Since the Arawak first inscribed interiors of Jamaican caves with petroglyphs, the island has produced many artists. Although its artistic production is less renowned than neighboring Haiti's, Jamaica nonetheless is considered a Caribbean art capital, with a vibrant tradition ranging from street art to formal canvases that receive acclaim in chic galleries of London and New York. Jamaican art tends to be less stylized than Haiti's, less uniform in its assumptions, and more broadly based on a wide array of differing philosophical traditions. The bulk of Jamaican artwork has been executed since 1940, when the yearning for independence and a sense of national destiny colored many aspects of the country's life. Whereas reggae, the national musical form, is strongly influenced by a subculture (the Rastafarians), Jamaican painting is much wider ranging and diverse.

The most easily accessible Jamaican artwork is "yard art," which rises from the concrete, litter, and poverty of the island's cities. Punctuated with solid blocks of vivid color, and sometimes interspersed with graffiti, these murals are often viewed as an authentic reflection of the Jamaican soul. Subjects include political satire, naïve (or intuitive) depictions of an artist's friends and family, idealized Jamaican landscapes, and kaleidoscopic visions of heaven and hell. Examples of yard art seem to increase, along with graffiti and political slogans, before each election. Predictably, however, a flood of uninspired wood carving, handcrafts, and banal painting has appeared in recent years because of worldwide commercial and sociological interest in yard art. Caveat emptor.

Much yard art is a legacy of a group of self-taught intuitive artists (sometimes known as "primitives") who rose to fame in the 19th century. Most famous was John Dunkley (1891-1947), a Kingston barber, whose spare time was devoted almost entirely to covering the walls, ceilings, and furniture of his shop with flowers, vines, trees, and abstract symbols that a psychologist might describe as Jungian. Though his painting was scorned by mainstream art critics during his lifetime, it survives as the most sought-after, and among the most expensive, artwork in the Caribbean today. Jamaican artists who followed Dunkley's lead include Mallica Reynolds, Gaston Tabois, Allan Zion, and Sydney McLaren.

Despite the artistic merits of these painters, it required the organizational efforts of Edna Manley, wife and mother of two of Jamaica's prime ministers and an acclaimed sculptor in her own right, to foster the development of Jamaican art. Beginning around 1940, she encouraged self-taught artists and organized art classes at the Institute of Jamaica, thereby inspiring islanders to view local artwork in a more respectful way.

Jamaican nationalists view as pivotal the day in 1939 when a group of about 40 highly politicized artists stormed the annual meeting of the Institute of Jamaica, then the island's most visible art museum. Demanding freedom from the domination of Jamaican art by European aesthetics, the nationalists insisted that the English-inspired portraits of the colonial age be replaced in galleries by works of Jamaica's artists. In response, Edna Manley and some volunteers started a series of informal art lessons, which in 1950 blossomed into the Jamaican School of Art and, several years later, the Cultural Training Centre. Based in Kingston, these two schools have trained many of Jamaica's established artists, dancers, and actors.

Jamaica's leading painters have included Carl Abrahams, whose recurrent theme is the Last Supper; Barrington Watson, known for a romanticized, charming view of the Jamaican people; Eugene Hyde, one of the country's first modern abstract artists; and English-born Jonathon Routh, whose illustrations of Queen Victoria during elaborate state visits to Jamaica -- none of which really occurred -- provoke laughter as far away as London. Also noteworthy are Christopher Gonzalez, commissioned by the Jamaican government for a statue of reggae superstar Bob Marley; David Boxer, one of the first Jamaican surrealists; and Osmond Watson, known for his sharp-angled and absorbing depictions of the human face.

A discussion of Jamaican art would not be complete without mentioning the rich tradition of art left by the colonial English and wealthy planters. The earliest published illustrations of Jamaica include the Spillsbury prints, which show in subtle detail the harbors and fine Georgian buildings of 18th-century Jamaica. English-born Philip Wickstead painted portraits of the island's wealthiest families. George Robertson, following in the great tradition of English landscape painting exemplified by John Constable, depicted the lush forests and sugarcane fields of Jamaica during the peak of their commercial prosperity.

Other artists, some white and itinerant, captured the charm and sorrow of 19th-century Jamaica. Isaac Mendes Belisario, an English-born Jew whose family stemmed from Italy, set up a studio in Kingston and produced portraits of enslaved persons and sketches of carnivals and musical parades. Scottish-born Joseph Bartholomew Kidd executed finely detailed sketches of Kingston buildings and the homes of wealthy planters. Also noteworthy are statues erected by the British in honor of military heroes, among the finest in the Caribbean. A good example is the Rodney Memorial Statue, by John Bacon, Sr., in the heart of Spanish Town.

More scandalous, and perhaps more famous, are the Jamaica-inspired work produced during the 18th century by William Hogarth, whose reputation as a satirist had already been assured by the publication and wide distribution of a series of engravings entitled A Harlot's Progress. Equally ribald was Hogarth's series entitled The Sugar Planter, at Home and Abroad. Savagely satirical, the engravings showed a grossly bloated planter alternately whipping forced laborers and hoarding gold, while surrounded by his mulatto children. In the same series, a better-behaved London incarnation of the planter is shown dressed in urban finery entertaining the peerage, manipulating votes in Parliament, and smiling benignly as lines of impoverished English housewives pay artificially inflated prices for his sugar. The release of this effective series was carefully timed to coincide with popular movements in Parliament to curtail price-fixing by Jamaica sugar barons.


