There is a long and not always auspicious history of artists using their work to retaliate against critics and other personal enemies. One famous example is the King Minos figure in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (1535-1541) fresco in the Sistine Chapel, which was very controversial at the time of its creation (and on several occasions after), because of the frontal (male and female) nudity and the orgiastic quality of the composition. (There is a fascinating TEDx talk art historian Elizabeth Lev on the scandal caused by the Last Judgment – I highly recommend viewing it.) King Minos, who is in the bottom of the hell section of the painting, donkey-eared and besieged by demons and serpents, is actually a portrait of Biagio da Cesena, the master of ceremonies at the Vatican, who had questioned the fresco’s suitability for the Sistine Chapel and notoriously exclaimed it would be more suitable for a tavern or a public bath. De Cesena had objected to Michelangelo’s artistic retaliation to Pope Paul III but the Pope refused to intervene, quipping that he had no jurisdiction in hell, and the Last Judgement remained as it had been completed.
There was at least one more such reference to a critic in the fresco – to the satirist, critic (and pornographer) Pietro Aretino, who is depicted as the elderly St Bartholomew. And more oddly, the flayed skin held by St Bartholomew (who was flayed as part of his martyrdom) is believed to feature an anguished (or angry) self-portrait of Michelangelo himself. It is much harder to decipher what Michelangelo is saying in this particular instance, but it may well be that he is depicting himself as the target of an unfair attack. Aretino had written Michelangelo a letter about the Last Judgment in which he expressed similar concerns as de Cesena subsequently expressed and had, after being dismissed by the artist, lambasted Michelangelo for being gay and “godless,” which were potentially dangerous allegations even in Renaissance Italy. Ironically, Aretino was himself known to have had sexual relationships with men.
Such art works make for good anecdotes and some are in fact quite entertaining – having our enemies dragged by demons into the burning pits of hell is something we all fantasize about at times. But while they were meant to “throw shade” at the person depicted, they also shed light on the personality and intentions of the artist, as the creation of such works sometimes reflects oversized and fragile egos, an unwillingness or inability to contend with criticism, petty vindictiveness, and even clear personal malice. Tellingly, very few are good works of art (OK, OK, I’ll make an exception for the Last Judgement).
This post is not focused on the satire to which public figures should expect to be subjected in the modern world, although even there the question arises about where where the line should be drawn between “acceptable satire,” subject to the principles of freedom of speech, and malicious, personally demeaning representations that may shade into hate speech. Locally, the cartoons of the Jamaican politician and prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller by the Jamaica Observer cartoonist Clovis are a controversial example and I do believe that lines were often crossed there, with depictions of Mrs Simpson-Miller as an ignorant “ghetto” virago that were arguably sexist, classist and even racist.
But what to say about Trump? He is such a problematic public figure, and such a threat to important social, cultural and political values, that it is hard to feel sorry for how he is depicted in the many cartoons, memes, comedy routines and late night TV roasts that pop up constantly in the USA and elsewhere in the world (as well as the occasional work of art). Most are funny and, while politically pointed, not personally offensive, as the one above illustrates, although it is obviously hard to resist the lure of his crazy, self-inflicted hairdo. Normally, I get uncomfortable when public figures are depicted in a sexually demeaning fashion, as these may amount to unwarranted personal violations, and there have been a few such of Trump that focused on alleged penis size etcetera. But then again, his openly sexist attitudes towards women, his own appearance, which does not exactly qualify as the “perfect 10” standard to which he holds women, and the allegations of unwanted sexual approaches to various women, make it harder to object when he is so depicted.
But to return to art, a well-known instance of an art work that raised questions about the representation of public figures is Not Dressed for Conquering/Haute Couture 04 Transport (2011), a mixed media installation by the radical feminist Austrian artist Ines Doujak. In this work the former Spanish King Juan Carlos I is sodomized by late Bolivian labour leader and feminist Domitila Barrios de Chungara, who is in turn sodomized by a dog. It was included in 2015 in an exhibition at Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, which was temporarily closed by the museum director Bartomeu Marí, who also fired two of the exhibition curators — an act of censorship triggered by this particular work that outraged many in the international art world. Marí subsequently resigned and the work has since then been shown elsewhere in Europe and South America.
