Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tribute to Christopher Gonzalez

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The following obituary was issued by the Edna Manley College:


The Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts deeply regrets the passing of the acclaimed Jamaican sculptor and painter, Christopher Gonzalez, who was one of its earliest graduates and a former lecturer at its school of art.

Christopher Gonzalez was born in 1943 in Manchester, Jamaica. In 1963, he was among the first diploma graduates of what was then still known as the Jamaica School of Art and Crafts, along with Kenneth Kellyman (Painting) and Gasseth Brown (Sculpture). He had studied there under the Scottish-born sculptor Bill Broome, who served as head of the Sculpture department and Deputy Director of Studies at the time. Gonzalez continued his studies at the California College of Arts and Crafts in the early 1970s, where he obtained an MFA. His studies also included travel to Mexico and Scandinavia, where he encountered the work of the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, whose mystical symbolism and interlocking organic forms became a lifelong influence. He also taught at the Jamaica School of Art from 1964 to 1969 and again in the 1970s. He served as head of the Sculpture department from 1977 to 1979, when he moved to Atlanta to take up a position as Artist-in-Residence at the Spelman College, one of the historically Black colleges in that city.

Gonzalez’s talents were recognized from early on. While still a student in 1963, he was commissioned to produce an abstract relief sculpture for the Jamaica Manufacturers Association, as part of a project brokered by Aaron Matalon. His first public commissions came in 1965. One was a portrait but of George William Gordon for the Morant Bay Rebellion shrine at National Heroes Park in Kingston, where it stands in the company of the half-body version of Edna Manley’s Paul Bogle statue. The other was a Coat of Arms relief for Vale Royal. In 1975, Gonzalez also produced the two sculptures – titled Birth of the Nation and Unity of the Nation – for the Norman Manley shrine at National Heroes Park. Gonzalez received the Institute of Jamaica’s Silver Musgrave Medal in 1974, as one of the youngest artists ever to be granted such an award.

Gonzalez was in great demand for public and private commissions but some of these proved controversial. In 1968, he was produced a ciment fondu statue of The Risen Christ for Holy Cross Church (1968) in Kingston, but it was rejected by the Church authorities because the figure’s penis was prominently visible through its windswept clothes. Gonzalez explained that he had merely wished to assert that Christ was a man. It was subsequently acquired by A.D. Scott for his Olympia International Art Centre collection and it is today recognized as one of his finest works. In 1973, the St. Jude’s Church in Stony Hill commissioned a Christ figure, which was executed in beaten copper. Some objected to the assertive representation of Christ as a Black, dread-locksed man and the unconventional iconography, which combined the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension into one image, but the sculpture was ultimately accepted.

The most public controversy came in 1983 with his Bob Marley monument, which was rejected by the public and members of the Marley family before it was even unveiled and withdrawn by the Government. Gonzalez, who still lived in Atlanta at that time, had opted to represent Marley symbolically as a mystical “rootsman,” a concept that was certainly compatible with Marley’s own beliefs, but the monument’s critics wished to see the physical likeness of the late reggae singer instead. This wish was fulfilled with a new statue of Marley by Alvin Marriott which was erected in 1985. The original statue was moved to the National Gallery of Jamaica, where it was on display for many years and became one of the most popular exhibits, although Gonzalez was unhappy about this arrangement which, he felt, hid the statue from public view. It was in 2002 moved to the Island Village duty free shopping and entertainment complex, near the Ocho Rios cruise ship, where it remains on view to the present day. Although he did return to Jamaica in 1984, the rejection of his Marley statue was a significant professional disappointment for Gonzalez and he produced only a few sculptures afterwards. Instead, he focused on his drawings and paintings and his trademark watercolours became very popular in the local art market.

While he produced some abstract work in the beginning of his career, under the influence of his lecturer Bill Broome, Gonzalez’s mature style has been consistently figurative and is best described as expressionist and symbolist. It is characterized by undulating, onionskin-like linear forms and stylized human figures with high foreheads and serene expressions, devices which he uses to express a mystical vision of humanity. While it has affinities with the work of Vigeland, Edna Manley and certain aspects of West African art and relates to that of his peers Gene Pearson, Cecil Cooper and Philip Supersad, Gonzalez’s style is uniquely his own and the general popularity of his work, despite the painful controversies, illustrates that it appeals to modern Jamaica’s aesthetic sensibilities. His work is represented in many public and private collections in Jamaica and abroad, including the National Gallery of Jamaica, the Bank of Jamaica, the Wallace Campbell Collection and the Denny Repole collection.

Christopher Gonzalez passed away on Saturday, August 2, at age 65. He is survived by his wife, Champayne Clarke-Gonzalez, and six children. His daughter Christina is currently a student at the Edna Manley College’s School of Dance. The Board of Directors, Principal, Staff and Students of the Edna Manley College extend their condolences to the family and friends of Christopher Gonzalez and pay tribute to this great Jamaican sculptor and painter.

Veerle Poupeye




  2. He was a friend, a great man and a true artist. He is the greatest sculpture Jamaica as ever had and an icon with distinction.


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