Barrington Watson, one of the most influential artists of post-independence Jamaica, often created paintings of Black women performing various tasks such as collecting water, washing in the river, selling produce at the market, or chatting and gossiping, as we see here in Conversation.
Kanitra Fletcher is associate curator of African American and Afro-Diasporic Art at the National Gallery of Art, and one of the curators of Afro-Atlantic Histories.
So, he’s capturing three Black women who are in casual conversation. They’re taking a break from labor. They’re working-class Black women which is, suggested by the buckets that are placed near their feet. This pastel palette is, illuminating what would otherwise be a mundane or uneventful scene, and it’s conferring this angelic or spiritual quality to the painting.
The monochromatic background with this glow from the sunlight suggests their conversation is almost transporting the women, is removing them in a sense from that reality of hard daily labor. Watson is capturing an ordinary moment of their lives but making it extraordinary in a sense by all these different effects, the color, the light.
Even while portraying this transcendent moment of connection, Watson renders the women as individuals. He animates the anonymous, possibly fictional, subjects with unique personalities. And that is one intention of this work, to celebrate all the parts that make up the whole.
It’s important to see these smaller moments and to think about history as not just a grand narrative but also a collection of different stories, different paths. Those moments are just as important and carry as much weight, and they’re the things that we experience day to day that add up to what we call, the Black experience.