Riddles of Identity: Tessa Mars in Context

Tessa Mars exhibition flyerThis essay was written as a commission by Le Centre d’Art for the catalogue of the exhibition by the Haitian artist Tessa Mars titled “île Modèle-Manman Zile-Island Template”, at the Maison Dufort in Port-au-Prince, May 31-June 29, 2019. It was translated into French for the catalogue. The original English version is posted here, with permission from Le Centre d’Art (all rights reserved by Tessa Mars, Le Centre d’Art, and Veerle Poupeye)


Haitian campaign
Tessa Mars – Any Other Island – Toutes et N’Importe Lesquelles (2019)

 

Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, [identities] are subject to the continuous “‘play”‘ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in mere “‘recovery”‘ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.

 – Stuart Hall[1]

One of the defining characteristics of Tessa Mars’ work, is the way in which she reflects on her positionality in the histories and art histories of the Caribbean and specifically, of her home country Haiti.[2] This is exemplified by those works that feature her alter ego, Tessalines, which she introduced in 2015 while on a residency as Alice Yard in Trinidad and which has appeared in many of her works since then. In these works, she playfully claims space among the heroes of revolutionary Haiti as a quasi-mythical, horned warrior woman, armed with a machete or dagger, who is at the same time fearsome, comical, provocatively sexual, and vulnerable, and who is always recognizably Tessa herself, even though the details of the figure’s visual appearance constantly change. Through the figure of Tessalines, Tessa Mars inserts herself symbolically into a male-dominated historical narrative of revolution and self-liberation that is central to Haiti’s official national identity, while making space for ambivalence and subversive re-readings of collective and personal relevance.

Tessa Mars - Dress Rehearsal
Tessa Mars – Dress Rehearsal, November Ritual (2017)

Representations of iconic figures and scenes from the Haitian Revolution are pervasive in Haitian art, to the point of being commonplace, as nationalist historical references that are often also intermixed with the iconography of Vodou, which is the other main pillar of Haiti’s national identity constructions and which also appears in Tessa’s work. There are other contemporary Haitian artists who have cited these representational histories with a comparable sense of identification, irony and critical intent, such as Edouard Duval-Carrié and Vladimir Cybil Charlier, and there is also a tradition of satirical engagement with Haitian history and politics in the popular culture. What sets Tessa Mars apart, however, is the manner in which she inserts her own image and personal identity into this narrative.

References to the Haitian Revolution, Vodou, and related events and beliefs elsewhere in the African Diaspora, have become part of the visual vocabulary and ideological strategies of many artists of the Global Caribbean. The manner in which Tessa Mars inserted herself into the narrative of revolution and liberation, for instance, reminds of how the Jamaican-born artist Renée Cox took on the persona of Queen Nanny, the part-historical, part-mythical female freedom fighter and spiritual leader of the Windward Maroons in 18th century Jamaica and the sole female among Jamaica’s official pantheon of National Heroes, in the series of photographs collectively known as Nanny of the Maroons (2014). While some of the photographs in the series are more intimate, and even eroticized, its most powerful image is The Red Coat, in which Renée Cox/Nanny poses with her machete and defiantly wears the red uniform coat of her arch-enemy, the colonial militia, to become a militant icon of historical and contemporary black female empowerment and resistance.

Le Bon Combat
Tessa Mars – The Good Fight – Le Bon Combat (2018), detail

While the similarities are tantalizing, the fundamental differences must be noted: in the adventures of Tessalines, there are no iconic heroic stances or definitive ideological positions; instead, her ironic play-acting and changeable appearance complicate and subvert the very notion of fixed identities, positions and historical narratives, and represent a different kind of identity politics. Tessalines is, as Tessa Mars insists, a more personal icon, that speaks first and foremost to issues of personal freedom and subjectivity, and serves as an avatar through which her self-identity is negotiated, questioned and explored. Tessalines not only re-interprets key events from the Haitian Revolution, as part of a national imaginary to which Tessa is negotiating her own relationship; the avatar also appears in Tessa’s symbolic, introspective conversations and battles with her own self, as in The Good Fight – Le Bon Combat (2018). The Tessalines narratives are often violent, which is not surprising, given the references to a revolutionary war, but in some instances this may appear to be self-directed, as in the recurrent image of stabbing her own chest with a dagger or machete. This self-directed violence is symbolic and cathartic, however, and serves as a tool for self-inquiry and -affirmation, rather than for self-harm. And it also references certain ritual practices in Vodou, where such actions have similar symbolic implications.

