Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 31, 2018
Diana Nawi, John Dunkley, David Boxer, Olive Senior, and Nicole Smythe-Johnson John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night Exh. cat. New York: Prestel Publishing, 2017. 224 pp.; 48 color ills. Cloth $45.00 (9783791356105)
Pérez Art Museum Miami, May 26, 2017–January 14, 2018

John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night, curated by Diana Nawi, then associate curator at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, and assisted by the Jamaican independent curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson, introduced to US audiences the significant and expansive oeuvre of John Dunkley, a seminal figure in Jamaican art history. A self-taught artist, Dunkley worked in Central America and Cuba, returning to establish himself as a barber in downtown Kingston in the 1930s and 1940s while producing a remarkable body of work. This landmark exhibition was the most comprehensive presentation of his painting and sculpture outside of Jamaica and in museum space usually associated with the contemporary and in dialogue with diverse audiences. The accompanying catalogue seeks to contextualize Dunkley through three essays, presented from distinct and at times oppositional perspectives, which examine the complex and multilayered factors that shaped his identity, his unique artistic vision, and his reception. The color reproductions of thirty-five paintings and thirteen sculptures affirm Dunkley’s status as a major artist of his time, presenting his dense, ambiguous, and emotionally loaded landscapes and lesser-known sculptures. These sculptures are exceptional in their innovative formal language and visual power and reflect his sense of irony, political engagement, and humor. The discussion of the sculptures is limited, and it is hoped that further scholarship will focus on this area.

The introductory essay by Nawi and Smythe-Johnson titled “Beyond Context, Rethinking John Dunkley” provides a theoretical framework for locating Dunkley’s work. Using carefully constructed arguments, they examine the critical issues that have framed the discourse on Dunkley and the construction of his place in the Jamaican art historical canon. Central to this are the issues of agency and representation that surround the concepts of “self-taught,” “outsider,” “naïve,” and “intuitive,” this last term, coined by David Boxer in the 1970s, established self-taught artists centrally within the canon of Jamaican art history. In this discussion, tensions exist between the radical stance reflected in Nawi and Smythe-Johnson’s stated objective to overturn prevailing canons, and the scholarship of Boxer, which is identified as framing this curatorial project. While recognizing its groundbreaking significance in bringing the self-taught artist into the discourse of Jamaican art, the term “intuitive” is problematic, as it continues the othering inherent in the labeling that separates them from the so-called mainstream. In contextualizing this label, Nawi and Smythe-Johnson identify it as “counter-canonical” (12), but they also challenge it, locating it as a “key trope within this ongoing contest of culture and representation” (13). That they are aware of the inherent contradictions in its continued use by Boxer is evidenced by their carefully worded call for a reframing of a Jamaican art history that reflects a loosening of such labels.

Expanding their discussions around agency and representation, Nawi and Smythe-Johnson provide useful insights into the way in which the work of Dunkley and other “intuitive” artists was appropriated to authenticate the emerging anticolonialist, nationalist agendas and the postindependence cultural nationalism that sought to define Jamaican identity. Their identification of the relationship of these practices to the broader issues of “instrumentalization and agency” (14) is important to our understanding of the resistance to this framing in contemporary Jamaican art.

Although Nawi’s and Smythe-Johnson’s theorizing stance is somewhat distanced from the work itself, the emphasis on the primacy of the artist’s voice as revealed in the catalogue, and the limitations of prescribed readings and positioning of Dunkley in favor of an acceptance of the “unknowable” aspects of the artist are significant. Nawi and Smythe-Johnson link this argument to the counter-discourse of Édouard Glissant, which challenges Western rationalism and insistence on transparency, while valorizing “opacity” (14). Glissant’s ideas are particularly relevant to the efforts to demystify Dunkley, providing an approach to engagement that privileges the emotive power of the work and affirms the agency of the artist. Nawi and Smythe-Johnson also call for an “inclusive historical paradigm” (15) that rejects stratification of the trained and untrained.

The second essay, “The Art and Life of John Dunkley,” is contributed by Boxer, an art historian and artist whose research on Dunkley has been extensive. Boxer’s detailed chronological overview employs the traditional iconographical approach, integrating close visual analysis of individual works with his biography in a sociopolitical context. Importantly, Dunkley is presented as an informed artist, keenly aware of the issues of his time. However, this methodology offers very specific and overly prescriptive interpretations, which at times constrain independent readings and appear oppositional to the more open-ended and plural stances in postcolonial critical discourse championed by Nawi and Smythe-Johnson, who advocate for “myriad interpretive possibilities” (14). 

