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Edna Manley

Born, 1900 in Yorkshire, England. Died, 1987

It is perhaps a measure of Edna Manley’s standing that as a white Jamaican artist of British birth and upbringing, she was included in the reference work, The St. James Guide to Black Artists. Manley occupies the pivotal position in the history of Jamaican Art, having arrived on the island in 1922. Jamaican art history by and large dates its birth from that year, making 1922 a sort of year zero, before which, apparently, no real Jamaican art was created or existed. In no small part, Manley’s status as a Mother of Jamaican Art is due to her familial connections. She was married to Norman Washington Manley; one of Jamaica’s National Heroes, who founded the left-leaning People’s National Party and led it for many years. A man of considerable achievement and vision, he served as Jamaica’s Chief Minister from 1955 to 1959, and as its Premier from 1959 to 1962, in which year the country won its independence. Edna Manley was, furthermore, the mother of another distinguished Jamaican, Michael Manley, who was twice Prime Minister of Jamaica (1972 – 1980 and 1989 – 1992). Such impeccable credentials and connections helped to ensure that Edna Manley’s work as a sculptor was very much part of the Jamaican project of nation building and the development of a distinct cultural identity, two agendas that to some extent went hand-in-hand from the early 20th century up to, and beyond, the year of Jamaica’s independence.

Manley’s work fused modernist sensibilities and aesthetics with what was at the time a revolutionary attachment to, or empathy for, the darker, labouring people of Jamaica; those of African stock. Manley’s singular depictions and renderings of these people emphasised their revolutionary potential, their folk culture, and their yearning for manhood, respect, and progress. In this regard, one of her key works was The Diggers, produced in the mid 1930s, shortly before Jamaica erupted in an epoch-making period of the labour unrest which was to serve as a fillip for demands for fundamental political progress. The Diggers, a bas-relief in wood, depicts three manual labourers, each with raised pick axes, toiling in orchestrated union. The men, with torsos naked, have what might perhaps be described as over determined African features. That is to say, large lips, flat broad noses and so on. The work resonates with socialist readings and leanings. The pickaxes are reminiscent of the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union flag, reflective of the importance and centrality of the twin endeavours of agriculture and industry to the political project. The raised implements, the arc of the workers’ bodies, the emphatic sense of unity, purpose, resolve and endeavour. The Diggers amply reflects these notions, making it very much a piece for the revolutionary times (not just in Jamaica, but internationally) in which it was made.

Without a doubt however, Manley’s most celebrated work was Negro Aroused. The piece – of which there were several different versions produced during the artist’s lifetime;  a testament to its importance within her practice and its wider reception - featured an oversize male African head turned upwards on its similarly-proportioned torso. Negro Aroused featured an angled tilt, symbolic of a message and feel of upliftment and sincere belief in a bright, prosperous liberated future for the people of Jamaica and the African diaspora as the 20th century developed. The piece has become something of an icon and has been reproduced liberally on Jamaican stamps, book covers, magazine covers and so on. Negro Aroused’s distinctive silhouette was adopted as a motif by the art school, in Kingston Jamaica which now bears the maker’s name: The Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

Whilst Edna Manley’s place in the history of Jamaican art is self-evidently assured, she has a more tenuous position within the history of British sculpture of the 20th century. Though she is represented in the public collection of Sheffield Art Galleries and Museums, within the United Kingdom her work tends to be exclusively identified with, and discussed in the context of, Jamaican and Black artists. It was in this context that Manley’s work was included in Back to Black: Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary was held at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London in 2005.

Much of the scholarship on Manley has come out of Jamaica, where Dr. David Boxer has served as biographer, researcher and scholar on Manley’s formidable output which spanned over five decades, right up to her death in 1987. It was David Boxer who penned the aforementioned entry on Manley for the The St. James Guide to Black Artists. His concluding paragraph sought to stress Manley’s significance and importance not only within history, but also to successive generations of Jamaica’s artists. “Manley’s influence on successive generations of Jamaican artists was profound. In the 1930s and 1940s her essential, symbolist figurative mode informed much of the work of Koren der Harootian, Albert Huie, and others, yet it could still be discerned in the 1960s and 1970s in artists as disparate as Colin Garland, Christopher Gonzalez, and Fitzroy Harrack.” [All artists practicing in Jamaica].

Some biographies have Edna Manley’s place of birth as being Bournemouth/Hampshire England. Typical in this regard is Manley’s entry in the catalogue, Jamaican Art Since The Thirties.

Manley’s work was included in the exhibition Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, which toured to galleries in the UK and the USA in 1997 and 1998.

Related items + view all 8

click to show details of Back to Black - catalogue

»  Back to Black - catalogue

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2005

click to show details of Back to Black: art, cinema and the racial imaginary

»  Back to Black: art, cinema and the racial imaginary

Review relating to an exhibition, 2005

click to show details of Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century

»  Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century

Book relating to a publication, 1997

click to show details of Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance

»  Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1997

Related exhibitions

Related venues + view all 10

»  The Corcoran Gallery of Art

Washington D.C., United States of America

»  Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre

Coventry, United Kingdom

»  M.H. de Young Memorial Museum

San Francisco, United States of America

»  The New Art Gallery Walsall

Walsall, United Kingdom

»  Whitechapel Art Gallery

London, United Kingdom