tessa-mars-Conversation-avec-Hector-H
Tessa Mars – Conversation avec Hector H. (2015, not in this exhibition)

Such conversations with Haitian history and culture occur throughout Tessa Mars’ work and, in doing so, she also engages with Haitian art history and, more generally, with the manner in which Haitian history and culture have been represented in art. One such example is her 2015 painting Conversation avec Hector H. (not in this exhibition), in which she interprets Hector Hyppolite’s famous Maîtresse Erzulie (1948) and replaces the figure of Erzulie with the image of her own nude body. Unsparing (in terms of the unidealized representation of her body) but as enchanting as the original painting, Conversation avec Hector H. is a tribute to one of Tessa’s favourite Haitian artists.[3] It also, and more explicitly than with Tessalines, inserts her image and person into the mythological universe of Vodou and the complex notions of gender and sexuality that are being negotiated in that context. Tessa is herself a Vodou believer and its beliefs, symbols and ritual practices are part of her lived experience. More broadly, the work is also a meditation on personal identity, womanhood, the female body, beauty, and sexuality, and on the representational codes that surround these subjects.Read More »

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From the Archives: Ken Abendana Spencer (1929-2005)

empty-art-gallery-in-museum

Here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011), which is taken from a section which explores how artists in Jamaica have marketed their work – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.

The post is not illustrated, as I was unable to get permissions from the Spencer estate in a timely manner at the time of submitting my dissertation and am not able to pursue this solely for the purpose of this impromptu post. Reproductions of Ken Spencer’s work are however widely available online and I encourage readers to search and peruse these.

[There are a number of] Jamaican artists who have devised effective individual marketing strategies and acquired significant wealth in the process. Barrington Watson, as we have seen, has controlled the promotion and pricing of his work by operating his own galleries. His friend and contemporary Ken [Abendana] Spencer (1929-2005), who peddled his works to locals, expatriates and tourists, was a more extreme example.[1]

Spencer started out selling his sketches on a street corner in Downtown Kingston. He joined Barrington Watson in London in 1952 but did not study art there, as Watson had hoped. Instead he started selling his works directly to Jamaican professionals who were hungry for reminders of home. (Greenland 2006) On returning to Jamaica, he continued this direct marketing strategy and Watson remembered that “he would go around the island in a car, and sell his work in Montego Bay and Negril. He would put a bunch of works into a car and his idea was to come back with none” (Ibid.). He personally visited potential buyers, many of them first-time art buyers, and often left the hesitant with a stack of paintings to ponder, to come back a few days later to an almost guaranteed sale (Moo Young 2006). His paintings can be seen in many hotel and bank lobbies, the offices of doctors, dentists and other professionals, and middle class homes.

Most of Spencer’s works represent “traditional” Jamaican subject matter, such as market women and mento musicians – reassuring images of “Old Time Jamaica,” as one contributor to his obituary put it (Greenland 2006). They are painted in a recognizable, confident gestural style: typically, the image is invoked by just a few broad brush or palette knife strokes and set against a monochrome background, often the white gesso undercoating of the canvas. [His large, prominently placed and curvilinear signature served as his trademark.] Spencer’s sketchy semi-abstract style – which in itself challenges the assumption that Jamaican audiences do not respond to abstraction – also reflected his goal to produce and sell as many works as possible. He reputedly worked on several canvases simultaneously, which were lined up so that he would not have to clean off his brushes to change colors, and thus saved time and paints. (Moo Young 2006) He also once told David Boxer that a painting was not economical if it took more than 30 minutes to complete – the sort of stories that horrified “knowing” art lovers in Jamaica.[2]

