“Born Ya” by Judy Ann MacMillan: A Jamaican Painter’s Restless Life

But I man on ya, I man born ya/I nah leave ya fi go America/No way say, pot a boil ya, a belly full ya/Sweet Jamaica

This song was recorded in the turbulent mid-1970s by a rather jolly and amusing reggae singer named Pluto Shervington. It is a somewhat patriotic song, almost defiant in a gentle way. At the time, Jamaicans were, in fact, leaving in droves. Mr. Shervington himself did “leave ya” a year after recording the song. Politics is ruthless.

Albert Huie, the “Father of Jamaican Painting,” who worked with sculptor and painter Edna Manley and was a beloved mentor to Judy Ann MacMillan. Born in Falmouth, Trelawny, in 1920, he died in 2010.

There is an echo of this same kind of defensiveness in the autobiography of this Jamaican painter, “Born Ya” (which means “Born Here”). She seems to be saying: “Yes, this is where I was born. Why shouldn’t I stay here? Why shouldn’t I love this place?” An earlier book, “My Jamaica: The Paintings of Judy Ann MacMillan,” published in 2004 and launched at Devon House in Kingston, allows her love for her country express itself in her art. In the year 2000, she had also collaborated happily on a publication entitled “Albert Huie: The Father of Jamaican Painting.” Huie was her great mentor, a positive influence on her work and quite a kindred spirit.

Family portraits below (hover over the photos for captions):

I found “Born Ya” an “easy read” in terms of language and presentation – but not a “light read.” The way time passes; the complexities of the artistic life; Jamaica’s puzzling and contradictory social mores; regrets (acknowledged) and faults (sometimes unacknowledged); family, and one’s often incomplete relationships with one’s parents; love, sexual attraction, laughter and loneliness. All of these are woven into the book, which is subtitled “The Life and Loves of a Jamaican Painter.” It’s a fascinating read, and there is a lot to think about.

Jimmy and me in the seventies
“Jimmy and Me” in the 1970s. Jimmy was one of the loves that MacMillan writes about with delicious humor and affection.

Yes, there is life and there are loves. I laughed out loud several times. Jamaicans enjoy being entertained by authors reading out their works at special events, and I could imagine certain passages being well received by an attentive audience, perhaps mainly women. The cover photograph hints at the painter’s delightful wit. Sitting sideways at the easel, she gives the camera an arch, knowing look, her paintbrush poised.

The Verandah in the morning 2016
The verandah in the morning, 2016.

The book opens with a description of the early morning light bursting in – light, that essential element that inspires the artist, in her beloved house, Rockfield, in St. Ann. It has “one of the most ethereal views in Jamaica.” After her initial euphoria on waking up, the process then takes over. The artist later clarifies how actually being in the painting is important to her, rather than painting from a photograph or in a studio. So, she must be herself sitting in the landscape. Painting, she says, “can make you crazy” – an intense, challenging, sometimes frustrating process that pulls you inside out but in the end brings some kind of catharsis. A lot of creative processes are like this, perhaps.

Miss Cooper
Miss Cooper, one of MacMillan’s models whom she got to know well during her portrait session.

The author’s encounters with a varied cast of characters – her models – provide gentle insights into their lives. Miss Cooper, Jah Wolfe, Nana, Miss Myers…You will meet them all in these pages. One particular model did not just pass through, but stayed; he became the artist’s lover, and the chapter headed with his name, Jimmy, has moments of sheer hilarity. “Certainly I never met before or since a man with a more unbridled relish for his own genitalia than Jimmy,” she observes wryly. However, I notice she is very kind about all the loves in her life – none of them perfect, but then who is? Jimmy, certainly, considered women as superior beings. Not a bad foundation for any relationship.

Judy Ann MacMillan’s first one-person show in 1968, opened by sculptor Edna Manley.

