Art museums have been under pressure recently. Not a week goes by without some high-profile protest action or controversy and it appears that no major art museum is exempt. This has involved protests against certain exhibitions and against certain artists and artworks, such as the contentions about Chuck Close, after allegations surfaced about a history of sexual harassment of his models, or the protests against a painting in last year’s Whitney Biennial, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), which depicted the corpse of Emmett Till, a black 14-year old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, and which was deemed exploitative. There have also been contentions about how art museums are governed and funded, such as the recent protest at the Metropolitan Museum led by artist Nan Goldin against the role in the opioid painkiller addiction crisis of the Sackler family, who made their fortune in the pharmaceutical industry and who are major donors to the Met. On a more foundational level, these contentions have pertained to the ideological premises on which art museums operate, particularly their role in perpetuating dominant social, political and cultural interests and the manner in which this is reflected in the canons and narratives that such museums have produced and presented.
This is of course not, as such, new, since the canonical functions of art museums have been regularly questioned since the 1960s (and earlier, if we count in the advent of modernism and movements such as Dadaism). One such example is the Puerto Rican artist Rafael Ferrer, who dumped autumn leaves and other debris in the lobby of MoMA in the late 1960s, as a performative intervention that questioned the exclusion of artists like himself from the canons of modernism. Another example is the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of feminist artists that was established in 1985 and that has questioned, through various pointed and witty public interventions, the role of art museums in perpetuating (white) patriarchy. The frequency and intensity of such controversies have however increased exponentially in recent years, as has the intensity and immediacy of the coverage of such actions in the conventional and social media.
While the increasingly contentious relationship with stakeholders has made the leadership positions in museums far more demanding than they used to be, the effects on how museums operate have been generally beneficial, as it has forced museums to become more self-reflexive and to re-examine their ideological foundations. This has, to varying degrees, resulted in more thoughtful and innovative approaches to exhibitions and programmes, which interrogate and challenge the very same canons and grand narratives such museums have historically produced and which invite conversation about them, rather than to impose them unilaterally and unquestioningly. The Victoria and Albert in London comes to mind as a museum that has made interesting strides in interrogating its colonial foundations through its recent exhibitions and projects.
For us here in Caribbean, the question arises where this leaves public cultural institutions such as the National Gallery of Jamaica, Jamaica’s national art museum. I need to acknowledge at this point that I am the immediate past Executive Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica and have played a key role in its exhibitions and programmes up to three months ago. The debates and new expectations that surround museums elsewhere in the world also apply here, however, and there needs to be frank critical discussion about the present moment in the Caribbean art world, at a time where criticality seems to have all but disappeared from the region. I believe that I have a contribution to make to these conversations and so I am offering my perspective, while acknowledging my potential biases and personal interests, and my readers can decide whether I have risen to the occasion.
The National Gallery of Jamaica has been the fulcrum of the local culture wars since it was established in 1974 and it has always held an ambivalent position with regards to the production and promotion of art-historical canons. On one hand, it has made some interesting, if conflicted and at times controversial counter-canonical moves, such as the validation of aspects of self-taught, popular art under the Intuitive label (which has its own problems, but that is another story) and its more general role of claiming Jamaica’s place vis-à-vis the canons and grand narratives of the metropolitan West. On the other hand, it is Jamaica’s very own canonical institution, which has been centrally preoccupied with articulating Jamaica’s national canons from the mid-1970s, albeit always heavily contested ones, and which until quite recently did not question its canonical role or ideological premises. I am not knocking the National Gallery’s early efforts, as these were necessary in their time, but in the present context, these canons and underlying interests need to be unpacked and critiqued, and this ideally needs to be part of the scholarly and curatorial practice of the organization itself. And this takes me to The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, an exhibition which has been on view at National Gallery West, the Montego Bay branch of the National Gallery of Jamaica, since March 7.