Spencer’s expansive, jovial personality played a crucial role in his sales and he cultivated his image as a notorious eccentric. He lived in Portland in a self-designed, six-storied castle and willingly entertained local and tourist visitors there, although it was implied that works would be bought. Spencer also frequented the New Kingston hotel bars in search of sales. The art dealer and framer Herman van Asbroeck tells a story that illustrates Spencer’s ingenious “traveling salesman” tactics:

A year ago a man came into the shop and put a Ken Spencer on the desk. He wanted to have it framed. I asked him: ‘You bought a Ken Spencer?’ And he replied: ‘No, I won it!’ Apparently, he had come to Kingston for a builder’s conference and a group of them had gone out for a drink. They ended up in the Hilton at 2:00 a.m. Suddenly a gentleman approached their table and asked if they wanted to play a game. He told them he had a number in his pocket and then he marked out cards 1 to 5. Everyone took a number and the customer in my shop was the winner. Then Ken Spencer introduced himself. By the end of the night, all the people at the table had bought paintings! (Greenland 2006)

These anecdotes, also, marked Spencer as one who was not a “serious” artist.

While he occasionally produced more ambitious works, Spencer was not an artist who strove to produce “masterpieces” but one who deliberately produced generic paintings that were recognizably “a Ken Spencer.” [He] did not significantly pressure local cultural institutions for public recognition and never had an exhibition in a gallery.[3] When asked why, he claimed that he did not need such exposure because all of Jamaica was his gallery (Moo Young 2006). His sense of achievement thus came from the prevalence of his work in the Jamaican environment. Others, however, took up his cause and already during his lifetime there were heated arguments within the art community about Spencer’s artistic merits and the NGJ’s neglect of his work was cited as evidence of the elitism of the Jamaican art establishment.

Spencer was an undeniably gifted painter and the local popularity of his work is a cultural phenomenon that warrants its own recognition. The recent attempts at inserting him into the national canons, however, obscure that had he handled his work differently, he could certainly have been a recognized member of the post-Independence mainstream. Spencer was unapologetic about being primarily motivated by economic gain and opted to disregard the processes by which artistic worth is conventionally determined. He thus represents an instructive counterpart to those contemporary artists who resist the forces of the market and, despite the fact that he had far less to say, succeeded where they have failed by reaching deep into Jamaican society. Spencer’s choices also separate him from Barrington Watson, who used more conventional art sales methods and always asserted the “high art” status of his work. While Watson’s exact position in the local art hierarchies has been contentious, his inclusion in the national canons is quite secure, unlike Spencer whose chances at consecration as a “Jamaican master” will always be tenuous, because he broke the codes of “high art” in his pursuit of commercial success.

Endnotes

[1] He was commonly known as Ken Abendana Spencer during his lifetime but the lawyers responsible for his estate insist that his legal name was “Kenneth Abondarno Spencer” (Forth Blake 2006).

[2] Personal communication, David Boxer, January 11, 2006.

[3] The NGJ owns three Spencers but none are on permanent display. One of these works was transferred from the IoJ collection in 1974 and the other two were part of a major donation by the then Chairman of the NGJ Aaron Matalon in 1999, which sought to address lacunas in the NGJ’s collection. While there may have been other expressions of discontent on Spencer’s part, I know of only one incident, a year or two before he died, when he complained to the NGJ Registrar about not being adequately represented in the NGJ’s collection (personal communication, Roxanne Silent, Registrar, NGJ, March 12, 2008).

