By Nicholas Laughlin
First published in The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2008
In 1795, Jamaica was arguably Britain’s most important which is to say, most lucrative possession in the New World. The island’s sugar plantation economy depended on the forced labour of a slave population of over three hundred thousand, constantly refreshed by the arrival of new enslaved Africans; the abolition of the slave trade was still twelve years away. Sugar planters complained of a decline in commerce following the American War of Independence nearly twenty years earlier, but they lived, dined, and entertained in high style their great houses amply furnished with fine furniture, china, and silver plate, their cellars supplied with imported wine for great feats of drinking, their walls hung with portraits by visiting British artists and Jamaica’s ship-owning merchants were wealthier than ever. Plantation incomes founded many a grand estate back in England. The colony’s governor and the House of Assembly sat in Spanish Town, some miles inland, but Kingston was the largest town, the chief port, the centre of economic influence, the point from which news spread across the island. Like many port towns, it was a cosmopolitan place, its streets filled with English officials, white creoles, free coloureds, and enslaved Africans, but also with sailors and traders and confidence-men of many nations, refugees from St Domingue, and in the district around Orange Street, Peter’s Lane, and Tower Street, south-west of the Parade a substantial Sephardic Jewish community.
This was the world into which Isaac Mendes Belisario was born. Surprisingly few details of his life are known, and he remains of a man of relative mystery. His grandfather, also named Isaac Mendes Belisario, was a rabbi of Portuguese or perhaps Spanish descent who taught at the oldest Sephardic synagogue in London. The rabbi’s son Abraham went out to Jamaica in 1786 to work for the merchant and slave trader Alexandre Lindo, who at the height of his prosperity was reputed to own the largest house in Kingston. Abraham must have been a prize employee; in 1791 he married into the business, wedding Lindo’s daughter Esther. But Lindo backed the wrong side in the Haitian Revolution, and by 1803 found himself harassed by creditors. He packed up his possessions and his pride and sailed for London, taking his daughter and son-in-law and their six young children.
So, like many Caribbean artists of later generations, Isaac Belisario was educated abroad. When his artistic ambitions emerged unusual for a man of his background he trained at the easel of the watercolourist Robert Hills. Master and pupil came to have a close personal relationship; Hills later left Belisario a substantial sum in his will. Starting in 1815, Belisario exhibited landscapes at the Royal Academy, but his career over the next fifteen years is obscure. He may have travelled to Jamaica and back to London more than once, and he worked for a time as a stockbroker. But he also learned the specialised skill of lithographic printmaking. Lithography was a new technology, invented only in 1796, and in the first decades of the nineteenth century London became a major centre for master lithographers. Belisario’s knowledge of this art which allowed the mass production of images that yet captured the spontaneity of hand-sketching would lead him to the work for which he is best remembered.
Then, in late 1832 or 1833, he decided to return to Jamaica for good. It was a turbulent time, for both “mother country” and colony. In Britain, the advances in mechanisation and transport that we refer to as the Industrial Revolution had led to vast demographic and economic shifts; the British political system acceded to these in the Reform Act of 1832, which increased the size of the electorate and changed the composition of Parliament. The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 dismantled many social and political restrictions on British Roman Catholics, some of them dating back to the Tudor era. Whig politicians attempted to extend similar religious freedoms to British Jews, unsuccessfully. In Jamaica, however, the Assembly passed a Jewish Emancipation Act in 1831. Perhaps this helped convince Belisario to resettle in the island of his birth.
He arrived to discover the colony still shaken by the Christmas Rebellion of 183132, in which sixty thousand enslaved Africans, allegedly encouraged by Baptist missionaries, had risen against their masters. For a month the uprising had torn through the western parishes of the island, and over two hundred estate properties were burned before the army overcame the rebels. Meanwhile, all over Jamaica the talk was of the campaign in Britain to abolish slavery throughout the empire. The coalition of industrialists and philanthropists lobbying the Reform Parliament in London were spurred on by reports of the Rebellion and the penalties faced by the defeated rebels. Finally, in August 1833, not long after Belisario’s return to Jamaica, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act. The nefarious institution which had supported the West Indian sugar economy was dismantled; on 1 August, 1834, every slave in Jamaica became a free man or woman. But their toil was not yet over; as a sop to the planters and sugar interests, there was a period of transitional “apprenticeship,” during which the formerly enslaved would continue to provide unpaid labour for their onetime owners. “Full free” was still four years away.
