Seaga, art and nation-building

BY RICHARD JOHNSON
Observer senior reporter
johnsonr@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, June 02, 2019

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For former prime minister, the late Edward Seaga, the development of cultural institutions was paramount to nation-building in Jamaica's post-independence years. As a result, among the many initiatives to his credit is the fostering of a viable fine arts scene.

National Museum of Jamaica Director Dr Jonathan Greenland noted that Seaga saw culture as having the ability to make a huge statement about a people, where they were coming from, where they are, and where they want to go. As a result he placed a huge emphasis on culture, putting it at the heart of his plans and vision for nation-building. For him, Seaga's contribution to the visual arts runs concurrent to his interest in music, dance and other creative endeavours.

“He was interested in artistic expression and the need for visual representation of Jamaicans so they could admire and respect. For that reason he was very interested in the home-grown, intuitive artists who would offer a vision of the people from the people, not paintings of a pompous governor general in a military uniform, but rather seeing themselves reflected in these works of art,” Greenland told the Jamaica Observer.

This is reflected in Seaga's interest and exposure of the artist Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds. This self-taught painter and sculptor as well as revival shepherd was one of the artists whose work he championed.

“Kapo was no posh, formally trained artist. However, with Seaga's push, he has become one of the most widely recognised Jamaican artists. He also saw the intuitive as being instrumental to the preservation of the indigenous folk forms, another area in which he had a deep interest based on his work as a researcher and anthropologist. His interest in Kapo, also saw him being instrumental in the National Gallery acquiring the collection of works by Kapo which was owned by Larry Worth. This invaluable collection was at the risk of being sent abroad when Mr Seaga stepped in. He did the same with collection of Kapo works owned by tourism pioneer John Pringle. The National Gallery proudly houses these as part of a collection which now belong to the people of Jamaica,” Greenland continued.

The history of the National Gallery of Jamaica is also deeply intertwined with the work of Seaga.

It was he who saved Devon House from destruction. The colonial mansion, located on the corner of Hope and Waterloo roads in the Corporate Area, would in 1974 become home to the National Gallery.

With Seaga's push for the development of the built environment on the Kingston Waterfront, he acquired the current location and and moved the National Gallery.

“Devon House was never really suitable as a location for the gallery,” Greenland noted.

“”The wooden structure did not offer enough protection for the works of art. So Seaga acquired the Roy West Building on the waterfront. This building which now houses the National Gallery was a former department store so it proved ideal for a gallery as they were built with the same specifications. The building was also capable of housing high-quality exhibitions and this allowed for a greater development of the art world.”

Greenland who is also related to Seaga given his marriage to Rebecca Tortello, the daughter of Seaga's sister Fay, also lauded the work of the former prime minister in establishing Things Jamaican.

“This was another fantastic idea which engaged local artiste and craftsmen into producing high quality artefacts and souvenirs for the local and export markets. He drew on the talents of renowned artists such as Norma Harrack to train in order to make the products of a very high standard. I was recently at Round Hill Hotel and was pleased to see a number of the items sold through Things Jamaican. Today, although we still have local products, the majority are of low quality, cheap and fall far from that great idea,” he said.

Greenland also pointed to Seaga's contribution to art through the creation of national monuments.

“This started with the naming of Marcus Garvey as Jamaica's first national hero and the National Heroes' Park project. The lead to the creation of busts and statues for the heroes. He would expand this to include the Paul Bogle statue in Morant Bay, St Thomas, as well as the Bob Marley statue located at the entrance to the National Stadium at Independence Park. Again, this was all part of his effort to use art as a way for the people to see a reflection of themselves which could be appreciated and admired.”

Edward Seaga died in Miami, Florida on his birthday May 28. He was 89 years old.


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