Most of the discussion was focused on the depiction of the Spanish monarch, but it appears to me that Domitila Barrios, who is in fact the central figure in the work, fared no better, and it is not clear to what end exactly, as there has been very little discussion of the actual content and intent of the work. To me, that is where Not Dressed for Conquering is problematic and a lot of Doujak’s work can in fact be construed as sensationalist and sexually exploitative, of the very women and feminist interests she claims to represent. So perhaps lines were crossed in Not Dressed for Conquering, and arguably not those that attracted the most public attention, but I do not think that censorship was the answer, as pointed critiques and careful analysis of the work would have been far more useful. Doujak has, ironically, been sheltered from any such critiques by being “martyred” as a victim of censorship.
Doujak’s work however falls under the general category of social critique and there is a world of difference between such art works and those that are created to settle personal scores, as this was evidently not a factor in Not Dressed for Conquering. Personally motivated and targeted retaliations in art are, by virtue of what they are, ad hominem attacks and that is the issue I want to focus on here. And this takes me back to Jamaica, which has a long tradition of satirical art, much of it social critique but some of it also personally targeted. Milton George’s painting The PM Speaks at 8 PM (1987), for instance, hilariously spoofed the then prime minister Edward Seaga’s fondness of regular televised addresses to the nation, but there was no malice there for the individual depicted or any attempt to demean him at a personal level.
There is however another work by Milton George, from the same period, that is not so innocent: The Polish Mulb (1988), which made reference to the Gleaner art critic Andrew Hope, who was no fan of Milton’s work and frequently derided it. The Polish Mulb was painted at the height of the controversies between Andrew Hope and the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) and its then Director/Curator David Boxer. Milton was squarely in the NGJ/Boxer camp. There had been other satirical depictions of Hope, for instance a cartoon by Carl Abrahams in which the paintings and sculptures in an exhibition are fleeing in fear of the approaching critic, but most of these were light-hearted and benign. I gather that there is also a painting by Osmond Watson in which Hope is depicted as a donkey’s behind, which is already taking matters a tad further, but I have never seen that work. And David Boxer himself produced a number of works on the theme of St George and the Dragon, in which Boxer was St George and Andrew Hope, of course, the dragon. Those too, were not so innocent, since the dragon is, after all, a vile monster that was heroically vanquished by St George.
In The Polish Mulb, Andrew Hope is depicted as a grotesque, scaly and lumpy, defecating nude creature, with the hunched shape of the figure resembling Hope’s actual silhouette, as he developed a spinal deformity later in life – the work thus makes reference to a physical disability. We could probably also have done without the rather xenophobic reference to Hope’s ethnicity (he had moved from Poland to Jamaica, via the UK, in the years around independence, and his birth name was Ignacy Eker). The work was exhibited at the NGJ, I believe in the 1988 Annual National exhibition, and mounted in a high-visibility location near the entrance where all who visited the NGJ would have seen it, Andrew Hope included.
Milton was a dear friend and I was myself quite uncritically in the NGJ/Boxer camp at that time, and I must admit that I initially thought that the painting was quite funny. That is a response I deeply regret, with hindsight, as I now realize how personally and professionally offensive the work was and, more so, its display at the NGJ. Andrew Hope never came across to me as a particularly sympathetic figure and he often took questionable and even infuriating critical positions, but he certainly deserved to be treated with personal and professional respect. It is no credit to the NGJ that The Polish Mulb was so gleefully exhibited, and this added to various other rather puerile retaliations at that time (which allegedly included two security guards being instructed to follow Hope around closely on one of his visits to the NGJ). The debate should have focused on the substantive issues arising from Andrew Hope’s criticism, and not on the person, and if there had to be any response from what is after all a public institution, this should have reflected appropriate professional restraint.
