In this post, Dazrene explores the life of artist John Dunkley.
In 2018 I successfully gained funding from the University of Manchester’s Invest in Success programme. The research was about Caribbean artists living in the UK and those who had left the UK and had gone back to their country of origin. While taking part in this project I came across the artist John Dunkley. My project took me to Jamaica to learn/ research about these artists who had travelled to England and Jamaica. I also researched how art in Jamaica and the West Indies evolved over the years until today. During my research, I learnt how the beginnings of the now Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Jamaica had began. I learnt later on down the line how Barrington Watson, another famous Jamaican artist, was integral in helping to formalise art in Jamaica and made sure it continued to be formalised. But that’s another story to be told.
My research took place at NGJ and it was while I was taking a break in their café/shop I came across the exhibition catalogue of John Dunkley. I was fascinated with it due to the over exaggerated plant life and animals but even more so because his paintings have a limited colour pallet. One cannot tell if it is day or night. Some paintings have roads, which seem like they lead to nowhere, the most eye-catching one has a large rabbit underground at the forefront.
John Dunkley was born 10 December 1891 in Jamaica. As a young boy he went to live with his farther in Panama but unfortunately his father died before he arrived. When he was able to, like most young men at that time, he had to work and support himself. For John, work was on the Panama Canal and plantation crops before signing on to be a sailor, which took him to different countries including the UK.
Back then, like most people from the Caribbean, the main goal was to find work and build a life – especially at that time with freedom in hand and an independent Jamaica looming in the near future. John achieved his goal of independence in Chiriqui, where he first started to learn how to paint. He then eventually went back to Jamaica and opened a barber shop there. It was in the back of this shop where he had his studio and was free to pursue his art independently. He also painted his works on the shop exterior. It was said that customers would see his work and request a copy be made for them and he would oblige. John was aware of the other artists in Jamaica at that time and of the art movement taking place. But he had other concerns than his fellow artists, which are reflected in his works.
It was in his this stage in his life thar he was asked to display his works at exhibitions and work professionally as an artist. However, John declined to work professionally as an artists and continued painting and carving as he had always done while running his barber shop. H. Delves Molesworth, then Secretary of the Institute of Jamaica, was attracted by the paintings. He encouraged John to continue with his paintings.
John Dunkley is what you would call a self-taught artist. Like most Jamaicans at that time, he never saw art as a career path or something of great importance. He never attended art school and wasn’t classically trained. He produced most of his works in 1935 – 1947 when he came back to Jamaica, before he died. He’s best known as a landscape painter due to the nature of his works, which include many trees, plants, animals and roads. There are roughly 50 paintings and 20 sculptures of his that are known. As was often said, he would paint a picture for some of his customers who were who were taken by his works and so these works cannot all be traced or accounted for.
His works are said to be ahead of his times with political tones; some of his other paintings reflect the times he lived in, with certain works representing political figures and changes taking place in Jamaica at the time. The main one is a figure of the then former politician who became the first priminister in 1962, Alexander Bustamante, in The Good Shepherd (n.d.)
John carved wooden sculptures, which can often be found to be sitting down or clutching their knees. He also did carvings of a pair of shoes. The sculpture pictured below is called Acrobat. What I find most interesting in this carving is the fact that the acrobat is wearing heel shoes, which shows how his imagination also played out in his carvings and not just the paintings.
John never really gave interviews nor gave much information about his works. His wife Cassie Fraser is the one who had to give much voice to and insight into his works to help bring them more to life.
John had taken part in some group exhibitions in Jamaica, where his work gained local recognition. These are John’s most recent exhibitions.
- The American Folk Art museum Manhattan John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night October 30, 2018–February 24, 2019
- National Gallery of Jamaica May 27, 2018 – July 29, 2018
- Perez Art Museum Miami May 26 2017 – January 14, 2018
Review of works
Assistant Curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson Discusses “Neither Day nor Night
Panel Discussion: John Dunkley: Across Contexts