Art, Intuition and Amos Ferguson

I paint by faith, not by sight,” said Mr. Amos Ferguson, the late Bahamian artist, now renowned globally. In sentiments consistent with form he said further: “To paint, the Lord gives you a vision, a sight that you go by,” he once told a reporter. “But don’t forget you have to see and check that Bible and don’t forget God. And the more you keep up with your Bible, and get the understanding, the better you paint.”1 See New York Times, Oct. 29th 2009 –Obituaries

Here then is a painter who takes inspiration and directives not from any existential force as a result of the mysteries of. being, but from divinely wrought intuition, as a sight to go by…to get the understanding. This is a theme, not uncommon amongst “intuitionist” artists, whose discussion of their art asserts, ironically, both an uncommon assurance and a submission to a power beyond the artist himself and his audience. 

As biographies go, the New York Times re-tells the legend as follows: “Mr. Ferguson, a house painter by trade, did not turn to art until he was in his 40s, when, as he told the story, a nephew came to him and related a dream he had just had. Jesus, the nephew said, came out of the sea with a painting in his hands and said Mr. Ferguson was wasting his talent for painting. Mr. Ferguson heeded the call and, painting with exterior enamel on cardboard, rendered Bible stories or Bahamian scenes in a vibrant Caribbean visual idiom2Ibid.

What is notable here is that the “inspiration” to create art is not Ferguson’s intuitively or directly, but rather his nephew’s. Yet, Ferguson’s oeuvre is flourishing testament to this “surrogate inspiration”, with an attendant resolve to master the gifts his nephew reported were already reposed in him no less than by divine bequest. 

Amos Ferguson’s art is characterized by multitudinous dualities, everywhere, the first amongst which are Christian and pagan. He regales us by means of a halo-dramatic palate of colour, organic, measured and unprepossessing, depicting images from biblical stories, Junkanoo and ordinary Bahamian scenery in a naturalistic pastiche. Without wanting to quibble, it would seem that some theological accommodation ought to be required to bring ‘divine inspiration’ into unison with a Godless street festival, (Junkanoo) – which originated for the same or similar reasons the ‘Children of Israel’ demanded graven images from Moses’ brother, Arron. 

However, in Ferguson’s work, biblical reference and Junkanoo appear together, emerging ostensibly from a single inspiration; not unlike the admixtures and active, (though incongruent unities) of the profane and the divine in Bahamian life.  3Here is a thesis which I should want to explore in greater detail in a separate technical literary note, which should aim at certain philosophical foundations concerning knowledge in the Bahamas, made explicit in Ferguson’s work. If I were to frame the matter, I would put it thus: In the Bahamas “knowledge” is hardly ever that which is the result of reflection, analysis of critical discourse. It is more often pronouncements, which are hedged about with presumptions of the divinity. That is to say, in the same manner than Ferguson’s impulse to art-making derives from unanswerable – unanlaysable – ‘inspiration’, so too – it seems to me – that Bahamians too often seek to place their merest opinions beyond question or analysis by presumption and hubris. In Ferguson’s case, he has used this habit of mind to create works of genius. Was Ferguson susceptible to critical questions concerning his art? I cannot say. But suffice it be said that he was caught in two addressable constituencies: The Bahamian home-front, where few if any offer him a critical embrace, and the foreign paternalist, who embraces him precisely because the innocence they project upon post-Colonials, eschews critical assessment.   

This co-habitation of the divine, the mundane and the pagan is not new: The Bahamas is a national boundary without a definitive culture, (owing largely to a lack of self-recognising education and the “paradise myth”…akin to the Renaissance in Italy), in which the enigmas of arrival – from native genocides, pirate republics, enslaved migrations, to tethered independence as result of colonial exhaustion – ushered in a turnstile of both socio-cultural and psychological instabilities, which undermined, reshaped and refashioned and displaced into a shifting pantomime, the foundations of belief, knowledge and culture in the Bahamas. 

What was clear, then as now, is the confutation of disparate influences, such as we find unacknowledged and so unresolved in Ferguson were vital to the expression of the spirit of the times: As one Renaissance scholar put it: “Not all the painters could take what they would of the diverse gifts of [the age] and ignore those for which they did not care. Sometimes the two influences, Pagan and Christian, meeting together, produce a jarring discord, which will not be silenced”.  4See: Introduction to the Study of the Renaissance by Lillian F. Field pp.222

In sentiment and subject matter, Amos Ferguson – was alike to renaissance artists – in that, neither his biblical imagery, nor his reflections on Bahamian culture are culturally corrective or critical. He does not question the Bible. He does not ask how a people who arrived in the Bahamas by unbiblical means speak so biblically, yet  – so often – live anathema to what the Bible confirms, teaches or aimed to enforces in Christian possibility or potentiality. Specifically, the autodidactic painter or the maker of “outsider art” is often characterised as being “precocious”, with all of the forgiveness of innocence that implies. Strikingly, in Anthony Petullo’s Collection of Self-taught artists, “The History of Self-taught & Outsider Art”, self-taught artists are paired with, and their work compared to the mentally ill or insane. 

