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Petrine Archer-Straw (Dr.)

Born, 1956 in Birmingham UK. Died, 2012

Dr Petrine Archer-Straw was one of the most active and accomplished historians of Caribbean Art. Born in Birmingham, UK to Jamaican parents, Archer-Straw spent the first period of her life, until her teens, in the UK. Excepting periods of study and work abroad, much of her time was spent based in Kingston, Jamaica. In an essay for the Back to Black catalogue (Whitechapel, 2005), Archer-Straw recalled her upbringing in the West Midlands and discusses some of the factors and influences that contributed to the development of her sense of self.

In the mid 1990s she gained a doctorate from Courtauld Institute, University of London, for her critical look at Negrophilia, with particular emphasis on Paris, France in the early part of the 20th century. Before this, she gained a Theology, History, Sociology B.A. from the University of the West Indies B.A. (1975-78) followed by a Cultural History M.Phil from the same institution some years later.

Archer-Straw was primarily known and widely respected as an historian of Jamaican and Caribbean Art, a writer, a curator, a university professor and a college lecturer. Perhaps less well known was her work as an artist in her own right. She schooled at the Jamaican School of Art, securing a Diploma in Painting, after three years of study, in 1982.

Her first major contribution to the study and research of Jamaican art was her collaborative work with Kim Robinson, Jamaican Art: An Overview - With a Focus on Fifty Artists. Published by Kingston Publishers in 1990, the book is still unsurpassed as a comprehensive and authouritative introduction to the visual arts of Jamaica. An updated version of the book was published in the summer of 2011.

Archer-Straw wrote a review of The Other Story exhibition, for Art Monthly, demonstrating her wider interest in the complex interplay between diaspora, migration, travel, artistic production, history, and identity. Her interest in such matters was further reflected in her very sizeable body of scholarship, research, writing, and curatorial practice undertaken since the early 1990s.

In 1994 she curated (and provided the catalogue entries for) Home & Away: Seven Jamaican Artists; an exhibition held at London’s October Gallery. The exhibition brought together several artists based in Jamaica, and presented their work alongside several Jamaican artists based in the UK. The artists included African, Leonard Daley, Petrona Morrison and Danijah Tafari. The exhibition set the tone for Archer-Straw’s approach to curating for some years to come. Resisting the impulse to present the artists as culturally or geographically isolated units, Archer-Straw instead wove a more complex narrative that drew in the factors such as diaspora and migration alluded to earlier.

A little while earlier, Archer-Straw had provided one of two essays on the work of Eugene Palmer for a significant exhibition of the artist’s work, originating at Norwich Gallery.

Other curatorial work was to follow, including the major South Bank Centre touring exhibition New World Imagery: Contemporary Jamaican Art. That particular exhibition was one of the highlights and focal points of the Africa 95 season, originated and directed by Clémentine Deliss. Ten years later, collaborating with Richard J. Powell and David A. Bailey she again had a notable curatorial input into the Africa 05 season; this time in the form of Back to Black: Art, Cinema & the Racial Imaginary. It was her largely autobiographical text for the Back to Black catalogue that was referred to earlier.

In addition to reviews, essays and catalogue texts, Archer-Straw is responsible for several books, in addition to the Jamaican Art one mentioned earlier. These books include Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s, published by Thames and Hudson in 2000. At about the same time she edited Fifty Years-Fifty Artists, 2000, about the history of artists associated with the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica.

Archer-Straw’s approach to the previously mentioned Home & Away exhibition contained a bundle of clues as to her global leanings and her international perspectives on the work of artists of the African/Caribbean diaspora. It is these global leanings and international perspectives that have led her to develop her current fascinating and highly pertinent Diaspora Dialogs web-based project. In her work as an academic, art historian, writer and curator, Archer-Straw has consistently challenged the prevailing orthodoxies that treat artists and cultural practice in geographical, racial and/or artistic isolation. In essence, her position is that we cannot fully understand or appreciate the practice of the Caribbean artists without full and proper consideration of factors such as migration, history, identity and, above all diaspora. It is this conviction that informs the development of Diaspora Dialogs.

Archer-Straw traveled widely, within the US, the Caribbean region, Europe, and elsewhere in the world. Thus, her keenly observed constructions of the role of diaspora within cultural identity and practice were built on very real experiences and engagement with communities of people and artists, the world over, and not just in Jamaica.

Her website is www.petrinearcher.com

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