Dr Petrine Archer-Straw: a gentle soul with a steely grip on reality

Sunday, December 23, 2012

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The following tribute to Dr Petrine Archer-Straw was written by Sunday Observer columnist Tamara Scott-Williams and published on December 9, 2012. Today, we republish that wonderful tribute, as well as photos from the Thanksgiving Service for Dr Archer-Straw's life held December 15 at the University Chapel in Kingston.

An early morning instant message alerted me to the shocking news of the sad and sudden passing of Dr Petrine Archer-Straw, art historian, curator, critic and educator.

When I looked up at the sky and was about to dare ask reasons for taking someone so wonderful so early, I saw not one, but two rainbows. How fitting, I thought, a prismacolour light show for an artist gone too soon.

Everyone in the art, academia and wellness communities knew Petrine. And anyone who knows Knolly Moses knew Petrine. Those who didn't know her would have missed an opportunity to engage with a right and proper lady and a gentle soul with a steely grip on reality. The last paragraph of the National Gallery of Jamaica's tribute to Petrine says it all:

"Dr Archer-Straw was a highly valued and respected colleague and friend and her thoughtful critical spirit, strong professional ethics, and, most of all, her immense enthusiasm for her chosen profession were an inspiration to all who worked with her. Her passing is a tremendous loss to the Jamaican, Caribbean and Black diaspora artistic community."

A tremendous loss to the Jamaican, Caribbean and Black diaspora artistic community, indeed.

Petrine Archer-Straw was born in Birmingham, England, to Jamaican parents. Her family moved back to Jamaica in the early 1970s. A graduate of the University of the West Indies, Mona and the Jamaica School of Art (now part of the Edna Manley College), she joined the Education Department staff of the National Gallery in 1983 and thus started what would become a distinguished international career as an art historian and curator.

Petrine Archer-Straw was instrumental in developing the Education Department's lecture, panel discussion and film screening programmes, and her input helped to turn the department into a lively centre for discussion and research. One of her key contributions was a series of lectures on masterpieces from the National Gallery collection, such as Barrington Watson's Mother and Child and Christopher Gonzales' Homage to Bob Marley, which derived from her extensive research on these works of art, the artists, and their context.

After completing an M Phil in History at the University of the West Indies, which she did while working at the National Gallery, Petrine continued her post-graduate studies in Art History at the prestigious Courtauld Institute, University of London, where she earned her PhD in 1995. She was also a certified appraiser (New York University, 2010) and an Associate of the Appraisers Association of America.

Petrine worked mainly as an independent writer, curator, lecturer and consultant, who was critically acclaimed for her academic work on primitivism and the visual culture of the African diaspora. Her many publications include Jamaican Art (1990), the first full-length book on the subject, which she co-authored with Kim Robinson; and Negrophilia (2000), a critical study of the infatuation with Africa and Black culture in 1920s Paris.

She was a frequent contributor on art to Caribbean Beat, the in-flight magazine of Caribbean Airlines, and maintained a blog which featured short reviews and commentaries on various subjects related to Jamaican, Caribbean and African diaspora art.

Most of Petrine's curatorial work focused on Jamaica and Jamaican artists. Her exhibitions included: New World Imagery: Contemporary Jamaican Art (South Bank Centre and National Touring Exhibitions, 1995), Photos and Phantasms: Harry Johnston's Photographs of the Caribbean (Royal Geographical Society, London, 1998), and Back to Black (Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2005), which she co-curated with Richard Powell and David A Bailey.

Photos and Phantasm was toured internationally by the British Council and shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica in 1998.

Petrine continued to collaborate frequently with the National Gallery of Jamaica, where she served as a visiting curator, and had recently proposed the exhibition Rasta!, on the art and visual culture of Rastafari, which was in the planning stages for late 2013.

She was also a noted artist, who had exhibited at the National Gallery of Jamaica and had a major solo exhibition, The Magic Carpet Series, at Frame Centre Gallery in 1987. Her work, which explored the personal and cultural symbolism in traditional and new decorative patterns, can be found in private and public collections, including the National Gallery of Jamaica and the print collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Added to the above tribute from the National Gallery of Jamaica is a part of the memoriam from the History Department of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts where she was the first official Head of the Art History Department and served as a consultant from 2002 until 2004.

She was responsible for creating the Department, recruited three of the five current staff members and created a long-term vision plan for a possible Art History/Visual Culture major.

"Dr Archer-Straw was a gracious mentor and close friend to us all in the Department. She was a constant source of encouragement and guidance for our work. As a scholar she emphasised the importance of being focused, disciplined, and principled, but noted we should never lose the joy in our work.

"There was a formality to her demeanour, emphasised by her English-Jamaican accent and her graceful poise from years of yoga. But she also knew how to laugh giddily with a girlish charm.

"Dr Archer-Straw was a model for us, never shying away from starting anew. She took up yoga training in her early forties and became a popular instructor; recently, she also became an art appraiser. Perhaps, because she suffered from sickle cell anaemia she emphasised a balanced life and she found ways, whether through yoga, gardening or dancing to control her illness rather than having it control her."

Petrine's writing and reviews can be seen at http://www.petrinearcher.com/

Rest in peace, Petrine. You will be dearly missed.



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