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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
While the exhibition includes several artists who had not been featured at the NGJ before, Jessica Ogden, Yasmin Spiro and Ayana Rivière among them, there are too many works in Beyond Fashion that I have seen before in other recent NGJ exhibitions, such as Young Talent V (2010), Seven Women Artists (2015), Masculinities (2015-2016), and the Biennials in 2014 and 2017, and several of them more than once. This includes work by Marvin Bartley, Cosmo Whyte, Kereina Chang-Fatt, and The Girl and The Magpie. Several of these are from the NGJ collection, and were acquired from the fore-mentioned exhibitions, and they have also been included regularly in temporary installations. I am left to wonder whether the curators did not have enough new work and added readily available works on related themes from the collection and previous exhibitions to fill the gaps. It is not good for the NGJ to rely excessively on such easy fall-back positions when new exhibitions are curated, unless there is judicious re-contextualization, and surely other works by some of the same artists could have been included.
Most importantly, I was left to wonder about the thematic considerations that shape Beyond Fashion, and the underlying scholarship and critical engagement, beyond pondering the very broad theme of the intersections of art and fashion. The introductory text panel announces that the exhibition premise in based on extended conversations with “artisans, designers, jewelers, painters, photographers, and textile artists” who work along those intersections. This is fair enough and a potentially productive methodology, were it not that it appears that the net was not cast widely, beyond the existing social and professional circles of the curators, and that is a recipe for a very predictable, self-fulfilling approach. And part of the problem may also be with how “artisans, designers, jewelers, painters, photographers, and textile artists” were defined in the first place.
The introductory wall text talks rather beautifully about engaging with “the theme of fashioning: the act of making or crafting, the almost magical transformation of an object from one form to another,” although this is of course central to all art-making. The text then elaborates on the art versus craft, artist versus artisan distinctions, and the historical problematic involved, which are undeniably pertinent to the exhibition theme, and argues that the artists in this exhibition have challenged and gone beyond this divide to explore personal and political themes. Some of the artists in the exhibition indeed address such issues in their work, but all of them do so in a highly aestheticized manner, which is reinforced by the equally aestheticized exhibition design and this locks Beyond Fashion firmly into a fine arts paradigm. Nothing wrong with that per se, but this undermines and contradicts the exhibition’s stated agenda of moving beyond such paradigms.
And this is where I have major difficulty with the exhibition which, beautiful as it is, reflects a dearth of research, critical inquiry, and self-reflexivity, and fails to go beyond the obvious and the readily accessible. Fashion is always deeply political and that is most certainly the case in Jamaica, which has been a global influence in fashion and style with what has emerged in its popular culture alone—cultural expressions that are indifferent to any art/craft or art/fashion divide, and add deep creativity and complex, subversive political meaning to individual and collective modes of dress. Just think about the rude boy aesthetic, about the dress codes of Rastafari and reggae, or about dancehall fashion, just to list the most obvious examples.
Or go back a bit deeper in history, and look at the Actor Boy in Belisario’s famous prints, who cross-dressed sexually, racially, culturally and socially to present a raucous, subversive parody of plantation culture, thus talking back to power through costume and performance. Think about how certain musicians and other celebrities define themselves uniquely through what they wear and how they adorn their bodies, in ways which have often been internationally and/or locally influential—Grace Jones, Lee “Scratch” Perry, the artist Stefan Clarke, and even the literary scholar and columnist Carolyn Cooper all come to mind as Jamaicans who present themselves unapologetically as living, moving works of art. And think for a moment about those art/fashion-challenging expressions that have received less critical and academic attention, such as church fashion, which may bring the highest heels and the tightest skirts, the latest styles in hair, make-up and sunglasses, and, of course, the most fanciful hats into what are often morally conservative environments, especially when funerals are involved. Or consider Jamaica’s long history with recycling and re-purposing, where powerful examples of “the almost magical transformation of an object from one form to another” can be seen, driven by equal doses of necessity, cultural meaning, and creativity—the rag mat tradition represented by Sane Mae Dunkley and the patchwork traditions Jacqueline Bishop has documented in her family come to mind.
