This short essay on Dawn Scott’s A Cultural Object (1985), a mixed-media installation at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), is adapted from a section of my doctoral dissertation “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (2011, Emory University). A Cultural Object is presently not open to the public, as it needs conservation due to deterioration of the fragile materials used and excessive public interference. The installation however represents a ground-breaking moment in Jamaica’s art history and has been a source of inspiration for many younger artists since then. I was a young member of staff in the National Gallery’s Education department at the time this work was created and was most excited to be allowed to paint some the graffiti – my only experience with graffiti to date. Being able to observe Dawn Scott at work on this installation and the public reaction the work has elicited has contributed greatly to my outlook on art in Jamaica.
Dawn Scott (1951-2010) was a Jamaican textile artist and interior designer. She participated in the NGJ’s 1985 Six Options: Gallery Spaces Transformed exhibition, an exhibition for which six artists were invited to produce installations using subjects and media of their choice in the NGJ’s exhibition galleries, and then produced A Cultural Object, her only installation.
A Cultural Object, which fills an entire gallery, effectively brings the physical and cultural environment of the Kingston inner cities into the “high culture” space of the NGJ. It consists of a spiral-shaped “zinc-fence”, made from recuperated corrugated metal and lumber – the dominant building materials in the local squatter settlements. The surfaces contain the sort of street art, shop signs, dance hall posters, and graffiti that are commonly seen in Kingston’s inner cities. It starts with a large sign that reads “Culture zone, enter at your own risk,” which spoofs the “PNP (or JLP) zone, enter at your own risk” inscriptions that mark the borders of many political garrison communities. The imagery and graffiti on the walls successively deal with popular music, street food, the rum bar, the beauty culture, the attitudes towards women and sexuality, religion, politics and, at the center, mental illness and homelessness, which takes the form of the reclining, rag-clad figure of a male street person. At first sight, the installation appears unplanned, much like a squatter settlement, but it is carefully orchestrated: the claustrophobic, trap-like spiral corridor deliberately takes the visitor from amusement to horror, when the shockingly realistic street person in the middle is suddenly seen.
A Cultural Object presents a provocative critique of the forces that, according to Scott, trap poor people into their marginalized socio-economic position, including the escapist nature of much of the popular music, poor dietary habits, self-deprecating beauty practices such as skin-bleaching, socially counterproductive attitudes towards women and sexuality, disempowering religious beliefs, partisan political violence, and, ultimately, mental illness and social alienation. Much of its effect derives from its extreme realism and the manner in which the imagery, textures and materials used in this work capture the sensory experiences of inner city life. The street person sculpture in the center was made from a live cast (although of an artist’s model) and almost every detail of the work was based on something that then existed in Kingston, which Scott had documented photographically.
Already during its original exhibition, A Cultural Object was popular with visitors and elicited strong responses. Most of these were positive but there were some concerns that the work represented Jamaica in a negative light. Despite the objections, the work was acquired for the NGJ collection and reinstalled in a room of its own in the permanent exhibition Jamaican Art 1922-Present. There it quickly became a very popular exhibit, referred to by inquiring schoolchildren as “the Ghetto.”
While A Cultural Object obviously resonates with Jamaican audiences, the public response has always had a sensationalist, anarchic edge. Visitors almost immediately started adding their own graffiti to the walls and while the artist initially accepted this de facto interactivity, the results have been unexpected and often disturbing. Most of the graffiti are simply juvenile – of the “Kilroy was here” variety – but many others are obscene or politically partisan and illustrate exactly those cultural attitudes Scott sought to critique. Even the “street person” sculpture has been vandalized – one of its legs was broken, which sadly mimics the abuse street people sometimes encounter in Jamaica – and the at times unpleasant smell illustrated that some even urinated inside the installation.
A Cultural Object represents an instructive crack in the institutional armor of the NGJ. Elsewhere in the galleries, most visitors spontaneously behave in the disciplined and reverential manner that is the norm in museums. Somehow, the material and cultural ambiance of A Cultural Object suspends this disciplinary environment, in a way that reminds of how the presence of graffiti, broken windows, and derelict buildings contributes to social breakdown in urban environments, as has been observed in cities such as New York and, for that matter, Kingston. Tellingly, this breakdown does not spill over into the adjoining galleries, which maintain the decorum of a traditional “high art” museum environment – the graffiti literally stop at the edge of A Cultural Object’s gallery space. Powerful and popular as it is, A Cultural Object thus also raises questions about artists’ ability to direct audience responses and, thereby, the effectiveness of social criticism in contemporary art. It is nonetheless a fascinating and very powerful social and cultural experiment.
(Photographs by Veerle Poupeye, used with permission from the Dawn Scott estate – all rights reserved)