By virtue of my work in the Jamaican and Caribbean art world, I have been the subject of several “unauthorized” portraits, including a few by Milton George, and even a cartoon or two. I have found most of them quite amusing, and even flattering, although flattery was not always intended. But there have been at least four instances where I was the subject of works of art that were personally hostile, vindictive, and deliberately demeaning in content and intent (and I have, as my readers must know, also been the target of some rather remarkable published verbal attacks). While I have photographic documentation, I will not reproduce the works of art in question here, as I do not want to risk any copyright disputes about them, but I will describe them. Two of these works placed me in demeaning sexual positions and another had grotesque scatological content. Two of these works also make reference to Nazi Germany, with which I have no personal connection and for which I have no sympathy whatsoever. In each instance, the artist sought to exhibit the work at my then workplace, the NGJ, and one actually did. My discussion below is lengthy but it is important to provide adequate context (and I have been as brief as I could with that, leaving out many other salient details).
My book Caribbean Art was published in the summer of 1998, and it was a inevitably a topic for discussion at a conference held late that summer in Barbados by the International Association of Art Critics – Southern Caribbean (AICA-SC) chapter, an event I attended as a presenter. Two papers were delivered that critiqued the book, by Annie Paul and by Tina Spiro. I do not have the texts of these presentations but both were hostile and dismissive in tone, to the point of hyperbole, and both argued that the book (which has since become a classic on university reading lists on Caribbean art) had no value or credibility. Paul’s presentation actually concluded with a statement that the only value of the book was in the collection of reproduced art works as this would aid in her own, obviously superior research on Caribbean art.
I have no difficulty with thoughtful but pointed substantive criticism, even when it is adverse — I am prepared to get, as much as I give — but I am not convinced that what Paul and Spiro presented qualified as such and it appeared to me that the real concerns were not so much about the content of the book, but about pecking orders and the gate-keeping power and visibility this internationally circulated publication was expected to give me in the Caribbean art world. The artist Roberta Stoddart, who was not featured in the book, made a lengthy prepared public statement during the Q&A after my own presentation and, among other things, heatedly accused me of being “nothing but a mouthpiece for David Boxer.” So basically, I was heckled and the point was clearly to take me down and to question my credibility (and it is interesting that both presenters were, like myself, expatriates, and that Stoddart is a white Jamaican — my expatriate status was however repeatedly singled out as a problem by Paul). Let me not give the wrong impression about the conference: most of the papers and discussions were excellent and devoid of such personal animosity, and the general atmosphere was collegial and supportive. Paul, Spiro and Stoddart represented a dissonant note but their interventions were of course much talked about, and are still remembered today by those who were there.
While it was organized independently, an art exhibition, Lips, Sticks + Marks, which featured work by seven Caribbean woman artists, opened simultaneously at the Art Foundry, which was then a gallery space on a plantation in rural Barbados. It was independently curated by three of the artists in it, Annalee Davis, Alida Martinez, and Irenee Shaw, and it also featured work by Roberta Stoddart, Osaira Muyale, Susan Dayal, and Joscelyn Gardner. Catalogue essays were contributed by Annie Paul and Christopher Cozier. I had no difficulty with the exhibition, which was interesting and featured strong artists, although some of the work was perhaps a bit too literal with its feminist content.
I understand that after the conference, the artists decided to produce work in response to the critical reception of the exhibition and the debates that had occurred at the conference, and that these would be added as a postscript to the exhibition. This included a painting by Roberta Stoddart of which I was the subject. I believe it is titled German Expressionism. In this work, I am depicted nude and on all fours, supporting a glass tabletop – it was inspired, I guess, by a well-known pop art sculpture by Allen Jones (which, while inspired by S&M and undeniably sexist, does not target any particular individual). The only thing I am wearing in the Stoddart painting is a Swastika armband around my arm. And I am surrounded by several “Edna Manley-esque” sculptures of black men with giant, erect penises. I guess it is some sort of spoof of my presumed national background, and my profession as an art historian. I did not see the painting at the time, as I had already left Barbados before it was created and exhibited there, but it was described to me and I finally saw it about ten years later in reproduction. The exhibition also traveled to Trinidad, where it was shown, the painting included, at the Museum of Port of Spain, if my recollection is correct.
