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Ras Dizzy

Jamaican, 20th century.
Born 1932, Kingston, Jamaica; died 2008, Kingston, Jamaica.


“Ras Dizzy” was an itinerant poet and picture-maker who created one of the most stylistically distinct bodies of work of all of the legendary Jamaican Intuitives, a group of self-taught artists whose achievements began to attract serious media and scholarly attention in Jamaica in the late 1970s.

Although many details of Ras Dizzy’s biography remain the stuff of speculation, according to his passport, it is believed that he was born in 1932 as Albert Livingstone. However, he was well known for spinning tall tales about his background and exploits, and sometimes claimed his real first name was “Birth.” He also used the names Birch Lincoln or Dizzy Gillespie Johnson.

As an adult, his fantastic-sounding stories earned him the nickname “Dizzy.” “Ras” was a Rastafarian honorific. (Ras Dizzy was associated with the Rastafarian movement, a spiritual way of life derived from African and Old Testament Christian sources; many of its adherents routinely use cannabis.)

Ras Dizzy, who claimed he had traveled to Africa and China, ridden alongside Hollywood cowboys and fought in the boxing ring against Cassius Clay, said he had been partly schooled in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. In the late 1960s, he emerged on the fringes of the art scene there, selling ballpoint-pen drawings and handing out mimeographed sheets of his poetry. At the University of the West Indies, radical intellectuals published his poetic-fantastic, socio-political commentaries in their weekly newspaper. As Ras Dizzy traveled around Jamaica, he sold his drawings or exchanged them for food and lodgings. Some of the people with whom he routinely stayed became his friends and patrons.

The Jamaican Intuitives created pictures and sculptures depicting scenes from the island’s rural and urban life. Some evoked Biblical or African spiritual references. In 1979, the National Gallery of Jamaica, in Kingston, included Ras Dizzy’s work in “The Intuitive Eye,” an exhibition focusing on the work, ideas and life stories of the Jamaican Intuitives. It was organized by David Boxer, who is now a former director and chief curator of the NGA. Eschewing the terms “primitive” or “naïf,” Boxer used the “Intuitives” label to identify his country’s art-making autodidacts. Through this exhibition and two later, similarly themed NGA shows, Boxer’s scholarly efforts helped establish these artists as important contributors to the shaping of modern, independent Jamaica’s sense of national cultural identify. (A former British colony, Jamaica became an independent state in 1962.)

Ras Dizzy’s signature style employed bold colors and simple forms; rendered in poster paint on illustration board, some of his main subjects included cowboys, prizefighters, horseracing tracks, boats, palm trees and food-market vendors. Normally he wrote titles or descriptive captions on the back sides of his pictures and dated his works.

A biographical entry about Ras Dizzy on the National Gallery of Jamaica’s website notes that the artist “chose to live outside of the system, as one who had no fixed address and, for that matter, no fixed name. His nomadic wanderings extended outside of Jamaica [...] to Haiti and Panama.” The bio item adds that Ras Dizzy “lived life on his own terms, as a free spirit. [...] Many of his works are self-images, in [which he appears in] the guise of a Wild West sheriff, an outlaw cowboy, a champion boxer or a racetrack jockey. These images are in part delusional but they are also rooted in the local popular culture and reflect a legitimate yearning for personal status and dignity.”

The National Gallery of Jamaica included Ras Dizzy’s paintings in “Fifteen Intuitives” (1987) and “Intuitives III” (2005), major exhibitions that followed 1979’s “The Intuitive Eye.” His works were regularly shown in the “Intuitives” exhibitions at Harmony Hall, one of Jamaica’s leading galleries, which is located in Ocho Ríos. Overseas exhibitions in which Ras Dizzy’s work appeared have included “Jamaican Intuitives” (1987) at the Commonwealth Institute, London; “New World Imagery” (1995), a survey that toured England; and “Redemption Songs” (1997, 2002), a collection of works by the Jamaican Intuitives, which toured the United States.

David Boxer once called Ras Dizzy “a man who seemingly lives and paints at the very edge of what we might call sane [or] rational existence.” He described the vagabond painter-poet’s oeuvre as that of “a natural expressionist.”

- Edward M. Gómez


Selected Exhibitions

2016, The Bush Have Ears: Ras Dizzy & Leonard Daley, Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York

2016, Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica Diaspora, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, England

2014, Enigmas in Rapt Mysteries, Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York

2012, Jamaican Intuitive Artists: Storytellers and Visionaries, Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, Florida International University, Miami

2011, Works from the Hugh Dunphy Collection, Bolivar Gallery, Kingston

2005, Intuitives III, National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston

2002, Fifteen Jamaican Artists, Skoto Gallery, New York

1998, Diaspora: Seven African-American Artists: Freddie Brice, Robert St. Brice, Odilon Pierre, Ras Dizzy, Leonard Daley, Thornton Dial, Kevin Sampson, Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York

1997, Redemption Songs: The Self-Taught Artists of Jamaica, Diggs Gallery, Winston-Salem State University, Winston-Salem (North Carolina)

1996, Summer Group Show: Haitian and Jamaican Artists, Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York

1995, New World Imagery: Jamaican Art, traveling exhibition, Hayward Gallery, London

1994, Annual National Exhibition, National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston

1989, Annual National Exhibition, National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston

1987, Fifteen Intuitives, National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston

1987, Jamaican Intuitives, Commonwealth Institute, London

1979, The Intuitive Eye, National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston

Selected Collections

National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston
Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, Florida International University, Modesto Maidique Campus, Miami
Joseph Pereira Collection, University of the West Indies, Main Library, Mona Campus, Kingston

Selected Bibliography

Gómez, Edward M., "Bold Spirits: The Jamaican Intuitives Ras Dizzy and Leonard Daley," Hyperallergic, October 29, 2016. 

Gómez, Edward M., "Passionate Patron: In Kingston, Jamaica, curator-artist David Boxer lives with an encyclopedic collection of his nation's best art," Art & Antiques, December 2010/January 2011.

"Jamaica's Art Pioneers: Ras Dizzy (Birth Livingston), c. 1932-2008," National Gallery of Jamaica Blog, encyclopedic entry posted on August 28, 2012, online resource: http://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/jamaicas-art-pioneers-ras-dizzy-birth-livingstone-c1932-2008/   

Gómez, Edward M., "Self-Taught Art Comes of Age, and for Jamaica's Legendary Intuitives, the Moment is Now!," Intuitives III, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston, 2006.

"Ras Dizzy Paintings for Main Library," MONA News (magzine of the University of the West Indies), Kingston, December 2011.

Gómez, Edward M., "Jamaican Vagabond: Ras Dizzy," Raw Vision, No. 54, Spring 2006.

Bender, Wolfgang, ed., Rastafarian Art, Ian Randle, Kingston, 2005.

Gómez, Edward M., "Intuitive Eyes: Individualistic and Visionary, Jamaica's Legendary Self-Taught Artists Have Helped a Nation Find Its Soul," Folk Art, Fall 2005.

Archer-Straw, Petrine, "Desperately Seeking Africa Within Jamaican Art," Jamaica Journal, 2003. 

Morris, Randall, Homeground: The Cultural Matrix of Vernacular Art, edited by Cathy Jellinek, Ramapo College Art Galleries, Mahwah, NJ, 2001.

Boxer, David and Veerle Poupeye, Modern Jamaican Art, Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston, 1998.

Archer-Straw, Petrine, New World Imagery: Jamaican Art, exhibition catalogue, National Touring Exhibitions & Hayward Gallery, London, 1995.

Revue noire 6: Caraibes Art & Literature
, Vol. 1, September/November 1992.
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