David Boxer, a well-known art historian and former, long-serving director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, died there in late May after a long bout with cancer. He was 71 years old. Although he had retired from the museum in 2013, as recently as late last year, Boxer enthusiastically composed a detailed essay for the catalogue of the exhibition of the work of the Jamaican self-taught artist John Dunkley (1891–1947) that opened at the Perez Art Museum in Miami on May 26.
photo © Edward M Gómez
It was the last text that would flow from the pen and the mind of this pioneering researcher, thinker, teacher and working artist (Boxer made paintings, collages and mixed-media installations, often on history-related themes, including slavery), who was widely held as one of the most original and influential recent cultural figures in the Caribbean.
Born in southeastern Jamaica, Boxer earned degrees in art history in the United States, at Cornell University in New York and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. His doctoral dissertation at Johns Hopkins examined the early work of the British modernist painter Francis Bacon. In his own art, Boxer was deeply influenced by Bacon’s psychologically intense, semi-abstract figurative imagery.
A wunderkind whose talents were recognised by Edna Manley, a sculptor and wife of the Jamaican, pre-independence political leader Norman Manley, Boxer went on to write extensively about his mentor’s art. Boxer became the director and chief curator of the still-young National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) in the mid 1970s.
In his work at the NGJ, Boxer made the case that the history of Jamaican artistic expression and, in effect, of his homeland’s national cultural identity, could be traced back to the Taino, an ancient, indigenous people. He championed the works of unschooled, self-taught artists who mostly lived and made their paintings, sculptures and carvings in Jamaica’s rural towns and villages. He proposed that the works of such “intuitives”, as he called them, could and should be appreciated as contributing to the shaping of a sense of Jamaica’s national cultural identity. Of the Jamaican Intuitives, Boxer observed: “Theirs is not ‘art for art’s sake’, but rather, as someone once described African art, ‘art for life’s sake’.” Boxer’s more expansive approach to local art history did not always sit well with certain art-school-trained, Jamaican modern artists.
“Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica” (1975), “The Formative Years: Art in Jamaica 1922–1940” (1978), “The Intuitive Eye” (1979), and “Barrington Watson: A Retrospective” (2012) were among the many exhibitions Boxer organised for the NGJ. His numerous books include the 1990 monograph Edna Manley: Sculptor; Modern Jamaican Art (1998) and Jamaica in Black and White (2013), a survey of early Jamaican photography co-authored with Edward Lucie-Smith. Last year, Boxer was made a member of the Order of Jamaica, an award that is considered the equivalent of a knighthood in the British honours system.
by Edward M Gómez