The more visible forms of Jamaica's traditional craft include, but are not limited to, creative pottery, costume jewellery, woodcarvings, straw work, needlework, crochet, pewter work, even tinsmithing. Some of these forms have been evident in Jamaica from the period of the Tainos into the era of plantation slavery, as enslaved Africans were used to perform a wide variety of tasks to maintain the plantation.
Entries in The Diary of Thomas Thistlewood (1721-1786) and the Sketches of Characters by Isaac Mendes Belisario (1745-1849) made repeated references to craft created by enslaved Africans as a part of their daily activities. Indeed, Belissario's 'Lovey' is depicted with his puppets, which he used to entertain on the plantation.
It is important to note, however, that these skills were not necessarily learned on the plantation or passed on by Europeans to their enslaved 'property'. Rather, these skills were taken by Africans, with them, when they were uprooted from regions off the Gold and Slave Coast in West and West Central Africa during the period of the Trans-Atlantic Trade in Africans (16th-19th centuries).
As such, while the visible or tangible cultural forms of craft in Jamaica are easily identified, what may not be so obvious are the components associated with these forms. Many of the techniques associated with traditional craft survived and were passed on through a system of transmission called rote, meaning through oral testimony passed down from generation to generation.
To reinforce this notion, let us examine the woodcarving traditions that are alive in contemporary Jamaica. These include, but are not limited to, the carvings found in Jamaica's resort areas that have been the subject of debate. Local woodcarvers have at their disposal woods such as mahoe, elm, cedar, lignum vitae and spanish elm.
They are manipulated to create heads, shapes and functional items. Many of our woodcarvers are not formally taught and fall into the category of the intuitive. Yet the beauty of the techniques used by carvers such as Lancelot Bryan in his lignum vitae carvings, or by 'Kapo' Reynolds and Ras Dizzy are evidence of high quality.
Their use of the wood mirrors that of the Makonde craftsmen from southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique. They are traditionally known to produce household objects, figures and masks, particularly those that are representative of spiritual or physical attributes.
In 1974, the Government of Jamaica, through the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica, facilitated a visit of Makonde artists and a workshop series in Kingston. Some of their carvings in ebony, such as The Drummer by Aluise Samaki, or Mawingu (Clouds) by Clement Matei, closely resemble those produced by local woodcarvers and gave rise to discussion on continuity on the retention of cultural practices between those on the African continent and their descendants in the post-colonial Caribbean territory.
Straw work is another example of local craft tradition. Big thatch, sisal, silver thatch and jippa-jappa are the more popular types of straw used in Jamaica. The latter is known for the creation of hats for the students at the Westwood High School in Stewart Town.
Practitioners carry on a rich tradition that has its origins in West African societies, where there is access to raffia, willow reeds, rattan palms and banana fibres. While baskets are a common product of West African and Jamaican societies so, too, are implements such as fish pots.
These two examples of cultural continuity - woodcarving and straw work - can also be viewed as the physical manifestations of intangible cultural heritage - knowledge that has been passed down through generations that have kept the traditions alive.
Given the reality that economic and other forces have impacted on the prevalence and viability of these practices, they are in need of protection and of safeguarding. This is one of the core aims of the 2003 International Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage (commonly referred to as ICH) to which Jamaica became a signatory in 2010.
The work of the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank have interviewed and documented the work of traditional knowledge-holders and craftspeople, which is a part of the process of safeguarding our craft. It serves to complement the ongoing work of other government agencies and UNESCO.
This article is courtesy of the Institute of Jamaica.