Ossie Murray "Mystic Revelation" painter

Ossie Murray

Oswald Murray better known as Ossie has been painting since he was a young boy growing up in Kingston Jamaica in the 1940s. He grew up during a time when there were many artists around for impressionable young men to emulate.

There were the brilliant commercial artists who painted the posters on a Sunday that advertised the forthcoming films starting on the following day. And like so many of us young boys in those days, Ossie began idolising them at an early age; they were some of the only true heroes close to our lives at the time.

These artists, along with the various ecentric characters, (in a Kingston discovering itself at the close of British imperial rule, and the coming of universal adult suffrage) were the only people in our local environment to be admired. Kingston was a very exciting place to be in those times for an aspiring young man like Ossie. Jones Town and Trench Town, west Kingston, where he grew up, was the birthplace of the fledgling Rastafarian movement and many of the residents were of course staunch supporters and followers of Marcus Mosiah Garvey and his back to Africa movement. This area of West Kingston was also the birthplace of Reggae music.

Ossie often talk about the many unconventional characters in his locality who were the people to admire and emulate. They were grounded in ideas about an independent Jamaica and utopian notions of a mass return to Zion Africa, land of milk and honey. This period also saw the beginning of the intuitive arts movement under the tutelage of Edna Manley. Many of Ossie’s subject matter in later life came out of the common thinking of those times.

Ossie Murray migrated to England along with thousands of other West Indians in the early1960s where he has lived ever since. He was very active for many years after he completed his training in London, putting on canvas the challenges of being an outsider in a strange and hostile land. He worked as an illustrator of children’s books and in his later years took up photography, using the camera in the same way as he uses canvas, paint and brush; he has made what he describes as his “pilgrimage to Africa”.

Ossie’s work however, like many artists of his generation has been ignored or forgotten by the so-called “important” and academic black artists in this country. He is still painting in his own quiet way, struggling to master new techniques and ideas. His subjects range across a wide spectrum, from the study of the physiogamy of the African female to what he calls mystic revelations. Oswald Murray’s work deserves to be more widely seen.

Fowokan 2008

Alexander Dumas

Where is Ossie Murray? Ossie who?

I took up a correspondence course [in art] with the International Correspondence School where I kept sending drawings of a black girl. The instructor kept saying to me why don’t you draw some pretty looking people?

Why would anyone want to read an article about this Black painter, Ossie Murray?

This article is introducing some members of the public to Ossie and re-introducing him to all those people who knew him from the 1950’s when he first came to England and was perceived as a radical artist. He was celebrated by the then Black press and actively involved in Black arts and political movements. It’s important to remind the public and Black people in particular of the talent amongst us. We often talk of the lack of Black role models, of an absence of original ideas from Black people and of the need for us to preserve our history. Here is a Black role model, an artist with original ideas and one who has been painting successfully for over 40 years.

I first came across the name Ossie Murray around the early 80’s when my daughter was born. It was a time when many of the Black and White parents who were my friends or associates were frustrated by the lack of positive images of Black people for our children to identify with. I bought my daughter a book from each of the Sally-Ann series. These books, written by Petronella Brienburg in the late 70s were all illustrated by Ossie. They depicted a little Black girl, Sally-Ann, in everyday situations such as with her umbrella, in the snow or on her skateboard. It was rare to find books with images of Black children that did not show them as shaded-in images or as drawings of White children with brown colouring. Ossie’s paintings illustrating the Sally-Ann books were some of the earliest Black images in a book that many of our children saw. These images were not only precious because they were rare but because they captured our children’s imagination of a young child who looked like them. I spent many hours and years reading and re-reading the books to my daughter and she loved the images and scenery painted by Ossie so much, that the pages of the books and their front covers had to be taped to keep them together. The popularity of the books was such that the Sally-Ann’s Skateboard was voted 1979 children’s book of the year!

Bob Marley

It was not until the late 80s, whilst attending private viewings of Black artists’ exhibitions that I first came across Ossie in person. Since this period, we became friends, I have seen a good cross section of Ossie’s work, I acquired two of his paintings and have spent many hours in conversation with him at my home. What interests me about Ossie are his complexities: his paintings, mainly in oil are of people and the large number of women he paints suggest a fascination with the female form. He sees great beauty in the black figure, especially the black woman whom he regards as the fountain of strength in the black family. His conversations move between detailed memories of Down-Town Kingston in 40s and 50s to creation myths, historical accounts of Egypt and the modern struggles of Black people in the west.

