The National Gallery of Jamaica: Some Notes on Governance and Institutional History

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Installation view of the central gallery during the Jamaica Biennial 2014, with work by Charles Campbell, Rex Dixon, Shoshanna Weinberger, and Kimani Beckford

It appears that sometime in June this year, there were two major staff appointments at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ): O’Neil Lawrence, who previously served as Senior Curator, was promoted to Chief Curator, and Dr Jonathan Greenland, who had been acting as Executive Director since shortly after I left, became Senior Director. This first came to light in an unrelated press release to the NGJ blog, on the visit of Epsy Campbell Barr, First Vice President of Costa Rica. A subsequent release by the NGJ, which appeared in the form of a blog post on June 30, confirmed that O’Neil Lawrence was appointed as Chief Curator and outlined his many achievements, including a truly astounding record of more than thirty-five curated exhibitions in what has been a curatorial career of just about ten years. This was followed on the next day with another post, which took the form of a short interview in which the new Chief Curator outlined some of his plans. My congratulations, and lots of luck, to both men on their new appointments.

There has however been no announcement from the NGJ regarding Dr Greenland’s appointment, now nearly three months after it presumably became effective. I have to wonder why there is this protracted silence on that subject, since such appointments have major repercussions for the outlook, development and operations of a cultural institution and are a matter of public interest, certainly to the Jamaican and Caribbean art world. And there needs to be an explanation as to why Dr Greenland was appointed as Senior Director, instead of as Executive Director, as this suggests a change in status. I also understand that Dr Greenland still has oversight of National Museum Jamaica, but this may be temporary until a new Director is recruited there.

In the absence of publicly available information, we can only speculate about the significance of Dr Greenland’s new job title. It presumably means that the Executive Director position no longer exists and that the NGJ is now headed by a Senior Director instead. What this suggests, however, is a closer administrative and oversight relationship with the Institute of Jamaica (IoJ), the NGJ’s parent organization, and, potentially, less de facto autonomy for the NGJ. To understand why this matters, we need to have a look a the NGJ’s history.

The NGJ was established in 1974, as it was recognized at that time that the art collecting and exhibiting activities of the IoJ were not sufficient to support the burgeoning Jamaican art movement and that a specialized institution, with specialized personnel and dedicated programs, was needed to exhibit, collect, document and promote Jamaican art and to take it to new and diverse audiences. While the net effect of the NGJ on the development and reception of art in Jamaica, forty-five years later, is still to be documented, and while there have been many contentions about the institution’s operations and relationship with the artistic community over the years, there is no doubt that its impact on the Jamaican art world has been tremendous and mostly positive.

Other countries in the Anglophone Caribbean have followed the lead, and there are now also national galleries in Guyana, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, and the NGJ model has certainly been influential on these younger establishments, not only in terms of what to do, but also in terms of what not to do. The latter three have their own, defining legal status and operate on a quasi-governmental basis, which shelters them from the sort of political interference that is possible here in Jamaica.

Barbados has not yet established its own, although it has been planned for several decades now, and there is mounting agitation in the artistic community there about the delays. There has also been discussion in the Caribbean cultural sphere, recently, about whether the national gallery designation and model are really suitable for the postcolonial Caribbean, which is a legitimate question I will leave for another post, but there can be no doubt that a specialized public art institution, whatever form it takes and whatever name it gets, is of potentially tremendous benefit, as a catalyst, to the art communities in which it operates.

Devon House
Devon House

The NGJ was originally established as a limited liability company, which was an unusual legal statute for a public art museum, but this was apparently done to allow it to generate revenue to support its operations (and I understand that some of that revenue came from shop and restaurant spaces at Devon House, where the NGJ was originally located). While it inherited most of the art collection of the IoJ, it appears that the early NGJ operated autonomously from the IoJ, with Maurice Facey as the founding Chairman of the Board. David Boxer — a young artist and art historian with a recent PhD from the Johns Hopkins University, who was just short of thirty years old at that time and a close friend and protégé of Edna Manley — joined as Director/Curator in 1975 and set out to develop the NGJ’s curatorial and art-historical vision and program. The NGJ grew rapidly in scope and stature during those years.

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Parochialism or Inclusiveness? The Inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition – Part II

Katrina Coombs
Katrina Coombs – Golden Flow

This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.

Taking a closer look at the NGJ Summer Exhibition reveals a few pleasant surprises but also pulls the exhibition’s weaknesses and failings into sharper perspective.

Perhaps the most outstanding work in the exhibition is Lucille Junkere’s The Yoruba Blues from Abeokuta Nigeria to Abeokuta Jamaica, which consists of a set of patterned embroidery stitch samples on handmade paper dyed with natural indigo. It is a sophisticated and visually stunning example of research-based artistic practice that delves sensitively but knowingly into the transatlantic cultural connections between Africa and the Caribbean. And I will agree with the curator’s essay that there is a triumph of textile and fiber arts of sorts, as another outstanding work in the exhibition is Katrina Coombs’ Golden Flow, a handwoven red and gold draped scarf form, which transforms the exhibition space allocated to it into a beautifully articulated, quasi-architectural form, making a simple but powerful statement.

