The icon of an age

James Ferguson on the sculpture that was the start of Jamaica’s national collection of art

  • Photograph of Negro Aroused, Manley’s iconic 1935 statue,  Silver gelatin print, 24 x 19.6 cm, courtesy: Onyx Collection. Photograph by Denis Gick

In his recent biography of the Wailers, Colin Grant tells of his disenchantment as he considers a statue in Kingston that is meant to be one of the most iconic expressions of Caribbean art. He has wandered along the deserted waterfront Ocean Boulevard, and eventually finds something, but not what he has been looking for. “The original seemed to have vanished,” he recalls, “and been replaced with this dismally grey copy, inferior in every way, mottled and scarified after too much exposure to the salty air blowing in from the sea.”

The statue in question is called Negro Aroused, and Grant is right to think that what he was looking at was not the original. The large bronze artwork by the waterfront is, in fact, a replica of a much smaller sculpture, carved from dark mahogany, which sits in the entrance to the permanent exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica, just around the corner from the statue. Indeed, the original, dating from 1935, has recently been restored to its pride of place in a refurbishment, to a position that no visitor can ignore, and this is quite fitting, as it represents an important moment in Jamaica’s political and cultural history.

Negro Aroused was the very first piece acquired by the Institute of Jamaica for a new national collection that eventually grew into the National Gallery. And it was 75 years ago, in 1937, that the sculpture was bought by public subscription. In other words, ordinary Jamaicans collected the money to purchase the sculpture to inaugurate their own collection of Jamaican – as opposed to colonial – art.

The artist who produced both mahogany and bronze versions was Edna Manley, born Edna Swithenbank in 1900 in Hampshire. Her father was an English Methodist clergyman, her mother a light-skinned Jamaican from the prominent Shearer family. Her father died when she was nine, and she and eight siblings were brought up by her mother in unorthodox circumstances. Edna’s artistic talents were soon apparent and in 1917 she enrolled at the Regent Street Polytechnic Art School in London.

In 1914 Edna had met her Jamaican cousin Norman Manley, who had come to England as a Rhodes Scholar to study law at Oxford. When Norman returned from World War I, their relationship deepened, and in 1921 they married. By then Norman, eight years older than her, had encouraged Edna to develop her skills, and she studied at the St Martin’s School of Art and the Royal Academy. Her initial interest was modelling in clay, though she would soon move into other media. Her preferred subjects were animals and human heads and were considered conventional and Romantic in inspiration.

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When Norman Manley and his young wife set sail for Jamaica in 1922, they were heading for an impoverished British colony, over-reliant on a primitive sugar industry. Social tensions were reaching a dangerous level. Norman worked as a barrister and was part of a small professional elite, but his sympathies lay with the workers and peasants, and he questioned the colonial order and its social inequalities.

Edna, too, had undergone a radical transformation. As she immersed herself in Jamaican society and culture, her aesthetic outlook and methods took new directions. According to her biographer David Boxer, she abandoned the Romantic model for the modernism of Picasso and the Cubists. She used local materials – tropical woods such as mahogany and redwood – and began to soften her geometric forms, producing sculptures that were rounded yet strong, solid and sinuous. She also criticised what passed for an arts scene in Jamaica, condemning what she saw as a stale deference towards colonial conformity, and the exclusion from the mainstream of Jamaica’s African heritage.

As Norman’s political trajectory led him towards the creation of the People’s National Party, Edna Manley became an established artist. She was now a Jamaican, but was still directly involved in the latest trends of European art. Perhaps most importantly, her double experience as a colonial subject and as a leading modernist allowed her to fuse aspects of Jamaican folk culture with the most innovative forms of avant-garde Europe.

This fusion of the Caribbean and European produced her masterpieces, which drew on her daily experience of Jamaican life. She attended Pocomania meetings, expressions of African-derived spirituality, and delved into other aspects of Jamaica’s African legacy. She also drew inspiration from the growing sense of nationalism and cultural self-affirmation that was openly challenging the old colonial order. This impatience with the old and thirst for the new would culminate in the civil unrest of 1938, a critical moment that led directly to independence. And it is also eloquently expressed in Negro Aroused.

This sculpture, writes Boxer, is “the very icon of an age”. Alluding to black power, nationalism and the historical shadow of slavery, it depicts a black man,  his muscles tensed and taut, looking directly upwards, implicitly rising from servitude and breaking free. Boxer observes: “The half figure of an unmistakably black man, his gaze turned skywards, is a symbol of a search; a vision of a new social order, a New Day.”

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That this allegory of freedom and independence should have been bought by Jamaicans and presented to the hitherto rather stuffy Institute of Jamaica as the first Jamaican work of art in its collection is also richly symbolic of how the island was changing in the late 1930s. Under the guidance of Norman Manley and other politicians of his generation, it would eventually attain full independence in 1962.

As for the statue that Colin Grant describes, it was cast many years later, when Manley, who had survived Norman, was the grande dame of Jamaican arts. It was produced in 1982, seven feet tall, and was meant to commemorate the Jamaican workers’ movement and the events of 1938. It was posthumously enlarged in 1991.

But, just to complicate matters, yet another version had previously been made – this time in clay – in 1977. It was destined to be cast in bronze and placed outside the United Nations building in New York. It never made it, as it was destroyed in a warehouse fire in Kingston. In that sense, the original – of the statue, but not the sculpture – had indeed vanished.