“Bob Marley” by Cleaver Cunningham – located on Street Art Museum Amsterdam’s east exterior wall – is the only work in existence by the Jamaican muralist outside of Jamaica. SAMA acquired in the work in December 2018 when Cunningham was in Amsterdam working on a video about his practice, produced in collaboration between UvA PhD researcher, Tracian Meikle, and Tropenmuseum -- to be included in its “Most Wanted” exhibition, opening April, 2019. Depicting Bob Marley in airbrushed black, white, and grey, Cunningham wanted his first work outside Jamaica to recall his first mural in Kingston – a portrait of Bob Marley airbrushed onto Cunningham’s home.
Cleaver Cunningham first began painting as a teenager – however, not as an act of rebellion, and not as a graffiti writer. Although he had always had an interest in painting, Cunningham only started after seeing airbrush paintings in a magazine one afternoon, when he decided to follow his girlfriend to the hair salon. More inspired by airbrush than paintbrush, Cunningham sold his stunt bike, got a compressor and airbrush guns with the help of his family, and began painting on a small scale – mostly painting signs, t-shirts, bikes and cars for people wanting a customized look for their things.
Cunningham’s professional career began in the 1990’s, when – after seeing the mural of Bob Marley which Cunningham had painted on his home – a woman in his neighbourhood asked him to paint a memorial mural on her house. Others began noticing Cunningham’s work, commissioning him to paint for them as well. From there, commissions for private homes, businesses, and public squares continued to increase. As of 2019, he continues to paint murals, car hoods, signs, and t-shirts, and has recently begun work in tattoo design.
As a painter, Cunningham continues a tradition begun in certain Kingston neighbourhoods in the 1980’s, of memorializing deceased family members, heroes, public figures, and pop culture icons through murals. In fundamental contrast to most assumptions about street art, the Jamaican memorial mural tradition did not emerge in opposition to corporate or state power dominating public space, or insurrectionary ethics –
rather, it came from individuals asking artists to paint figures on their homes or businesses to preserve that person’s memory. Thus, Cunningham’s practice is most notable for its skill in execution and the three-dimensional quality he achieves through airbrush, and not necessarily novelty.
SAMA obtained Cunningham’s “Bob Marley” in 2018 as the result of a conversation between Cunningham, Meikle, and SAMA founder and director, Anna Stolyarova, following a tour of the museum’s open-air collection. Stolyarova asked Cunningham to paint a piece on an empty patch on the museum office’s east wall. Cunningham’s choice to paint Bob Marley was to reference the first piece he painted on a wall in Kingston – using Bob Marley to both celebrate the piece which launched his career, and to celebrate his first international work. Beyond sentimental value, he also chose Marley, as he wanted to use an image that would be an easily recognized and respected symbol of Jamaica, and to tie the piece in Amsterdam to Cunningham’s Jamaican heritage.
Cleaver Cunningham has recently exhibited in the National Gallery of Jamaica in 2014. He has also participated in events at the University of Leicester (UK), the Sandberg Instituut (NL), and will appear in Tropenmuseum’s 2019 “Most Wanted” exhibition.