SOURCES

Greenland, Jonathan. “Remembering Ken Spencer.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1-2

Moo Young, Howard. “Jamaica Is My Gallery.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1

From the Archives: Eugene Hyde (1931-1980)

Eugene_Hyde_Bunch_Fruit_1959_NGJ
Eugene Hyde – Bunch Fruit (1959), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

Here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011) – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.

The Independence Generation

The years around Independence were, as the artist and critic Gloria Escoffery (1986) has argued, characterized by a combination of great ambitions and sometimes naïve idealism. The period was marked by the advent of a new generation of artists, most of whom had studied abroad. The three most influential among them were Karl Parboosingh, who had studied in Paris, New York and Mexico; Eugene Hyde, who had studied in California, and Barrington Watson, who had attended the Royal Academy in London and several continental European academies. Their choices illustrate that England was no longer the obligatory overseas study destination, as it had been for the previous generation. Each returned home with new ideas about art – high Modernist in the case of Parboosingh and Hyde and academic in the case of Watson – and an ambitious, cosmopolitan outlook which actively challenged the more limited outlook of earlier nationalist art. Their subject matter was still recognizably Jamaican but they combined this with formal experimentation, a preference for monumental scales that transcended the “living room format” preferred by the nationalist school, and a new critical attitude.

Watson, Hyde and Parboosingh, who were more securely middle class than most of their predecessors, presented themselves emphatically as professionals and made unprecedented public demands about the support Jamaican society should provide for their work. Along with the art collector and engineer-builder A.D. Scott, they founded the Contemporary Jamaican Artists Association (CJAA) which was active from 1964 to 1974 as the first professional artists association in Jamaica. Watson was in 1962 appointed Director of Studies of the Jamaican School of Art and Craft (JSAC) which he, in a move that reflected his commitment to “high art” ideals, renamed the Jamaica School of Art, thus dropping the “craft.” He transformed the previously informal, part-time school into a full-time institution with a four-year diploma curriculum, modeled after the then English art school system. This further contributed to the professionalization of the arts and better equipped graduates for further studies abroad.

Predictably, there was animosity between these ambitious young artists and their artistic elders and this went beyond mere aesthetic differences. They were the first to openly challenge Edna Manley’s dominance. Watson stated in a 1984 interview that the older artists “were in a different mould, and they were already established and not prepared to make the big breakout in the way we were” (Waugh 1987, 136) and:

The Edna Manley, the [Junior Center director] Robert Verity and that lot were doing a really good job in the arts before [but it] had something like a colonial approach to it in a sense. It was [a] sort of ‘giving a break to a talented youngster’ type of thing […] They patronized a lot of the artists and kept them at a certain level, unfortunately or inadvertently, by this kind of patronizing approach. (137)

It could certainly be argued that the nationalist intelligentsia’s missionary zeal to promote local talent replicated the colonial notion of the child-like native whose potential had to be awakened and nurtured. Watson and his colleagues were not interested in obtaining any “from the top down” patronage but in self-empowerment – and it is implied, as black postcolonial artists – and they were quite successful in becoming outspoken public figures that functioned as cultural icons and self-sufficient entrepreneurs.

The introduction of high Modernist ideas represented a departure from the populist beginnings of modern Jamaican art and this resulted in what could be construed as a more elitist and “foreign” kind of art. Yet this new generation was more proactively involved in bringing their art into the public domain than their predecessors and took the initiative to be involved in public art projects, to be visible in the local media and to establish new galleries. […]

[The artists of the CJAA generation] wanted “proper” spaces and display methods that matched the high Modernist “white cube” gallery concept (O’Doherty 1986). In 1964, the CJAA opened its own gallery, simply known as the Gallery, which was the first modern gallery space in Jamaica. The Gallery mainly showed the work of its directors but also of like-minded artists such as Kofi Kayiga (né Ricardo Wilkins), Milton Harley and George Rodney – all pioneers of abstract painting in Jamaica. In 1970, Hyde opened his own gallery, the John Peartree Gallery, which provided space for avant-garde artists such as David Boxer, who had solo exhibitions there in 1976 and 1979. Watson followed suit in 1974, when he established Gallery Barrington, although this gallery served primarily to promote his own work. When the CJAA folded in 1974, A.D. Scott established his Olympia International Art Centre, as an expansion of the hotel and apartment complex he had previously built near the UWI campus on the north-eastern outskirts of Kingston. In an effort to integrate art and life, Olympia housed his substantial collection, hosted occasional exhibitions and provided affordable housing for some artists.[…]