These characterisations were always meant to be uncharitable, as they are drawn from as much as they frame the logistics of a colonial social panopticon, in which meaning was always premised against the assumption of unimpeachable value of the colonial perspective. Moreover, the category of intuitive art being relatively new, its taxonomy may owe something to its treatment in the history of philosophy. It is in this manner that local art observers in a civilization outside and away from the dominant pervasive global once-colonial cultures, can examine and contribute to the thinking of Being-in-its-essence, through consideration of the ontology, or the conditions of existence thrown forth in the work of a local or national artist; whose work, if sufficiently serious, brings its observers into a confrontation with Being and existence, beyond the immediate confines of culture in whatever stage of development it languishes; perhaps – in our case – as a prelude to cultural possibility.

Intuition, because it claims immediate knowledge, is not irrational, but non-rational. That is to say, the initiative native artist does not create from a perception of reality based upon having studied philosophy or history or the Oxbridge university tripos. As such, he or she is most near the frequencies of thought and feeling in a culture in its immediate sense. In their works one taste the blood and wheat of everydayness uninterrupted by the caution of extensive schooling, but hardened by experience and the modes of communication and meaning within the relevant cultural context. That is, there is no discernible weighing or assessment before the arrival of a conclusive prerequisite for action in that intuitive artist’s social world or in his art, when governed by intuition. Note however, that the whole question is contentious philosophically. What intuition lacks in comparison to rationality is not only an analytical process, but necessarily a chain of repeatable intellectual justifications, which, since Plato (429-347 BCE), has come to be the necessary ground for what is called “thinking”.  As such, intuition has come to mean that psychic force which is opposite to thinking. 

An intuitive artist may claim a founding depth to his governing artistic impulses that Plato himself would not have found incomprehensible, given his notion of Anamnesis, found in the Meno 5Meno: 80e ff.; cf.; Symposium: 204a; Euthyphro: 275c ff. and Phaedo. There Plato tied intuition to the foundation of true knowledge; a knowledge that arises from the soul (without and beyond thought), which pre-exists ordinary consciousness. Reflect upon Amos Ferguson’s ‘awakened artistic sense’, thrown upon him by the dreams of his relative, and it seems consistent, without more, to that which Plato expounded so long ago.

The matter is irredeemably more complex than such reflections show preliminarily however: in efforts to place artists such as Amos Ferguson in a proper context of history, it is necessary to think more intimately on the ‘moving spirit’, which drove their artistic sensibilities directly. Matters changed for the prestige of intuition during the (Scottish) ‘Enlightenment’, in which David Hume (1711-1776) destroyed the standing of intuition as being revelatory of any justifiable knowledge. In Hume’s hands, intuition reveals not truths – save as in the impression of he who possesses the intuition – which of course leads to a logical cul-de-sac. Hume reduced intuition, nearly, to private insanity, through which the one holding the intuition, by reason of that intuition, saw and sought to act in a world separate from reality, whilst seeking an impact in reality itself. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) “saved” intuition to a degree, by divorcing it from knowledge – ostensibly to accommodate Hume – placing it in the service of merely ordering our perception of space and time. 

By these foregoing and other effects, the general result is that intuition insofar as it refers to knowledge has been ‘reduced’ to mysticism, with each (person) artist exiled to his imagination, which again is not entirely unrelated to what Amos Ferguson seemed to claim for himself as the motivating spirit in his art: Remember him saying: “The Lord gives you the vision… as a sight to go by…to get the understanding”.

Further understanding of the meaning Ferguson’s intuitionistic art sensibility may derive from professor Karl Jung’s profile of ‘intuition’ as a psychic category. 

Source: Friesian – Psychological Types


In this way, as may be observed above, intuition does not share an axis with “thinking”, or rationality. In later years, the “Myers-Briggs Typology” – a psychological framework for personality analysis – advanced Jung’s thesis of ‘personality types’. There Intuition was linked to thinking, but also to “Introversion” and “Judging”; implying that the thinking at such a level was not explicit or even communicable; except as monologue. Thus defined, intuition as a governing impulse resulted, characteristically, in confident judgments, or assertive conclusions, which I think is a fair assessment of Ferguson’s own regard for his artistic vision, and is in evidence, fully, in his mature works sustained over many years. 

