National Gallery of Jamaica: Collecting, preserving, exhibiting 40 years of history


The National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), the oldest and largest public art museum in the English-speaking Caribbean, has a comprehensive collection of early, modern, and contemporary art from Jamaica, along with smaller Caribbean and international holdings, Keisha Hill reports in this article for Jamaica’s Gleaner.

For 40 years, the National Gallery has amassed and exhibited the art of Jamaica and, even more important, preserved Jamaica’s artistic heritage.

Since 1974, the National Gallery has represented the story of Jamaican art, crafting the raw material of artists, artworks and anecdotes into a coherent narrative that resonates with how Jamaicans see and understand themselves in the world.

According to Dr Veerle Poupeye, executive director, NGJ, as Jamaica’s national art museum, the gallery is mandated to collect, preserve, document and exhibit Jamaican and related art, and this is done through collections, publications, educational activities and many of its temporary exhibitions.

“Our exhibitions, especially the Biennial and young artist exhibitions such as Young Talent and New Roots, also serve as a platform for artistic development, since these provide artists with a much-needed opportunity to experiment with new ideas and artistic forms,” Poupeye said.

Poupeye stated that their role is to serve as a bridge between art, artists and the public, locally and internationally, and in doing so, to tap into the various ways in which art can contribute to society.

“For instance, by providing aesthetic enjoyment, by providing opportunities for cultural engagement and critical reflection about art, culture and society in the 21st century, by supporting the cultural industries as a viable economic and social development activity, or by providing people of all ages – but especially the young – with a creative outlet that is essential to their personal development,” she said.

National Gallery exhibitions have sought to represent what can be considered key events and developments. The exhibitions start with highlights from the collection inherited from the Institute of Jamaica in 1974 and the original mandate to collect and exhibit the art that had come out of the 1938 uprising.

The gallery’s milestones

The second section explores three seminal exhibitions in which the key points in the National Gallery’s history of Jamaican art were articulated, namely – (1976), the first historical survey – (1978), the first exhibition marking the 1922 arrival date of Edna Manley in Jamaica, was used as the beginning date of modern or ‘true’ Jamaican art; and (1979), the exhibition which launched the ‘Intuitive’ label that gave self-taught artists a central place in the emerging national art catalogue.

The third section looks into how this articulation process culminated in a major survey exhibition of Jamaican art, which was toured by the Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service to various venues in the United States of America, Canada and Haiti, from between 1983 and 1985, and also in the like-named permanent exhibition, which was installed at the National Gallery’s new home in the Roy West building around that same time.

Attention is also given to the contentions that surrounded, particularly the controversy about its prominent inclusion of the ‘Intuitives’. Section four examines how the National Gallery’s narrative has changed over time, along with new developments in Jamaican art, whether these course corrections were internally generated or in response to external challenges to the definitions, hierarchies and narratives proffered by the gallery.

Ceramics and photography

This section also explores how the National Gallery added ceramics and photography to the very narrow range of ‘fine art’ media it originally exhibited and collected, but initially treated those media as separate, more technical, art forms. Section five looks at how the National Gallery has supported the development of Jamaican art by providing exhibition opportunities for young and emerging artists and exposing new trends.

Section six features the three largest donations the National Gallery has received to date, namely the A.D. Scott Collection, the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection and the Guy McIntosh Donation, and also makes reference to other major donations featured in the permanent exhibitions.

According to Poupeye, in recent times, the local and international visibility of Jamaican art and the National Gallery has increased significantly and this brings new opportunities and a few challenges.
“Jamaica has been a global force in the field of music and we now see the potential for the country to make a global impact in the visual arts. At the same time, we cannot ignore the need for greater local engagement, since our relevance to Jamaican society is always foremost on our agenda,” Poupeye said.

National Gallery West

“With the recent opening of National Gallery West, for instance, has come from the realisation that Kingston is not Jamaica, and that we need to be available and accessible beyond the capital. By using social media and our blog, both of which have a global reach, we have also been reminded how important it is for us to reach out to and engage the Jamaican diaspora, which is fully part of Jamaican culture,” she added.

The present exhibition also documents the National Gallery’s institutional history, the main exhibitions, acquisitions and donations, educational initiatives and curatorial leadership are outlined in an abridged version of the chronology document. This documentary section also considers the development of the physical facilities, actual and planned, and pays tribute to the persons who have contributed crucially to the development of the institution. Special tribute is also paid to David Boxer, who steered the curatorial vision for 37 of the National Gallery’s 40 years.

Last Sundays

The first major activity of the Gallery’s 40th anniversary is an exhibition dubbed ‘In Retrospect: 40 Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica’, which opened on August 31 and will continue until November 15.

There are several scheduled educational activities associated with this exhibition and the gallery’s programme for the ‘Last Sundays’ during the period will also be themed around the subject.

Admission and guided tours are free on Last Sundays and the gallery will also offer free children’s activities, and entertainment and special events.

The exhibition features works from artists as diverse as Edna Manley, Mallica ‘Kapo’ Reynolds, Albert Huie, Barrington Watson, Karl Parboosingh, Carl Abrahams, Oneika Russell, Laura Facey, Maria LaYacona, Omari Ra, Cecil Baugh, Norma Rodney Harrack and David Boxer.

The National Gallery of Jamaica is a division of the Institute of Jamaica, Ministry of Youth and Culture.

For the original report go to

For the original report go to

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