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Unbroken by Gabrielle Blackwood

In honour of Jamaican Independence Day, here are some visual storytellers capturing island life

A roundup of visual storytellers who are lifting the lid on island life with their boundary-breaking and inquisitive work

06 Aug 2021

Jamaica is creative and joyful turf, imbued with beautiful people with a rich landscape of lush greens and cool blues. So often when we focus on the cultural exports of the island; we are drawn to the music, the soft lilt of reggae or the dynamism of dancehall. Whilst we have a huge part of popular culture, there are still so many elements of our history that aren’t portrayed, and when it is, it rarely feels authentic. But there’s a wealth of film and photography talent reflecting everyday life. 

There are of course many artists belonging to the Caribbean diaspora working and living in the US and UK such as Karen Mc Lean, Terrell Villiers and RIP Germain (all of whom are worth a mention in this arena). However, here, we are focusing on artists living and working on the island. Artists who take a close look into Jamaican lifestyle in all its facets, from the spirituality found within the bushes high up in the mountains, to the political and economic turmoil present in the depths of parts of its most celebrated towns like Kingston.

Ania Freer, Filmmaker 

When I close my eyes and imagine the soft, lukewarm breeze against the top of my ear as the sweat drips down my forehead, hearing the singing crickets very faintly amongst the knocking of the coconut someone is preparing for me to drink from, it feels like the films of Ania Freer. 

Ania Freer is an Australian-born, Jamaica-based curator, filmmaker and director of the Goat Curry Gallery which focuses on championing Jamaican voices through photography and film. Although not often spoken on or visualised in mainstream media, the Jamaica I understand is built on the strength and backbone of women and men who keep the country moving. 

“For the first two months after I arrived, I lived in the community of Roaring River, on the site of an 18th-century sugar plantation,” says Ania. “This was where I started to hear the ‘country stories’ that I’d longed for. Stories about ‘riva mumma’ (Jamaica’s freshwater mermaid), duppies, cotton trees, the cave master and Obeah. Stories I would go on to record.”

Her film series on portraiture REAL TALK features many short films and characters of rural Jamaica, revealing mermaid folklore, ancient Taino, spiritual sanctuaries and ritual spaces. Ania has just earned a Curatorial and Art Writing Fellowship at New Local Space in the country’s capital.

Greg Bailey, Painter

Greg Bailey is an artist who uses paint to employ colour and patterned backgrounds to express the vitality of the subjects in his work. The characters in his paintings are often presented candidly, painting the personalities of his subjects with vibrant and bold tones of blues, greens and reds. He has a clear interest in politics and current affairs and his paintings are confrontational and evoke wonderment – it definitely draws you in as a viewer.  In true Jamaican fashion, Greg’s subjects are full of energy and hold space between very quiet but riveting confidence. He has shown work at the National Gallery of Jamaica and took part in the 2017 edition of the Jamaican Biennial. He also caricatures cultural figures or political persons. Often centred on their own, or in small groups, the subjects in his work consist of striking reflections and reinterpretations of Jamaican life, people and its history. 

Gabrielle Blackwood, Filmmaker

With a clear specialism in cinematography, art filmmaker-director Gabrielle Blackwood responds directly to the things happening in the cities, villages and towns across the Jamaican landscape. The rise of films like Moonlight and Queen & Slim highlight the need for cinematographers who can make black skin glow for film and TV. Gabrielle’s film Unbroken, which won an award for Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival for Best Documentary Short in 2020, has portrait-like shots and a rich palette reflecting the colours of rural Jamaica in this heartening tale of an amputee named Laron Williamson who qualifies for Jamaica’s Olympic rowing team. 

Christopher Irons, Multidisciplinary Artist

Born in Portland, Jamaica, Christopher Irons is a fine artist and sculptor with a particular focus on using found objects to form his works. His works are threaded with satire, resulting in work that is as witty as it is arresting. He has also exhibited in the 2017 edition of the Jamaican Biennial as well as taking part in the 2016 Jamaica Pulse diaspora exhibit in the UK.

Courtesy of the National Gallery of Jamaica

Phillip Thomas, Painter 

Dapper subjects painted with pops of colour contrast with monochrome working men looking down with a tilted cap – all of them presented on patterned backgrounds. Philip Thomas’ hyperreality looks like the work of a camera. Reinterpreting fashion, interior design, historical and documentary photographs, he questions the concept of luxury, the role of art, and the aftermath and consequences of colonialism. Many of his characters don’t make eye contact with the viewer or are often hidden by props within the painting such as sunglasses. These make the subjects in the paintings appear detached from reality.

Phillip uses a variety of materials to portray his perspective of contemporary Jamaica, mixing old disciplines and new to create a new visual language. His work is internationally successful and in 2008 was awarded the Aaron Matalon at the Jamaican National Biennial.

Destinee Condison, Photographer

Photographer Destinee Condison’s work is clean, sexy and represents the nature of Jamaica’s youth culture. Often taking portraits of black women for magazines and digital media, Destinee’s work represents a modern Jamaica that the wider world isn’t yet familiar with. She has photographed the likes of Koffee and Runkusinno who are both young pivotal personas in current Jamaican culture. Her work is reactive to contemporary island scenes and youth culture, and has graced the covers of magazines like Notion