Of this characteristic confidence, we shall admit more below.

I suggested that Ferguson seems to have no perplexing questions that vexed his imagination, to be visited upon us through his art, by his ‘canvass’. The epistemology flowing from such a disposition is never reflective, always assertive, and reveals only by accident, just because it never initiates its artistic message in irony. That is to say, the subject matter of Ferguson’s is ever always the full measure of the artist’s objective in expression. It is efficient in that way; or so it seems. The image says no less than what he intends; though, because matters are never so simple, it reveals more than such an artist may have imagined.

If not directly in the images of Amos Ferguson then surely in his methodologies, there is something to be understood indirectly however. First, he does not depict the life-world of the Bahamas in any measure, which may be said to have been complete; though he seemed a restless observer of the divinity of simplicities. Second, whilst he appears not to have been a seeker of harmonies or a unifier of querulous social or cultural strains between his vision and his culture, Ferguson does show us something new for ourselves by intention. 

The above is evidenced in a number of ways deserving of particular notice:

The post-colonial setting is often plagued with a sort of “performance Victorianism”. By this I mean, a habit of mimicking the dominant colonial culture’s methods, modes and tropes, unthinkingly, (lawyers wearing wigs in the Summer heat for instance). In this mimicry, the post-colonial (person) artist preens, pretends, acts and projects the personality and habits of cultural personality types of the dominant former colonial culture as a claim to legitimacy; so unsatisfying is he with what he is actually. That Ferguson painted with house paints and on cardboard, and resisted switching to canvass as a personal and cultural stance and statement is revelatory of a personal discipline and political independence indiscernible in our social or political life; showing him unshackled by other cultural personality types, and even within Bahamian society and history, it is right to say, he was ‘his own man’, which is the first step to originality for an artist.

To escape the prerogatives of performance Victorianism, the post-colonial subject must assert himself against colonialism’s exhaustless methodological priorities; yet, advance a method that may speak for him, both within and against his social context and to and against the world at large. 

  1. House paint (means) was more readily available in Ferguson’s world than conventional artist’s resources. 
  2. Cardboard (medium) was in greater abundance in a nation that makes next to nothing, to be made into something, for which cardboard was never intended.

To put a fine point on it: Ferguson used that which was used to ship things made elsewhere to a place where precious little is made, using it for the first stages of manufacturing in developing civilizations: art-making. Having employed his means (house-paint) and that medium (cardboard) reflects a second step – which is a counter-intuitive honesty or simplicity – toward originality. By such a means therefore, Ferguson placed in the museums of the dominant culture an art produced by a means and in a medium – house paint and cardboard – often relegated to refuse in the dominant culture itself. 

In his hands refuse – miscellanea of the yard in the Bahamas – became ‘high art’.  

In his titles, Ferguson displayed another double refusal, which is further attribute of originality:

  1. He used mangled language in the names of his works, as if to say, he spells in the spirit and feeling of his art. That is, the language belongs to another frequency unpoliced by the prerogatives of “standard English”. In this way, he reminds me of Melvin B. Rahming in the poem “Strands”. The distinction is that he employs his language forms without irony or play, not in the manner that a speaker of “proper English” in the Bahamas makes use of ‘broken speech’ for emphasis.
  2. Ferguson also signed his works “Paint by Mr. Amos Ferguson.” Indeed, this reflects the demand for formality and respect in the post-colonial status-formation (“Mr.”); but then, there is that sui generis spirit in the mere reference to “paint”. 

There is an existential feature in the medium chosen by Ferguson for the presentation of his works. Cardboard is inherently more perishable than canvass. Many intuition painters in Jamaica for instance, switched to canvass so soon as it was made available to them. Ferguson however, in another exhibition of independence, continued with cardboard as his primary medium. In this way, Ferguson placed the collectors of his works in a curious position of purchasing perishable – biodegradable – masterpieces. 

With a hint of – perhaps unintended – irony, it is as if to say, the work of art is as fleeting as the cultural context of it derivation. 

