A Fusion of Worlds – Negro Aroused (1935) by Edna Manley
By Debbie J Challis, on 15 March 2014
One of the great pleasures of working on exhibitions is finding out about history, technologies or artists you never knew much (or anything) about before. While working with Gemma Romain from UCL Equiano Centre on A Fusion of Worlds. Ancient Egypt, African Art and Identity in Modernist Britain, I learnt a great deal more about the influence of Ancient Egypt on the Harlem Renaissance and African-American activism. I already knew quite a lot about Jacob Epstein’s use of ancient art in his work but did not know how much he admired contemporary African sculpture. I only knew the artist Ronald Moody from his bust of his brother Harold Moody – founder of the League of Coloured Peoples in the UK in 1931 – which used to be in display in the National Portrait Gallery. I had, however, never knowingly come across the artist Edna Manley before.
In 1900 Edna was born to a Jamaican mother and English father in Bournemouth. She trained as an art teacher in London while working for the War Office and after World War One attended St Martin’s School of Art and the Royal Academy (Laduke, 1987: 37). In 1921 she married her cousin Norman Manley, whom she had met in 1914 while he was a Rhodes Scholar studying law in England. The Manleys left for Jamaica in 1922, where Norman established a legal practice and became more and more involved in the struggle for independence from British colonialism. Edna, meanwhile, had two sons and continued working as an artist, often returning to England to exhibit and work.
It is Manley’s work Negro Aroused (1935) that most powerfully captures the monumental forms of Egyptian sculpture and is also her best known work. Negro Aroused has been described by David Boxer as ‘nothing less than the icons of that period of our history, a period when the Black Jamaican was indeed aroused, ready for a new social order, demanding his place in the sun’ (Boxer. 1983: 13). The work was created at a time of deep turbulence and demands to right past and current injustices in Jamaican history and society.
Although indentured slavery had officially ended in 1838, ex-slaves had few rights on ownership of land and were often forcibly evicted. Many Black Jamaicans migrated to the cities or abroad. The global economic depression from 1929 meant a return to Jamaica for many of these migrants and so numbers of both the urban and rural poor (much work was still based around sugar and banana plantations) increased. Wages, in contrast, decreased and conditions worsened.
In May and June 1938 strikes and a rebellion against British colonial powers took place in which 14 people died. Politicians working for independence whether more radical, such as Alexander Bustamante, who was inspired by the activist Marcus Garvey, or more moderate, such as Norman Manley, were deeply involved. By the end of the year the Peoples’ National Party was formed. Significantly Edna Manley’s Negro Aroused was acquired for the Institute of Jamaica in 1937, a large scale bronze copy commissioned in 1938, which was burnt in a warehouse fire, and completed in 1982.
Negro Aroused has become a symbol of the struggle of the people of Jamaica for independence, equality and human rights.
David Boxer (1983), Jamaican Art 1932-1982, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute.
Betty Laduke (1986-87), ‘Edna Manley: the Mother of Modern Jamaican Art’, Women’s Art Journal, Vol 7: No. 2: 36-40.
Post, K. W. J. (1969), ‘The Politics of Protest in Jamaica, 1938: Some Problems of Analysis and Conceptualization’, Social and Economic Studies 18/4: 374-390.
‘Re-installed: Edna Manley – Negro Aroused (1935) ‘ (2010), National Gallery of Jamaica Blog, http://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/re-installed-edna-manley-negro-aroused-1935/ [accessed 14 March 2014).