November 2017 Volume 14

A tribute to Barry Watson

Ray Ford
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W hen one examines Barry Watson’s paintings, they seem more to draw you in, than to jump-out at you. In doing so, they seem to empty your soul of its troubles, and then, to rejuvenate it. That rejuvenation visited, as I viewed paintings of portraits of two Jamaican National Heroes, Norman Washington Manley and Sir Alexander Bustamante, and likewise, themes like `Conversation’ – the piece featuring three women engrossed in `labrish’. In the latter, what were they discussing, one is tempted to ask? By their animated poses, it must have been their work-conditions in colonial times.

“In scenes like `Conversation’, there’s always a message in Barry’s work,” recalls his brother Mel. Just like in ‘Garden Party’ – the 10’ x 25’ mammoth painting, which adorns the foyer of the Bank of Jamaica. The mid-seventies were chaotic times in Jamaica. And Barry wanted to capture them. “In it, if one looks closely, there were several things going on, all at the same time,” Mel relates. “In the back, there’s a boxing-match between Seaga and Manley; then there’s a cricket match in progress; and then a domino-game – everybody doing their own thing.” And that’s the way Barry intended it to be. “Jamaican art must move with the times and reflect what is happening in society today – a sort of history book,” he told Richard Johnson in a March 2012 interview. “Through art we have come to understand the life and times of ancient Egyptians as well as other African civilizations as well as Europe. We have a responsibility to tell the world what is happening in Jamaican society through art,” Barry then went on. So in effect, Barry saw himself as much as a historian, as a painter. And it might have been through his paintings that Barry saw himself leaving his indelible footprint on us, as opposed to being a lawyer, which his father so much wanted him to be.

“Not over my dead body,” his father is said to have said to Barry, about his passion for art. And so when Barry left Jamaica in April 1952 for London, to first study graphic arts, he did not have his pharmacist-father’s blessings. That would come about fourteen years later, at the unveiling of the aforementioned portrait of Norman Manley. According to Mel, during the speech-making, their father asked to be heard. And in reference to the life-like painting, their dad said, “Manley could not do what you have done.” That circuitous acceptance of a son’s craft moved Barry Watson to tears. And so the triumph of self-belief is part of Mr. Watson’s illustrious legacy.

But his initial time away, did not begin easily. He was forced to work several menial jobs to get himself through the graphic arts school in, England. And as Mel pointed out, Barry getting a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, was in reality, no scholarship (as we know it), at all. The `scholarship’ came in the form of his being accepted, having had to beat-out three hundred other candidates vying for a place, with a painting that was dubbed, the-best-of-the-best. But to be the first black man to be accepted into such a prestigious arts college was worth its weight in gold. Barry `had arrived’, and in the end, left with honors. He then went on to other well-known arts schools in Europe, but returned prematurely, to attend to his ailing father. But in Barry’s climb, the essence of formal academic preparation was not to be lost. On his return, Barry unselfishly dedicated himself to spreading the gospel of art, by founding the Jamaica School of Art, later to become the Edna Manley School of Art. And that was only one of the many initiatives that he spearheaded to light the passion of art in others. Right to the end, he bequeathed his art-filled Orange Park estate in St Thomas, to the people of Jamaica.

But, let’s revisit the portraits of Manley and `Busta’. What detailed and accurate portrayals - Manley the statesman and Busta the proletariat. “I tell you his secret,” Mel revealed. “Before putting brush to canvas, Barry used to have long chats with his subjects, to find-out who they really were. And then, he proceeded to paint them, not to their physical image, but in the likeness of their souls.” Such was his meticulousness.

In his travels, Barry met Premiers, the Queen, and the 36th President of the United States, among other famous people. The meeting with President Lyndon Johnson took place in Washington in April 1968. As the story goes, Barry and some Jamaicans were dining in a Washington, D.C. restaurant on April 4th, 1968, when news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., came. And because of their thick Jamaican accents, were nearly arrested outside the restaurant.”I’m here to see the U.S. President,” Barry proclaimed. And all ended well. Barry also met, Nelson Mandela, the first President of South Africa. And it was Mandela who suggested that Barry’s famous painting of the seventeen most influential black leaders of his time titled `The Pan-Africanists’ should have been instead titled, `We Are Africans’.

But before all of this, Barry at Kingston College was a top-class footballer and cricketer. And was a member of the first KC team to win the Manning Cup. So skillful were his exploits and those of Freddie Green, that one Patrick Johnson was recently moved to write, “that 1949 team with Barry (Watson), and Freddie Green as inside-forwards was my first experience of the purple and white, but also of the elegance of football - a formative experience which remains unforgettable, and meant more to me than any of his paintings.” Few of us know that Barry went-on to play for Jamaica in 1950 at 19 years of age, and to score a hat-trick. The maestro also played Division II football in England.

The Honorable Professor Barrington Watson, O.J. left us on January 26, 2016. May his soul continue to rest.

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