Exhibit explores Jamaican past

Pink, not the expected green, yellow or black, is the color that greets visitors at the Art & Emancipation in Jamaica exhibition at the Center for British Art. The pink, which is a shade between shocking pink and magenta, is not a celebratory or festive pink; it reflects the richness and complexity of the cultural identity of Jamaica during and after the British slave trade.

The exhibition, which will be on show until Dec. 30, commemorates the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade. It focuses on the visual and material culture of slavery and emancipation in Jamaica from its colonization by the British empire in 1655 through the aftermath of the abolition of slavery between 1834 and 1838. It traces the effects of slavery and emancipation, as well as the influence of West African culture, on the formation of a multilayered Jamaican identity.

Isaac Mendes Belisario’s “View of Kelly’s Estate,” above, is among the works displayed at the Art & Emancipation exhibit until Dec. 30.
Isaac Mendes Belisario’s “View of Kelly’s Estate,” above, is among the works displayed at the Art & Emancipation exhibit until Dec. 30.

The curators of the exhibition are Gillian Forrester, the BAC’s associate curator of prints and drawings, Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon professor of the history of art, and Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, assistant professor at the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University.

Forrester, who wore a magenta blouse at the press preview last Tuesday, described the exhibition as part of a process of confronting the past.

“This exhibition is part of a trajectory of exploring, deeply and fearlessly, the imperial past of Britain,” she said.

At the core of the exhibition is the work of Isaac Mendes Belisario, a Jamaican and Jewish artist who went back and forth between England and Jamaica in the 1820s before settling in Kingston. His Sketches of Character are visual representations of Jamaican people and of the masquerades performed at Christmas and New Year celebrations during the colonial period.

One example of his twelve sketches is the “Koo-Koo, or Actor Boy.” At the Actor Boy masquerade, young Jamaican boys dressed in costumes and competed in reciting Shakespeare. The costume depicted in the sketch reflects the complexity of Jamaican identity: The young Jamaican boy wears a dress and holds a fan typical of 19th-century European ladies, with colorful headgear made of feathers derived from Kongo prototypes.

Amy Meyers, director of the BAC said the exhibition examines the world of human interrelationship in the context of slavery and emancipation.

“It is a rich, disturbing world,” Meyers said. “It is provocative and deeply beautiful.”

Beautiful landscapes of lush forests and tranquil, picturesque pastures are set off by white men brandishing threatening whips. A British lady taking a walk with her parasol in the garden of a beautiful, stately colonial house is juxtaposed with a Jamaican milkwoman carrying milk on her headdress.

Tim Barringer wrote in an essay published in the exhibition catalogue that picturesque landscapes are more than representations of ease, leisure and beauty. The element of labor, which is the reason for slavery’s existence, is always present.

“While [the plantation landscape] presents slavery as a just and inevitable system, the picturesque image of the plantation nonetheless reveals much about the structural instability and moral chaos of Jamaican society,” he wrote.

The exhibition is not just visual. Paintings are accompanied by African costumes, music and dance, showing how the influence of African culture has contributed to the shaping of Jamaican traditions. The Christmastime masquerade, called Jonkonnu and known as John Canoe in Britain, displays costumes influenced by European dress, complemented by African music and masks. Participants represent more than specific characters; they represent incarnations of spiritual forces.

The sound of the fife and the drum from a video of Jonkonnu is audible throughout the exhibition area. The strong, defiant tones reflect a spirit of resistance — a spirit that defies categorization. Jamaican identity incorporates multiple influences: It is neither European nor African. It is not black or white; it is pink.

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