While self-promotion was a factor in their public initiatives, the idealism of the CJAA members was genuine. They wished to create art that would be meaningful to the new, progressive Jamaica and to stimulate new thinking, shifting the focus of local art production from the affirmative to the critical. Hyde stated in 1964:

[The] artist needs to be aware of public interest. This doesn’t necessarily mean compliance. In fact one wishes there was more counter-reaction to the artist from the public. It is hard to describe just what we’re seeking, but it is a kind of friction, a sort of force, one against the other, which the artist must have, if he is not to exist in a vacuum (Gloudon 1964).

The CJAA artists were thus not interested in “art for art sake” but wished to produce art that played an active, productive role in Jamaican society. […]

Eugene Hyde

Eugene Hyde is the only major Jamaican artist of his generation who studied entirely in the USA and who did not have an exclusive fine arts training: he had studied advertising design at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in the early 1950s and then obtained a scholarship to pursue an MFA in painting and graphic design at the Los Angeles Art Institute. He returned to Jamaica in 1960 but after failing to obtain a teaching position at UWI or the JSAC, he left again for the USA, to do further studies in advertising and architectural ceramics. He finally found a job at a Jamaican advertising firm in 1961 and permanently returned to the island. (Smith McCrea 1984)

Hyde’s inaugural Jamaican solo exhibition, which was held at the Institute of Jamaica in 1963, is widely credited as the first local exhibition of abstract art although the works he showed were essentially figurative and perhaps best described as “abstracted expressionism”.[1] Hyde’s work was sometimes excessively influenced by the Italian-American painter Rico Lebrun, an exponent of the “New Imagist” stream in Modernist Western painting which focused on the human figure, represented in an abstracted, expressionistically distorted manner to represent the anxieties of modern existence (Smith-McCrae 1984).[2]

Hyde’s solo exhibition included three mural-size multi-figure paintings, Colonization I, Colonization II and The Lynch Mob, but the entire exhibition, which also included etches and drawings, had an expansive, dramatic quality. This sense of scale and the gestural, abstract expressionist technique of Hyde’s paintings – or, as Eker regretted, his preoccupation with the act of painting itself – was regarded as “American” by some local observers and their responses reveal a deep distrust of the emerging US-American influence in Jamaican culture. The fact that Hyde was primarily trained as a graphic designer was also invoked to suggest that the work lacked “deep” content. Eker denounced “the hectoring tone of the show. It was as though the artist – who, significantly, is also an advertising executive – were shouting ‘Listen to me! Listen to me!’ and when I listened, I found that they had very little to tell me” (1963, 12). The American critic [and Haitian self-taught art promoter] Selden Rodman, in his travel book on the Caribbean, also located Hyde’s work outside of Jamaican culture and summarily dismissed it as “perfectly indigenous to Madison Avenue” (1968, 35). Despite these misgivings, Hyde became influential in the local art community and the ownership of the works in his 1984 retrospective indicate that he was supported by the professional class of his generation.

Hyde’s work challenged local artistic conventions [of the nationalist school] but, as with Parboosingh and Barrington Watson, is better understood in terms of its relationship with the rest of Jamaican art than in terms of any irredeemable difference. While he was certainly concerned with the act of painting (and drawing) in its own right, Hyde was no true formalist and many of his works make socio-political statements, as the titles of his early murals well illustrate. Like his nationalist predecessors and contemporaries such as Parboosingh, Hyde was preoccupied with the effects of colonialism and the challenges of building a modern, independent society but his perspective was more pessimistic. Hyde’s political works, far from being empty rhetorical gestures, represented Jamaica as a wounded, blighted society, disabled by its past and present traumas. Works such as Future Problems (1962), an ink on paper portrait of a poor young man, prophetically captured the discontent among the youth as the main source of social tension in Jamaica.

