The current Explorations II: Religion and Spirituality exhibition, on view at the National Gallery of Jamaica, is organized around six broad, overlapping themes, with a gallery dedicated to each theme. Here are excerpts of the text panel for the fourth gallery, titled “Spiritual Warriors:”
The work in this gallery reflects on the role of religion and spirituality in local resistance and liberation movements, especially during the colonial period.
Religion and spirituality played a critical role in the fight against slavery throughout the Americas. In Jamaica, Nanny of the Maroons, had charismatic spiritual powers which she used to empower her followers in guerrilla warfare against the colonial authorities. Similarly, Tacky, the leader of the 1760 rebellion, was an Obeah Man and it is worth noting that Boukman Dutty, who presided over the Vodou ceremony at Bois Cayman that marked the start of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, was from Jamaica. These rebel leaders are symbolically represented in this exhibition by Renee Cox’s The Red Coat, which provides a contemporary interpretation of the figure of Nanny, in which the artist herself adopts Nanny’s persona and in a poignant act of defiance, wears the red coat of the colonial militia. [. . .]
This conflation of the spiritual, the religious and the political is also evident in modern nationalist movements, to the point where several of its leaders have been compared to Biblical figures such as Moses and Joshua, of which Edna Manley’s drawing Moses (1954) is a reminder. While he was a secular leader, Marcus Garvey was also directly influential on religious representation in modern Jamaica – as could be seen in the previous gallery, titled In Our Own Image – and his teachings are foundational to the main political-religious movement that emerged in modern Jamaica: Rastafari. These dynamics are illustrated here by Edna Manley’s Prophet (1935), which is conceptually and stylistically related to her nationalist icon Negro Aroused (1935) and alludes to the prophetic role of visionary Black leaders such as Garvey, and in Carl Abrahams’ Visionary World of Marcus Garvey (1976), although this painting represents Garvey’s influence on Rastafari through that artist’s uniquely irreverent caricatural lens.
The conflation between religious and political militancy is however most obvious in the Rastafari movement and its fundamental challenges of the social and racial establishment. The Rastafari movement has brought this militant spirit to its cultural production, as can be seen in the examples by Neville Garrick and Clinton Brown, both of which adopt Ethiopian religious iconography, and Parboosingh’s Ras Smoke I, in which the sacramental use of the chalice is wielded defiantly, almost like the machete in Renee Cox’s nearby The Red Coat.