The Story of Jamaican Art

Jamaican Arts - A Rich Melee of Art and Life

Jamaican art forms are a rich simmering brew, a mixture of art and life, a living display of the “motto out of many one people.” From the days of colonization down to today, music whether classical, African or Creole that is born on the island has moved generations warming their hearts. But Jamaican art forms are so much more than just music and dance, for whether it is music, dance, theatre, film or writing it exists here too. Jamaica’s many artistes have helped to tell our story to the world. They have given those of different nations or national groups an understanding of what it means to be proudly Jamaican.

Imagine painting the story of Jamaican art, tracing the lines all the way back to the Tainos. For such a rich past that stretches so far beyond time and space you would need vibrant colours. You would need large paint brushes and tiny ones a large canvas positioned on an easel just so, and then you may begin. Jamaica’s history is indeed one that has many colours, Jamaican art is a kaleidoscope of many peoples and civilizations which have all etched a place in not just Jamaica’s history but Jamaica’s history in art.

Tainos the Spaniards

To trace the art of the late Tainos you would need a tiny brush, soft colours and would have to make careful delicate strokes. These gentle people who, by standard of the modern man were an under developed nation had no formal art sector, nor any outstanding and renowned artistes of which we know. Research has shown that what may be termed Taino art is intricately woven with their religion. Carvings of Zemes, which they worshipped, have been recovered. These Zemes, now included in the many relics found at the British Museum, are the only indicators suggesting that the Tainos were artistically inclined. It seems that the Tainos were for all intents and purposes a silent people on the art stage.

As is widely known, these quiet people, the Tainos, were enslaved by Spaniards who invaded the island in 1494. The newly arrived Spaniards were light years ahead of the Tainos in terms of art. They had a well developed art industry as they were a world power in Europe. However their stay in Jamaica like that of the Tainos did not last. Just under two hundred years after they conquered Jamaica they themselves were conquered and driven out by the English. Perhaps because they fled in great haste or perhaps because they never took real roots in Jamaica’s landscape very little of Spanish art was left behind. After the dust had settled from the battle with the British all that was left of the Spaniards were their African slaves who took to the mountains, the Spanish names for a few places and two carved stones. These decorated stones were discovered at a site- New Seville, St. Ann where the Spanish Governor’s Mansion once stood. Although these Spanish carvings had only been discovered by Jamaicans in 1937 and 1953 they have long before been mentioned in history. Edward Long, (an English man who visited Jamaica) wrote of these stones in 1774, he said: “In the year 1764 were dug up two pilasters of about seven feet length, of no particular order, but somewhat resembling the Ionic. Upon these pilasters were some rude carvings in ALTO RELIEVO. Four of five course images were likewise found; one of which resembled a spynx, another an alligator; and the rest were creatures of the masons fancy.” These carvings are indicative of the development of art in Spain. They were not religious objects but rather were decorative, beautifying buildings as we today know art to do. This thus shows that art was separate from other spheres in Spanish society and was valued for its ability to adorn anywhere.

The Tainos’ art was delicately intertwined with their religion; the Spanish had a more defined art agenda something separate from their religion. With the passing of the years the artistic endeavors of both of these nations have somewhat faded. This is unlike the art of the English who have painted Jamaica’s landscape with their own vibrant colours.