Hyde - Sunflower2
Eugene Hyde – Sun Flowers (1967), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

Not all of Hyde’s early works were political, however, and he also produced abstract, formalist paintings. He obviously preferred to apply the formal explorations of high Modernism to Jamaican subject matter, however, and this resulted in his extended series of Sunflowers, Spathodias and Crotons of the late 1960s to early 1970s. These highly abstracted explorations of the Jamaican vegetation were, with their bold designs and intense colors, as celebratory as Albert Huie’s light-infused landscapes (although his Sunflowers, inevitably, also referenced van Gogh’s more morbid use of this floral theme.)

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“As I Am”: Kimani Beckford’s Affirmations

The young Jamaican painter Kimani Beckford currently has a solo-exhibition tour project, titled Affirmation. The exhibition is shown at two venues: its inaugural display was held at the Jamaica Conference Centre in Kingston, in space that is used for art exhibitions by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), and has now closed. The second leg of it will be shown at National Gallery West in Montego Bay, where it is scheduled to open on May 19. This review is based on the Kingston edition of the exhibition but I also  raise a few issues that are relevant to the upcoming Montego Bay showing.

The Affirmation exhibition project is supported by the inaugural Dean Collection TDC20 St(art) Ups Artist Grants, of which Kimani Beckford was one of twenty awardees and the only Jamaican. The US-based Dean Collection was  founded by Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean and Alicia Keys and is, as the TDC20 website states, “a contemporary, family art collection focused on the support of living artists.” The grants are available by competitive application to artists globally and serve to support young and emerging artists in organizing a solo exhibition, irrespective of themes, genres or media (and I understand that in the future, it may be available to a larger number of artists). Other than providing funding support and lending its name to the venture, and of course making sure that the artists deliver on their commitments, the Dean Collection is not involved in the resulting exhibitions, which are the sole responsibility of the awardees and no commissions are charged. It is an exemplary, development-focused patronage model that surely warrants emulation in the Jamaican context, where such initiatives are sorely needed as there is still nothing that has taken the place of the now defunct but influential Mutual Gallery Super-Plus Under-Forty Artist of the Year Awards.

Kimani Beckford is a 2011 graduate of the Edna Manley College and he has distinguished himself since then, among others being the co-winner, with Camille Chedda, of the inaugural Dawn Scott Memorial Award in the 2014 Jamaica Biennial. He has exhibited regularly at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), in the 2012, 2014, and 2017 biennials, and in the Digital exhibition in 2016. His international exposure to date includes Icons: Ideals of Black Masculinity (2018) at Xavier University in New Orleans, and Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora (2016) at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol. While he has also worked in other media (his contribution to Digital was a video installation), he is first and foremost a painter and one of a strong cohort of contemporary figurative painters who have emerged from the Edna Manley College in recent years, which includes Michael Elliott, Phillip Thomas, Alicia Brown, and Greg Bailey (the reception and politics of figurative painting in Jamaica’s contemporary art scene is one of the subjects I will be discussing in a forthcoming interview with Phillip Thomas).

Affirmation is Kimani Beckford’s first solo exhibition, which is an important step for any young artist, and it is the first exhibition in which he has shown a significant body of work. The exhibition consists of thirty new paintings, made for this exhibition and over an intensive work period of five months, and only the earliest painting in the exhibition, Affirmation, from which the exhibition also takes its title and concept, is dated 2018. The exhibition is accompanied by a small catalogue publication with various texts, including an extended artist’s statement.

