Omari Ra has maintained the ‘enfant terrible ‘ image acquired at the Jamaica School of Art, even though it is nearly twenty years since he graduated. Back then, he was known to his fellow students as ‘African’ a pseudonym perfectly suited to his black separatist concerns and his image as radical painter. His reputation stuck because he seemed so perfectly suited as a leader of Jamaica’s younger artists who matured in the shadows of party-political intrigues, ghetto wars and dancehall. In the 1980s, when ‘African’ changed his name to ‘Omari Ra’, a handful of his friends adopted similar names: evidence of his influence.
Omari’s influence also spread because of his skills as a teacher. After graduating he began teaching painting and drawing in the college’s evening programme. His classes were popular because they featured ‘roots’ music and an on-going dialogue about identity and culture with his students. Today, these discussions continue but in a newly designed courses with names like ‘ Reel Politics and Perception’ and Caribbean Identity: The New Black Culture’ where students get to explore issues raised in art, literature and film.
But Omari’s reputation rests solidly on his ability as a painter. He is a skilled draughtsman and a flambouyant experimental painter who mixes his mediums with surety and purpose. Most importantly, African’s paintings brim with ideas. He has the ability to translate contemporary concerns into the language of painting and to make visible many of our fears and idiosyncracies that are otherwise difficult to articulate.