It is no surprise that Ossie became an artist, growing up in the area in Kingston, now infamous for gun fights and criminality, where some of the most influential Caribbean artists and thinkers lived. Ossie lived in around Trench Town when Bob Marley was emerging as a talent, where Marcus Garvey held his rallies and so many, now world famous Jamaican artists, honed their skills. Ossie’s vivid memories of life in Down-Town Kingston in the 40s and 50s brings to life a rich cultural and class mix of dark and light-skinned people; places like ‘style corner’, where the beautiful people, who were slick and fashionably, posed; of colonial-styled town houses, with yards graced with Julie and Bombay mango trees; of the heyday of Rialto and Ward theatres, showing pantos, concerts, dramas, as well as the gangster and western films from the US. This period, long since gone, with the flight of the rich and the light-skinned peoples into the hills of St Andrews, the only memories we have of Down-Town Kingston are of violence, decay and danger.

For over 40 years, Ossie has actively produced art. His work was probably best known in the 1970s and 80s when he exhibited widely and was regularly profiled by the media: in 1971 he was commissioned to paint Miss World (from Grenada, the first Black winner); his first one man show was exhibited at the Jamaican High Commission in London in 1976; he exhibited in London through art society in Leyton as well as internationally in Canada and Jamaica; he was chosen to exhibit at the first Festival of Black Arts and African Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos 1976, his painting of the Daughters of Negus was selected for the front cover of the festival’s commemorative book; many more front covers followed such as 12 for the Explore a Story series for Collins as well as numerous book illustrations.
Ossie is deeply political, something that isn’t immediately noticeable in this mild mannered, quiet artist. The subjects of his paintings are always Black people and he has identified himself as an African. This has been a problem to the white people Ossie came into contact with: White artists used to say to me, why don’t you paint white people? I turned round and said what did Rembrandt and Michael Angelo have against me? His paintings have featured ‘warriors’ such as Nanny of the Maroons, Harriet Tubman and Toussaint L’Overture. From the earliest part of his career, Ossie described Black art as the only creative aspect of the Black experience that is making any significant impression in Britain, yet, so sadly ignored. He has been critical of the master-slave relationship between the UK and its former colonies in the Caribbean and Africa, citing schooling and art or the lack of art in his/our Caribbean education as woefully inadequate.

Mother and Child

It was coming to England that helped him realise what he coined the Blackness in art. In Jamaica, he saw art as something which only concerned white people. Through paint Ossie seeks to analyse the plight of the black man in history, and the injustice done to his image and credibility by the European. …the black man should be proud of his image and his historical heritage. He feels that the true motivation of an artist is seldom ‘artistic’ and nearly always political.

Ossie’s paintings always seem to tell a story, even the commissioned portraits, they are filled with mystique. They often carry me away into those stories from great African traditions which were told under the moonlight when I was a child in the
Caribbean. The women are always strident and beautiful, the men, strong and handsome. This may be why he has been so successful in communicating stories when illustrating books.

After many years of painting Ossie decided to explore new areas of the visual arts and as a ‘senior citizen’, he began a course in photography at Croydon College. Now he rarely leaves his home without a camera at his side. He has a knack for raising the interest of everyday objects/ items through photography that non-artists like me would not have noticed. For example he photographed particles of dust that had accumulated in the corner of the sculptor, Fowokan’s studio. Ossie’s photographic image of the dust transformed it from something that would commonly be seen as a source of embarrassment or tedious cleaning into purposeful shapes and textures, similar to the films and photographs that depict the moon’s surface. In seeing Ossie’s image of the collection of dust, I couldn’t help but think of how fortunate I was to know him, to see his works and the importance of artists in our midst. What kind of world would we live in if we all became administrators, what sort of view or paradigm would we see the world through?

As an elder, there is so much more to Ossie than his paintings, he has a wealth of knowledge about Kingston in the 1940s and 50s. Many of the famous musicians, academics and artists who emerged from Jamaica were personally known to him and his family and he has detailed memories of life in Jamaica during those times. He is generous in sharing his memories and he continues to paint and take photographs.

We really need to celebrate Ossie as a role model for our young and adult alike, someone who is proud of his African heritage, an example of pursuing one’s passion despite the hard times, continuously developing and learning, maintaining high standards and still attracting new commissions!


Dr Margaret Andrews
Sept 2008

See more of Ossie's work



Now visit Youtube to see and hear Ossie in the flesh

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Oswald Murray May 28th 1935 - April 28th 2014.  


R.I.P Brother Ossie