Art Museums and Social Hierarchy – Epilogue

Daylight Come…Picturing Dunkley’s Jamaica at the National Gallery of Jamaica

Sometimes you think you said everything you had to say on a particular subject, and perhaps too much–my two-part post on Art Museums and Social Hierarchy was not exactly short (you can find part I here and part II here). But then something else happens, and you are forced to rethink some of your assessments, and then you have a few more things to say.

Today was one such instance, when I attended part of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Last Sundays programme, which involved the opening of a new exhibition, Daylight Come…Picturing Dunkley’s Jamaica. This new exhibition is offered as an adjunct to the John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night exhibition, and also continues until July 29, and was curated by National Gallery Assistant Curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson.

The May 23, 2018 press release on the opening and Last Sundays programme rather unhelpfully stated that:

This new exhibition Daylight Come… explores themes such as tourism, immigration and the emergence of cultural nationalism in Jamaica during Dunkley’s lifetime. The exhibition provides further context to Dunkley’s creative output; exploring the works of his contemporaries David Miller Snr and David Miller Jnr, Carl Abrahams, Albert Huie, David Pottinger, Ralph Campbell and Henry Daley among others.

And if I may digress for a moment, the National Gallery really needs to do better with communications: an upcoming exhibition is not a state secret, to be disclosed only at the eleventh hour and in the vaguest possible terms, as seems to have become the norm. Members of the public have a right to know what to expect, with reasonable notice and in sufficient detail.

Wall quote, gallery 1

Based on the description in the press release, I was not particularly excited at what I feared was going to be a boilerplate presentation on photography and other art during Dunkley’s lifetime. And the title of the exhibition was not exactly encouraging either, as it was of course taken from Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (Day-O) (1956) which, while very popular and musically engaging, represents an exoticized and sanitized vision of Jamaican life, polished and prettied up for the consumption of North American audiences and tourists. I had to wonder what the National Gallery was up to.

Wall quote, gallery 2

The exhibition I saw this afternoon, as such, contains few surprises, in terms of the contents or presentation, but I was excited by it, and that was a function of the simple but sophisticated and subtly provocative way in which the exhibition is framed. Divided over three galleries, the exhibition consists of a selection of photographs, archival film footage, paintings and sculptures, and a selection of objects that include a slide lantern and the toolkit of David Miller Jr. Together, these displays explore issues such as the living conditions and economic exploitations that prevailed during Dunkley’s lifetime and which contributed to the labour migrations of that period; the emergence of tourism and what Krista Thompson has called the “tropicalization” of places like Jamaica to suit tourist expectations; and then, in the final gallery, the work of the nationalist school around artists such as Edna Manley, more independent artistic figures such as Carl Abrahams, and the other two self-taught artists who came to the local art world’s attention then, David Miller Sr and Jr.Read More »

Art Museums and Social Hierarchy – Part II

Last Sundays at the National Gallery of Jamaica, December 31, 2017, feat. Nexus Performing Arts Company (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

This is the second part of a two-part blog post. The first part can be read here.

How can [art] participate in networks of power that its content willfully rejects? Often, so-called ‘political art’ simply aestheticises protest or resistance. Sometimes, it has the effect of moral licensing – instilling in its viewer a false sense of having accomplished something. Art and  power have always been begrudging bedfellows.Annie Godfrey Larmon

When I moved to Jamaica in 1984, I encountered a very different situation, where colonialism and its aftermath had put into question the sort of cultural ownership I had taken for granted when going to museums while I was growing up. There has been some progress with that since then but museums are still faraway institutions in the lives of most in Jamaica, visited only in the event of a compulsory school trip or heard about on the news, if at all. That is the hard reality everybody who works in this field should face, and seek to address. There is no glossing it over.

This question of cultural ownership and identification, of articulating a cultural “us,” no matter how complex and fraught this process may be, has been a driving force in the development of postcolonial Jamaica’s cultural production, including the visual arts. It certainly explains the immense popularity of works of art such as Barrington Watson’s painting Mother and Child (1958), a very relatable, intimate representation of a black mother and her young child, or the ceramic and bronze head sculptures of Gene Pearson, which represent a classical, aestheticized vision of blackness with which Jamaicans identify as readily as my family and I did with the Petrus Christus portrait of a young girl.

Gene Pearson – untitled ceramic head (c2000), Private Collection

But perhaps even with these very popular art works, the sense of identification is often too unquestioning, and it is not appreciated sufficiently how this is mediated by other factors, such as the ability to own such works of art, or to have comfortable access to them by feeling “at home” in the museums that own them. And such affirmative, collective artistic images have, historically, also proven to be problematic for other reasons, because they leave no space for otherness, for minorities that do not fit the image projected, and because they promote a static, often even reductive sense of self, that leaves little or no room for change, complexity and critical engagement.

One of the oldest and most basic criticisms of postcolonial cultural nationalism—of which postcolonial public museums are typically both products and agents—is that this ideology has served the interests of postcolonial elites under the guise of cultural populism, that it promotes an ostensibly seamless, consensual cultural identity that is appropriated from the popular but fails to empower the popular masses or to recognize the complex, dynamic and often oppositional nature of the popular culture. Museums in the postcolonial Caribbean are, far more so than in my native Belgium, regarded as organizations that serve the interests of the privileged few (or serve as attractions for the tourists, but I’ll leave that for another post). This perception is particularly strong for art museums, since art patronage, in its traditional form (and there are other options), is almost inevitably associated with wealth and social status.