In the midst of these momentous events, Belisario set up a portrait studio in Kingston, at 21 King Street. He executed delicate watercolour portraits of planters and colonial officials and their families Frances, Lady Rowe (c. 1835) is one of the best surviving examples and idyllic oil paintings of their estates, and he reintroduced himself to the city of his early childhood. Belisario also began collaborating with the French expatriate lithographer Adolphe Duperly, who had lived in Kingston since 1824, and who Belisario perhaps first encountered in one of the city’s print-shops or taverns. Together they made lithographic portraits for paying clients. All the while, he was turning over in his head various ideas for a far more challenging work, a series of lithographs that would be financially lucrative but also satisfy, as he put it, “the ambition to acquire repute in his favourite occupation the Arts.”
In late-eighteenth-century London there was a fashion for prints of a genre art historians call “Cries.” These were depictions of a city’s various kinds of street vendors and peripatetic skilled workers milkmaids, muffin-men, chimneysweeps, knife-sharpeners in their characteristic costumes, “crying” their wares and trades. “Cries” series remained popular during Belisario’s years in London, and he must have seen numerous examples. The streets of Kingston too rang with the cries of tradespeople some of them free blacks, some of them slaves hired out by their owners.
But that wasn’t all. Every Christmas, Kingston was also filled with the drums and songs and speeches of the annual masquerades celebrated by African slaves since at least the late seventeenth century. These began as an attempt to recreate African social and religious rituals in the New World of Jamaica, but over the decades the festival absorbed and adapted influences from European traditions as well. The best known of the masquerades was the Jonkonnu sometimes anglicised to “John Canoe” which latterly lent its name to the entire celebration. To most white onlookers, it was a harmless seasonal amusement that kept the black populace happy; slave-owners would sometimes even contribute to the elaborate costumes. Written accounts by intrigued European observers go back to the early eighteenth century. But before Belisario’s return to Jamaica, no visual record of the festival had been made by a firsthand observer.
Something about the masquerade perhaps he remembered it from his childhood caught Belisario’s imagination. At Christmas 1836, he headed out into the streets equipped with sketching materials, and drew the chief masquerades “from life ... with great attention to detail,” as he later insisted. (Even so, some scholars notably Errol Hill, in The Jamaican Stage have wondered if Belisario did not also lean on descriptions of the festivities from earlier decades. By the late 1830s, the masquerades are thought to have declined in their finery, as disgruntled former slave-owners ceased to subsidise the holiday celebrations of their now technically free apprentices. Belisario may have indulged in some nostalgic idealising.) Then he retreated to his studio and, with Duperly’s advice, began the laborious process of creating his images “on stone” drawing on a slab of smooth limestone with an oil-based medium. He also began courting advance subscribers, ordered special paper imported from Britain, and recruited a few steady-handed young men to undertake the hand-colouring of the finished prints.
He hoped to have the first set of lithographs finished by June 1837, but in the event they weren’t ready until late September. Belisario’s plans were not modest: he proposed a series of forty-eight prints, to be released in twelve “parts,” one every other month. (It apparently proved too taxing to his energy or his pocket he managed only three parts, twelve prints, before the series ran out of steam the next year.) The full title of the series was Sketches of Character, in Illustration of the Habits, Occupation, and Costume of the Negro Population, in the Island of Jamaica. Each part included four lithographs, with accompanying text what scholars call the letterpress on separate sheets, all stitched together in printed wrappers. No one knows exactly how many copies he produced, though there is a list of 165 subscribers bound into the first part. Belisario doesn’t seem to have tried very hard to distribute the series outside Jamaica, and most surviving copies remain in the island. But intact series bound with the letterpress in the original wrappers are exceedingly rare, since most buyers at the time had the lithographs unbound, for display in frames or storage in portfolios. Art historians know of only two such intact sets. One is at the University of the West Indies at Mona. The other is at the Yale Centre for British Art. It is the latter set that inspired the exhibition Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and His Worlds, which ran at the YCBA from 27 September to 30 December, 2007, and the lavish catalogue of the same name (massive enough for its weight to matter as much as its page count: that’s six and a half pounds, nearly six hundred pages). A scaled-down version of the exhibition will open at Jamaica’s National Gallery in March 2008.