While I worked elsewhere during those years, I was in late 1998 retained on a three-month contract with the NGJ to curate that year’s Annual National exhibition (I believe Boxer was on leave). While there, I was approached by Stoddart who wished to show Lips, Sticks + Marks at the NGJ. The NGJ, at least at that time, had firm policy restrictions on accepting privately curated and initiated exhibition proposals, as is the norm at most art museums, and there was no precedent for any such to be accepted. While I had explained this to Stoddart, I was strongly pressured, to the point of being pestered, to accept or pilot the proposal, even though I had no such authority at the NGJ at that time, and I was positioned as if I was somehow personally responsible for its showing in Jamaica. I cannot imagine that the NGJ would have been the only possible scenario for this exhibition to be shown in Jamaica, or why I had to take on that burden, but it was obvious that a point was being made. The proposal was submitted to and declined by the NGJ Exhibitions Committee, based on the above-mentioned policy considerations, and Stoddart was encouraged to explore other, private venues in Jamaica. This was not done, to my knowledge, and Lips, Sticks + Marks was never shown in Jamaica. The Stoddart painting was subsequently reproduced in her book The Storyteller, and I understand that it was shown at Hi-Qo Gallery in Kingston in August 2008, when the book was launched in Jamaica.
The irony with all of this is that I have always greatly admired and respected Robert Stoddart as a painter and I can, to this day, not fathom why she harbors such intense and seemingly irrational animosity towards me. There have been other incidents. For instance, I was on a study tour to Trinidad with a number of colleague curators and art historians, sometime in 2009, and I was singled out and denied access to her studio while my colleagues were allowed to visit – I had to wait elsewhere until we were ready to continue to our next stop. I think the pettiness was evident to all, but I am truly saddened, regarding the painting, that an artist who surely defines herself as a feminist, would have resorted to depicting another woman in such a disempowered, sexually demeaning manner.
The second such work that I am aware of was David Boxer’s Ecce Homo, which was exhibited in the 2010 National Biennial at the NGJ, when I was already the Executive Director. Boxer was Chief Curator at the time and an invited artist in the Biennial as well as the curator of that same exhibition, so his submission was entirely at his discretion. I only became aware of its content after the work had been brought in and mounted — there was no disclosure or consultation with me. My working relationship with Boxer had, after a few months on the job, become quite difficult, as we had very different ideas about best practices for museums, the handling of internal management issues, and the desirable artistic direction for the NGJ. He also refused to recognize the Executive Director as the head of the organization, or to be more specific, as the position to which Chief Curator reported, which had been a problem since that new post was first filled in 2004 .
Ecce Homo was a large semi-abstract painting (it took up an entire wall in the exhibition), in which the central “Christ” figure was surrounded by his “tormentors,” several abstracted but grotesque worm- or snake-like creatures. Since I was quite familiar with Boxer’s work (which I also admire) and the strategies he typically used to speak to personal matters, I immediately realized that there were allusions to his working relationship with me — and there was some visible sniggering at the opening function from persons close to him who were in on the “joke” — but the reference would have been hard to decipher for most visitors so I decided that it was better to ignore what I considered a rather silly prank (although I did bring it to the attention of my then Chairman).
Things took a stranger turn a few weeks later, however, when I presented Boxer with a Christmas gift (I believe it was a book on the construction of the Panama Canal), as we had exchanged such presents in the past. He had apparently not planned to reciprocate that year but a few hours later, I got what appeared to be a self-published, express-printed catalogue on his Ecce Homo work in the Biennial, with a very long and dramatic explanatory text. He had apparently also given this catalogue to others as a present. In it, the meaning of the painting was explained in great detail. The grotesque creatures in the painting, the text explained, were the three “witches” in the art world that made his (Boxer’s) life miserable and he noted that one was blonde, one red-headed, and one dark-haired. The blonde witch, which was obviously me, was identified as the chief tormentor and a particularly loathsome creature which he labeled as the “worm-witch.” I am still trying to figure out who the other “witches” might have been, and if they were indeed all female, but I have some ideas. Needless to say, this self-published catalogue was one of the most bizarre Christmas gifts I have ever received, and it certainly did not reflect the spirit of the season, but I also left it at that. Boxer finally retired from the NGJ in 2013.
