Too Close for Comfort

bee-e1452114220653I have a bee in my bonnet. And I have been writing about it here and there on social media, as those who follow me on Facebook will have noticed. It is about the incestuousness, the cliquishness, and the endemic conflict of interest issues that plague the Caribbean art world. Issues that are, if they are even recognized,  often quietly accommodated, buttressed by a disturbingly common “wink-wink, nod-nod, it’s all good as long as I benefit” mentality. Or even vociferously defended as being somehow desirable and beneficial to all, especially in light of the supposedly immense and all-justifying personal sacrifices made by those involved, etcetera. Yet these issues are also the greatest source of alienation, bitterness and division within the Caribbean art world and too much that is (or could be) of real value is not supported or ever seen because the person(s) associated with it are not “in the loop.” And while these issues are a common topic in hushed, “off the record” conversations throughout the region, they are only rarely spoken about in public, at least not in any detail. It appears that we are all afraid of shaking up that particular dolly house. Perhaps there is too much fear of repercussions, of being ostracized for not “playing along”?

I will be told that this is not unique to the Caribbean art world, that it is endemic throughout the global art world. And indeed, there are countless stories all over about curators including work by their lovers in the exhibitions or acquisitions they are handling, and about art jobs and appointments being negotiated in the bedroom, and there is significant, inappropriate overlap between the for-profit, market functions of the art world and those that are supposed to be not-for-profit and for the public benefit. I won’t bother going into detail here, but I don’t think I am exaggerating one bit when I claim that some do not even seem to understand the fundamental difference between an art fair and a biennial, with one being an art market event and the other a supposedly non-profit exhibition, and perhaps understandably so because those boundaries have indeed become blurred. But somehow it feels worse, and more damaging here in the Caribbean, perhaps because there is still more at stake, in terms of artists and other art professionals who are competing for scarce resources and opportunities, and who often do not get the support and compensation their efforts or talents deserve, and in terms of the broader social stakes.

Part of this has to do with how Caribbean societies function, the smallness and the close proximity. Everybody knows everybody, and sometimes too well: people went to school together, they are related, they are past or present friends or lovers (or hopefuls!), or bitter rivals and enemies, and one does not have to exclude the other. Much of this incestuousness is fueled by the unearned privilege and deep-rooted sense of entitlement of those who are already major beneficiaries of how Caribbean societies typically function, by virtue of their position in the race-class hierarchies, their education, their access to travel and resources (and that includes the ability to get visas), and their personal and political affiliations–positions of privilege which very few are ever willing to surrender or even acknowledge. And yes, some are new, or relatively new, to these positions of privilege, and many are struggling financially (or think they are, although they are not really poor), but their lack of self-reflexivity about these issues is often just as real as that of those who have a more established and secure position in it. And some participate just as enthusiastically in the self-perpetuating “mutual benefit societies” that make the Caribbean art world tick.

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Notes on Jamaica’s Art Histories # 2: African-Derived Sculpture from the Colonial Period

skull cap with cowery shells, port royal collection
Cowrie Shell Skull Cap, late 17th century?, found in Port Royal, Collection: National Museum Jamaica (photograph courtesy of the Institute of Jamaica)

My previous post in this series, which can be read here, was aimed at rekindling the critical discussion on Jamaica’s art histories. As I argued then, the problematic of Jamaica’s main art historical narrative cannot be addressed by merely identifying and correcting the obvious gaps and oversights, or simply updating it to the present day by adding recent developments. More fundamental rethinking is necessary to address the disciplinary biases and ideological interests that have informed it and to develop productive alternatives. It is nonetheless useful to take a closer look at some of the obvious omissions from what has been the dominant narrative, since those shed revealing light on the logic of this narrative, and since this also helps to set the agenda for further research and scholarship development.

This second post begins to examine whether any African-derived visual art was practiced during the Plantation era and its immediate aftermath and what, if anything, has survived to the present day, which is inevitably an ideologically charged and contentious question. The focus of this post is on sculptural traditions related to spiritual practices, for the reasons I outline below. This post is, again, adapted from sections from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011 – Chapter 5), updated with more recent research that is still in progress. So please regard this post as “work in progress” rather than as any definitive statement.

(I wish to thank National Museum Jamaica for assistance with images and information regarding objects in its collection.)

ma lou pot
Louisa Jones “Ma Lou” – yabba, c1985, private collection

Introduction

As we have seen in the previous post in this series, David Boxer, in his Jamaican Art 1922-1982 essay, which was first published in 1982 and remains as the standard text on Jamaican art history, controversially claimed that:

It is one of the tragedies of slavery that so drastic was the deculturation of Africans, so harsh the prohibitions against the manufacture of ritual objects, that with the exception of undecorated ceramic vessels not one object exists as evidence of the African artistic traditions in Jamaica. (1998, 13)

There are several ways in which this statement can be read. One is that such visual art forms did not exist in Jamaica during the Plantation era, which is quite easily disproved, and it is this reading to which most of Boxer’s critics have objected. Another, more charitable way to read the statement is that no such historical objects have survived to the present, although that too is debatable. In the 1998 edition of this essay, which included some slight revisions, Boxer moderated his position somewhat, no doubt in response to the criticisms, and recognized that there is in fact some historical evidence, but he did so only in a footnote. He obviously did not feel that this evidence was significant enough to be mentioned in the body of the text or to challenge his overall narrative (1998, 27, fn 9).