Exhibition and book were six years in the making; they involved three curators Tim Barringer, Gillian Forrester, and Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz a team of expert collaborators from several disciplines, and the co-operation of private collectors and public institutions in Jamaica. They assembled a sequence of over two hundred items many drawn from the YCBA’s own enviable collections to showcase Belisario’s lithographs in an array of contexts: eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British topographical art, depictions of Jamaica’s plantation landscape, the “Cries” genre of prints, anti-slavery propaganda, West African ritual objects and art, Jonkonnu artifacts, and contemporary works by Jamaican and diaspora artists; as well as additional paintings and prints by Belisario. In the YCBA’s galleries, despite their careful installation, these riches proved overwhelming. There were too many objects, packed in too closely, inducing a visual claustrophobia. Larger galleries would not have helped. The sense of overload was a product of the exhibition’s very ambition. I can’t have been the only visitor to the YCBA who fled before seeing half the show, grateful to know I could study its objects more calmly and carefully in the catalogue.
And this book is unquestionably a triumph. It is the most ambitious volume yet published on Anglophone Caribbean art, with no sign of expense-sparing. Every item in the exhibition is reproduced in full colour, with extensive individual notes that are in some cases miniature essays. The chief glories, of course, are the Sketches of Character prints, reproduced at a generous two thirds of their original size (which was approximately 11 by 15 inches). It is the YCBA’s own set, every single page, even the blank reverses of the lithographs and an errata slip; you can see every wrinkle and tiny foxing mark. There are smaller reproductions of individual lithographs from other collections notably that of Maurice and Valerie Facey in Jamaica which permit comparison of the hand-colouring.
A few of the Sketches particularly those of the “John-Canoe” and “Actor-Boy” masquerades have been reproduced so often they are almost shorthand for Jamaican folk heritage. We’ve seen them in modern prints and posters, in books and magazines, even on postage stamps. Familiarity has perhaps bred complacency. Encountering these images here, looking at them as if for the first time, I was struck by their delicacy, their vivacity but also their strangeness. The Caribbean has many masquerade traditions, quaint or outlandish, but the “Christmas amusements” Belisario depicts have something of the genuinely surreal.
Take the “House John-Canoe” which eventually gave its name to the festival. The main figure is dressed in what seems a humorous costume: a scarlet regimental coat and tasselled sash, with blue-and-white-striped trousers, ending in frilly cuffs. Loops of blue, red, yellow, and green ribbon decorate his trouser legs. He wears a wig of long ringlets, and a pale mask with rosy cheeks. Most surprising is his headdress, which takes the form of a fanciful house, with miniature windows and fretwork, topped with plumes and a crown. A percussion band (depicted in another plate) accompanies him, beating drums and rattling a stick along a horse’s jawbone. Belisario notes: “A rather discordant chorus of female voices, added to the stunning and harsh grating sounds produced by the instruments ... constitute the only music.”
Another print shows us the “Red Set-Girls, and Jack-in-the-Green”. The “sets” were rival bands of dancers, “Reds” and “Blues,” each led by a Queen, or “Maam,” her symbol of authority a decorated whip. The dancers wear elaborate dresses with layers of lacy petticoats and plumed hats, and brandish parasols. Bringing up their rear is what looks at first, in Belisario’s rendering, like a small shrub; closer inspection reveals it is a bare-footed man almost entirely concealed in a costume of palm branches tied together with a pink topknot. Visitors to Jamaica called this masquerade “Jack-in-the-Green” because of its presumed similarity to the traditional English May Day mummer of the same name. Eventually it evolved into the “Pitchy Patchy” masquerade of today’s Jonkonnu.
The most familiar of Belisario’s “Christmas Amusements” is “Koo-Koo, or Actor-Boy”, an “Aspirant to Histrionic honours,” in the artist’s phrase. Costumed in masks, wigs, heavily decorated blouses and skirts, and plumed headpieces, wielding whips and painted fans, Actor Boys competed in performance, reciting passages from plays (Shakespeare was especially popular) for the acclamation of audiences on Kingston’s Parade. Belisario actually includes two Actor Boys, which he describes as the winner and loser of the Christmas 1836 competition. It is the latter cheekily lifting his mask to meet the viewer’s eyes who has become Belisario’s iconic image, appropriately appearing on the cover of Art and Emancipation.
