Ya La’ford Pieces Together the Works of John Dunkley’s Imagination

Ya Levy La’ford, granddaughter of artist John Dunkley, shares with us insight about Dunkley’s imagination and influence. John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night opens at PAMM on May 26.

woman sitting

Thinking back, I see myself sitting on the lap of my father in Kingston, Jamaica, and catching a glimpse of my grandfather’s imagination for the first time. My father points out to me the spiders and their webs, the woodlands, the mountains, the plants and animals that are featured in most of my grandfather’s work. It makes me feel part of his world. Yet while I was growing up, each work left me with hidden riddles that I now find can only be solved and understood with the paint I use to create my own world. These memories take me to various places that I always knew I needed to go to be able to map out and find his place, the space of the unconscious, the place that is unknown yet somehow quite familiar. He gave me the keys to enter his paintings, and I walked in those spaces and created my world; in doing so I recreated, and also extended, his.

It’s evident to me that his work is about finding light in the dark, making beautiful, unknown creatures that find the beauty of life therein. Using his lines as seeds of the contemplations he painted and planned for his spectators to experience, they are now still growing through my lines, and seem to have gained an existence beyond one life. They have taken on a form of perpetuity, a life that never ends.


John Dunkley, Spider’s Web, n.d. Mixed media on canvas, 17 1/2 x 29 inches. Collection of Ernest, Kenneth, and Tina Dunkley. Photo by Tina Dunkley.

In my work, like him, I make a separation between this world and another. The themes of light and dark in my work are interconnected, possessing intricacies that are symbolic in nature. The layers in my paintings are literally there in the labyrinth lines, the superimposed images, and the different colors stained onto those. However, the layers also exist in the sense that it is invoking connectivity, distilling the common denominator from a varied humanistic discourse around the world encountered on my travels. From that commonality I formulate a universal language, one that can connect us all through time and space.

The energy emanating from my grandfather’s work must have filled him up as much as it does the spectator of his work. Looking at his paintings, it leads and guides me inside his visual idiom. I do not do figurative work, but there is a parallel universe I find we share when we are creating. His layers and depth recur in my stain-dyed, interlocking geometric lines.

His creation of the unknown has been recreated from the environment he lived in, though in his work these surroundings are symbolic and restructured, imbued with meaning beyond the immediate eye and to be understood intuitively more than anything else. The lush vegetation of Jamaica, the heat of the sun, the endlessly lapping sea waves, the rushing waterfalls, the lively bustling Kingston traffic, the flavors of the food, the warmth of Jamaica’s people. All this input blended into a well inside of him, a source of enthralled wonderment from which work sprung. As a result, viewing his work is an oddly familiar experience, but it is one that takes you outside of reality at the same time.

He absorbs the environment into his paintings, but also takes over the room with his work. He brings you into his world, his imagination, the otherworldliness of the known world. There is a strong surrealist streak in his work, recreating spaces and bringing into that mix what is underneath us. Through the filter of his mind and heart, earth tones come to the fore, energizing his work naturally, breathing a subtle yet discernable atmosphere into the room, mesmerizing spectators, making them participants in what’s depicted.


John Dunkley, Banana Planation, ca. 1945. Mixed media on plywood, 28 x 16 1/2 inches. Collection National Gallery of Jamaica, Gift of Cassie Dunkley.

We both explore the environment and imagination by pushing creative boundaries. I like to use unusual materials (wax, eggs, emerald, bleach, coffee, chocolate, curry, ginger, tea, hibiscus, gold dust etc.) that I often bring home from my travels, making them into pigments and colorants and staining into the canvas, thus very literally bringing not only the environment into my work, but also the different cultures from around the globe, interconnecting different accounts to find a shared universal language.

Being primarily self-taught, it’s apparent from my grandfather’s work that he was influenced by the work processes of photography (e.g. double exposure and cropping), his travels in Central America, pictures from magazines, and work he saw of other artists. His main influences in that respect were Rousseau, in his emphasis on naturalist surroundings, and Dalí, in his surrealist rendering thereof. Like my grandfather, I also traveled and took home impressions, cultural expression in many forms, and materials that find their way to my canvases.

His returning motifs, notably fences, vertical paths, crabs, spider webs, potted plants, non-overlapping leaves, circular flower heads, bare trunks and branches, and lone trees, are taken from his surroundings, but are decidedly altered into a constructed botany and environment, prompting a closer look and inducing a feeling of encountering an almost ineffable portal to a different realm. His oftentimes anthropomorphized landscapes make his work highly symbolic and allegorical in nature, making a reading of the work a journey into the backwaters of the mind and all stories known to mankind, passed on from one generation to the next through mythology as well as bible verses, history, plays, and any other source imaginable. Nothing in his work is to be taken at face value; rather, you glean the whole world and life itself behind them.

From his work I find enlightening information, tidbits to connect the dots or stories that humanize and connect me, giving me the pieces to work with. Our language is endlessly intertwined. We both try to find the universal sublime. Our work becomes more than a purely formal element of composition. It is meant to invoke an almost out-of-this-world, uninterrupted repetition of elements. In his case, it led to a series of figurative works; in my case, it can be found in the abstract aspects of my works.

My grandfather was a true naïf, a paintbrush mystic, who brought his soul to the canvas, with a singular imagination, touching vision, and enigmatic visual lexicon, which led to strange, dream-world canvases. He executed a breadth of topics onto the canvas with a tenacity and methodical practice that was truly one of kind. His work is truly transcendent, compellingly surreal, and, though informed by his everyday life and the world at large, he was not influenced by fashions, schools or external concepts. He communicated, fostered, contextualized, and sublimated his imagination on his own artistic terms, bringing to the world the poetry of the Jamaican scene.

About the exhibition

John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night is organized by PAMM Associate Curator Diana Nawi with Nicole Smythe-Johnson, independent curator. David Boxer serves as curatorial advisor on this exhibition. This exhibition is presented by Davidoff Art Initiative and the catalogue for this exhibition is supported by Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.

On the occasion of the opening of John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night, PAMM Associate Curator Diana Nawi and independent curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson will speak about the artist. Join us at PAMM for the art talk on May 25 at 7:30pm.

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