Sun | May 29, 2016

National Gallery pays tribute to Wilfred Francis

Published:Thursday | August 29, 2013 | 12:00 AM
83-year-old artist Wilfred Francis is an inspiration to many.- Photos by Anthea McGibbon
'In Depth' by 83-year-old Wilfred Francis, done with felt-point marker, is an ideal pattern for fabric.

The National Gallery of Jamaica has expressed regret at the passing of self-taught artist Wilfred Francis last Wednesday.

The board and staff of the National Gallery of Jamaica also extend sincere condolences to the family and friends of Wilfred.

Francis, who was popularly known as 'Jabba', was born in Spanish Town on August 24, 1924 - he died just three days short of his 89th birthday - and started painting some time in 1966.

His first exhibition on record was the 1967 festival exhibition where his work was favourably received, though he withdrew from the formal art world shortly after.

Nearly 40 years later, he started exhibiting again, encouraged by art dealer and collector Wayne Gallimore, and in 2004 had his first and only solo exhibition at the Mutual Gallery. His unique style and eccentric, visionary imagination were a revelation to many in the Jamaican art world, and late in life he acquired a small but enthusiastic following of collectors.

While there was always some awareness of his work among specialised collectors of intuitive art, Francis notoriously priced his works much higher than most would have been willing to pay, which may have been a strategy to maintain his personal and artistic independence from the demands and patronage of the formal art world.

It is of note that he kept most of his works until late in life to serve, as he put it to Sana Rose in 2004, as "a gallery for myself [to] have my paintings to look at, surround me and give me a sense of comfort".

The hesitations that surrounded Wilfred Francis' work in the Jamaican art world, on the other hand, may also have stemmed from his choice of materials. He worked mainly on paper and often used media such as felt pen, which were until recently not recognised as legitimate fine art media, and which may have caused collectors to fear that their investments would be subject to rapid deterioration.

Unique aesthetic

This unorthodox choice of media was yet another indication of how Francis 'marched to his own drum', but it was also an essential part of his unique aesthetic.

His most spectacular works are intricately patterned drawings, in which felt pens were used as the sole medium or in combination with brightly coloured painted patterns.

With these unorthodox media, Wilfred Francis created eclectic, fantastic worlds that drew freely from a multitude of sources, real and imagined.


His early work Ethiopia Stretches Forth Her Hand (1968), for instance, is a beautifully delicate invocation of Psalms 68:31, a Bible verse which has been particularly influential in African diasporal popular culture and reflects his groundedness in that context.

He was equally at ease producing wild outer-space fantasies such as Monstrosity in Space (1980), which a fanciful space station surrounded by equally fantastic star-ships in what appears to be another universe altogether.

Wilfred Francis' oeuvre is arguably an expression of the individual freedom that is to be found in artistic expression, and the joy and self-actualisation that comes with claiming that freedom. It should come as no surprise that Wilfred Francis' solo exhibition at Mutual Gallery was called Freedom.