Father Carl Abrahams

Annie Paul remembers Jamaican artist Carl Abrahams and his gentle visions of redemption

Carl Abrahams, c. 1984. Photograph courtesy the estate of Deryck RobertsChrist (1985). Photograph courtesy the National Gallery of JamaicaWoman, I Must Be About My Father’s Business (1977). Photograph courtesy the National Gallery of Jamaica

Carl Abrahams, 14 May, 1911–10 April, 2005

Carl Abrahams, sometimes called “the father of Jamaican art”, was a man with a mission; a hermit; a seer. He painted with the fervour of a monk and the eyes of a natural mystic, secreting fantastically constructed images with a sense of purpose. Motivated by the drive to depict his beloved Jamaica in all her multi-faceted splendour, Abrahams never stopped working, even into the ninth decade of his life. In his very last years, as his body began to fail him, he swapped pencil for paint, and continued to produce intricately drawn black-and-white angels playing musical instruments.

Born in 1913 into a middle-class Jamaican family, Abrahams rejected the repressive conformism of his caste — brown Jamaican, born to be a civil servant or employee of a “struggling commercial house” — to pursue art. An early talent for drawing developed into a skill for cartooning, and after leaving school in 1928 Abrahams produced ads for Myers Rum and the Jamaica Biscuit Company.

But such a commercialised version of art was not really his idea of what lay in store for him. An ethereal and unworldly figure himself, Abrahams aspired to a higher standard of ethics and morality than most people. After some years of working as a freelance cartoonist for various Jamaican newspapers and periodicals, Abrahams was ushered into the world of painting by no less a personage than the famous English painter Augustus John. Once described as the Damien Hirst of his time — the first two decades of the 20th century — John came to Jamaica on a painting expedition in the late 1930s to revive his career, by then on the decline. During this visit Abrahams met the flamboyant John, who encouraged him to take up the paintbrush.

Abrahams never married, and claimed never even to have had a girlfriend. As the writer Nora Strudwick put it, he was “in the tradition of the gentle artist-monk; a prolific artist living the life of the ascetic”. Biblical themes and fantasies suffused his paintings. Perhaps the best known and most popular of these was a series of scenes illustrating various moments in the life of Christ. Always a master of composition, in this series Abrahams outdoes himself, dividing the canvas into linear spaces resonant with drama, as in Christ with Whip or The Upper Room. In perhaps the most beloved of his artworks, The Last Supper (of which there are several versions), Carl displayed his powers of observation and his ability to render these observations into fluid plastic form.

Carl Abrahams’s relationship to the Jamaican art world was a tormented one. He didn’t trust many of the principal players in it, and refused to allow the National Gallery to put on a retrospective of his work when he turned 80. Though he lived and painted almost exclusively in Jamaica, Abrahams was never in outlook a “local” painter. Instead his scope was international; with his cartoonist’s outlook he was acutely aware of geopolitical events.

A criticism frequently levelled at Abrahams was that he depicted black people in less than flattering ways; his portraits of Rastafarians in particular were grotesque and unsympathetic. In contrast, all the starring roles in his visual dramas were occupied by European figures, his angels being phenotypically Caucasian. Rasta locks he often portrayed as snakes, which always signified evil in his paintings. But this may have been a reflection of his world-view as a brown middle-class Jamaican. Similarly, the attitude of that class towards Rastafarians would have been one of extreme alienation. Abrahams’s paintings of individuals such as Marcus Garvey or Jomo Kenyatta, on the other hand, convey no such ambivalence; both are compelling, sympathetic portraits of powerful black men, making it difficult to claim racist intentions on the artist’s part.

Although he was unapologetically himself — a prime example of what Orlando Patterson calls “a complicated, tough-minded, and quite incomprehensible person, the West Indian bourgeouis” — Abrahams in his younger days had that invaluable asset, a street knowledge of Kingston, from hanging out in bars at Crossroads. And he was not at all bourgeouis in the way he approached his art, often giving away his best pieces or selling them at well below their market value. He was a staunch believer in the spiritual value of art, which is why his method of putting his art in circulation was to give it away.

By the time he was 70, Abrahams was a well-established artist with a steady clientele for his work. This continued for the next 20 years of his life; as long as he remained productive, he had a steady stream of visitors who all benefited greatly from this generous output. When his work began to be affected by his advancing years, the visitors dwindled to a trickle. In the last years of his life, Abrahams was looked after primarily by his nurse of many years, Gloria Ferguson. According to Wayne Gallimore, who gave the eulogy at Abrahams’s funeral, the two enjoyed a virtual father-daughter relationship for many years.

This extraordinary producer of images not only had the gift of seeing the whole picture with the piercingly satirical eye of a cartoonist; sometimes he would amplify a small detail into the whole picture. His 1990 Adam and Eve is a masterpiece of sinuous feminine grace counterpoised against the taut, upward-reaching, dagger-like figure of Adam, caught in that mythical moment when an entire world hangs in the balance.

As Gallimore pointed out in his eulogy, Abrahams painted from a steadfastly Christian consciousness. It is good to think of him as the erect, upright figure of Elijah in his 1980 painting, upward-bound, with hair and cloak streaming in the wind, his chariot streaking through the sky like a racing car on fire, in a skyscape of psychedelic clouds. In Carl Abrahams’s absence, the dispersed presence of his paintings lingers over Jamaica like a poultice applied to a wound.