To understand Boxer’s position, we need to understand that it is fundamentally related to how he defined “art,” focusing on the conventional “art object.” More specifically, it stems from his conceptions about what is of value and warrants consecration as “art” in Africa’s traditional material culture. It is of note that he prefaced his statement by arguing that the Africans who were brought to Jamaica as slaves came from societies that had well-established sculptural traditions [my emphasis], most of them related to magico-religious practices, and that it could be assumed that the enslaved brought some of these art forms with them (1998, 13).

Boxer’s assumption that any African-derived art forms worth including in his narrative necessarily had to consist of sculpture significantly narrows the scope of discussion and is biased by the Western consecration of magico-religious figural sculpture as the pinnacle of African artistic achievement—the sort of narrow, selective and decontextualized interpretation of the African visual arts that influenced modernist European artists such as Picasso and the German Expressionists and initially informed its inclusion in art museums and private art collections. African art in other forms and media has, conventionally, not received the same level of Western recognition, although this has changed recently, and there is in any case not much room in mainstream European art history for utilitarian art forms of any kind or origin, unless the utilitarian function is “transcended” by what are considered to be outstanding decorative or design qualities—Boxer’s summary dismissal of Jamaica’s African-derived ceramics, even though there is a substantial and fairly well-documented tradition in Jamaica (and elsewhere in the Caribbean), is consistent with that bias.

If we are looking in Jamaica for sculptural traditions that are consistent with these biases, then it may indeed seem, certainly at first glance, that little or nothing has survived from the Plantation era and its aftermath. As Boxer himself later acknowledged, however, there is some historical evidence, and there are several surviving or otherwise documented sculptural objects that may also challenge this claim. None of this evidence is well-known, or well-studied, and none of it has yet been recognized as representative of key moments in Jamaica’s artistic or material culture history.

The question arises why Boxer ignored this evidence in his initial art-historical narrative or failed to integrate it in any significant way in its subsequent revisions, if it is that he had somehow overlooked it initially. As I argued in my previous blog post on this subject, the answer may be that this was instrumental to the way Boxer sought to establish the significance of the Nationalist school, especially Edna Manley, and of the self-taught artists he canonized as Intuitives. Simply put, he argued that these artists undid the cultural injustices of colonialism to create new art that was fundamentally Jamaican, even though rooted in Jamaica’s cultural origins, and that this emerged in tandem with the political awakening of Jamaica as a postcolonial nation. The omission thus goes to the heart of how his argument was strategized.

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Some Thoughts on the Miss Lou Statue

 

Jamaica has been on a statue frenzy recently and that is, in itself, a good thing. Late last year there was the unveiling of the Usain Bolt statue at National Stadium and this will soon be followed, I gather, by the statue to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (we were initially told this would take place some time this summer but, unless I missed something while traveling, only the maquette has thus far been unveiled.) Statues for Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown are also being planned, all of them as part of the Jamaica 55 legacy projects. Earlier this summer, a group of National Heroes busts was unveiled at Emancipation Park, which was organized and funded by the Rotary Club with the blessings of government, and last year there was also the very contentious unveiling of a Garvey bust, the original of which replaced by another version, at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. (I have written another blog post on Jamaica’s public statue issues recently, and it can be read here.)

Most recently, on Friday, September 9, or the 89th birthday of the subject, a statue to Miss Lou was unveiled on Gordon Town Square.  Let me first say how happy I am that this long-overdue project has finally  come to fruition, and how excited I am that the statue was placed in the community where Miss Lou lived for most of her time in Jamaica, as her rootedness in community needed to be part of the recognition process. The placement of the statue in the middle of the square is fortuitous, although there are a few practical and aesthetic problems arising, and it is quite appropriate that Miss Lou is the one to welcome visitors to her community. So congrats and thanks (or should I say “tenky”?) to all who made it happen, the private and public individuals and the artist, and the many efforts that were made over the years.

As is now customary with any new public statue in Jamaica, the debate about its merits and failings almost immediately started and when we visited the statue to photograph it yesterday, several other persons were also seen taking pictures. So the statue is already making its mark and public opinion appears to be divided between those who absolutely love it, those who have a few reservations, and those who totally hate it. Most of it revolves, as usual, around whether the statue is an appropriate likeness but there are also concerns about the location (some would have preferred Emancipation Park), and about the politics that have surrounded its production and unveiling. It is not a major controversy at this time but there are definitely rumblings. I have a few reservations myself and thought I should share them here.

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