As to the works themselves in their impositions upon the art observer’s imagination: there is no terror in Ferguson’s vision, save what we may observe and live between his beatific imagery and the world we actually occupy, both in the Bahamas and the world in general. For instance, in his colourfast Junkanoo images, there is no violent Bahamas – a fact of life – masquerading behind the masked Junkanoo celebrants. We may ponder whether he saw within our world a world more immediately lovely and enchanting or that he ignored the immediate violent and impoverished truth of life in the Bahamas, to depict for us a beauty meant to inspire us to live in reflection of the natural beauty by which we are surrounded. The true basis of this aspect of his intuition being undecidable, nonetheless there is a tension between Ferguson’s vision and what we live. Such are the turnstiles of art and reality that even where an artist is unquickened by the violence of comparative difference between his vision and the world, still, what he depicts and what-is-the-case demands to be addressed in our every encounter with the artist’s work. That is to say, in analysing Ferguson’s work we are forced to contemplate the larger social context from which the work emergence, even where the work’s ignores that reality. 

We are forced to contemplate how we live amongst such beauties alive in his ‘canvass’, which, tragically lacks the power to give meaning to our lives, even as it fires his vision.

Another deliberate effect in Ferguson’s work is “spatial intelligence”. Like a fine hand-wrought Isfahan, Persian carpet, Ferguson’s pre-2000 paintings show marvelous economies of spacing, measurement and originality. Key in them is that whilst the artist showed a talent for mathematical image placement, like a fine carpet weaver, he is not so enslaved to precision as too render discordant the message his images where intended to convey for the sake of mechanistic linear consistency. Take for instance, “The Lord Feeding his Disciple with Too Small Fish and Five Balley Loves”: In that painting, a general observation reveals a delightful visual balance and spatial economy. However, upon closer inspection, it will be noticed that the first line of images on either side of the Christ figure there are two and three quarters of an image and to the observer’s right and the painting’s left, two and one third of an image. Near the Christ’s right hand in the second line, there is a single extra image and also below the right hand, space is created by the Christ’s garment, resulting in four images on his right and six and a half images on his left.

For an artist working from his own intuition, without schooling in the skill of art-making, what seems like a piffle is in fact the signification of that enormous self-confidence to which I referred above, and evidences the artist’s own assurance of his gifts. The need not to straighten-things-out, and to take satisfaction in such idiosyncratic mathematification, yet to render an image series bearing visual economy, says this artist is in command of his vision and feels free to leave such details to the observer’s imagination. One sees this throughout Ferguson’s work, as in Pineapples in 1982, for instance. 

Only artists of the finest sensibilities exhibit this sort of confidence, the surname of which is originality.

If there is a single anxiety in Amos Ferguson’s work, which raises profound questions, by which I mean, given the spirit and context of his artistic independence, it is that one expected a less pedestrian array of images in his depiction of The Christ. A close examination of the fleshtones of 9 Ferguson religious themed paintings, spanning over 23 years, reveals in Ferguson, a limited racial perspective at a time when the knowledge and discussion of biblical ethnicities are advanced well beyond what was passed to us in Colonialism. 

The paintings are as follows: 

  1. “Jesus Preaching The Soming on Month Soni” (“Sermon on Mount Sinai”). 1980s.
  2. “Ten Commandments”. 1983.
  3. “Jesus Feeding His Disciples With Too Small Fishes and Five Balleys Loves”. 1980s.
  4. “Moses Was The Leader Of His People”. 1989.
  5. “Mary and Mather” (“Mary and Mother”). 1970.
  6. “Crucifixion of Jesus”. 1991.
  7. “Jesus Praying” 1983.
  8. “The Rich Young Man”. 1984.
  9. “In The Fire”. 1980s.

These paintings bear all the Ferguson artistic traces – anatomical idiosyncrasy, abrupt colour palates, spacing and brushmanship. However, the racial rendering across these 9 paintings reveals another remarkable consistency, in that they are decidedly neither particularly brown or generally dark, as with Ferguson’s fleshtones in his non-biblical imagery. 

Intuitive painters of Ferguson’s generation, again, in Jamaica for instance (Albert Artwell), showed biblical figures such as Christ as brown-skinned. I do not advocate here for a definite racialisation of the Christ figure. Nor do I say or demand a “black version” of Christ images to balance renderings from the dominant culture or asserting something like a racialised political independence expressed in religious forms. Additionally, I cannot want in Ferguson, an artist who is reactionary, when at his most assertive what he achieves is in Creolisation, idiom, means and medium undermines the ‘cultural ventriloquism’ of post-Colonialism in the Bahamas and in contexts beyond his immediate sphere. But as Ferguson renders him, the Christ is totally uncomplicated racially, lacking a fleshtone that – at the very least – raises questions or expresses a critical awareness; which altogether seems anathema to his visionary independence, which is so well demonstrated in other ways aforementioned. 

