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Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario
John Raphael Smith after George Morland, The Slave Trade, 1791, mezzotint printed in color, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

NEW HAVEN, CT.- Organized to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade, Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and His Worlds will be the first exhibition to focus exclusively on the visual culture of slavery and emancipation in Jamaica. Art and Emancipation in Jamaica will chronicle the iconography of sugar, slavery, and the topography of Jamaica from the beginning of British rule in 1655 to the aftermath of emancipation in the 1840s, with a particular focus on the turbulent years preceding and immediately following emancipation in 1838. Gathered together for the first time will be paintings, drawings, and prints depicting life on the Jamaican sugar plantation and images used by the anti-slavery campaign.

Art and Emancipation in Jamaica will feature rarely or never before exhibited works generously lent by private and public collections in Jamaica, including the National Gallery of Jamaica, the National Library of Jamaica, and the Institute of Jamaica, as well as works from collections in the US, Great Britain, and France. Many of the works have been selected from the Center’s extraordinarily rich holdings relating to the Caribbean, which provided the original impetus for the project. At the heart of the exhibition will be the remarkable series of lithographs, Sketches of Character, In Illustration of the Habits, Occupation, and Costume of the Negro Population in the Island of Jamaica, made by the Jewish Jamaican-born artist, Isaac Mendes Belisario. Published in Jamaica in 1837-38, Sketches of Character provides the first detailed visual representation of Jonkonnu (or John Canoe), the celebrated Afro-Jamaican masquerade performed by the enslaved during the Christmas and New Year holidays. Tracing the West African roots of Jonkonnu, its evolution in Jamaica, and continuing transformation into the twenty-first century, the exhibition will feature Jamaican and West African costumes and musical instruments, accompanied by video footage of historic and contemporary performance, as well as a specially-commissioned sound-track. The exhibition will conclude with work by contemporary Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean artists investigating the complex legacy of slavery and emancipation.

The exhibition will also gather together for the first time almost all the known works by Isaac Mendes Belisario, including his watercolor of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue at Bevis Marks, London, and his 1835 portrait of Frances, Lady Rowe, the wife of the chief justice of Jamaica, a rare survival of his Kingston portraiture that was recently acquired by the Center.

A number of related programs will accompany the exhibition, including lectures, concerts, tours, gallery talks, youth and family programs, a film series, and a community open house.

Organized by the Yale Center for British Art, Art and Emancipation in Jamaica has been curated by Gillian Forrester, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, Yale Center for British Art; Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art, Yale University; and Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University. Generous support for this project has been provided by The Reed Foundation, Inc.

A ground-breaking publication published by the Yale Center for British Art, in association with Yale University Press, will accompany Art and Emancipation in Jamaica, bringing together for the first time leading scholars in the history of British, Caribbean, and African art; Jamaican and Imperial history; musicology; and ethnomusicology. The volume will offer a series of new perspectives on the visual culture of the North Atlantic: the iconography of slavery and emancipation; the Jewish diaspora in the Caribbean; and Afro-Jamaican culture, with a focus on Jonkonnu. The catalogue will reproduce and document each object in the exhibition. Edited by Tim Barringer, Gillian Forrester, and Barbaro Martinez Ruiz, the publication will feature essays by Stephen Banfield, Tim Barringer, Kenneth Bilby, Gillian Forrester, Catherine Hall, Stuart Hall, Kay Dian Kriz, Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, Verene A. Shepherd, Holly Snyder, and Robert Farris Thompson.

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