The rest of the Sketches are less striking and, no doubt for that reason, less known. Four of them make up a “Cries of Kingston” sequence: “Water-Jar Sellers”, “Milkwoman”, “Chimneysweeper”, and a portrait of an individual nicknamed “Lovey”, a flower-seller and puppeteer. The final print, bluntly titled “Creole Negroes”, looks like an ethnological illustration: head-and-torso studies of two women and two men. The latter’s prominent jawlines suggest racial caricature, but the catalogue notes that the whole presentation is “characteristically ambivalent,” and in the letterpress Belisario remarks on one of the women’s “elegance of figure and gracefulness of movement.”
One immediate question that arises from contemplating the full sequence of the Sketches: to what extent are these, as Belisario claims in his preface, “faithful delineations ... steering clear of Caricature”? What might the artist have exaggerated, or suppressed? Then, what can these lithographs tell us about Jamaican society and culture at the end of slavery? And a more slippery question: what is their place in the history of Jamaican art? Eleven provocative catalogue essays by an impressive line-up of scholars offer a mass of contextual information, and some possible answers. First, the distinguished historians Catherine Hall and Verene A. Shepherd describe the social and historical forces at play in Jamaica, the wider West Indies, and the British empire in the emancipation era. Belisario, Hall reminds us, “arrived in Jamaica at a time of transformation.”
It was not at all clear what freedom would mean ... Belisario had returned to Jamaica just as free men of colour emerged onto the political stage and shortly after the 1831 insurrection. He must have seen the effects of apprenticeship and of full freedom. He was in Jamaica during the most dramatic decade of its history, and he was fully engaged in the question of its present and future.
Shepherd goes further, arguing that “he would also have seen firsthand the chaos of the early years of the free order, although such chaos was only glancingly reflected in his visual representation.” Further, the Christmas festivities he documented “often functioned as covers for antislavery actions.” (Recall that the 1831 rebellion broke out during the Christmas holidays.) The calm of Belisario’s images is unperturbed by this undercover turbulence.
The music scholar Kenneth Bilby makes a similar point in his essay, titled “More Than Meets the Eye”. He imagines Belisario’s encounter with the Christmas masqueraders and his obliviousness to the ritual preparations and ceremonies preceding the masqueraders’ public appearance:
We in the present, limited by the artist’s focus on events visible to him, have been deprived of knowledge of the deeper significance these Christmas rituals almost certainly had for the performers themselves meanings that ... ended up being “cropped,” unknowingly, from Belisario’s images.
Bilby draws on his own fieldwork in rural Jamaica to suggest what these rituals might have been, and how they have survived, quietly, almost in disguise, into the present. In their paired essays, art historians Robert Farris Thompson and Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz dig even deeper, excavating possible links between the masquerades depicted by Belisario and living African traditions. The strange “house” headdress worn by the John-Canoe figure, for instance, may be related to a Kongo ritual called zangúkunu, which Thompson describes as “moving about with a small model of a house carried on the head of the dancer, as a symbol of the exaltation of a lineage.” Martinez-Ruiz suggests other parallels with Yoruba and Ogoni traditions; the exhibition includes a twentieth-century Ogoni mask from Nigeria, clearly topped by a house. He also persuasively connects Belisario’s Jack-in-the-Green and today’s Pitchy Patchy with a Yoruba masquerade called
Mariwo “a walking mountain of palm fronds” representing an ancestral spirit.
These and many other examples proposed by Thompson and Martinez-Ruiz hint at exciting lines of future research into Jonkonnu’s roots and the persistence of complex African traditions in Jamaica. They also remind us that in Belisario’s day the festival was an evolving manifestation of cultural hybridity like most other Caribbean masquerades in which elements from all of Jamaica’s ethnicities were combined to varying degrees, in “a creative response to challenge and contingency,” as Thompson puts it. He believes the Jonkonnu masquerades in the first place borrowed from diverse West and Central African ethnicities Mande, Igbo, Kongo, Yoruba in “a charter for unity.” But the masqueraders also borrowed, sometimes in parody, from English folk traditions and probably from French traditions too, via Haiti.