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Lucille Junkere – Yoruba Blues…

Norma Rodney Harrack has contributed two exquisitely beautiful sculptural vase forms, which are among her most remarkable works in recent years. Laura Facey is another artist who understands that artists should only submit their best to a NGJ exhibition. There is debate about the politics of her continued engagement with the slavery and plantation history, and the imagery used in the process, but I will leave that for another time, as there is no doubt that Heart of a Man (Inspired by Henry Blake’s “Black Man Hung By the Ribs” and a seed from the Barringtonia Tree) is an exceptional work, formally and technically, but also because of its historical and art-historical references and powerful emotional impact.

Rani Carson
Rani Carson – Transfiguration

Noteworthy and interesting work was also contributed by Amy Laskin, Carol Crichton, Camille Chedda, Shoshanna Weinberger, Winston Patrick, Richard Nattoo, Rani Carson, Esther Chin, Claudia Porges Byer and Ania Freer – as the names I have mentioned thus far illustrate, women appear to have outperformed the men in this exhibition. And it was good to see recent graduates of the Edna Manley College such as Jordan Harrison, Tiana Anglin, and Nadine Hall, especially since younger, contemporary artists are not very well represented in the exhibition.

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Installation view, gallery 3 – Bernard Hoyes’ Silent Sparow is to the right. Laura Facey’s Heart of a Man is on the opposing side of that gallery.

On the other side of the spectrum, the photography entries are particularly disappointing and only a few transcend the club photography level, which is unfortunate since Jamaica has produced quite a few outstanding modern and contemporary photographers. I  have to ask what a box set with reproductions of photographs Albert Chong produced more than twenty years ago is doing in this exhibition and must conclude that he is simply taking his invited artist status for granted. I am also non-plussed by the two bizarre mixed-media heads by Hasani Claxton, as I fail to see any artistic merit or interest, or the patently amateurish textile collage by Bernard Hoyes, which is not consistent with the standard of work this quite well-established artist is known for. In both instances, it appears that it was the subject, rather than the quality of the work itself, that caused it to be selected by the judges: the issues of black female anger in Claxton’s work and the reference to Sparrow in Hoyes’. But in both instances, the work is simply not good enough.

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Parochialism or Inclusiveness? The Inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition – Part I

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Laura Facey – Heart of a Man…

This is the first of a two-part post on the National Gallery of Jamaica Summer Exhibition. Part 2, which takes a closer look at the exhibition itself, can be found here.

Having worked in curatorial positions in a museum context, at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), for the better part of my thirty-five years in Jamaica, I understand all too well how protective curators tend to become of the projects they have worked on, as I have been there myself on many occasions. The NGJ staff works very hard, and is highly committed, and that has always been one of the institution’s greatest assets. What they do involves long hours of challenging work, sacrificing personal time and work-life balance, and engaging deeply with the material on view. The resulting protectiveness is not unlike how most artists feel about their own work and that certainly deserves our respect.

So when I read the curatorial essay by the lead curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson, of the inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition, which opened on July 28, I know perfectly well where she is coming from. Her determination to serve as an advocate for the art works and the artists in the exhibition she curated is commendable and shared by most curators, and is in fact part of the professional ethics attached to the field. Nonetheless, I also have reason to be concerned about the overly defensive, legitimizing tone of the essay, which appears to leave no room for any critical engagement. The coyly dismissive references to “vitriol” and the “big, bad critic” and cryptic declarations such as “I do not believe that this is the moment for maintaining demarcations based on opinions of achievement” do not bode well in that regard. If a curatorial project is to be successful, there must be room for healthy and diverse critical engagement, from within and without, and this should be welcomed and even solicited rather than feared, resisted or dismissed.

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NGJ Summer Exhibition – installation view of central gallery, with work, from left to right, by Jordan Harrison, Bryan McFarlane and Esther Chin

Perhaps the defensiveness of the essay is unconsciously pre-emptive, and really an implied acknowledgement that there are, in fact, serious problems with the exhibition, for the Summer Exhibition is not even close to the level that we ought to expect from the NGJ, as Jamaica’s national art museum. My expectations were admittedly not very high, given the self-limiting manner in which the exhibition was framed, but I am still shocked at its plodding, uninspiring, and dramatically uneven quality. There are some outstanding and interesting works, but the bulk of the exhibition ranges from disappointingly average to, in several instances, totally inappropriate for the NGJ. And I am not the only one to have these views, which are shared by far more observers than the NGJ may care to acknowledge.

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