Sure, Beyond Fashion references these subjects: it includes a triptych photograph of Lee “Scratch” Perry by Peter Dean Rickards, Cosmo Whyte’s interpretation of the legendary photo-shoot scene from The Harder They Come, and Ebony G. Patterson’s baroque reflections on the politics of visibility and dress in the context of contemporary dancehall culture and social violence. But all of this is represented through the lens of fine art interpretation rather than by the original cultural expressions that inspired them, some of which thrive just around the corner from the NGJ on Princess Street. As gorgeous as Jessica Ogden’s framed quilt Collette is, for instance, it is a shame that this is not presented in dialogue with the recycled textile traditions in the popular culture, which are still grossly under-recognized artistically even though they are a significant cultural product. It is worth nothing that all artists in the exhibition solidly belong to the middle and upper classes, which is truly remarkable for an exhibition which purports to challenge the art/craft divide, as this is deeply rooted in social hierarchies, but that is indicative of the exhibition’s lack of any underlying self-reflexivity. Phillip Thomas’ painting in the exhibition is the only acknowledgement of these class dynamics, which are a core theme of his work.
And it is not that these politics of style and fashion in Jamaica are not documented or written about—while additional research would have been required, there is for instance quite a bit of literature on the politics of rude boy and dance hall fashion. Beyond Fashion is an opportunity missed to delve deeply and critically into one of the most talked about but rarely explored issues in Jamaican art and culture: the “high culture” versus “popular culture” dynamic, yet this is curiously eluded, despite the stated objectives of the exhibition. The result might have been less picture-perfect than the present exhibition but it would have been a truer and more meaningful reflection of the complex fabric of Jamaican culture, with regards to the intersections of art and fashion and beyond. The result could have been a truly innovative and ground-breaking exhibition, that starts telling some of the many untold stories, exhibition-wise, of Jamaica’s artistic and cultural history.
And while the Beyond Fashion exhibition installation is, as such, quite beautiful and enjoyable, there are other, more technical problems too. Most of what is featured in Beyond Fashion is very subtle—too subtle, arguably—but the size and design of the wall texts are not subtle at all. Working with empty space in an exhibition like this one requires deft curatorship and exhibition design—it is just as difficult as working with negative space in a painting or drawing—and the inclusion of these oversized, over-designed wall texts that needlessly commandeer entire walls only adds to my suspicion that the curators/exhibition designers were trying to fill what would otherwise have been large, empty spaces. The thick, bright blue text borders around the texts only make matters worse, as these are visually overbearing, and the overall design clashes rudely with the delicate and luminous design style of the exhibition.
There are also major issues with clarity and legibility in the text panels, because of the helter-skelter layout of some of the copy, with excerpted quotes in large, fanciful fonts being highlighted in seemingly random positions in the layout, sometimes literally splitting the body text in two. It is a design gimmick that may have been a good idea initially but that has taken on a life of its own, without due consideration for its impact on access and legibility, even though these are crucial requirements for wall texts in museum exhibitions. And design without consideration for function and functionality is ultimately bad design. There are issues of placement too, especially with the crucial introductory text, which is awkwardly mounted in a low-visibility section of the rather narrow corridor that connects two of the galleries and which is probably missed by many visitors, even though it should be the first thing they read.
But more so than the design, I have problems with the content of the wall texts. The exhibition itself seems to be organized mainly around aesthetic and practical considerations, and only here and there is there a hint of any thematic cohesion. The wall texts, which draw from the earlier-mentioned conversations, meander aimlessly from what I would expect to read in an artist’s bio to actual quotes, without any real clarity about what points are being made or explored, in each gallery and collectively. An exhibition narrative is comparable to a story, or an essay, and should be choreographed accordingly in the exhibition space and the accompanying texts, and while there is no prescribed form and significant room for fluidity, a certain amount of expository rigor is needed to give it cohesion and to make it intelligible. And that basic cohesion is lacking in Beyond Fashion, which is held together by its design aesthetic rather than any sound and consistent curatorial or thematic exposition, even though that design cohesion is itself disrupted by the dissonant note of the wall text design. And for an exhibition which purports to explore a particular, and important, line of thematic inquiry, that is very unfortunate.
Finally, there is also the question of how this exhibition fits in with the NGJ’s current exhibition programme. The NGJ has been curiously silent about upcoming exhibitions, which must be among the country’s best guarded secrets, to be revealed only sporadically, cryptically and at the eleventh hour. Beyond Fashion was no exception and one is left to wonder about what is happening behind the scenes and how exhibitions are being planned. Many have asked, for instance, about the next edition of the Jamaica Biennial. The last Biennial opened in late February 2017 and the call for submissions for that edition was issued in late August 2016, which was already quite late at that time. Since there has been no call for the next edition, which was expected for February 2019, and we are now in the middle of October, we can safely assume that there will be no Biennial in February 2019. Is it that the NGJ has again changed the timing, which would be the second time in the short history of the rebranded Biennial, or is it that different plans are being hatched? Speculation is rife and the NGJ would do well to send clear and timely signals about its upcoming exhibitions, the Biennial crucially included, in terms of communicating the specifics as well as the general direction to the public. What is happening right now is not a good look.