In my book “The Triptych Papers: Lectures in Post-Colonialism, Creolisation and the Epistemologies of Displacement”, I wrote the following: “The displaced one, [the post-Colonial subject] whose Being and cultural yearning is caught in the dominant colonial epistemes, is also trapped, constantly, above, beyond and outside the frequencies of his actual quotidian anthropology. [He sees not his world as it is, but the dominant former colonial world as the world his world must become]. He waits there – in his world – longing for something better; something, which he cannot define, the origins or legitimacy of which he cannot give a satisfactory account. That is so because the anthropo-stasis in which he is caught, is a turnstile between the locale of displacement and the dominant colonial culture which is supervenient to it; and therefore, that locale exists and persists as an anomaly and a necessary truth of, within above, below the dominant culture, which it cannot observe, acknowledge or advance without losing itself [forced by the art, culture politics and personalities from the displaced locales] into Creolisation.”

From this we may draw certain conclusions concerning the post-Colonial situation of the artist. He lives in a world, in which he cannot expect nor discern a critical reception that advances his art. When the artist is truly fine, having a capacity to re-ought artistic taste, both at home and abroad, it will be because he has the power to and has “creolised” (localised) the idiom, means and medium of his art-making; which is to say, he has ‘broken reality at the joints’ and forced his observers to see the world anew through his vision, as often as not, formed by “corruptions” of what his own culture takes to be refinement. In respect of ‘Intuitive artists” the case is still more compelling as a question of status, which reveals the fragile mental condition of identity for the post-Colonial (person) artist, as David Boxer, the chief curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, tells it: “even now, mainstream, middle-class Jamaican taste has not fully embraced the Intuitives, partly for class-related reasons.” He noted, “some academically trained artists have resented the critical praise their self-taught counterparts have received from abroad”.  6See: The Vitality of Jamaicas Intuitive Artists” by Edward M. Gomez New York Times Sept 2nd 2004.

If Jamaican middle-class prejudices limits the celebration of intuitive artists in Jamaica, in the Bahamas, such artists are assured a covetous audience, so long as some foreigner speaks first for their standing, confirmed by a foreign institution of note. Once gain, such bona fides unleashes showers of adoration in the Bahamas, all claiming to have known – intuitively – the greatness of the artist; reenacting the Bahamian inclination to take prestige from proximity to greatness on terms undetermined in the Bahamas. 

Inasmuch as the foregoing is true, there is also a risk in the embrace of intuitive artists in former colonies by art lovers from the metropolitan former Colonial centres. There may be in operation, a paternalism, susceptible inherently to “nativism”, thereby fetishising the entire social life of the post-Colonial setting through the seductions of what foreigners perceive in us as a psychic irrationalism, taken to be not merely innocent, but dissonant from the dominant culture, as a form of cultural and intellectual infancy, not altogether as flattering as the commercial viability of the intuitive artworks imply.

Again, the limitation here is not in the fin connoisseur of art from the dominant cultural centres of Europe or America. Rather, it reveals a limitation in self-estimation in the post-Colonial setting, in which, again, the culture lacks the artist’s intuitive sense of value, and cannot form for him an addressable audience in which his works may find a critical welcome. 

All artists face stages of development, change and even inevitably decline. Alike to Beethoven’s loss of hearing, Ferguson was an artist who began to lose his eyes to cataracts after 2000. Yet, whilst his work lost its mathematical spacing, still his vivid imagery remained.

If we were to conclude, we may say that Amos Ferguson’s vision is nearly impossible to qualify. 

There is an utter absence of the exotic or the erotic in Ferguson’s oeuvre. Every image depicted in his works are – in that sense – ‘dignified’. When considered in a philosophical light, and taken altogether, I would surmise that Amos Ferguson was a “Platonic Realist” in disposition. That is to say, moving from intuition – with its characteristic assurance – Ferguson takes objects to be themselves in essence, completely available for consciousness; without a hint of irony. In this sense, Ferguson never really owns an object – save perhaps in his dotted paintings – such that we see the object or image forever in Ferguson’s terms. That is because, as Edmund Husserl has argued: “every intuition…is [itself] a legitimating source of cognition”, or as Ferguson says: “…as a sight to go by…to get the understanding”.  This, because disclosure of what is, or is taken to be mystical, occurs at the level of inspiration for the artist long before his brush sets upon his medium. His art-making of an object or an image is not to render aspects of its diffuse being as Picasso did for instance; such that, for him, the resulting work of art projects the results of a struggle as with Goya’s (1746-1828)“Sleep of Reason”, or Francis Bacon’s (1909-1992)“Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X” (1953) or more intensely J.M.W. Turner’s (1775-1851)“Slave Ship”.

Amos Ferguson as an artist and in his art, in an emergent artistic dynamism which reflects the dualities of Bahamian cultural life. 

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