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Cave Art in Jamaica: The Language of the Walls

Updated: Apr 26, 2022

It seems like a lifetime ago and oh how the world has changed but back in January I finally got to explore and see first hand some of Jamaica's early cave art made by the Tanío's in a small cave in the parish of St Catherine.

Pictographs, Mountain River, Cave, St Catherine, Jamaica. Graffiti photographed by Tracey Thorne for her project Hand-painted Jamaica
Pictographs, Mountain River, Cave, St Catherine (photographed in 2020, Tracey Thorne)

I am fascinated that civilizations throughout history have used walls to communicate and express themselves by painting on these surfaces. Despite this passing of time we still don't fully understand this practice and today in the 21st Century most societies prohibit graffiti (broadly defined as an act of writing, drawing, scribbling and etching on walls) and instead view it's as a criminal act and/or vandalism.

The Hungarian photographer Brassai in his observations from recording graffiti in Paris during the early half of the twentieth century describes the importance of graffiti when he said; 'from the Cave-Man age up to the classical era, it is graffiti which gives the most truthful, most spontaneous testimony as to the character, the intimate life of an epoch'. (Brassai, (1961, Language of the Walls).

I continue in my own work to find myself easily immersed in the streets to study the language of the walls and recording the visual messages found there. I am curious about their meaning, the freedom to express yourself in the act of graffiti and the passage of time or temporality of graffiti.

Xculsive dancehall sign photographed by Tracey Thorne, Hand-painted Jamaica, Long Bay, Portland.
Photographing the Xculsive Dancehall Sign

As part of my work to document writings and paintings found on walls, I have been documenting graffiti, signs and street art in Jamaica through a documentary photography project called Hand-painted Jamaica. During my last phase of the project back in January 2020, I felt it was important to explore some of the earliest graffiti found in a number of caves in Jamaica made by its former inhabitants the Tanío's who were the ingenious people of the Caribbean.

Archaeological reports suggest that around 26 cave art sites in Jamaica have been found and recorded which contain petroglyphs and pictographs thought to have been made by the Tanío's. Of these only four of the caves found have pictographs which are pictorial drawings, signs and symbols drawn by hand on their walls. Apparently, the largest number of pictographs found in any one of the sites in Jamaica are visible in Mountain River cave, on Cudjoe Hill in the parish of St Catherine.

The cave was first discovered around 1897 by J F Dueden and later in the 1960-70s documented by J. W. Lee and referenced in numerous archaeological reports. The site was gifted to the Jamaican National Heritage Trust in 1982 and declared a national monument in 2007. Despite its historical importance and the beauty of the isolated cave within a valley its surprising just how few people visit it. Its rapidly becoming a lost cave in Jamaica as few that live by it seem to even know its there. We stopped and asked for numerous directions and most people had never heard of it. It's certainly tricky to find but a beautiful drive around 40 minutes from Kingston if you don't get lost.

We took a windy road up Cudjoe Hill and was surprised to find a local man who acts as the keeper sitting near to the path. Although he wasn't too keen on taking us down and told us we were the first people in two years to visit and that it was overgrown. If that was true I do wonder why he sat at the entrance every day for two years without any visitors but we easily persuaded him to arrange for us to go down.

The walk down was beautiful and I wish I could share photographs but, it was so overgrown and plagued with mosquitoes that I was more focused on reducing bites and staying upright. I like to think about it as a recce and after COVID-19 will be go back armed with the strongest insect repellent made in the world to document the beauty and extraordinary history found in this little place.

Cave art, Mountain River Cave, St Catherine in Jamaica
Cave art, Mountain River Cave, St Catherine photographed in 2020

The pictographs are found at the entrance to the cave on the ceiling in an area that is more of a overhang of the rock and the rest of the cave is blocked up. The drawings appear to depict aspects of their surroundings, life and maybe contain images of themselves with the stick people.

Cave art, Mountain River Cave, St Catherine, Jamaica
Cave art, Mountain River cave, St Catherine, photographed in 2020
Cave art, Mountain River Cave, St Catherine, Jamaica
Cave art, Mountain River Cave, St Catherine, photographed in 2020

These cave art paintings in Mountain River Cave are thought to be around 500 - 1300 years old.

Its is intriguing to see these early examples of wall paintings made by Jamaica's earliest inhabitants and to think about this as early forms of communication and perhaps painted as community art.

In some ways despite the passage of time the contemporary walls on the island often reveal similar pictorial markings and clues about quotidian life in Jamaica.

Graffiti faced daubed on a metal door in Port Antonio, Portland, Jamaica. Photographed by Tracey Thorne for Hand-painted Jamaica project
Graffiti face and text, Port Antonio, Portland, photographed in 2019

As populations began to become literate textual graffiti would have started to have been painted on walls in Jamaica. The photograph above taken in Port Antonio contains a painted face but also has some daubed textual graffiti that has been painted on a metal gate. This graffiti is typical of textual graffiti found on walls in Jamaica today.

The graffiti may also take the form of naive pictorial images daubed on walls and surfaces like the image of two guns and a stick man painted on either side of some shutters shown in the photograph below.

Graffiti and mural portrait of Emperor Haile Selassie street art, downtown, Kingston, photographed 2020
Graffiti and mural portrait of Emperor Haile Selassie street art, downtown, Kingston, photographed 2020

The photograph also includes a faded fragment of a mural portrait of Emperor Halie Selassie which is a more elaborate and skilled form of illustration painted to walls. This artistic practice is defined today as 'street art' which emerged in the late twentieth century out of the US graffiti sub culture movement that spread around the world. Street artists place art in public spaces and these interventions become part of the cultural landscape of a place.

It would be fascinating to trace the emergence of the street art movement in Jamaica and understand who were the early artists, what did they paint and where did they paint?

Street art is temporary and forms part of the changing visual narrative of a place but despite this artworks like the Tanío's cave paintings can have surprising longevity. I am particularity fascinating in photographing older faded murals especially when they have been hidden from view and overtime reveal themselves again.

The photograph below shows a good example of this where a mural of George William Gordon that was painted on a wall in Morant Bay was covered with a layer of cement. Overtime the fragments of the mural begin to reveal itself once more as the harsh sunlight slowly breaks down the cement leaving a curious visual image.

Fragment of mural of George William Gordan, National Hero of Jamaica, Morant Bay, St Thomas, Street art photographed by Tracey Thorne
Fragment of mural of George William Gordan, National Hero of Jamaica, Morant Bay, St Thomas

Its is amazing to observe and document today the evolution and diversity of the art of the painted walls in Jamaica in this half of the twentieth first century. The work of one of Jamaica's most talented visual artists Mathew McCarthy speaks for its self in exemplifying Jamaican wall art, and in so doing it captures the spirit and culture of its people.

What a journey to behold from the naive beautiful cave paintings in St Catherine painted hundreds of years ago to this extraordinarily detailed work of art by Matthew McCarthy, painted on a wall in Kingston.

Street art mural by Jamaican artist Matthew McCarthy on a wall in Kingston, Jamaica. Photographed by Tracey Thorne for the project hand-painted Jamaica. Documentary photography project in Jamaica
Untitled mural by Matthew McCarthy, Kingston (photographed in 2019)

Check out an interview I did with Matthew back in 2019 in Kingston where he talks about his street art practice - Up mural on Fleet, Street, Kingston.

This blog post and photographs are presented from the collection Hand-painted Jamaica a project supported by Arts Council England.

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