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From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 2

Eugene Hyde - Good Friday
Eugene Hyde – Good Friday, from the Casualties Series, 1978 (Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica)

Here is part two of a two-part excerpt from my PhD dissertation “Between National and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011). The excerpt is from the Introduction. Part one can be found here. (c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved

Partha Chatterjee has pointed out that the challenge facing anticolonial cultural nationalism was to “to fashion a ‘modern’ national culture that is nevertheless not Western” (1993, 6) and added that “the search for a postcolonial modernity has been tied, from its very birth, with its struggle against modernity” (75). Anticolonial and postcolonial Modernist art has indeed developed in a conflicted dialogue with Western Modernism, reinforced by the fact that many postcolonial artists and cultural scholars have studied or worked in the metropolitan West. Still today, it is one of the most charged questions in the postcolonial mimicry debate, as is illustrated by the Indian expatriate art critic Annie Paul’s argument that mainstream Jamaican artists and art narratives “parrot” Western, high Modernist models, with a particular predilection for abstraction (1997).

Paul’s position is, in itself, highly problematic. First of all, the relationship between non-Western cultural nationalism and Modernism cannot be understood if Modernism is conflated with the formalist, High Modernist notion of art as an autonomous aesthetic preoccupation. Modernism is a much broader, more multifaceted phenomenon and the aspects of Western Modernism that attracted anticolonial and postcolonial nationalists are those equally important ones that accommodated social and political content and intent, such as expressionism and realism. While there has been some experimentation with abstraction, as is illustrated by the Cuban propaganda posters and a few “formalist rebellions” among artists who felt confined by cultural nationalism, representation has been the norm in most anti- and postcolonial art and this has certainly been the case in Jamaica, where art has always had a strong figurative focus.

Furthermore, the tendency to concede the authorship and rightful ownership of Modernism entirely to the metropolitan West needs to be challenged (Stam & Shohat 1998, 40). Modernism was a fundamentally transnational phenomenon, in which non-Western artists and intellectuals such as Wifredo Lam and Aimé Césaire and their international travels played a defining role. Latin American Modernism, in particular, has developed simultaneously with and sometimes ahead of European and US-American Modernism (Ades 1989, 125-149). While these contributions need to be reclaimed, the effects of Western metropolitan dominance in Modernism should not be downplayed either. There is an unresolved tension in anticolonial nationalist art movements between the desire to satisfy the cultural requirements of nationalism and those of the Western-focused “aesthetic internationalism” of Modernism (Shohat & Stam 1998, 40).

The primary means to make Jamaican Modernism “not Western” has been, to use Chatterjee’s term, the “appropriation of the popular” (1993, 72) but it has been a selective, vertical appropriation that relegates popular culture to being a “low culture” source for “high art” rather than a full-fledged part of the national culture. Norman Manley’s 1939 speech suggests that the artists – and he called them “our best young men,” in a remarkable, gender-biased failure to acknowledge the role of female artists such as his own wife in the nationalist movement – belonged to a separate category from “the people” whose culture they embraced and ennobled in their work, although several of the young members of the nationalist Jamaican art movement they mentored originally came from poor rural and urban backgrounds. Such views about the exceptional status of the artist are also evident in the work of C.L.R. James, who wrote in The Artist in the Caribbean: “A supreme artist exercises an influence on the national consciousness which is incalculable. He is created by it but he himself illuminates and amplifies it, bringing the past up to date and charting the future” (1977, 185).  The underlying issue is that nationalist art movements such as Jamaica’s have, in spite of the populist rhetoric and aversion to formalism, not fundamentally challenged the notion of “high culture” itself. The Jamaican nationalist movement may have originated in a genuine desire to transform society but it generated what was ultimately a new elite culture.

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From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 1

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Edna Manley – Paul Bogle (1965), ciment fondu, Morant Bay Courthouse, now removed (photo source:Wikimedia, Flickr: Dubdem Sound System :: Jamaican Tour 2009)

While I work on some urgent publication deadlines and some new blog posts (and mark papers!), here is another text from my personal archives: the first of a two-part excerpt from my PhD dissertation “Between National and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011). The excerpt is from the Introduction. Part two can be found here.

