Fashioning Exhibitions: Some Thoughts on “Beyond Fashion”

Jessica Ogden - Dozen Dresses
Jessica Ogden – A Dozen Dresses – photo: courtesy of the Artist

I had initially decided not to review the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ)’s Beyond Fashion exhibition, which opened on September 30.

There were several reasons for that decision. One is that I have written quite a bit about the NGJ, recently, and felt that I needed to step back for a bit. I can hardly be accused of being dispassionate about the subject, given my recently ended history of some thirty-four years of association with the organization. Not that critics need to be dispassionate, that is a major misconception: good criticism, while it needs to be fair and well-informed, must be passionate, opinionated and, where necessary, contrary. Without that, criticism would be quite redundant. But to be as close as I still am to the subject comes with certain challenges, among others that what I have to say, whether it has merit or not, may be dismissed a priori by some as “sour grapes.” At the same time, however, I am also uniquely placed to talk about some of the issues arising from the current exhibition, as a curator and art historian of some experience here in the Caribbean, and I have not seen any published reviews or commentaries, other than the usual social reporting. So I’ve decided to post my comments after all, despite my misgivings, and I do hope that what I have to say will be regarded on its own merit.

Girl and Magpie - Living Necklace
The Girl and the Magpie – Breathe (2018) / Collection Fragile Jamaica / Love is not enoug

Attendance at the opening event on September 30 was spectacular, and comparable only to other major exhibition openings like the Barrington Watson retrospective in 2012 and the Jamaica Biennial in 2017. There were, as the NGJ has acknowledged in the media, two major factors that contributed to the high attendance. One is Kingston Creative‘s monthly Art Walk, a recent initiative that piggy-backs on the NGJ’s Last Sundays programme (which has itself been in existence since 2012), and is gathering significant momentum, in terms of participation and public visibility. The second was the Quilt performance (which has been an annual, much-anticipated Last Sundays feature since 2015). Quilt is a performing arts troupe based at Taylor Hall at UWI-Mona and comes with a large and enthusiastic fan base, which was very visibly (and audibly) present on September 30. The crowd in attendance was mesmerized by the Quilt performance, which took place in the central gallery area, and rightly so, as it was excellent. What happened on September 30, which was also refreshing because of the function’s informality, is a good illustration of the sort of synergies that can bring new, more socially diverse and larger audiences to museums. So I wholeheartedly applaud all the parties involved, the NGJ crucially included, and I do hope that these shared initiatives will continue to grow and thrive.

Ayana Riviere - Pay Day 2018
Ayana Riviere – Pay Day (2018)

When the dust has settled, however, what matters most about museum exhibitions is what they choose to exhibit, how they do so, what they communicate to whom in the process, the contribution they make to cultural scholarship, and for exhibitions of contemporary art, also what kind of impact they may have on the artistic field in which they intervene. The NGJ is a national art museum and as my academic mentor, the great Ivan Karp used to insist, museums are, fundamentally, institutions of public scholarship. They are expected to be leading producers and communicators of new knowledge about art, culture, society and science, depending on their mandate, and to do so with savvy about the research, engagement and educational processes involved, and about the social dynamics that surround all of this. And let us acknowledge this here: the NGJ is, by local circumstance, the sole major producer of art-historical and other art-related knowledge in Jamaica, and that comes with special responsibilities. And that is where I have problems with some of the NGJ’s recent exhibitions (and I have written about that previously, for instance in my review of The Art of Jamaican Sculpture at National Gallery West.)

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Jasmine Thomas-Girvan, from the Turntables series

I have no problem with the art and artists on view in Beyond Fashion and that too is a pattern in some of the other NGJ exhibitions I have commented on recently: the art selected is excellent in and of itself, but the curation, supporting research, and concept leave to be desired. Beyond Fashion has several sublime moments: Jessica Ogden’s A Dozen Dresses is one such (and actually features 11 dresses, with the “self” being the 12th dress), as is The Girl and the Magpie’s living necklace (which needs to be misted and kept alive by visitors). And Jasmine Thomas-Girvan’s stunning, thematically and technically sophisticated work never disappoints (although it has been shown very often in recent exhibitions at the NGJ). Ayana Rivière’s simple but powerful installation provides another arresting moment, and refers to the social politics of the trade in second-hand clothing by presenting three bales of such clothing on a blue tarpaulin, indexing the street-side markets where such items are often sold.

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Yasmin Spiro’s works, and a few visitors, in front of one of Seymour Lewis’ walls

I was also delighted, although initially confused, to see the name of Seymour Lewis among the credited artists. I know Mr Lewis as the NGJ’s very talented exhibition installation officer, who works major magic for every exhibition staged at the gallery with his fabrications, many of which require his own design input and significant collaboration with the featured artists and curators. I wondered for a moment whether there was another creative side to Mr Lewis I was not aware of but when I did not see anything in the exhibition or the accompanying texts or labels that indicated for what exactly he was being credited, I decided to ask him myself. He explained that he had designed and produced the (very beautiful) raw pine backdrop walls and platforms that punctuate the exhibition and significantly add to its overall aesthetic and visual cohesion. I am glad that this was recognized by listing him among the artists, which is where he certainly deserves to be, for what he does is art, but a bit of explanation and credit in the exhibition itself would have been even better.

