Jonkonnu Festival

Vincent D. Smith

About the Print

This print depicts a celebration of Jonkonnu, an annual masquerade and dance tradition dating back to the time of African slavery in the seventeenth century. It’s associated with Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean, as well as some southern areas of the United States. Usually held around Christmastime, Jonkonnu provided enslaved people the opportunity to abandon their harsh labors for a day of fes­tivity, parading with music and dance drawn from their African origins.

Hear the music! Feel the rhythm! Move to the beat! In this image, Smith captures the energy of African folk dance. The momentum begins at the top of this image and grows as marchers strut with their arms, feet, and hips in motion. Pulsating with rhythm, drama, and wit, Jonkonnu is a mimed performance with each character in elaborate costume. Cowhead, a main role, is recognized by its long horns; here, it strides across the foreground on stilts. With undulating lines, jazzy patterns, and bright colors, Jonkonnu Festival celebrates a cultural tradition that helped sustain a people through difficult times of oppression centuries ago.

“And when I thought of myself as a painter, I dreamed of myself as a great painter.”

-Vincent D. Smith, 1999


Let's Look

Vincent D. Smith

Born New York City, 1929
Died New York City, 2003
About the Artist

From the time he was a boy in Brooklyn, Vincent D. Smith was inspired to draw and paint. Preferring narrative subjects, Smith often depicted stories of African American life, including themes from the civil rights movement that he witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s. Although based in New York, Smith traveled extensively through Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. The artist often used vibrant colors and stylized figures set against patterned backgrounds.

Curriculum Connections

Suggested Topics for Art Projects, Group Discussion, and Independent Writing


Mixed Media

Think about a festival or street celebration that you and your family may have attended, read about, or seen on TV. Combine paint and collage materials to make a lively mixed-media composition that graphically captures the festival and energy with bright colors, lines, and shapes.

Read and Compare

Read Amy Littlesugar's Jonkonnu, a children's book based on the sketchbook of American artist Winslow Homer. Set in Virginia after the American Civil War, it captures a rare US version of the Jonkonnu festival. Compare and contrast the illustrations in this book with Vincent Smith's print. Track your findings on a Venn diagram.

Language Arts

On-the-Scene Report

Play the role of a TV reporter at the scene of Smith's Jonkonnu Festival in Brooklyn, New York, in 1996. Write your report of the event for the local station. Make sure to interview the participants and the onlookers as well as summarize the action and mood of the crowd.

In Your Opinion

"And when I thought of myself as a painter, I dreamed of myself as a great painter."
Think about Smith's quote about his artwork. In your opinion, does Jonkonnu Festival reflect the spirit of his words? How? If not, why not?

Social Studies


Research the triangular route of the African slave trade. Find out when slavery ended throughout the Caribbean compared to the United States.


Research this festival. What are its roots? How was it celebrated? What was its significance?