My next encounter with such retaliatory representations came in 2014, when we launched the significantly revamped and renamed Jamaica Biennial in 2014. One artist, Christopher Irons, submitted two works to the juried section. One made reference to the Vybz Kartel murder trial and, specifically, the reference to Clarke’s shoes as local slang for guns, while the other lambasted me. The work in question was a curious contraption which consisted of a standing multi-panel structure, roughly made from what appeared to be recycled wood, with mixed media collages on all panels. These collages all depicted me, using a head shot that had appeared in the local media, spliced onto the body a Hitler-saluting Nazi officer. There was also a reference to the Minister of Culture in some of these collages, whose image was collaged onto a kite being flown by me. I was also, in one of the panels, shown as “presiding’ over an outhouse, with the Belgian flag as the backdrop, and with the inscription “you are not welcome to shit on us.” Because of its inflammatory content, I brought the work to the attention of the then board, and recommended to allow it to go to the jury, but the decision was made that it should not go forward. The other submission by Irons, which was a much stronger work, was accepted and shown prominently in the exhibition.
This was however not the end of it. On the day of the opening of the Biennial, Irons appeared at the front of the NGJ building, where all visitors to the event would have to pass. He was dancing and wore a face-covering, white papier-mâché mask that could have been a gas mask or a pig’s head (it was not clear). He was also trying to sell T-shirts, of which he had a large supply, on which one of the collages that featured me as a Nazi were reproduced, and he also wore one of those shirts. I assume that he had hoped that visitors would actually buy the T-shirts and wear them in numbers at the function. I had bigger matters to deal with, as I was overseeing a public function with record attendance at which the Minister of Culture was a speaker, and I did not respond, or give any instructions on how to respond, but board and staff members did and I was grateful for the thoughtful and effective manner in which they handled the situation. Irons was not allowed to enter the building with his performance, costume and T-shirts, as he attempted to do, but he was duly presented with his complimentary catalogue, in which his other work was featured, and his activities in front of the building were not interfered with.
A similar scenario unfolded for the 2017 Jamaica Biennial, to which Irons again submitted two works, including one in which I was again lambasted, this time along with a senior faculty member (also female) at the Edna Manley College (EMC). Irons was at that time participating, on a part-time basis, in the EMC degree-upgrade program. In this case, the depiction was even more lurid than the 2014 submission: the base element was a very strange-looking, roughly made brown-glazed ceramic form, about 2 1/2 feet tall, that consisted of the fused heads of myself and my colleague, with my “face” in front of a giant erect penis from which seemingly putrid ejaculate was spouting. In addition, a female panty was stretched over the head and photographs of myself and my colleague had been collaged to its crotch. There were also graffiti-like inscriptions on the panty and the ceramic form, that made reference to the NGJ and the EMC, and the two persons depicted.
I reported the submission to the new board chairman and the chair of the exhibition committee and asked that it be discussed at the next board meeting, which was agreed. I also briefed my colleague at the EMC. At the board meeting, board member Annie Paul arrived armed with a handout on and photograph of the fore-mentioned Ines Doujak work, which was circulated to members present. She argued, using this work as precedent, that as a public figure I should be prepared to be represented in the manner Irons had depicted me and to have such works exhibited at the NGJ. The board decided that the work should go to the jury.
While I had no difficulty per se with the work going to the judges, it should certainly have been noted that I was not a public figure in any sense comparable of Juan Carlos I or, for that matter, Domitila Barrio, and that the work in question did not amount to social critique but was personally targeted. In fact, one major difference which seemed to escape Paul altogether was that I was the head of the very institution to which the work was submitted; and where it would be exhibited if accepted. This would have created a very difficult situation in terms of how this would have affected my personal and professional standing with the public and with staff. It should also have been noted that there were similar implications for my EMC colleague, whose rights and interests should also have been considered. At the very least, more thoughtful and respectful handling of the situation was in order.
After the board meeting ended, board members asked to see the work and I took them to the temporarily closed gallery area where several staff members were working in preparation for the judging. Several board members had already left at that time but those who remained seemed to find the work immensely amusing. Offended and frankly shocked by the hilarity, which took place in the presence of several NGJ staff members, I took one board member aside and asked how he would have felt if it was his wife who was thus depicted. He immediately took responsibility and apologized. He subsequently also sent a letter of apology, which was copied to the entire board. Two other female board members later also apologized. No other apologies were received.
