I 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.
And no, I am not recommending that we “cut off our nose to spite our face.” Reasonable concessions have to be made to the specific circumstances of the Caribbean and solutions and ethical guidelines have to be tailored to be sustainable and productive in the local context. For instance, curatorial skills are rare in the Caribbean and several of those who have them, and work for our public museums, are also artists who are exhibiting and selling their own work. Some authorities take the position that such curators should just put their artistic careers on hold and concentrate on their curatorial work, as some have actually done, but I am not sure that overly punitive and restrictive approaches necessarily benefit the local art worlds, especially when it involves artists of significant talent and vision in an art world which is just beginning to coalesce. Naturally, there must be clearly drawn lines that should not be crossed: artist-curators who work for public institutions should not be allowed to abuse their position to get preferential treatment of any kind, or to commandeer the resources of their organizations for the advancement of their own work and interests. That is just basic ethics, and with some careful reflection and ingenuity, solutions can be found that are ethical, appropriate and workable in each context.
I am not exempting myself from the issues I describe in this post, as I have my own, quite well-known personal and professional histories, but I have been through enough, professionally, over the last thirty-five years to see with devastating clarity how it all works and how damaging it ultimately all is. As Erica James has recently noted, the incestuousness I am writing about here is at the root of the parochialism of the Caribbean art world and it is ultimately holding all of us back, even those who are the short-term beneficiaries. And I know all too well what the knee-jerk response of some will be to this post: a flurry of finger-pointing and counter-finger-pointing, rivaled only by what is currently happening in the field of politics (which, not coincidentally, follows similar patterns in most Caribbean societies), or deafening silence. And yes, I will almost certainly be vilified and targeted, but I am quite used to that, and I may even make a few new enemies. But let’s face it, we are all compromised, by our actions and by our inactions, and I believe that the time has come to take a long, hard and clinical look at ourselves, and to see how things may be changed in a way that is ethical and really benefits all of us, from a broader, long-term perspective. We all need some tough love.
So what triggered this tirade? One is that I am sick and tired of seeing the same artists (and curators) engaged in almost identical, albeit slightly repackaged exhibitions, over and over, year after year, endlessly stirring the same old pot, with little or no room for any new names, let alone new ideas or approaches. The same people constantly talking to each other, about the same things. It is boring, lazy and utterly unproductive. And it is truly alarming how quickly and easily the younger generation has repeated the very same patterns of incestuousness for which they used to lambast the older ones, how quickly and uncritically they become “established,” privileged and entitled. I sometimes dream of being surprised by a really good exhibition, here in the Caribbean, with artists whose work I have never seen before and who I do not know at all. Perhaps that is just a fantasy, but it is a good thought experiment, and it is arguably more naive to think that wilful stagnation and incestuousness could possibly be a good thing.
The other reason for my outburst is the increasingly uncomfortable overlap between the non-profit, public functions of the Caribbean art world and those of its art market. It is an old problem, certainly here in Jamaica, and it is distressing to see history repeating itself. A significant part of the controversies about the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), Jamaica’s national art museum, and its Chief Curator, Dr David Boxer, in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, was about the ways in which the NGJ was embroiled in the local art market, among others selling art from its exhibitions and offering commercial appraisals and valuations, and about the sense that the NGJ was overly focused on an “inner circle” of preferred artists and collectors.
The critic Annie Paul, who is now a Board member and a member of the Exhibition Committee of the NGJ, then wrote about these things. As recently as 2009, she scathingly wrote about David Boxer, who had then been in his position since 1975, initially as Director/Curator, and who was also an artist and collector:
There is no clear separation between the curator’s artistic practice, his own private collecting practice, and his role as the nation’s curator, as it were. For instance, it is de rigueur for the curator’s own artistic works to be included in all National Gallery shows, usually with premium location and space accorded to it. The value accorded to his work is inevitably imbued with the position he holds, and being the de facto authority on art, he has the authority to advise private and corporate collectors on suitable artists to collect. (69)
Any attempt to critique these issues was construed as a dismissal of the otherwise indeed valuable and pioneering work done by the NGJ and Boxer, but there have been efforts in recent years to make the operations of the NGJ more inclusive and consistent with applicable best practices. And while progress has been made, with policies and guidelines articulated, adopted and implemented, that project remains incomplete, imperfect and fragile, and all too easily reversed. The efforts in question, quite predictably, caused resentment with some.
And this takes me to one of the specific recent instances that put that annoying bee in my bonnet: the I Shall Return Again exhibition which recently opened at National Gallery West (NGW), the Montego Bay branch of the NGJ. The exhibition features five contemporary artists who hail from Western Jamaica: Leasho Johnson, Monique Gilpin, Storm Saulter, Nile Saulter, and Cosmo Whyte, although only Monique Gilpin, who also serves as Assistant Curator at NGW, presently lives there. It was curated by NGJ Senior Curator O’Neil Lawrence, who is also from Montego Bay.
