It says here, in the California Afro-American Museum's newsletter, that "Jamaican Art: 1922-1982" is "the first comprehensive survey of Jamaican art shown in this country." That may be an understatement. Art from Jamaica has such a low profile that it's hard to remember when it last came into sight or mind.
There are reasons for this situation, not least of which is the short history of Jamaican art. Little work by native Arawak Indians has survived and the combination of slavery and colonization severely inhibited the development of indigenous art until 1922, when sculptor Edna Manley arrived.
The daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father, Manley moved from England to Jamaica with her husband, who became a leader of Jamaica's independence movement. Manley was not a great artist, but she created an inspiring sculptural image of "Negro Aroused," now granted iconic status. (Her concept is poorly represented in the show by a recently cast bronze that seems a mere shadow of the original (1935) wood work illustrated in the exhibition catalogue).
Manley's depictions of black Jamaicans helped raise their self-esteem, but equally important was her encouragement of other artists. With a small group of pioneers, she founded a movement that became institutionalized in 1950 as the Jamaica School of Art.
The exhibition, through Nov. 3, consists of 76 paintings and sculptures from the National Gallery of Jamaica, circulated by the Smithsonian Institution. In its survey of 60 years of art, the show achieves a balance between formally trained artists with European ties and naive practitioners who follow an internal muse. Both strains of expression tend to concentrate on art as a reflection of life. Amid a proliferation of genre scenes, one can pick up information on everything from street repair to harvests of sugar cane.
Throughout its historical sweep, "Jamaican Art" takes particular note of five themes. "Women" takes a notably unsentimental look at mothers, grandmothers, workers and young girls with dreams. Barrington Watson, for example, paints women as near-sculptural form in a work called "Conversation."
"Political Currents" features such hard-hitting artworks as Clinton Brown's terrifying memory of fire and bloodshed in the Morant Bay rebellion. "Religion" includes everything from Albert Artwell's primitive vision of the Rastafarians' "Judgement Day" (with people lined up in horizontal stripes) to a dramatically realistic portrait of Ras Dizzy, a fearsome Rastafarian artist who wears his hair in dreadlocks. Everald Brown's fantastic interpretation of "Spiritualism" as an ominous garden is among works categorized as "Traditional Culture."
John Dunkley's sweet painting of a rabbit under a banana tree is a sample of "Agriculture," while "Views of the Island" offers a piecemeal panorama of a place that appears simultaneously peaceful and turbulent, enchanted and mundane. Colin Garland sums up the island's social history and natural splendor in a dreamily delicate triptych called "In the Beautiful Caribbean."
"Jamaican Art" does not deliver a great revelation of genius, but it's a solid beginning and a responsibly organized show. You'll find hints of everyone from Botticelli to Cezanne and Nolde at the Afro-Am, but you won't find art created for the tourist trade. David Miller Jr.'s monumental wooden heads reverberate with authority and the best of the naive work throbs with life. Much of the smarter art is comparatively pale but it seems a legitimate part of a culture that's still gaining a sense of itself.
The museum, in Exposition Park, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.