One member of staff, a security guard, who may not have previously realized the subject or nature of the work, subsequently used his smart phone to take pictures of it, and it was clear that he was sharing them, and he too appeared to be quite amused. This incident, too, happened in front of me and further added to my mounting sense of humiliation. The work was subsequently presented to the judges but it was not selected for the exhibition (it was in fact a very weak, poorly made piece). The other submitted work by Irons, which involved more general social satire, was however selected and, as was done in 2014, exhibited in the biennial. There were no protest performances or T-shirt sales by Irons this time around, but he obviously still has an ample supply of the 2014 T-shirts, which I have seen him wear at various art functions in Kingston, and I am aware that he recently presented one as a gift to an artist who was visiting from elsewhere in the Caribbean, so the campaign continues.
Christopher Irons, who is generally controversial as an artist and occasional musician, is an art teacher at a government high school. I had taught Irons at the Edna Manley College when he first studied there, some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s. He was friendly with David Boxer, and one of the small number of artists who were invited to Boxer’s private funeral service in 2017. Although I had been generally supportive of his career and on several occasions curated his work, there had been some hostility towards me from Irons before and there was a minor incident between us at the NGJ some time in 2014, but nothing that I can think of that would have caused me to “deserve” these kind of hateful and demeaning representations.
Irons has also trolled me online. When the results became known on general election night February 25, 2016 and it was clear that there would be a change of government, he had immediately posted on his Facebook timeline that “Poupeye will have to pack her bags now” – he was apparently referring to my employment as Executive Director at the NGJ. And he also trolled the NGJ’s Facebook account, referring to me as “the poop-witch,” and he even made racist and homophobic comments about a Chinese-Jamaican artist who came to my defense.
All four examples discussed here express a hostile and arguably misogynist preoccupation with my person, and I believe that they go well beyond what is acceptable in criticism and satire. Most people have advised me to just ignore these art works, and the associated antics, and I would probably have said the same to others if I had not experienced it myself. I know all too well now what it feels like to be on the receiving end. I will not deny that I have felt personally violated by these art works and by what motivated them, and perhaps more so, by the manner in which some of those incidents have been handled.
I have thus far shown great restraint in my response to these incidents, which I could each have taken further, but I have now decided that it is time to start talking about some of what I have been through in the last twenty-odd years, especially since it has quite consistently come from the same general quarters (although some of the alliances have shifted over time). I believe that this says far more about the prevailing mentality in those quarters than about me and the artists in question may want to consider that, at the end of the day, all art is self-portraiture. And ironically, the very same persons who may defend such art works as free speech will probably be the first to object to me responding to them in this post, but I believe that I have every right to “own” these representations and to comment on them.
The long and the short of it is, however, that I believe that I deserve much better, as a woman, as a person, and as a professional, and this does not mean that I think that I am immune to criticism, but the content and intent of these art works goes well beyond that. My question to my readers is, therefore: imagine how you would feel if you, or somebody you love and respect (your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter, your husband, your friend, your lover – you get my drift), would have been the subject or target of any of the art works in which I was targeted, let alone all of them. And unless you can honestly say that it would not bother you at all and that you would furthermore happily agree to, and preside over, the public exhibition of such depictions, I recommend not jumping on the barricades of freedom of speech too hastily or too uncritically.
The incidents in question are a good occasion to think through what is acceptable and what not in personally targeted art, about where the boundaries of freedom of speech should be drawn, and also about how such art works should be handled when they are submitted for public exhibitions. It is also high time to acknowledge and deal with the extraordinarily toxic, deeply opportunistic and sometimes downright vicious tribalism that has long prevailed in the Jamaican art world, and for which it actually has a reputation in the region, as this is the broader context of what I have discussed here. This tribalism has caused nothing but harm and, while it may occasionally yield temporary satisfaction and personal advantages to some of the parties involved (and may even have advanced a few careers), it has certainly not helped the bigger cause of Jamaican art or benefited its institutions. It has also rendered all forms of criticism suspect, as there is an understandable tendency to see all local criticism in such terms, contributing to the lack of criticality that prevails now. It is high time to move beyond this self-destructive mentality.