John Dunkley is an icon for self-taught Jamaican artists. But before now, it has not been possible to see a major collection of his work in the United States. Thanks in part to Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) and the museum’s associate curator, Diana Nawi, a substantial selection of works by Dunkley will be on display in PAMM's latest exhibition, "John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night," which will open Friday, May 26.
Since a single painting by Dunkley, Spider’s Web, was part of PAMM’s inaugural programming in its new building in 2014, Nawi, who went on to do research in Kingston, Jamaica, has been captivated by the late artist.
“It was a piece that really stayed with me,” says Nawi, who conceptualized the exhibition alongside collaborators Nicole Smythe-Johnson, an independent curator and writer based in Kingston; and Dr. David Boxer, who served as the curatorial adviser. “The National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston has a room devoted to Dunkley, and they’re just incredible paintings. So, really, the work itself was very compelling. It was just something I kept thinking about and returning to.”
She was compelled to organize the exhibition not only because of the work itself but also because of its significance in Jamaican and Caribbean history.
Dunkley, who was born in 1891 and died in 1947, is a critical figure in Jamaican art history. According to Nawi, not only was he an important and respected artist among his peers in the 1930s and '40s, but he was also an early figure among self-taught artists in Jamaica, which is the dominant art historical narrative on the island. “He is really considered the grandfather figure within that conversation,” Nawi says.
The artist also worked during a tumultuous time in Jamaican history. “Jamaica became independent in the '60s; the late '30s really laid the foundation for that independent nationhood,” she explains. “So he was living in Kingston and, in many ways, emblematic of a generation of people who were part of developing that independent nation, of forming it.”
Although much of Dunkley’s work is in some ways subtle and symbolic, in other ways, his pieces overtly reflect real events.
“Two works that are in the exhibition relate to a particular agreement between the U.S. and the United Kingdom,” she says. “Jamaica at the time was a British colony, and there was an agreement between the two countries during World War II, [known as] Destroyers for Bases, in which the U.S. gave the British destroyers in exchange for land rights on their territories. In an area in southeastern Jamaica, this resulted in the displacement of residents from their homes so that the U.S. could build an air base. Dunkley created a portrait of President Roosevelt that is dated around the time that Roosevelt came to Jamaica to visit the site for the base, and there’s a very beautiful sculpture of somebody representative of this community of people who were displaced.
“[Throughout his work], you see that kind of level of engagement with current events, like these specific figures from history," Nawi continues. "Even in the architecture that he depicts, you’ll see things that were very specific to his moment, such as a decorative railing that he would have encountered in his daily life. His works can feel very fantastical, but when you look closely, you see it’s rooted in real life, even as it’s quite stylized and surreal. I think that is the really interesting aspect of his work: His images and figures feel both very familiar but very fantastical all at once.”
Although a collection of Dunkley’s work has never been exhibited in galleries or in art museums in the United States, his work has been displayed in traveling shows, as well as in galleries and museums in other parts of the world. However, the last time there was a major exhibition of his work was 1976.
“He was exhibited in the World’s Fair in 1939 in San Francisco,” Nawi says. “His work has been shown in the U.S. in the context of a traveling show of Jamaican art in the 1980s that went to a few different venues and was organized by the National Gallery of Jamaica in coordination with the Smithsonian Institute. A few people collect his work in the U.S., and he has some family here, so it’s not unheard of here. I just think there’s not a huge presence of historical Jamaican work within the United States. There’s not a huge context for it, and there aren’t a lot of museums doing that research now.”
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Nawi believes his work, although known by art historians, has gone largely unnoticed because of “blind spots” in art history in the United States, which affect artists from certain parts of the world and specifically the Caribbean. “There are certain places we are looking at and thinking about all the time, and there are certain places that we are not as attentive to,” she says. “Part of the goal of this show is to keep opening up those boundaries and to keep refocusing our lens, where we look, and what stories we tell.
“I think it’s great for Miami,” she continues, “because that’s part of PAMM’s mission: to be connected to the Caribbean. The exhibition will hopefully contribute to a conversation about the diversity of art histories that we are connected to here in Miami. PAMM is really trying to help push that conversation forward. It feels like such a critical moment to be thinking about expanding these borders around art history.”
"John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night"
Friday, May 26, through January 2018 at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; pamm.org.