The preceding National Gallery West exhibition—a smaller version of the Spiritual Yards exhibition which had previously been shown at the National Gallery in Kingston and which was the last exhibition I had overseen there—was slated to close on February 25 and I was, of course, interested to see what would come next. The first inkling of what would be the next exhibition was an Instagram story which appeared on the National Gallery’s timeline on February 27, which stated that an exhibition titled The Art of Jamaican Sculpture was coming soon. The post showed a snippet of video footage of sculptures that had clearly just arrived at the gallery for installation and I glimpsed work by Ronald Moody, Christopher Gonzalez, Lawrence Edwards, Osmond Watson, and David Miller Senior. There was also a closure notice on Facebook on that day, which stated that the gallery would be closed until March 6 to facilitate the installation of The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, with a note that further information on this exhibition would be coming soon.
Piqued by the rather ambitious exhibition title and the curious lack of any explanatory context, I contacted National Gallery West for more information and was told that the exhibition would have a soft opening on March 7, with a reception at a later date to be announced, but that information on the exhibition itself was forthcoming. On the evening of March 10, three days into the run of the exhibition, an e-flyer which announced that the exhibition reception would be on March 18 was posted to social media, but again without any accompanying information on the exhibition itself. Since I had to be in Montego Bay on March 13 for other reasons, I decided to have a look at the exhibition, which was indeed mounted and open, although there was not as yet any text panel or signage, other than the usual identifying labels besides each work of art. I was again told that the supporting information was forthcoming but that the exhibition was organized around the themes of nationalism, spirituality and abstraction. It is only in late afternoon on March 14, one week after the exhibition had opened to the public, that a press release was finally published and circulated and further queries on March 15 revealed that the curator’s essay that would also serve as the main text panel was still being written and would be posted to the National Gallery West blog. The essay was eventually posted on the day of the reception, March 18, when the text panel was also mounted.
I belabor this sequence of events here because it is unusual, to say the least, that a National Gallery of Jamaica exhibition would have been up and running for a week without any published and shareable information about it. The standard practice is that there will be press and social media advisories at least a week before the exhibition opens for viewing, and ideally much earlier than that, and that the public will be given a fair idea of what to expect in the exhibition, in terms of its scope and the artists featured. I do not wish to be too uncharitable about this unusual radio silence, which may well have been caused by unavoidable practical challenges, but the delay in publishing this information also suggests that there were other problems with this exhibition.
Let me return to why I was piqued by the exhibition title. For a museum exhibition, a title is a promissory note and a statement of intent, which creates certain expectations in terms of what will be presented in the exhibition and also signals how the exhibition is being framed. Titling this exhibition The Art of Jamaican Sculpture may seem innocuous but it implies a lot. It implies a certain position about what is meant with “art” and artistic merit, with “sculpture,” and with “Jamaican art” and “Jamaican sculpture.” Or to put it differently, the title suggests that the National Gallery of Jamaica is in full-throttle canonical mode, at a time when a more self-reflexive and questioning approach is expected. And the title also suggests that the exhibition will sample the full range of sculptural work that has been produced by artists who somehow qualify as “Jamaican” (which is another difficult issue).
Unfortunately, there is no evidence in the exhibition of any such breadth of range or any critical interrogation of its canonical underpinnings. The exhibition consists almost entirely of figurative sculpture—nineteen of the twenty-two sculptures on view are figurative, while three are abstract—and the majority of the sculptures are woodcarvings. One work is a stone carving (an alabaster carving by John “Doc” Williamson) and there are two bronzes, by Edna Manley (the 1982 version of her Negro Aroused, which was in its original, 1935 form a woodcarving) and by Kay Sullivan, as well as a plaster sculpture by Christopher Gonzalez. And only one work steps outside of the conventional formats of pedestal or relief sculpture, namely Laura Facey’s wall- and ground-based installation Goddess of Change (1993), although even this work involves, as its core element, a figurative woodcarving. Clearly, the operative definition of sculpture in this exhibition is a very narrow one and, on the technical front alone, it should be evident that there is a lot more to sculpture in Jamaica than carving and casting alone, especially in the contemporary practice, which is virtually absent from this exhibition. From a thematic, iconographic and stylistic point of view, the exhibition is equally conservative and reflects a very narrow, conventional and, frankly, dated conception of what is deemed legitimate as “Jamaican art.” The three themes of “nationalism, spirituality and abstraction” and the inclusion of self-taught, “Intuitive” artists are well within the range of how that has been conventionally conceived.