The author refers to herself several times as a misfit. She acknowledges that she had “fallen through the social cracks” in Jamaican society, because of her occupation and her take-it-as-it-comes approach to life. A restlessness and an awareness that you don’t quite “fit in” is quite common for creative people, almost expected. After all, there’s always a suspicion that you might say or do something unusual, unexpected or disapproved of. This is especially true in a small society like Jamaica, which is essentially conservative and can be judgmental. People are watching you. If you make a mistake, it is hard to undo it. Although MacMillan had a privileged upbringing, she went her own way, losing touch with some of her contemporaries – “the protected women with husbands and families and the traditional Jamaican lifestyle that I was supposed to have had.” There are no illusions about Jamaican society – whether it’s rural St. Ann’s unbending belief that it is “the centre of the universe,” or the city of Kingston, where people often speak in an “accusing tone.”

Mummy at West Ave
“My mother in the garden at West Avenue.” MacMillan’s childhood home in Kingston.

The author comes to appreciate her mother’s lack of hypocrisy and I suspect has inherited much of it. It is interesting that some of her closest friends (including her American ex-husband) have been either foreigners or gay (or sometimes both). She can be “herself” with them. She scatters what might be the side remarks of “proper” Jamaicans through her narrative in italics at appropriate points: “Yes, she face-ty,” or Jamaican sayings like, “What start bad in de mawnin nah come good in de evelin;” or, “Suh, what change? Yu still doing the painting? Yu still in yu paint up clothes and yu Barabas sandal!” Probably spoken with a knowing nod, a wagging finger.

Like the First Morning
Like the First Morning.

This is where sadness creeps in. The arrival of Hurricane Gilbert in September, 1988  (those who lived through it, as I did, will never forget that day) had a devastating impact on her life – not only the physical destruction but the mental trauma. We often talk about Jamaicans as a resilient people, who just pick themselves up and dust themselves off – but things really did fall apart, for a while. People and places bear the scars – living through such a destructive event creates a sense of bereavement afterwards. It is a myth that a disaster like this has no lasting impact. We may laugh and sing songs about it afterwards, but the experience is harsh and the author describes the bitter reality – and the painful aftermath. “It divided my life in two,” she writes.

Moses of Riverton City
Moses of Riverton City.

In the end, who or what does Judy Ann MacMillan love most? Her island home, her family, her art – I am not sure in which order – probably all equally. Her devotion to her beloved son Alexei, and her more recent experiences getting to know her grand daughters on a day-to-day basis in her Kingston home, are lovingly expressed.

I found the Epilogue particularly moving. Driving through the Jamaican countryside, the artist refers to the light – as she does in the Prologue – connecting them beautifully together. The writer is determined to exist in the “living baroque vision in front of my eyes right now.” Not in the past or the future, but the glorious “now.”

“I won’t waste a drop of it,” she determines. And nor should we.

Self Portrait
Self Portrait by Judy Ann MacMillan.

 A heartfelt “thank you” to Judy Ann MacMillan for allowing me to interview her for Global Voices recently (read my interview here) and for giving permission for these amazing photographs and paintings to be included in the interview and in my book review. 

“Born Ya” is published by Beattie Books in paperback and ebook format. It is available on Amazon.

8 thoughts on ““Born Ya” by Judy Ann MacMillan: A Jamaican Painter’s Restless Life

  1. Reblogged this on Monique L. Desir and commented:
    🙂 I’m so glad I came across this post. In this book, I hope to find a treasure trove of information about my mother’s beloved country and our love for art and laughter. On my list of books to buy! 🙂


  2. What a wonderful review of this book. I too, laughed, I cried, and gained so much insight into Judy Ann’s life growing up in Jamaica as an artist, from her youth to adulthood. I learned of a Jamaica I never knew, as a person who only arrived after the late 1980’s. Yes, there is so much wit humor and tender moments, I too, found it fascinating.


    1. Thank you so much! I think you found all the things in it that I enjoyed so much. I only arrived here in the 1980s too, so it was interesting to see that earlier period through her eyes. Her description of Hurricane Gilbert and its depressing aftermath was very real to me. We felt just the same way. Thank you for your kind comments!


  3. Ahhhhhh, Emma… this is brilliantly written. You really expressed the essence of Judy Ann’s book so well. Distilled in just a few short paragraphs, you’ve gotten it all. Thank you!


    1. Dear Lisa, It’s so good to hear from you and I am glad you liked it. Do also read my interview with Judy Ann on Global Voices (link at the end). Much love!


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