Although Dunkley may have been influenced by a range of visual sources, Boxer’s identification of the work of Henri Rousseau, El Greco, Michelangelo, William Blake, and Salvador Dali as significant influences is problematic. (This counters Boxer’s earlier scholarship, which characterized Dunkley’s process as purely innate, an essentializing argument that reflects the problems surrounding the term intuitive.) The persistent and frequently tenuous suppositions about what influenced specific works is part of an overarching effort to place Dunkley in the canon of Western art and to validate him through this location. While the influence of Adolphe Duperly’s photography is supported by archival material, the comparisons with the paintings of El Greco and Michelangelo are tortuous. This insistence on positioning Dunkley within the Western canon challenges or undermines his agency and is inextricably linked to subalternity and the issues of hegemony that are still relevant to current discourse on Caribbean art and its reception. The focus on locating Dunkley in the Western canon is also challenged by Nawi and Smythe-Johnson’s call for the “expansion or perhaps implosion” (15) of the canon, which implicitly acknowledges this hegemony.

An equally problematic argument is presented regarding Dunkley’s mentorship by Delves Molesworth, the English art historian who was said to have “led” (21) him to the work of Henri Rousseau and Edna Manley, noted Jamaican artist, both of whom it is stated introduced him to the work of these major Western artists. The frequent references to the influence of Manley’s work appears to be intended to establish her as critical to the development of Dunkley’s sculptures. While it is established that Dunkley moved in the artistic circles of Molesworth and Manley, Dunkley’s wife Cassie stated that Dunkley declined to join classes offered by Manley, saying that he saw things “differently” (15). This argument reveals an emphasis on establishing and reaffirming the political and social dynamics of colonial Jamaica and reflects the intersection of class, race, and power in the Jamaica in which Dunkley lived and produced. In Boxer’s analysis, Dunkley is presented as a product of a colonial system of patronage through which a unique visual language is achieved with accompanying validation by the elite. What it fails to do is to acknowledge the capacity of Dunkley to internalize a complex range of influences outside of the intervention of benevolent patrons. The residue of this issue of patronage lingers in the labeling of the intuitives in Jamaican art history and in their location in the Jamaican art world today.

The final essay by the Jamaican writer Olive Senior, “On the Edge of the Abyss: John Dunkley as Diasporic Subject,” provides a most compelling rereading of Dunkley that locates his migratory experiences as central to the development of his work. Senior offers a nuanced approach to Dunkley’s imagery, which she suggests was shaped by unconscious memory of both the landscape and lived experiences outside of Jamaica when he was a migrant worker in Central America and Cuba.

Senior brings her considerable research on migration in the Caribbean to the discussion of Dunkley. Her exploration of economic and social conditions in post-emancipation Jamaica and the Caribbean of the 1920s, which fueled migration, the migratory patterns associated with the need to provide labor for colonial and US expansion in Central America, and the brutal, exploitive conditions and racism they experienced enlarges our understanding of Dunkley. Importantly, this positioning of Dunkley as a product of an extensive pattern of “circular migration” (71) integrates his oeuvre in the broader social history of the Caribbean. The discussion of Dunkley’s barbershop as a site for intense discussions of local and international issues and emerging black consciousness of Garvey’s Pan-Africanism and Rastafari, also discussed by Boxer, is important in locating him as part of the intellectual and political environment of working-class black men (and women) that produced the violent and intense anticolonial rebellions of the late 1930s.

Senior’s reading of Dunkley’s work provides a new lens through which to discuss the “unknowable” aspects of his work. In referencing the hostile physical, social, and psychological conditions that migrants endured, Senior links Dunkley’s imagery to memories of brutal and dehumanizing experiences in an unfamiliar and foreboding landscape. This reading is resonant with the potent and often disturbing impact of Dunkley’s work and foregrounds his capacity to develop a unique visual vocabulary that externalizes deeply felt emotions, without being overly prescriptive. In this important addition to the existing scholarship on Dunkley, he is neither subaltern nor naïve.

The issues of agency and representation continue to be critical in discussions of Dunkley’s work, and it is evident that singular theoretical positions are inadequate in locating his work. The catalogue, with three distinct perspectives on Dunkley, is an important contribution to the representation of this major Caribbean artist and to the literature on Caribbean art. In presenting Dunkley as a visionary artist of his time whose sensibilities, experiences, and intellect informed his work, it liberates him from reductive labels. How, then, was this exhibition being positioned by the Pérez Art Museum Miami in the context of global art, as is done in retrospective exhibitions of contemporary work, and to what extent is its reception mediated by the labels “intuitive” and “self-taught”?

Petrona Morrison
Retired Director, School of Visual Arts, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts