This morning, we went to the opening of an art exhibition that sent pulses of mysterious energy through the cool white halls of the National Gallery of Jamaica. We entered into Spiritual Yards – selections from the collection of Wayne and Myrene Cox. The exhibit closes on January 29, 2017 and is highly recommended for a Christmas or New Year visit.
The spiritual yards are described as “the home ground of the Intuitives,” a group of self-taught artists (but not an organized group) who became increasingly popular and influential from the 1970s onwards. The National Gallery’s Executive Director Veerle Poupeye makes an important point in the exhibition catalogue: the original idea of the “Intuitives” was, some say, “too premised on the notion that such artists are motivated by inner compulsion, as individualist outsiders, and not enough on how they are rooted in popular culture.” Yes, I think so.
No doubt, many of the artists in the exhibition are (or were – many have passed on) great eccentrics, with their own unique and extraordinary visions. Collector and art expert Herman van Asbroeck told me today about the routine one went through when visiting a particular artist. Before you could get any further with negotiating a sale, on arriving at his house you had to solve the riddle, which was often rather obscure. One day, Herman brought a woman friend, who solved the riddle immediately. The artist was quite taken aback (especially since a woman had bested him so quickly).
But what of the link to popular culture that Dr. Poupeye refers to? The influence of Rastafari and Revivalism (often mixed together) is strong. The art is deeply rooted in the people and their environment. There is no separation at all. The Intuitives were/are not merely fascinating, amusing “characters” who spoke in parables and saw visions; their outlook and their art springs directly from the people and their beliefs, as well as their everyday lives – mostly in rural Jamaica. Everald Brown said: “My painting is not just an expression of what is, but what I would like things to be – what it should be.” In his painting SIS ALABA (Spiritual Inner Self), green pomegranate and cocoa trees surround a dark, rounded door.
We cannot at all ignore the spirituality of the Intuitives. It’s a great wellspring that one plunges into. Sylvester Stephens’ roadside studio in Hanover is adorned with the sign Riding into Jerusalem. One of two woman artists in the exhibit, Elijah (Geneva Mais Jarrett) lived in Rose Town, in inner city Kingston. As a young woman she took on the role of preacher and priestess at her Elijah Tabernacle. The entire zinc fence area was painted with beautiful bright murals – angels, kings and horses – and long Bible verses. I am rather disappointed to hear that she closed her Revival yard in 2000 and is now believed to be living and preaching in the U.S. Her paintings here are detailed, decorative and have an almost celebratory feel, as if Elijah herself is preaching to you. My husband fell in love with King David House of Prayer, in which a rather small, dreadlocked David sits on a Rastafari-striped throne, his feet right off the ground, while two much larger crowned lions with rows of spiky teeth, bearing the the Swords of Strength and the Swords of Power, sit behind the throne. In a painting of Noah’s Ark, tiny people are being washed away in the flood, large birds shelter in the trees and what seems to be Jesus riding on a donkey enters the Ark.
Pastor Winston Brown’s home stands near the main road near Hope Bay, in Portland. With tiny turrets and colored panels, colored stones and whirligigs, it is a delight to behold. Spiritual messages and abstract, multi-colored signs adorn the roadside, where you would often find Pastor Brown, in his flat cap. If you stopped and slowed down, he would greet you and invite you in. Now, to my eternal regret, I am sorry we only once stopped to talk to him; we never visited his fairy tale yard on the side of a green valley, after driving past so many times. He passed away just last year.
Errol McKenzie’s yard is like no other. His stone home in Walderston, Manchester is called Black Moon Island, and according to Myrene Cox it has no straight walls – everything is curved. He believes the moon is the “centre of energy and eternal power” and his stonework, paintings and wood carvings celebrate this rounded shape, reflected in the ovals and circles created by the limestone rock.
The sculptor William “Woody” Joseph lived just off the main road in Castleton, St. Mary. He was a rather reserved man, and one story goes that he went to the river to heal an injured leg. A stick floated by; Woody took this as a sign that if he carved the stick, his leg would be healed. His dancing, tilting, wry wooden figures are instantly recognizable.
I was moved by a rather dark, thickly painted piece by Kingsley Thomas: Revival Time/Hold Her Hand, Lord. A group of people surround a woman, lying down with her hands above her head. Someone holds her hand. She is in pain, maybe in labor, or dying, or overcome with emotion. Behind the people’s faces, as in a group photo, we see Jesus’ face peering down.
We cannot mention the Intuitives without including Brother Everald Brown, a true mystic who lived in the hills of St. Ann, on the edge of Cockpit Country (the hump-shaped hills you see in his paintings, the green hills intertwined with human faces and animals). Herman van Asbroeck told me that his only truly spiritual experience was in the presence of Brother Brown and his large family, at the consecration of one of his exquisite musical instruments (these hold their own life). He felt he was truly a part of the ceremony, all of them silent and close as Brother Brown “spoke in tongues.” I remember meeting Everald Brown at Harmony Hall, the art gallery just outside Ocho Rios. The gallery held annual Intuitives exhibitions that we never missed. Somewhere I have a photo of our small son playing drums with the Brown family on the lawn.
This week has been very sad, clouded by the deaths of so many women at the hands of rapists and jealous lovers. It has been horrible. So, this was an uplifting respite, on a quiet and lovely Sunday morning of soft sunlight in Kingston – one of those days when you would find it hard to believe that such a cruel world exists. The exhibit reflects the resilient, joyful, serious, warm Jamaican culture that flows directly from the people and is transformed by these artists into a world of magic and mystery. It will lift your spirit in many ways.
Meanwhile, on the north coast, where they are busy cutting down trees for bauxite mining and endless housing and tourism developments (without proper planning), heavy rains today caused widespread flooding and the destruction of several roads and embankments. Hopefully, no lives were lost. If we were spiritually embedded in our environment, as these artists were, none of this would happen. If we are careless enough to destroy and mutilate the green earth around us, then we will continue to pay a heavy price. Chief Seattle expressed it thus:
Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.