And of course it got more complicated when Belisario stepped in with his drawing tools. For here was another creative cross-pollination, between the ritual celebrations of black Jamaicans some probably born in Africa and some creole and the perceiving intelligence of an English-educated middle-class artist who may have appeared white but who, thanks to his Jewish blood, did not quite enjoy the social status of the Anglo-Jamaican elite. (Essays by Holly Snyder and Kay Dian Kriz directly address the implications of Belisario’s Jewishness for his art.) He was a man who belonged but didn’t belong, who had made a deliberate choice to live in Jamaica, where he was in a minority of a minority, and perhaps Belisario felt he had something to prove, beyond his artistic skill.
His uncertain intentions, and Belisario’s place in Jamaican art history, are tackled head-on by Gillian Forrester, an associate curator at the YCBA, in her audacious and invigorating close “reading” of the Sketches. She begins by arguing his credentials as a thoroughly hybrid “Atlantic creole.” Belisario was, she says,
An ambivalent and enigmatic figure who oscillated between the centre and periphery of empire, moving within and between Jewish and gentile, religious and secular, and artistic and mercantile worlds, assuming a variety of identities ... a powerful metaphor for the very concept of the diaspora.
She points us again to Belisario’s letterpress preface, in which he claims “a desire to hand down faithful delineations of a people, whose habits, manners, and costume, bear the stamp of originality,” and “the hope of reaping an abundant harvest from the undertaking, to compensate for the toil, anxiety, and time bestowed on its completion, in a clime so inimical to the furtherance of such an object.” His syntax is antiquated, but his motives are not; they will strike a chord of recognition for many contemporary artists working in the inimical cultural clime of today’s Caribbean.
Forrester goes even further, though, in interpreting these “brave words.” “Belisario was effectively demanding the founding of a Jamaican school of art,” she suggests.
Belisario’s intention, and his achievement, was to co-opt the idioms of a metropolitan visual and literary culture in the service of constructing a new and distinctive cultural identity for his native Jamaica at a unique transitional moment in its complex and troubled history. Belisario’s project, a model for a new, creolised form of print culture, would also serve to fashion a new identity for himself, and for his fellow artists.
It seems Forrester is proposing, however implicitly, nothing less than a recalibration of the timescale of Jamaican art history. Many contemporary scholars fix the genesis-point of modern Jamaican art in 1922, the year the British-educated sculptor Edna Manley came to Jamaica and made her landmark work The Beadseller. (See, for instance, “Jamaican Art 19221982”, an influential essay by the artist and curator David Boxer in the 1998 volume Modern Jamaican Art.) According to this narrative, between the disappearance of the aboriginal Taíno only a handful of whose superb wood carvings are known to have survived the centuries and Manley’s fortuitous arrival, there was no “truly indigenous artistic tradition” in Jamaica, as Boxer puts it. But Forrester patiently demonstrates that some key characteristics of contemporary Jamaican art are shared by Belisario’s Sketches of Character, with its hints of nascent but ambivalent nationalism, of a native intelligence recognising itself as such, its ambiguous hybridisation of form and subject, its resistance to “attempts to read it as a homogeneous work.”
Building on the work of Radiclani Clytus, Forrester shows that the “reactionary rhetoric” of Belisario’s letterpress often expressing a wry amusement, tending to condescension, at the habits of black Jamaicans is confronted by the “contrasting radicalism” of the actual lithographs, which depict the Christmas revellers and Kingston tradespeople as independent agents moving freely through the city. Belisario may have been undecided about his own politics; or perhaps he was careful, composing the letterpress text, not to offend any of his potential subscribers; the Sketches represented, after all, a substantial investment in a time of financial insecurity. Forrester notes,
Purchasers and consumers of the prints presumably could read them in a variety of ways: as picturesque and reassuring images of apprentices on the cusp of emancipation, with all the anxieties that entailed, or as bearers of subversive messages promoting the autonomous condition of the formerly enslaved.