I should admit that I have not yet seen the exhibition and this is therefore not meant as a review, but what I have seen on line is sufficient cause to register my concerns in the context of this post (and don’t get me started on the “slapped on” reference to Claude McKay’s poem I Shall Return, which provides a catchy title and a legitimizing literary veneer but which seems quite redundant to the actual exhibition contents; or the seemingly inadvertent but hilarious political reference in the exhibition title, at least for those in the know about Jamaican politics of the 1990s, especially in conjunction with the highly politicized color orange in the exhibition design.) [Update: I have seen the exhibition on September 27 and my concerns remain the same.]
Let me explicitly declare my own interests here: I am the immediate past Executive Director of the NGJ (I left in early January 2018) and one of the persons who conceptualized and developed NGW, which opened to the public in July 2014. It is part of my own histories and close to my heart, and that, no doubt, helps to inform my reactions. And let me also state that I have no difficulty whatsoever with any of the artists–all of whom I know, have worked with myself, and greatly respect and admire–and I am not as such questioning their inclusion in this exhibition. My beef is with how the NGJ has framed and handled this exhibition project (although I do believe that artists need to make wise and informed choices in terms of the ethical and political terrain they navigate.)
Part of the foundational mandate of NGW was to serve the interests of audiences, local and tourists, of Western Jamaica and to counter the Kingston-centeredness of the Jamaican art world, by providing space for artists and art from the West, in the West. While that could, in itself, be a recipe for another kind of parochialism, one of NGW’s purposes was thus to widen the scope and reach of the NGJ’s exhibitions and programs. And the exhibition program was developed accordingly, with exhibitions that alternate between exhibitions that are based on, or part of, exhibitions shown at the NGJ in Kingston and others curated specifically for the site and/or focused on the artists and art of Western Jamaica, which is subject to different dynamics, among others because of the greater proximity to tourism. Or to put it differently, NGW and its programs were part of a broader project of challenging and rethinking perceptions, of moving beyond the established canons, of opening up the discussion, and of providing space for things that may have been previously marginalized or ignored.
There have been two solo exhibitions dedicated to Montego Bay artists, Michael Lester and Marcia Biggs, both in 2016, and artists from the Western region have been included in other exhibitions. And there were always plans to stage an exhibition that would look at the noteworthy number of contemporary artists who have their roots in Western Jamaica but often practice elsewhere. I am glad that this has now come to fruition and the works in the exhibition are very interesting, and the installation exquisite. But that is not at issue here.
What bothers me is, first of all, that this exhibition consists entirely of artists who are regularly exhibited at the NGJ in Kingston, having been featured, and prominently so, in exhibitions such as Young Talent V (2010), New Roots (2013), Masculinities (2015-2016, an abridged version of which was shown at NGW), Young Talent 2015, Digital (2016), We Have Met Before (2017) and the recent Biennials. The list of artists is completely predictable. There is no attempt at going off the beaten track here, no surprises, no new or lesser known names (not even one?), no effort at bringing a new perspective to the equation. And that is very disappointing, given what NGW was meant to do, and well illustrates my point about incestuousness.
But there is another issue that irks me. One of the NGJ’s Board members, Susanne Fredricks, recently launched an online art gallery, Suzie Wong Presents. Ms Fredricks is also the chair of the NGJ’s Exhibition Committee, a sub-committee of the Board that oversees the NGJ’s exhibition programme, including those presented at NGW. Two of the five artists in the I Shall Return Again exhibition are commercially represented by Suzie Wong Presents, namely Leasho Johnson and Monique Gilpin, and several works in the exhibition, or closely related works, are concurrently offered for sale by Suzie Wong Presents. In fact, the work by Leasho Johnson, When Sugar Was Queen # 2, that appears on the exhibition flyer and one of the outdoor banners (on the front of the Montego Bay Cultural Centre Building), is in the Suzie Wong e-catalogue of Leasho Johnson’s work. The Artsy page on which Suzie Wong Presents is featured, furthermore, presents similar information. The same two artists who are also in I Shall Return Again, Monique Gilpin and Leasho Johnson, will be featured by Suzie Wong Presents at the upcoming 1.54 art fair in London. Am I being difficult and persnickety if I signal that there may be a bit of a problem here, that this is too close for comfort? I’ll leave that for my readers to judge.
So here it is, the bee is out of the bonnet and buzzing around in the open. What are we going to do about it? Let the chips fall where they may!
Paul, Annie. “Regarding the South, From the South”. South-South: Interruptions and Encounters. Toronto: Justina Barnicke Gallery, 2009
[Minor edits on September 26 and 28, and October 3, 2018]