‘Born Ya': Speaking with Jamaican fine artist Judy Ann MacMillan about her new autobiography

Fine artist Judy Ann MacMillan. Image courtesy MacMillan, used with permission.

Jamaican artist Judy Ann MacMillan concludes her autobiography with these powerful words:

We spend so much of our lives making the best of the consequences of earlier choices, doubting often whether those choices were the right ones […] At this stage of my life, I am still painting not because I’m in the trap of habit but simply for the love of it. I know that one day the paintbrush will drop out of my hand but if I had never sold a painting, I would still have done it because it helped me to appreciate the extraordinary gift of life and life’s beauty.

Her wry, earthy and contemplative self-portrait is called “Born Ya: The Life and Loves of a Jamaican Painter.” “Born Ya,” is a title taken from a popular song that means “Born Here.”

Self-portrait, “Wearing a Crown of Thorns” by Judy Ann MacMillan, used with permission.

MacMillan, who was born in Kingston, in 1945, is well known for her piercing portraits, expansive yet intimate landscapes, and rich still life paintings, mostly done in oils. Her mentor, the celebrated Jamaican artist Albert Huie, invited her to paint with him when she was still a young girl.

She went on to train at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, Scotland, and held her first show in Jamaica at 22. Since then, she has exhibited many times, both at home and overseas. In 2007, she was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Caribbean Foundation for the Arts for her outstanding contribution to fine art. She currently divides her time between Kingston and her country home in Rockfield, St. Ann, Jamaica.

MacMillan grew up in a comfortable home as the daughter of a successful businessman and a strong-willed mother from rural Jamaica. Unlike most middle-class Jamaican women at the time, she was not interested in settling down as a housewife and mother; instead, she forged her own path.

In her memoirs, MacMillan offers subtle and often humorous insights into Jamaican society, in particular its class structure and relationships between men and women. This is illustrated in her diverse, empathetic portraits of Jamaicans, including homeless people, Rastafarians, rural women, farmers and domestic servants.

Although she has lived overseas and is well-travelled, her greatest love is the island of her birth — painting its landscapes and its people — clearly evident in two of her books, “Still Painting,” and “My Jamaica.”

I conducted a virtual interview (via email and WhatsApp) with MacMillan about her autobiography, her life as a painter and the complexities and contradictions of Jamaican society and class structure.

Emma Lewis (EL): Let's start at the beginning. How would you sum up your childhood?

Judy Ann MacMillan (JAM): Innocent and happy. Even though I was terrified of my parents’ wrath, I felt completely loved, and that security was a good preparation for adulthood.

MacMillan painting with Rocky, her devoted Rottweiler dog. Photo courtesy MacMillan, used with permission.

EL: Jamaica is your home — you were “born ya.” What do you consider to be the island’s unique qualities?

JAM: Jamaica’s physical beauty is its own reason for being. Its culture as climate to a unique degree, because the island is a sensual experience. Few places feel as good on one’s skin as Jamaica. The sea is the temperature of your body, you can stay in it for hours. The combination of temperature and the visual beauty of nature create[s] a seductive harmony that is hard to beat.

MacMillan's mother at her childhood home in West Avenue, Kingston, Jamaica. Photo courtesy MacMillan, used with permission.

EL: Your insights into Jamaican middle-class mores are sharp and witty. Do you think society has changed in any fundamental way in the past decade or two?

JAM: Yes, the class structure has changed enormously. In my youth, the staff in elegant resort villas lowered their voices when guests entered the house. Now they raise them. My insights are from the inside, and that’s where you see that Jamaica’s vision of itself is quite different to the way we are seen by outsiders. For example, Jamaica does not see itself as a poor country, and just as our poor people do not see themselves as poor, our middle class modelled themselves on the English upper class and had no idea that they were middle class. These attitudes are very puzzling to outsiders, and compounded by the insider language of the island — as in the title ‘Born Ya’ — are the source of a great deal of Jamaica’s identity crises, which is puzzling, surprising and very amusing.

EL: Would you describe yourself as a feminist? Is the macho culture still alive and well in Jamaica?

JAM: I would not have described myself as a feminist when I was young because although I respect them intellectually, I considered the lack of a man to take care of me to be a profound failure. But the fact that I was able to take care of myself made me a feminist. The macho culture is very much alive and well, aided by the complicity of the women.

EL: What is your favourite painting, and why?

JAM: It’s impossible to choose one painting out of all my favourites. One of my most admired contemporary painters is Lucian Freud.The humanity in his nudes and portraits has reduced me to tears on occasion.

“My Land” by Judy Ann MacMillan: Landscape, part of the view from the artist's country home in Rockfield, St. Ann, Jamaica. Image courtesy MacMillan, used with permission.

EL: If you had not found Rockfield (your country home), what — or where — would have been your inspiration?

JAM: The museums, the temples of the great paintings of the past are still my inspiration for my work. Finding Rockfield was a result of my ongoing appreciation of nature. That appreciation could have happened anywhere.

EL: In your book, you call yourself a “misfit” several times. Do you think creative people are misfits by nature?

JAM: Yes.

EL: You give short shrift to the “national art” scene in Jamaica. How do you think the Jamaican art community could evolve in a more inclusive way?

“Moses of Riverton City,” a portrait by Judy Ann MacMillan, used with permission.

JAM: I give short shrift to the universal art world of which Jamaica is just a small imitative part. The art world has changed so much from the one of my youth as to be unrecognisable and I don’t have or want a place in it. I wanted to be a painter, not a marketeer — but the art of marketing to the mass market has replaced the art of painting. In these new skills I am at a disadvantage, because I have no idea how to create a brand of myself on the commercial market. Taping a banana to a wall, as happened at last year’s Art Basel, with a price tag of many hundreds of thousands of dollars is where these marketing stunts have led contemporary art.

EL: What is the future of fine art in Jamaica?

JAM: Fine art itself is under intense challenge in Jamaica, as it is elsewhere. The tenets of what used to be known as fine art are in conflict with social improvement, political messages and democratic ideas. Marketing a commercial product has displaced the artist in his garret.

EL: How would you describe the physical act of painting?

JAM: Painting is like dancing on a tightrope. It’s a balancing act of tone, colour, drawing, heart, hand and brain. Keeping all these elements balanced creates a tension that feels impossible while it is going on. But sometimes when the search to put the experience in paint is over, there is an elation that is for me addictive.

EL: Where is the one place where you feel you really “belong”?

JAM: Jamaica, of course.

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