More than once, for instance, Belisario refers to the men and women in the Sketches as “peasantry.” To our ears, the term sounds pejorative, but in 1837 it was something of a code word for abolitionists, implying the advance of a bonded population to productive freedom; “Belisario’s use of the term might be interpreted as tacit approbation of the emancipation process.” And Forrester responds directly to Bilby’s claim that the artist was entirely oblivious to the deeper ritual and transgressive aspects of the Christmas masquerades:
I would suggest that the artist’s “myopia,” and his frequent professions of ignorance of the masqueraders’ significance, was a deliberate strategy, adopted to accommodate the range of political views held by his subscribers, who also constituted the community in which he lived.
Belisario’s position as a member of the Jewish diaspora complicates any fundamentally binary account of the colonial encounter, and the repeated slippages in and between the text and images suggest an inability to present a coherent account of his own identity.
Belonging but not belonging, insider and outsider, native and foreigner, nostalgic but forward-looking, Belisario was engaged in what seems like a very postmodern struggle to find his feet as an artist, as a citizen, perhaps even as a Jew in an unstable society where no one knew what would happen next.
What did happen next is summarised in the final section of the Art and Emancipation catalogue, “Emancipation and Its Aftermath, 183865”. The elation (for the ex-apprentices) of full freedom was quickly succeeded by what the historian Douglas Hall has described as “the dark age of Jamaican history,” a period of economic decline, social unrest, and unemployment (triggering a small wave of emigration). Tens of thousands died in a cholera outbreak. And a disastrous fire in August 1843 destroyed a tenth of Kingston. At first arson was suspected, and racial tensions were also inflamed, with the newspapers blaming the “uncivil, sulky, riotous, drunken, and disorderly” black population for “vagabondism, licentiousness, and drunkenness” not to mention looting from burning buildings. Belisario and Duperly quickly produced a set of three lithographs depicting the progress of the fire. “The dominant aesthetic of Sketches of Character, the picturesque, was replaced by the sublime,” Forrester comments, “as if in acknowledgement that Belisario’s earlier vision of an ordered society had collapsed.”
Belisario produced his last known work, a commissioned watercolour of a house and garden, in 1846. Perhaps by then the optimism which had brought him back to Jamaica was running out. Soon after, no one knows just when, he left the island and returned to London, where he died in 1849.
As for the traditional Christmas masquerades Belisario documented, they seemed to decline further in the years after apprenticeship. In 1841, the mayor of Kingston even attempted to ban the festivities, triggering riots. Once seen by the authorities as a harmless amusement for the black population, John Canoe as the various masquerades were now collectively called came to symbolise unruly and possibly dangerous elements to be kept in check. Missionaries denounced the “pagan” masquerades, the percussion bands were discouraged if not banned outright, and by the end of the nineteenth century John Canoe had disappeared from many parts of the island.
By the 1950s, however, prompted by a growing sense of nationalism and approaching political independence, some cultural authorities began to promote the “revival” of John Canoe as a “traditional and joyful” folk tradition. In 1951, the leading newspaper, the Gleaner, announced an island-wide John Canoe competition, with prizes for the best costumes and performances. “Let John Canoe Dance”, read the headline on one article. “The Gleaner is seeking to restore that old-time jollification not merely as a festival in which the masses take the lead, but as a characteristic community celebration ... We have long passed the stage where the unsavoury in our past must remain a hindrance to spontaneous merry-making.”
The survival of John Canoe Jonkonnu into the present has largely depended on this kind of official sponsorship. Kenneth Bilby argues that one result has been a further obscuring of the festival’s ritual roots:
Out of these attempts to rationalise and orchestrate folk culture from above emerged a fixed image of John Canoe as a secular national festival ... while the Afro-creole tradition ... has been all but forgotten.
Certainly to observers from Caribbean territories with clearly unbroken Carnival traditions, there is something a little too artificial, too unspontaneous, about the Jonkonnu festivities you can see in Jamaica today. Even many Jamaicans, I suspect, when they think of Jonkonnu, think less of a living tradition enacted annually in their midst and more of Belisario’s iconic images. The Sketches of Character are even used now as patterns for fabricating “authentic” Jonkonnu costumes. Belisario’s images have penetrated deeper into Jamaica’s cultural DNA than he could have imagined. For an outsider, he’s ended up well within. +