John Dunkley had no artistic education and created only 50 known paintings before his death at age 55. Yet his visions of the banana plantations of Panama and the alien vegetation of Jamaica are hypnotic, worrying and profoundly compelling. Dunkley’s subjects are reluctant—crabs, mice, spiders and phallic tree stumps briefly flashlit against darkness.
Dunkley was born in the port town of Savanna-la-Mar in Jamaica, at the time still a tightly controlled British Colony, relentlessly squeezed for sugar and banana exports. At age seven Dunkley had to drop out of school, after an accident damaged his vision. As a teenager he traveled to Panama to live with his father, only to arrive the day after his father’s funeral. To keep himself fed he took jobs in Colón, Chiriqui, Costa Rica and Camaguey, Cuba. Traveling from Cuba to Florida his ship fell to mutiny, and Dunkley was saved by raising a masonic distress signal, a fellow lodge brother coming to his rescue. He became a sailor, traveling to England, Scotland, and North and South America. Undocumented lives bleed into myth, and some suggest that Dunkley worked on the construction of the Panama Canal.
After a life of international migrant work Dunkley finally settled down back in Jamaica. Nestled on lower Princess Street in Kingston, Dunkley ran a small barbershop. He decorated the shop with his paintings and sculptures, catching the eye of the young Englishman Hender Delves Molesworth, the current secretary of the Institute of Jamaica and future Keeper of Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum. While Molesworth became a reliable patron, ‘discovery’ looks to have changed little for John Dunkley. He declined an offer to participate in Jamaica’s modernist Art Institute, and presented his work without significant explanation. Dunkley'd already seen the world, and from his barbershop carved visions of late colonial society in Jamaica from paint and wood.
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Reed Enger, "John Dunkley, Jamaica's long night," in Obelisk Art History, Published November 11, 2019; last modified November 08, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/john-dunkley/.