Wednesday, July 8, 2015


Before the Spanish arrived in Jamaica, the Taíno people predominantly lived across the islands of the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Bahamas, and others). Their greatest contribution to the art world was the zemi. A zemi is an ancestral deity and often personified as a sculpture, usually made of wood, bone, or skulls. Although some of these sculptures were small, some were quite large; many were simply made while others were elaborate. They were very important to their culture. 


After the Spanish arrived and after the British took control of the island, there was a general push toward European-style art. Many British and other European artists flocked to Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean to begin using the islands as the backdrops for their paintings. However, they only used the styles they knew: painting the islands from the point of view of a European. There were many portfolios and sketches of island life during the 1700s and 1800s. 

"Mother Caring for Young" by Edna Manley -- I know this scene, it says, "You need to be quiet if you know what's good for you."
Jamaica wouldn’t develop its own sense of nationalistic arts movements until the beginning of the 20th century.  Edna Manley was a British woman who traveled to Jamaica with her husband. She was an artist and often created paintings and sculptures that reflected the changing socio-political atmosphere in Jamaica. During the 1930s and 1940s, many of the Africans who were in Jamaica had started to seriously talk about independence. Her sculpture “Negro Aroused” and her painting “Beadseller” and “Market Women” were among her most famous works. For these works and her dedication to preserving and encouraging Jamaican art, she has been dubbed the “mother of Jamaican art.” 

by Richard Blackford

Many up-and-coming artists in Jamaica traveled abroad to study in England and other areas and brought back what they learned to Jamaica. And several of these students came back to teach at the Jamaican School of Art, later renamed in honor of Edna Manley. After independence, Jamaican artists continued to create art that reflected their African and Amerindian roots. One of the unifying styles you’ll find in many Jamaican paintings is the use of bright colors (which you’ll also find across much of the Caribbean and Latin America) and their use of shading as well; subjects such as daily life on the island were common. Artists also used social commentary, such as violence and homosexuality, as the subject of their works. 

Jamaican literature as we know it stems directly from many of the African traditions that were brought over during the slave trade. Many of these stories aligned with the Ashanti tribe in West Africa since this was one of the main areas they came from. Early on, these stories and histories were told orally, or by word of mouth. They were passed on generation to generation as a means of entertainment and preservation. One of the West African folktale characters that made its way into Jamaican folktales are the stories of Anansi (who goes by a number of other spellings, such as Anancy, Nancy Spida, Brer Nancy, or other variations). Anansi is known as the spider-god who is often portrayed as a trickster and often causing trouble with other god-characters. 

Modern literature didn’t come about as we know it until the late 1800s. Thomas MacDermot was probably the first writer who brought Jamaica into the limelight as a viable English-speaker country that also produces English-language literature. Some critics consider MacDermot as the beginning of modern Jamaican literature. 

Poetry is a popular genre in Jamaican literature, and many Jamaican poets have risen to prominence. One poet, Claude McKay, not only had a major influence on Jamaican literature but also moved to the US and directly influenced the Harlem Renaissance. This was before he moved to France and was directly involved in the Negritude movement of promoting African identity in literature, the arts, and in society.

Another well-known poet is Una Marson. Not only was she a poet, but she was also one of the first major voices of feminism. She also produced a radio show for the BBC about life in the Caribbean. Louise Bennett-Coverly made a voice for herself by writing in patois, the local dialect, giving her work a distinctive Jamaican voice. 

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican journalist and political leader who was highly influential in the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanist movements. Throughout much of his work, he has written a number of petitions and articles outlining his views. There are a number of schools and universities named after him in Jamaica, the US, Canada, and the UK. (One of the schools near where we lived in Chicago was named after him.) 

Ian Fleming at work.

Although he was born and raised near London, England, writer and journalist Ian Fleming later moved to Jamaica. He is most known for his character James Bond and the series of novels surrounding him. Surprising to me, he also wrote Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang as well. However, his personal life was a lot of cheating and some more cheating.

There are many other writers—poets, novelists, historians, educators, science fiction writers, playwrights, editors, short story writers, folklorists, critics—who have done very well, making names for themselves and representing their country at the same time.

Up next: music and dance

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