Art Museums and Social Hierarchy – Epilogue

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Wall quote, gallery 3

The exhibition is attractively and engagingly mounted but what really brought it to life, at least for me, were three simple wall quotes, one in each gallery, by Claude McKay, an 1893 letter writer to the Gleaner, and the final one by Norman Manley. Without over-determining the interpretation of the exhibition, the quotes disrupt any easy, nostalgic readings of the images and objects on display and add a critical perspective, which invites further reflection and diverse interpretations, for reading the exhibition against the grain. The Claude McKay quote, for instance, reminds us that migration is often provoked by frustration at a lack of opportunity and the belief that this will be available or provided elsewhere, while the Gleaner letter writer evokes the tension between Jamaica’s spectacular natural beauty and the exploitative gaze on that beauty, of colonialism, foreign investment and expatriate settlement, and of tourism. This is what intelligent, effective curating and exhibition design is all about: not necessarily grand gestures but subtle interventions that invite the viewer to engage more deeply and to question what is on view. With a bit of goodwill, the somewhat problematic title of the exhibition could be seen as a similar provocation. And the general text panel is also worth reading, as it provides a sober, concise but to-the-point introduction to the exhibition (it has not as yet been added to the National Gallery blog).

The Daylight Come… adjunct exhibition makes an interesting counterpoint to the Dunkley exhibition without intruding on it or diluting its emphasis on Dunkley’s work itself. It left me hopeful that there will be further inquiry into the social and cultural implications of Dunkley’s work and more engagement with diverse audiences, including audiences which are not normally reached by the National Gallery. It would be very interesting, for instance, to find out whether the people who now live and work on Princess street, which has of course changed a lot since Dunkley’s days, even know about Dunkley, or the National Gallery, and how they respond to his work and what it represents, historically, culturally and socially. With the sort of spirit of inquiry that I saw in Daylight Come…, and some further initiative and creativity, additional new meanings and insights could be teased out.

Where I do have some issues with the new exhibition is the somewhat uncritical representation of cultural nationalism, as the redeeming, victorious “glorious daybreak” of nationhood out of the miseries of colonialism, to use a metaphor which, not coincidentally, resonates with the exhibition title and which is also evident in Jamaica’s political symbols (for instance, the sunrise logo of the PNP). In reality, Jamaica’s path towards independent nationhood was a much more contentious one, with significant tensions between the inward looking gaze of anti-colonial nationalism; the outward-looking gaze of migration and internationalist, diasporic movements such as Garveyism; the effects of urbanization; social inequality and poverty; and the exploitations of late colonialism, tourism, and American imperialism, just to mention a few major factors. Jamaican nationhood has never been fully consensual (and probably will never be), no matter what the nationalist art movement sought to imagine and encourage.

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John Dunkley; Neither Day Nor Night, at the National Gallery of Jamaica

I have always wondered what Dunkley thought about this cultural nationalism to which he was co-opted, by his patrons and by the central place he was subsequently given in Jamaica’s national canons. While apocryphal, there are some stories that give us an inkling that he did not quite see himself in that context, and may even have harboured critical, dissenting views. One pertains to Dunkley’s response to the Junior Centre Director Robert Verity, who had invited Dunkley to participate in Edna Manley’s art classes. It is said that, while assuring Verity and Edna Manley of his affections, Dunkley politely declined, stating that he “saw things a little differently.” And there is also the memoir his widow Cassie Dunkley contributed to the catalogue of the 1948 memorial exhibition which was staged one year after John Dunkley’s death–a memoir which is the main source on Dunkley’s life. Apart from her obvious pride in her husband’s talents, achievements and love for his family, there is a bitterness about her text, which suggests that Dunkley never quite got his dues and furthermore regarded himself as an outsider. This is illustrated by statements such as: “His work was scarcely heard of except for those who knew him personally;” “He was never benefitted [sic] from his talent and there were always hindrances in his way;” or “His work was criticized by  many who did not know his worth as he was the only imaginative painter in the Island and one could not teach him for he was self-taught.” Dunkley’s life, for all his talent and unique artistic vision, was one of struggle, frustration and, ultimately, illness and an early death. And for all the enthusiasm of early patrons such as Delves Molesworth and Robert Verity, Dunkley’s recognition as a major artist ultimately came too late for him.

Daylight Come… opened today without the sort of formality and fanfare that surrounded the Dunkley exhibition opening. There was a short introduction by the exhibition curator, and then the Last Sunday entertainment started, which consisted of a special performance of the Jamaica Philharmonic Orchestra and various guest performers themed around Lupus Awareness month. While I had to leave early because of another commitment, the testimonies and music were moving and engaging and I am only sorry that I could not stay to the end. And while I am not privy to the figures, I would not be surprised to hear that today was actually better attended than the Dunkley exhibition opening and the visitor profile was certainly more diverse, with a much more relaxed and engaged atmosphere. What I saw this afternoon is the National Gallery as, I am sure, most visitors prefer to experience it.

In closing, I should recognize that part of today’s success must be attributed to what was the first edition of the Kingston Creative Art Walk, a new initiative that links various art events in Downtown Kingston, including the National Gallery’s Last Sundays programme, which will be held on the last Sunday of each month. While it had perhaps too much a “Uptown comes to Downtown for an excursion” vibe, it sure created great synergies and brought new audiences to the National Gallery. And participants were clearly enjoying themselves. With more community involvement and engagement, this could become a fantastic, groundbreaking programme that could turn Downtown Kingston into the lively art district it has long had the capacity to become.

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