It does not help that the museum concept itself is, historically, deeply rooted in the colonial enterprise, in the histories of conquest, empire, and exploitation, and the self-justifying, propagandist cultural narratives that have been spun around that. That is not only so for colonial museums such as the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, but also for the larger, well-known “universal survey” museums that were set established to celebrate the ascent and dominance of Western culture, such as the Louvre, the British Museum and, for that matter, the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Several major museums and cultural institutions in the Caribbean also have their origins in the colonial era and this casts long shadows, especially in terms of how these institutions are seen by the public and, arguably even, how some of them still operate. The Institute of Jamaica, for instance, was established in 1879 under the patronage of Governor Anthony Musgrave and initially served as the cultural arm of late colonial policy in Jamaica.

Central galleries, National Gallery of Jamaica (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

Caribbean museums of more recent vintage are, furthermore, often based on models that are derived from those histories. I have, for instance, always been fascinated by the rather uncritical adoption of the “National Gallery” concept and designation in the establishment of public art museums in the region, although this was obviously motivated by the sense of national prestige and validation that comes with that designation. While the actual practice of these art museums deviates in crucial ways from their models, I am left to wonder why there has been no greater effort to rethink the concept, and naming, of those public art museums, in ways which would have been more relevant to the postcolonial Caribbean and which would have come with less problematic ideological baggage.Read More »

Art Museums and Social Hierarchy – Part I


This is the first of a two-part post. The second part, which takes the issues to the Caribbean and Jamaica, can be found here.

Museums are managers of consciousness. They give us an interpretation of history, of how to view the world and locate ourselves in it. They are, if you want to put it in positive terms, great educational institutions. If you want to put it in negative terms, they are propaganda machines.  –  Hans Haacke

I grew up going to museums, and to art museums in particular. I was born in Bruges, Belgium, and it is often said that this city is a museum in itself. Its well-preserved late medieval city centre is an accident of history: Bruges’ harbour silted up rapidly after the 15th century and the subsequent economic decline resulted in a lack of the sort of new building activity that later transformed the face of other Flemish cities such as Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp. Bruges was in its heyday a centre for what we now call Early Flemish painting, with artists such as Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Hans Memling in residence and patronized by Bruges’ wealthy merchants. Bruges is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist site, which attracts some 9 million tourists per year, which is remarkable when compared to its population of about 120,000 in the town centre (and a total of 250,000 if the greater metropolitan area is included.)

Jan van Eyck – The Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436), Groeninge Museum, Bruges

I am aware of some 26 museums in Bruges and environs, big and small, and public and private, and several of these have significant art holdings. The best-known of these is the Groeninge museum, which is the main municipal art museum and which exhibits the work of Flemish and other artists from what is now Belgium, from the 14th to the 20st century. It features such well-known works of art as van Eyck’s The Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436) and Portrait of Margareta van Eyck (1439) and The Death of the Virgin (c1472-1480) by Hugo van der Goes, along with modern works by artists such as James Ensor, Rene Magritte, Marcel Broodthaers, Roger Raveel and many others.

When I was growing up, my immediate family was not professionally involved in art or museums (I had a great-grand uncle, Camille Poupeye, who was a fairly well-known theatre and art critic but he was elderly and lived in Brussels and he was not part of our daily experience). Museum visits were however a fairly regular part of our family outings, as appears to have been the norm for most families in our social cohort. Bruges’ municipal museums had (and I believe still have) free admission for local residents on Sundays, which was of course an incentive to visit, and we also visited the local museums with school. We also traveled quite a bit within Europe and museum visits were invariably a major part of that. One of my earliest museum recollections outside of Bruges was a visit to the Louvre in Paris. I must have been about 10 years old at that time (which would place that visit in the tumultuous year of the 1968 student uprising and I remember seeing heavily armed police officers with riot shields and my mother explaining that it had something to do with the students at the Sorbonne).

Medici Cycle
Pieter Paul Rubens – Marie de’ Medici Cycle (1622-25), Richelieu Wing, Louvre Museum, Paris

The Egyptian mummies at the Louvre would haunt my dreams for months to come, and not in a good way, and strolling around in that very large museum was in itself a challenge for my young body. I remember vividly how much my shoulders were hurting after walking around for several hours and that I was actually crying, having just had my fill of my first Louvre experience. But my mother would have none of it and she was adamant that we were going to see Rubens’ Marie de’ Medici Cycle (1622-25) before we left because, as she put it, we were Flemish and had to see the work of Flemish artists. I hated Rubens for a long time. Subsequent museum visits were not so traumatic and we saw many of Europe’s major museums during our vacations. Our visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was particularly memorable to me and I was mesmerized by the Botticellis there – an experience which contributed actively to my decision to study art history and to make a career in museums.

Sandro Botticelli – The Birth of Venus (1484–1486), Uffizi Gallery, Florence

My family was average middle class, a large family (according to Belgian norms) with five children and no money, and we were not particularly involved in the art world. We had some art works on our walls, but these were family heirlooms, that shared wall space with family photographs and a small, cheap copy of the Mona Lisa – a souvenir of one of our Paris trips. We did not buy art, nor did we go to exhibition previews and I don’t think my family knew any professional artists. The only art event I ever attended while growing up was a special viewing of an exhibition of the Anonieme Vlaamse Primitieven (Anonymous Early Flemish Painters) exhibition at the Groeninge in 1969, to which my family was somehow invited (I don’t remember why exactly but it was some special initiative).Read More »