(c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved

Nearly fifteen years have passed since I drafted this chapter and there have been significant changes in the context since then – it would be interesting to hear from my readers what these changes may be.

One central assumption in almost all the literature on postcolonial culture, even in the most strident critiques of cultural nationalism, is the view that the arts can be mobilized to effect, or prevent, social and political change. Such ideas were first put forward by pioneering anticolonial and racial activists from the late 19th to the mid 20th century. It became the foundation of cultural and educational policy for postcolonial states and a strategy for popular resistance and liberation movements alike.

The idea that art has socially transformative potential appears in two general, overlapping forms, which are by no means exclusive to the postcolonial world. The first is the propagandist view, which posits that the content, form and presentation of art can and must make a direct intervention in society, for instance by protesting injustice, by promoting a particular political, religious or ideological perspective, or by extolling or denigrating certain political leaders. This view has been influential in the postcolonial Caribbean although there has been resistance against the more doctrinarian forms of propaganda art on the part of many artists and intellectuals. C.L.R. James, for instance, scornfully dismisses “socialist realism” in What is Art? (1993, 200), an essay in Beyond a Boundary, his famous 1963 book on the politics of cricket, in which he argues for the “high art” status of cricket by appealing to universalist aesthetic concepts such as “beauty,” “structural perfection,” and “significant form.”

A similar reluctance to dismiss ideals of artistic freedom and aesthetic universality can be seen in the Cuban constitution of 1976, which states that “there is freedom of artistic creation as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution. There is freedom of artistic expression.”[1] With other words, the form of art is free but its content is subject to state interference. When exactly the content of art comes into conflict with the principles of the Revolution is, of course, subject to interpretation and this has varied significantly over time. Cuban government patronage has also actively interfered with artistic form, by rewarding artists who work in certain styles. There were times when it advocated a more dogmatic “socialist realism” – as happened briefly in the early 1960s and again during the 1970s, when Soviet influence was at its peak. Formalist trends, in contrast, have been tolerated but not encouraged and have, at times, been criticized for their association with American cultural imperialism. But generally, Cuban artists have enjoyed a fair degree of artistic freedom and this has made Cuban art more diverse and vibrant than in most other Communist countries. Cuban poster art from the 1960s and 70s, for instance, combined classic propagandist content with experimental form, including abstraction, and sophisticated visual caricature. Artists have occasionally challenged the Cuban government with overtly critical and satirical works, as could be seen in contemporary art from the 1980s and 1990s, but such episodes have usually been short-lived and subject to censorship. (Camnitzer 1994; Block & Mosquera 2001)

Propaganda art is nonetheless very common throughout the Caribbean and ranges from the crudest political propaganda to more subtle pedagogic approaches that advocate certain lifestyles or world views. Much of what can be classified as propaganda art has, naturally, been initiated by the colonial and postcolonial governments of the region, as is illustrated by the ubiquitous, and often controversial, official monuments, but a lot of popular art also qualifies as propaganda, as in Rastafarian street art which assertively promotes Rastafarian religious and political views.

East street rasta murals
Mural paintings on the Monica Bernard Building, East Street, Kingston, photographed in 2011 (Photo copyright Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved)

The second cluster of ideas about the socially transformative potential of the arts is the more general and far less controversial view that expressive culture is essential to personhood and collective identity formation and that its production and consumption should therefore be encouraged and facilitated. It is for this reason that art is almost always included in school curricula and used for therapeutic purposes with the mentally and physically ill. The political and ideological implications of the belief that art is a fundamental human need rather than a luxury are wide-ranging and can, among others, be used to justify public expenditure on cultural programs and institutions, even to those who would be critical of obvious propaganda art. Notions of personhood and collective identity are, however, in themselves deeply political and the promotion of art for its edifying power therefore often amounts to indirect propaganda.

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