Saturday, November 16, 2013

Happy (?) Jamaican Slaves via the Prints of Isaac Mendes Belisario

Isaac Mendes Belisario (1795-1849), has been described as the first documented Jamaican artist, but he was raised for a time in London, studied art and then worked as a stockbroker before returning Kingston, Jamaica, (a British colony) in the early 1830s. He became a well-known artist, painting landscapes and state portraits of important colonial residents, but he also made prints about the island’s local slave population. His work provides a rich description of Jamaican life at the time of the Emancipation, and while some of his observations seem one-sided according to today’s state of political correctness, they do enlighten us about slaves’ daily activities, and celebrations.
Belisario was a member of the Sephardic Jewish merchant class, who worked in retail, wholesaling, and dealt in the country’s slave trade. In 1831, Jamaica’s Assembly proclaimed the Jewish Emancipation Act, which allowed great freedoms for Jews versus the more restricted existence in London. One of Belisario’s distant relatives was briefly imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition in 1656, before escaping to London. The other side of his family were in the opera and performed for the King of Spain. Another relative, Isaac’s uncle Jacob, was an art dealer, stockbroker and participant in a huge embezzlement scheme of the day.
Born in Kingston in 1794, Belisario was named after his grandfather, the Rabbi Isaac Mendes Belisario (1719-1791), of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. One of the Rabbi's sons, Abraham Mendes Belisario came to Jamaica in 1786 where he was employed by Alexandre Lindo, who was one of the wealthiest Jews on the island. Abraham married Alexandre's daughter, Esther, and he was made a partner in Lindo's business, When faced with bankruptcy, Isaac Mendes Belisario's father left his family in London, looked for a job and soon found himself in the West Indies, in Tortola, where he became the manager of seven sugar plantations. He was horrified to see how cruelly the slaves were treated and eventually served on a jury of the first white man brought up on murder charges for killing a slave in Tortola. He wrote an unsuccessful report calling for protection for the treatment of Africans in the West Indies. In addition, the artist’s maternal grandfather was involved in the finances of the Haitian revolution.
In 1837-38, Belisario made a series of hand-colored prints based on a holiday carnival practiced for decades by slaves, called " Sketches of Character In Illustration of the Habits, Occupation and Costume of the Negro Population in the Island of Jamaica " they were accompanied with detailed ethnographic texts. Although slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1833, these prints were very telling about the perception of the lives of slaves, both before and after emancipation, and they are still very popular in Jamaica.
In tracing the West African roots of Jonkonnu and its evolution in Jamaica, it had its origins with Jon Konny, a celebrated Nzema chief who ruled over Prince's Town in the 17th and 18th centuries in what is now Ghana. The Jonkonnu masquerades became very elaborate, as they incorporated the traditions of other African peoples and even some European carnival traditions. If anything, Jonkonnu was a leveller of slave society where the great Jamaican houses were opened up to the slaves who "drank with their masters and spoke with greater familiarity"; the distance between them briefly forgotten.
All the images represent happy, smiling slaves, well-dressed in theatre European style costumes with fancy wigs and jewelry. He felt the power of these fascinating carnival scenes of slaves. Some of these parades and competitions borrowed from Shakespeare characters. In a blend of carnival and east African dance traditions, the "Jack-in-Green" image at the bottom of this article, we find a barefoot figure in the center of the image, where an initiate’s body is completely hidden by a mask on its face and long vegetable fibers cover the body. Black women in European costumes dance about the covered figure like moths to a flame. Belisario also includes in these images a masked dancer, John Canoe, who was a chief of the village in the Gulf of Guinea, working in the 1720s.
Isaac M. Belisario was not a well man; suffering from tuberculosis. He seems to have never married; nor had any children, although he still has collateral descendents in Jamaica and Australia. His last documented print was produced in 1846, and he is known to have died in London three years later. A book about this artist’s enthralling past has recently been published.
Royal Academy
the Society for Painters in Oils and Water-Colours
His prints were produced working with the French printmaker Adolphe Duperly.

1 comment:

  1. As a child growing up in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1950s, I can clearly remember seeing groups of Junkonus dancing up and down the streets. They would be given money to perform a dance and as children we were frightened of them! They came about at Christmas time and during the celebration of Emancipation Day, August 1st., that's the day in 1834 when slavery was abolished and is still celebrated annually in Jamaica.