My research trip took place from June to August of this year, as part of a multifaceted and ongoing body of work. Jamaica is a tiny island with a large global reputation, but its design output has hitherto been less widely recognised than its musical or sporting legacies. The design and craft practices of its citizens and the effect of these on its former mother country are therefore well worth extensive revisiting and re-examination.
My work has previously focused in part on the complex and increasingly hybrid material and visual cultures of the black British population, as part of an interest in sites of connection between people, ideas and histories that began with my MA thesis on Milton Keynes in 2009. This project connects the two themes and the research trip to Jamaica saw me tracing their threads to a root; to the time of Caribbean independence and the dispersal of peoples across the globe, as well as to two places in which I found my preoccupations with separate worlds connected by interwoven social and economic experiences distilled.
The primary aim of the trip was to conduct research around two houses and the textile work produced within them. The first, in the affluent tourist area of Montego Bay, was home to celebrated fashion designer Trevor C. Owen. It remains a private residence, however Owen’s textile swatches, private diaries, notes to clients & suppliers, drawn designs and the house’s interior have not been photographed, archived or written about until now. The second house, ‘Dee’s House’ sits atop Davis Mountain in rural Clarendon. Inaccessible by road, it had been the site of a sewing school since the end of slavery, when the formerly enslaved Davises purchased the land. In the mid-20th century Dee Davis used sewing education to prepare both boys and girls for decolonisation and eventual emigration to the USA and UK.
Dee’s house serves as the ideal counterpoint to the Montego Bay studio, inits amateurism to the latter’s professionalism, it represents a focus on future generations rather than present ones, the pre-emption of change and the use of craft as a means of community development rather than as a method of making a living. It was important to visit Dee’s House in 2013, while her memory was fresh among the community. Asthe population of Elgin is waning, this was also a crucial time for oral history collation. While Dee’s House represents preparation for changes in many familiar structures and traditions, Owen’s House can be seen to represent the opposite. A place of family-enforced exile for Owen, it represents a lack of change in attitudes about homosexuality that developed as the direct result of slavery and colonialism. In the wake of the 50th Anniversary of Jamaica’s independence, this was a pivotal time to explore these dichotomies.
The trip yielded many unexpected observations. Not least of these is the phenomenon of columns reminiscent of the ancient Greek Corinthian order and Georgian colonial architecture in the Caribbean, which have been appearing on houses all over Jamaica since the turn of the 21st century. There is something significant in aspirational domestic architecture taking this particular form more than 50 years after independence. Through examining this design feature it is possible to shed light on returnee culture and integration 65 years after the Empire Windrush embarked for England. These columns have instigated the consideration of the continuing legacy of colonialism and empire in the island nation, the redistribution of power in the postcolonial world and the anxiety that this has created today.
My research trip has been invaluable to the work that I am now undertaking. I would like thank the Design History Society for supporting of this project financially, and for their continued interest in its outcomes. This has been a great help and encouragement to me.
Davinia Gregory is a visiting lecturer in the School of Design History at Bath Spa University. She was awarded a Master’s Degree by the Royal College of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum in 2010. Currently, her teaching appointments also include Kingston University (Design History), and University for the Creative Arts (Fashion Theory). She also teaches on the Victoria & Albert Museum’s 20th Century Design History course and is an art history docent at the Musèe du Louvre for American company Paris Muse. Her particular specialisms are linked to her research, which examines and combines 20th century city planning and redevelopment with the effect of decolonization and subsequent multiculturalism on the material cultures of Britain and its former colonies. Her projects span the fields of visual culture, architectural and social history, cultural geography and postcolonial studies.