Wednesday, 3 February 2016

JAMAICAN ART PIONEER LEAVES AN INSPIRING LEGACY

By Sharon Leach

The Caribbean visual arts community lost one of its leading luminaries on Jan. 26 when revered painter Basil Barrington Watson died at his Kingston residence, after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 85.

Barrington Watson: "Self-Portrait" (1973),
Orange Park Collection.
But Watson, considered one of Jamaica’s most distinguished artists of the post-Independence period, has left behind a legacy that is likely to inspire Caribbean artists for years to come.

Dr David Boxer, the former curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, described him as “our finest and most influential realist painter… [who] had no equal”.

Watson was born in the Jamaican parish of Hanover, in 1931 and was educated at Kingston College before going on to the Royal College of Art in London, from 1958 to 1960. He continued studying the works of European masters at the Rijksakademie, Amsterdam, and at major art schools in Spain and other countries.

On his return to Jamaica in 1961 (the year before independence from Britain and time of the nascent art movement), he became the first director of studies at the Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts - now part of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. There he promptly set about contributing to what would eventually be seen as one of his lasting legacies regarding Jamaican arts and the country’s cultural heritage as a whole.

According to former Jamaican culture minister Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange, Watson had “an undying vision of global reach for Jamaica’s artists. For him, the Jamaican artist could have a place in any international exhibition or gallery”.

Barrington Watson: "Barbara" (c.1962)
Aaron & Marjonie Matalon collection,
National Gallery of Jamaica
Having persevered and become an artist despite the vociferous objections of his own father, Watson was determined to change the mindset of his people as it pertained to the arts. At the Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts, he was instrumental in developing a curriculum that would afford graduates the ability to pursue income-earning opportunities, not only in the area of conventional and applied arts, but across a broader spectrum that included teaching, television and advertising.

In short, local artistic practice was now legitimized. As art facilitator Tamara Scott-Williams noted in a 2011 article in the Jamaica Observer titled “Barrington Watson: A Life in Paint,” he gave art students “the tools, the degrees and diplomas that would allow [them] to become professionals in their own right in a field that was commonly thought to be an idle pursuit”.

The emergence of what is today seen as a thriving art scene in Jamaica, and by extension the Caribbean, is in no small part due to Watson, who had begun, by the 1960s, to build a name for himself, not only in Jamaica and the broader Caribbean, but also North America and Europe.

Among his well catalogued and beloved oeuvre - such as Mother and Child, Washer Women and Conversation - are also various commissions and official portraits, including those of several Jamaican prime ministers, American civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, and former Commonwealth Secretary and University of the West Indies Chancellor Sir Shridath Ramphal.

Barrington Watson: "Conversation" (1981),
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Jamaica.
Watson became one of the country’s most prolific artists, producing, in addition to three sculptures, hundreds of paintings over a wide range of genres that included nudes, erotica, landscapes, history, portraits and self-portraits, for which he received numerous accolades, including the country’s prestigious Gold Musgrave Medal, the Commander of the Order of Distinction, and the Order of Jamaica.

But it is his acutely rendered paintings of Jamaican people - in particular, the Jamaican woman, his favourite subject - that perhaps have most endeared him to contemporary Jamaican audiences.

In a post-Independent society that was used to Eurocentric portrayals of so-called beauty, Watson unapologetically presented, through his sensitive compositions, an equally unapologetic Caribbean aesthetic that unswervingly reflected his appreciation and love of his people, and helped, probably unconsciously, to boost their self-esteem.

Edward Sullivan, an art historian at New York University and a specialist in Caribbean art, said: “Barrington Watson's death is a major loss for not only Jamaican art but for that of the Caribbean as a whole. His work was a touchstone of excellence and integrity for its technical brilliance but also for its forthright depiction of a wide variety of characters that form the cultural personality of his nation. I do not by any means refer to simple folkloric representations of ‘types’ of Jamaica, but, rather wish to underscore the significance of his innate comprehension of the social and psychological circumstances of the individuals and groups he portrayed.”

Barrinton Watson: "Mother and Child" (1958-59).
Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica.
Veerle Poupeye, executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, reacting to news of his passing, stated: “Barrington's exceptional command of paint and line and his professional success as an artist continue to inspire our younger generation.”

Recalling a lecture that Watson gave at the Gallery and how spectators admired him, she added, “I will never forget the reaction of young artists and students when he gave a public lecture at the National Gallery in October 2011 — they treated him like a rock star, mobbing him with requests for autographs!  We were very fortunate to be able to work with Barrington and his wife, Doreen, on his retrospective, which was held in 2012 and remains as one of the most popular exhibitions we have ever staged.”

As Jamaica bids farewell to this icon of the art world, the country knows that his impressive legacy is reaching a new generation of artists and art-lovers.  - © SWAN

Sharon Leach is an award-winning author and journalist based in Jamaica.