Visual Culture in the Caribbean

By Chris Johnson, Advisor

February is the birth month of reggae star Bob Marley. In Jamaica, to honor his legacy, there are concerts, celebrations and an International Reggae Conference. I was invited by the Institute of Jamaica to present in a series of talks called “Grounation.” I fled Manhattan on a snowy Friday afternoon, where the temperature was seventeen degrees, to arrive in Jamaica that evening to clear skies and a warm eighty-four! The Institute is comprised of six entities that include the National Gallery which is the main repository of contemporary art. My direct host was the Jamaica Music Museum where the theme of this year’s series was the drum in Africa and its diasporas.

My talk was titled “Drums Rising: Symbol and Myth in African American Culture” and draws from material that is part of my book of the same name to be published by The College Music Society. “Drums Rising” is a social history and visual culture study that considers the idea of the African drum in the Americas during the slave epoch and how this object was interpreted. The drum was feared, was banned, led to the creation of surrogate instruments such as the banjo and was eventually the inspiration for the drum set, an American invention. My talk, and the book, taps American art, from the drawings of Benjamin Latrobe in the nineteenth century to the Dada of Marcel Janco in the early twentieth, to open up a discussion of ideas regarding black culture and the primitive.

The Caribbean is an incredible resource for the artist/scholar. Sight and sound, ocean and forest, color and scent, colonial and national, ancient and future, all envelop the visitor and the senses seem heightened by the very air of the environment. The urge to stay is conquered only by the need to depart!