Jamaican Art History: A lesson for all

Archive photo of Edna Manley's wooden sculpture of a black man called Negro Aroused from the National Gallery of Jamaica
By Hannah Baker
Sept. 18, 2019

As a Peace Corps Volunteer who uses art to understand the world, I have been drawn to Caribbean art from the beginning.

Up close shot of Jamaican student drawing with yellow pencil in a white classroom
Students at Hannah B.'s primary school draw up designs for their soon-to-be sculptural masterpieces.

Jamaican art has helped me to better contextualize the nation’s history and the people’s experience. While there is a plethora of art in Kingston, there is a distinct lack of arts curriculum and supplies for use in schools. As in many United States classrooms, art is missing from the Jamaican classroom. I shared this reality (and my frustration about it) with a good friend from back home, and she challenged me to do something about it. I thought about her challenge and remembered my internship with Art in Action, which I completed during my time at Santa Clara University. Art in Action (AiA) was founded by Judy Sleeth, a mother who was concerned about the removal of art lessons in local schools. For 37 years, AiA has worked with the belief that “every child deserves art,” and created art and art history lessons for grades K-8.

A white school teacher standing with two primary school students in brown watch other students clean a sign
Hannah B. and her students have been busy not only with her art history lessons, but worked on many projects to benefit their school. Here they are participating in a sign cleaning.

While in Jamaica, I realized I had the connections and the passion to make a small change in Jamaican educators’ access to art lessons. Initially when I reached out to AiA, I just hoped to receive a lesson plan outline and maybe a few best practices. I was surprised and excited when Mara Grimes, Chief Imagineer, not only offered support through templates and timelines, but expressed a desire to publish the lesson for Jamaican and American educators.

Over the past year, we have collaborated to create two separate, graded lessons that are inspired by the works of Edna Manley, to explore the concepts of social justice and cultural identity. Edna Manley is known as the “Mother of Jamaican Art” and worked mostly with figurative art that explored Jamaican cultural identity in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Her presence spans beyond the art world as she is well-known in Jamaica as the wife of Norman Manley and mother of Micheal Manley, two former prime ministers. Her name, recognition, and oeuvre made her a great touch point for a Jamaican art lesson.

Jamaican Grade School Student sitting down and working on a sculpture of a man made out of foil in a white classroom
Step Two: A student carefully forms the body of his sculpture out of tin foil.

Over the course of several months, Art in Action and I contributed slowly to a Google Doc, adding history and context, batting around ideas for the art project. Research was tough, so Mara tracked down one of two Jamaican art history books and mailed it to me (ironically I was not able to find a copy on island). After several months of writing, the lesson was ready for testing.

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Edna Manley's "Prophet." This image was received with permissions from the Edna Manley Foundation through the National Gallery of Jamaica archives.

Mara and I tested the lessons both in the United States and in Jamaica. The students in my classroom wrestled with art concepts and terms like explaining figurative art or defining sculpture. We made shapes with our bodies, testing our bodies’ ability to tell a story or convey an emotion. The students were able to see art focused on people who look like them, who shaped the nation that they currently live in. They also discussed social issues of their contemporary society.

One student decided to focus on manners and helpfulness. He created a pose with his body, lying on the floor, looking up. It took his classmates awhile to run out of guesses, but they eventually gave up. “What are you doing!?” his friend questioned. “I’m fixing a car,” he stated proudly, “And I’m teaching someone else how to do it too.”

Two Jamaican students sitting down at a table constructing a sculpture made out of foil and drawing out the design
Some things are best done as a team. Two students help each other with their sculpture designs.
A close up of a foil sculpture that looks like a lumpy man made by a Jamaican primary school student on top of a table
A finished product from Hannah B.'s Art History Curriculum created in partnership with Art in Action, a U.S.-based organization.

His sculpture reflected this same action, something helpful, a kind act that would help someone to learn and fix a car in the process.

These lessons allow for creativity, not only in sculpting, but in thinking about culture, values, and identity.

Mara and I have created a lesson that serves as a peek into a piece of Jamaican culture, as well as increases representation in the art world for Jamaican educators and students.

Both Art in Action and I believe that every child deserves art, as art connects us to our past and helps us to understand our present.

“In this bright future you can't forget your past...” -Bob Marley in “No Woman, No Cry.”

A booth at an art fair with brightly colored letters on a white tablecloth that reads San Mateo Arts and a white man in back
The Arts in Action Booth that launched Hannah B.'s lesson stateside last month, educating Americans about the Jamaican art world and the works of Manley.

We wish to extend our gratitude to the Edna Manley Foundation and National Gallery of Jamaica for permissions to images of Edna Manley's works. The header image above is a cropped photo of Edna Manley's "Negro Aroused."

A white teacher smiles while she work with two Jamaican primary students