The colonization of Jamaica occurred during a great period of British expansion. Much effort was expended in displaying the cultural allegiance of Jamaican planters to their native England, and one of the most obvious methods of doing so was to adapt the contemporary architectural motifs of Britain to the tropics. Partly because of a desire to protect their political prerogatives in Parliament, Jamaican planters returned to England frequently, maintaining their political links with Parliament, their investments, their social status, and an elevated price for sugar, which had made them rich. The obsession of Jamaican planters with contemporary English taste helped create an architectural elegance rivaled by only a handful of other English colonies, notably Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Barbados. Although the island style began with an allegiance to Georgian models, concessions were made to the heat, humidity, insects, hurricanes, and earthquakes of the tropics. Later, after Jamaica became recognized as the leading outpost of English military power and agrarian skill in the West Indies, Jamaican architectural principles spread to other parts of the Caribbean.

Georgian-type design, manifest in Jamaica's port facilities, Customs houses, and civic buildings, was most graceful in the island's many great houses. Intended as centerpieces for enormous sugar plantations, these buildings include some of the finest examples of domestic architecture in the West Indies. Among common design elements are wide verandas on at least two sides, balustrades, intricate fretwork, sophisticated applications of contrasting types of lattice, deep and sometimes ornate fascia boards, and a prevalence of pineapple-shaped finials above cornices and rooflines. Individual houses varied with the personality of the architects and the wealth and taste of the owners. Unlike great houses in other English-speaking Caribbean islands, the first floors of Jamaican buildings were usually elevated by low stilts or pilings to allow air to circulate. This prevented rot, cooled the ground floor, and helped keep rats, snakes, insects, and scorpions out of living quarters. Jamaican masonry and wood pilings are radically different from showplace buildings on St. Kitts, for example, where lower foundations were usually crafted from massive bulwarks of stone.

Not all of Jamaica's 18th-century buildings were designed along Georgian lines. Smaller, less pretentious houses were built in styles appropriate to the income of the owners and demands of the sites. Jamaican vernacular architectural style was developed by tenant farms and indentured servants, many from Scotland, and by the children of freed enslaved persons. These houses usually received the prevailing trade winds, and typically were angled to prevent smoke from the kitchen from blowing into living quarters. Known for the pleasing proportions of their inner spaces, the buildings continue to surprise contemporary architectural critics by their appropriate placement and convenient interior traffic patterns.

Noteworthy on virtually all Jamaican houses is the technique of attaching porch roofs and verandas to the main body of the house. In the hurricane-prone area, an experienced carpenter would deliberately not interconnect the beams of a porch with the beams supporting the main roof of the house. Because of their tendency to be destroyed during hurricane-strength wind gusts, porch roofs were usually built as separate, loosely attached architectural adornments not considered vital to the building's main core. Roofs were covered with split mahogany shingles until the 1930s, when Canadian cedar shingles became readily available. In the English tradition, gardens were usually considered important adjuncts to the great house. Altogether, Jamaican houses were graceful reflections of the good life, with only one major drawback, the easy destruction by fire.

Since the end of World War II, architecture in Jamaica has followed two distinct variations on colonial themes. Banks, civic buildings, and commercial structures have generally been inspired by the thick walls, small windows, and massive dignity of the island's 18th- and 19th-century English forts. Hotels and private dwellings, on the other hand, typically trace their inspiration to the island's great houses or to the unpretentious wooden cottages that still dot the landscape. Other commercial buildings draw inspiration from the International Style that swept over most of the industrialized world between 1945 and 1980.

Jamaica today boasts an important contingent of locally born architects trained in the United States or Canada. The dean of Jamaican architects, Vayden McMorris, whose practice began in the mid-1950s, was credited with nurturing Jamaica's young architects. McMorris designed such New Kingston towers as the Panjam Building, the Citibank Building, the Doyall Building, and the Victoria Mutual Building Society's head office.

Wilson Chong, a Jamaican of Chinese descent, was responsible for the design of one of Jamaica's most-visited buildings, the football (soccer) stadium. Viewed as a master of the shell-shaped concrete curve, Chong flourished in the 1960s. A dramatic, but rarely visited Chong design is the grandstand of Marley Racetrack, whose triple cantilever is considered an engineering marvel. The racetrack, located some 23 miles west of Kingston, has not been operated for several years.

Another bright star among Jamaican architects is H. Denny Repol, whose firm designed about a dozen major hotels on the north shore. Repol also designed in the 1980s the administrative headquarters of the Jamaica Tourist Board (in Kingston), considered a model version of the "work-related open space." Another Repol commission was the Life of Jamaica Head Office Building, whose four floors of reinforced concrete shelter a sun-flooded atrium spanned with a bridge and thousands of verdant plants.

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