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This record was last updated on 31 May 2011
Isaac Mendes Belisario, Sketches of character, in illustration of the habits, occupation, and costume of the Negro population, in the island of Jamaica: drawn after nature, and in lithography (Kingston, Jamaica: published by the artist, at his residence, 1837-1838).
Captioned "Koo, Koo, or Actor Boy," this lithograph depicts an elaborately costumed and masked male dancer surrounded by on-lookers and musicians; he carries a whip and fan, the former used for clearing his path, the latter for cooling himself when his mask is lifted (see also image Belisario03, for another “Actor Boy” unmasked). Belisario gives a detailed description of “John-Canoe” festivities and also speculates on the origin of the name. With respect to this illustration, he writes the “band consists of drums and fifes only, to which music the Actor stalks most majestically, oftentimes stopping to afford the by-standers a fair opportunity of gazing at him . . . . The foundation [of his headdress] is an old hat, affording the wearer the means of sustaining the superstructure, to which it is firmly attached, and composed of various colored beads, bugles, spangles, pieces of looking-glass, tinsel, etc. attached to a pasteboard form trimmed round the edges with silver lace, surmounted with feathers. The garments are of muslin, silk, satin, and ribbons.” Isaac Mendes Belisario was born in Kingston in 1794 into a merchant family of Sephardic Jews. He was sent to London in 1803 to reside with the English branch of the family. In England he studied painting. Belisario returned to Jamaica in 1834, and stayed until 1839 when he returned to London. Coming again to Jamaica around 1842, he remained until 1849 when he again returned to London where he died in June of that year. The lithograph shown here is one of 12, originally published in three parts, 4 plates at a time. All are based on drawings made “from life” or “after nature” by Belisario during his residence in Kingston during the mid- to- late1830s. The lithographs were hand tinted in color and were printed by the French-born artist/lithographer Adolphe Duperly, a friend of Belisario. The 12 lithographs have been reproduced in facsimile, with their entire accompanying descriptive texts authored by Belisario, in two lavishly illustrated and well researched volumes, both of which contain a great deal of material on Belisario, his life and the world in which he lived: Tim Barringer, Gillian Forrester, Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz [and others], Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and his Worlds (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art in association with Yale University Press, 2007); and Jackie Ranston, Belisario: Sketches of Character: A Historical Biography of a Jamaican Artist (Kingston, Jamaica; Mills Press, 2008). The former volume contains a number of essays by different scholars dealing with Belisario, his art, and various aspects of Jamaican society and history; the latter treats similar subjects in less depth but goes into much greater detail on family history and various people Belisario encountered during his lifetime and who had an influence on his art. The Institute of Jamaica published full color photographic reproductions of a complete set of the Sketches of Character lithographs in its collection; each image is printed separately on stiff paper (albeit with no textual material) and was made available for public purchase. No imprint information is given for the Institute’s re-issue, but it was probably done in the 1970s.