John Dunkley is considered one of modern Jamaica’s first and finest intuitive artists painters. Like so many self-taught painters that would follow in his wake, Dunkley emerged from that class of self-employed, skilled artisans who lived by their hands. John Dunkley was a barber,
Dunkley’s early life appears to have been filled with misfortune and adventure that may account for his unique vision. Born in Savannah-la-Mar, at the age of seven he suffered an accident that damaged one of his eyes and affected his schooling, as a result, as a teenager he was sent to his father living in Panama. There again, tragedy struck, he arrived to find that his father had recently died, dashing his hopes for the future. Alone, and at the outbreak of the Great War, he became a sailor and is reported to have travelled through South and Central America, North America finally returning to Cheriqui, Panama where he took up painting and came under the influence of the painter Clarence Rock.
He would not return to Jamaica until 1926, when in his thirties, he married Cassie Dunkley and settled to run a small barbershop on Princess Street in Kingston. It was here that Dunkley also established a small studio for painting, where young Jamaicans congregated to discuss politics and world affairs, as well as view his latest works. Although Dunkley did not exhibit regularly, the small group of artists who painted at the Institute of Jamaica knew him, but he never became a formal member of that group, Somehow, Dunkley felt that his concerns were different.
Today, there is nothing that compares to John Dunkley’s imagination. His melancholy paintings speak of another dimension where man is subject to nature filled with spiders, crabs, frogs, birds, rodents haunt ravines, rocks and lopped trees. The landscapes of his mind, obviously unreal, are nevertheless hauntingly familiar. They are desolate dream worlds, where timid animals observe the lonely paths and gloomy roads. Dunkley’s motifs are constantly recurring reinforcing their hypnotic quality. His imagery points to a subconscious or disguised symbolism that might justify a surrealist label, yet Dunkley’s style defies categorization. As Dr David Boxer, National Gallery of Jamaica curator has written:
“ This was a truly intuitive painter if ever there was one. Little in the history of Western art prepares us for Dunkley. While at times his work puts us in mind of Samual Palmer or Albert Pinkham Ryder, there is a hypnotic rhythmic intensity in Dunkley’s paintings that is alien to English and American masters. Indeed, it is an African severity of rhythm, form, and colour that in the final analysis separates Dunkley from the Western romantics that his work at times recalls.”