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The More Things Change: Haitian Art in the Western Imaginary

480px-Damballah_La_Flambeau
Hector Hyppolite – Damballah La Flambeau, c1946 (Image source: Wikimedia)

Two troubling documents came to my desk recently and, well, they put a few more bees in my bonnet (it’s becoming a bit of a hive in there!). One was a promotional article on a concurrent suite of three “Frieze Week” exhibitions of Haitian art in London that appeared in the Telegraph; the other was an e-newsletter about what is curiously named a “Ghetto Tarot Retreat,” which is to be held in January at a beach resort in Haiti.

Combined, these two documents reminded me that when it comes to the representation of Haitian art, and the very problematic imaginaries about Haiti and Haitian culture that have surrounded this, it always seems to be “one step forward, two steps backward.” Frustratingly, it appears that any attempt at pushing the critique and at leveling the playing field (and there have been some serious and sincere efforts in recent years) is predictably followed or accompanied by efforts, witless or deliberate, to  reestablish the old, patently problematic narratives. And what bothers me about these two instances, is that they illustrate that it is first and foremost the Euro-American market of Haitian art which seems to crave and produce such narratives, and swiftly reproduces them whenever they seem to slip away. If they have every really slipped away, that is.

The Ghetto Tarot Retreat strikes me as belonging to the “witless” category, not that this is any less damaging, no matter how it is couched in glib rhetoric of healing and goodwill. When I initially heard about the Ghetto Tarot deck, which was produced in 2015 by the artist Alice Smeets and which is now marketed online, I rather naively thought it was a cool project and a witty, visually and culturally interesting photographic re-interpretation of traditional Tarot, that built on the work of the Atis Rezistans and Ghetto Biennale, two initiatives that are based in the inner cities of Port-au-Prince. Looking back, I recognize that this project was from the start very problematic, as it fetishizes notions about the “ghetto” and co-opts and trivializes the cultural and artistic practices depicted, to produce an exotic commodity for the thriving Euro-American “spiritualism industry.”

And if there was any shred of doubt left about the problematic nature of the Ghetto Tarot project, this was removed by the description in the Ghetto Tarot Retreat announcement. Alice Smeets, who is originally from Eupen, Belgium, but apparently spends significant time in Haiti, describes herself as a photographer, artist, and life coach, as well as a “psychonaut” and “status-quo challenger.” In her bio, she claims that, having moved away from producing photographs that depicted poverty and hopelessness, as this was apparently too depressing, she now uses”photography art as well as photojournalism to help transform our world, but this time [focuses] on the solutions instead of the problems.”

And apparently, the Ghetto Tarot Retreat, which is organized by Smeets and her best friend Kerrie O’Reilly from Ireland, another life coach (although more florid terms are again used),  is part of those solutions. The tagline for the event is: “palmtrees, white sand, fresh coconuts,” and the rest almost reads like satire. Candidate participants are advised that:  “The Ghetto Tarot cards were created to bring you in touch with your deepest truths. We will use the cards as a tool to discover our purpose in life, our suppressed self and the reason behind feeling lost, depressed or unhappy;” and: “To make it extra fun we will visit the artists of the Ghetto Tarot in their Ghetto Art Gallery in Port-au-Prince.” So yes, by spending time on a beach, doing Ghetto Tarot readings and such things, and by participating in a guided excursion to the actual “Ghetto,” participants will be tapping into their “deepest truths,” recover their happiness and overcome depression. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry but, then again, I just read today about Melanie Trump wearing a pith helmet on her official visit to Kenya, so cultural insensitivity is apparently the order of the day. And of course, I was immediately reminded of the tarot-reading virgin psychic Solitaire in James Bond’s Live and Let Die (1973), which is not coincidentally set in the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique and presents a filmic narrative that is riddled with lurid allusions to Haiti and Vodou.

I have not contacted Alice Smeets (she is welcome to comment, though) and only have sketchy, third party information about the business arrangements involved, but I have to question if and how the “ghetto” community has benefited from this, financially and in terms of how it reflects on the community’s own art initiatives. I have sought and received the following statement from Andre Eugene and Leah Gordon, the organizers of the Ghetto Biennale: “As the joint directors of the Ghetto Biennale we simply want to state that this set of tarot card photographs and subsequent vacation project are in no way linked with our project. Atis Rezistans are also deeply disappointed that the artist [is] glibly renaming their space ‘Ghetto Art Gallery’ thus negating their own identity and agency.”

Chung, Andrea - Come back to yourself
Andrea Chung – Come Back to Yourself, c2012 (Photo courtesy of the Artist, all rights reserved)

Had Ms Smeets and Ms O’Reilly organized a spiritual self-discovery retreat like this in the picturesque countryside around Eupen, or in Ireland, leaving Haiti out of it entirely, or had she even just left the “ghetto” designation (or is it a justification?) out of what is basically a luxury retreat in Haiti, it would perhaps just have warranted a few amused eye-rolls. As it stands, however, the Ghetto Tarot Retreat illustrates the very problematic way in which places such as Haiti are constructed and mobilized as sites for self-discovery and -redemption and for what can, in this case, only be described as  narcissistic self-indulgence. The newsletter came to my attention when it was posted to the Critical.Caribbean.Art Facebook group by the artist Andrea Chung, who is based in California and who has her family roots in Jamaica and Trinidad. Chung’s own work, among other things, questions the narratives that are constructed around race, culture and society in Caribbean tourism. I have illustrated above an Andrea Chung collage from 2012 in which she powerfully critiques exactly the sort of perceptions and constructs that inform the Ghetto Tarot Retreat concept and juxtaposes them pointedly to the socio-political contradictions of the postcolonial Caribbean.

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