real, calculated and subject to it own internal rational. A black science that mocks European art history and revives the perceived magic of the fetish. Those who look cannot afford to falter in case they miss their step, get sucked into the quagmire and revert to chaos and blackness.

Unlike the underlying assumptions of this exhibition that move from dark to light, the work of these contemporary black artists is an invitation to devolve and to reverse the hierarchical trajectory of western modes of thinking. Black artists are now revisiting the sites of our lost racial heritage, confronting European models of fear and fantasy, repainting our past as black rather than coloured and challenging not only white, but black fears of black. A recognition of our blackness is a recognition of another way of thinking that is not always linear, progressive, moving from dark to light, but a spreading out, an enveloping and pantheistic recognition of our being in everything The use of the colour black in this sense is a powerful decolonizing, political, racial and creative act. Those artists who use blackness knowingly recognise the significance of that colour's history to our present. That black is more than colour and that colour is race.

Black is Colour: Colour is Race


List of Slides

Albert Chong, Throne For Justice 1984

Petrona Morrison, Sentinal, 1992

Karl Parboosingh, Flight from Egypt, 1974

Milton George, Judgement, 1985

Kongo Fetish, ndon

Le Rire, Parody 1896

Black Page in Oriental Costume, 1759

Eduard Manet, Olympia, 1863

Henry Daley, Self Portrait, c 1940

Marcus Garvey, Photograph, c 1930

Negro, The Negro Poets, c. 1932

Edna Manley, Negro Aroused, 1936

Koren Der Harootian, Male, 1936

David Miller Snr., Obi, 1945

David Miller Jnr., Male Head, c 1945

Edna Manley, Into the Sun, c.1952

Edna Manley, Growth, c. 1952

Albert Huie, Portrait of Edna Manley, c.1942

John Henderson, Fisherman, 1942

Osmond Watson, The Lord is My Shepherd, c. 1968

Barrington Watson, Women at the Well, 1981

Kofi Kayiga, Untitled, 1978

Christopher Gonzales, Tree of Life, c. 1972

Osmond Watson, Snocone Vendor, c. 1970

Karl Parboosingh, Baby Mothers, c.1970

Leonard Daley, Untitled, c. 1990

Kapo Revivalists, Going to Heaven, 1968

Albert Artwell, Revivalists Going to Heaven, c.1974

David Boxer, Dread Song, 1985

Christopher Gonzalez, Bob Marley, 1981

Stanford Watson Cadien, Heads Series Remembering, 1994

Kalfani Ra Psychoacoustic, Landscape Portrait of a Genocide, 1988

Omari Ra, From the Dambala Series, 1994

Minscape for Janot, Minscape for Damballah From the Series: Hetero-Sapiens, Sapiens, Sapiens, sapiens, Epitaph for Nietzch, 1994

Omari Ra, How the New World was Scaped, c. 1993

Omari Ra, Figure with Mask from the Oedipus Series, 1987

Anna Henriques, Plunder of the Sepharad, 1994