Dawn Scott fades into light

A decade and a half ago, I wrote an account of Dawn’s last one-woman show in Jamaica and her first exhibition in Washington, D. C. Making no concessions to the passage of time, I reproduce it here in celebration of my friend’s penetrating intellect, her full-moon imagination and her joyful, belly-bottom laughter.

When I first saw Dawn Scott’s arresting exhibition of batik paintings at the Grosvenor Galleries in November 1994, my immediate reaction was ‘Jesus Christ!’  Now I know that some nut case out there will accuse me of being an anti-Christ, taking the name of the Lord in vain.  After all, art is a strictly secular business, especially for some of our local dealers.

For many Jamaicans ‘Jesus Christ’ is a potent signifier. I think of a hymn I learnt as a child, ‘The name of Jesus is so sweet/ I love its music to repeat/ It makes my joy full and complete/ The precious name of Jesus.’

The name of Jesus is also summoned by many of us in a variety of circumstances whose religious significance is not immediately apparent.  Just think of how the exclamation ‘Rastafari!’ is similarly used to express a whole range of emotions that have very little to do with His Imperial Majesty.

In any case, great art does inspire a sense of reverential wonder at the magical process of creation.  In the beginning there is nothing.  Out of the void of the blank canvas – or in Dawn’s case, the length of plain white cloth – come light and vision.

Dawn called her exhibition ‘Nature Vive,’ a play on words.   In an interview broadcast on Radio Mona at the University of the West Indies, Dawn explained that ‘Nature Morte’ is the French way of expressing ‘Still Life.’  The literal English translation of ‘Nature Morte’ is nature dead.

So Dawn cleverly coined ‘Nature Vive’ – nature alive – to define the rich tones of the paintings.  Nature shocking out in living colour.

Batik is a back-to-front art form in which you start with the lightest colours and then work backward to the darker tones.  In conventional painting the order is reversed.  And you can’t afford to make mistakes because, as Dawn puts it, ‘you can’t do a damn thing about it after you put on the wax.’

‘Plastic instincts’

New York art critic Edward Gomez, who worked with the U.S. Information Agency in Kingston in the 1980’s, characterises Dawn’s work as ‘meticulously rendered, luscious landscapes and psychologically probing portraits.  Her art has long conveyed a seductively haunting, somewhat surreal quality that reflects her interests in psychology, history, matters of the spirit and what we see when we close our eyes.’

‘Plastic Instincts’ fascinated me.  The painting features a dancehall diva in a blond wig, wearing a bustier that emphasizes her ample bosom.  She sports a butterfly earring and a heavy gold chain.  Her head casts a shadow on a dancehall poster on which the words ‘Agony’ and ‘Bounti Killa’ are clearly spelt out.  Most striking of all is the expression in the woman’s eyes.  Drop-dead, femme fatale self-confidence, as well as a haunting sense of unfulfilled longing.

At the time of Dawn’s exhibition I was looking for an image for the cover of my book on Jamaican popular culture, Noises in the Blood.  When I saw ‘Plastic Instincts’ I knew that the search was over.  The painting embodies the spirit of the book.

Last Friday, the North American edition of the book was launched with a reception at the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, D. C., hosted by Ambassador Bernal.  Dawn and I travelled to the U.S., thanks to the generosity of the new Air Jamaica.

An exhibition of Dawn’s paintings and drawings was a highlight of the event. The centrepiece of the show was a group of four charcoal drawings, celebrating the spirit of the dancehall.  ‘Plastic Instincts,’ of course, ‘The Gorgon,’ ‘The Browning’ and ‘Dance Tati.’  Photographs by Denis Valentine of the ‘Nature Vive’ works were exhibited, as well as two small batiks.

Dawn spoke eloquently about the meaning of her work:  “‘Plastic Instincts’ is ambiguous.  The ghetto woman’s use of the blond wig expresses our collective Jamaican weakness for things foreign and white, and our apparent rejection of our own natural physical attributes.  Yet the amount of creativity invested in this plastic transformation moves this potentially pathological act into the realm of artistic expression.’

‘Plastic Instincts’ was acquired by Jamal Mims, an accomplished African-American goldsmith who was trained in Senegal and the U.S.  He just couldn’t resist.  And when Dawn visited his Sun Gallery in Adams Morgan, she got the kind of high that her own paintings inspire.

Dawn was stunned by Jamal’s use of amber, in all its rich translucency, set in silver and gold.  His craft is yet another manifestation of plastic instincts – the designer’s boundless capacity to shape and mould, transforming raw matter into works of art.

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