Caribbean Conversations: Phillip Thomas – Part I

N Train
Phillip Thomas – The N Train (2008, oil on canvas, 77 x 147″)

This is the first part of an extended conversation with the Jamaican painter Phillip Thomas. Part two can be found here.

Phillip Thomas was born in 1980, in Kingston, Jamaica. He holds a BFA in Painting in 2003 from the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and an MFA from the New York Academy of Art. He has exhibited extensively locally and internationally and is represented in major collections. His recent exhibitions include his solo show “Rich in Black History” (2019) at the RJD Gallery, Bridgehampton, NY, and “Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox” at the Museum of the African Diaspora San Francisco. His awards include the Bronze Musgrave Medal of the Institute of Jamaica, the Public Prize in the 2006 SuperPlus Under 40 Artist of the Year competition, the Aaron Matalon Award in the 2008 National Biennial at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and the Albert Huie Award for Painting at the Edna Manley College in 2003. Thomas lives and works in Kingston, Jamaica, and lectures in Painting at the Edna Manley College.

Veerle Poupeye: How do you situate and define yourself as an artist, in the contemporary Jamaican and Caribbean context? Is that, in fact, the context in which you situate and define yourself and, if not, how else would you contextualize your practice?

Phillip Thomas: It has been a very complicated problem for contemporary artists of the region for some time now. The very structure of the question suggests that artists of the region ought to, in some way, self-consciously produce works of art that reflects some sort of idea about Caribbean aesthetics. As one can imagine, these types of problems produce not just specific aesthetic problems, but ultimately complicate the ways in which we go about the very nature of aesthetic problem-solving. We must, at some point, make up our minds as to what it is that we intend to produce here in the Caribbean – art or artifacts. If we are going to question whether or not the “subaltern” can speak, we cannot merely be content with speaking in unison, where that is appropriate, but, perhaps more importantly, we must also strive for individuality.

Regionalism through art must be, in my opinion, firstly an endeavor that occurs through the rigors of academic and aesthetic inquiry. Secondly, we must use our present lives and experiences in conjunction with the understanding of our historical narratives in order to convey our truest selves. If our aesthetic investigations are merely remnants of the demands of the “art market”, in other parts of the world, then those demands will produce a false sense of homogeneity. This problem of aesthetic uniformity almost destroyed Haitian Art, for example. Remember, there was a time when Haitian artists were driven to singularity by the global art market. This in turn rendered the works almost indistinguishable in their make and subject matter. Thankfully now, we can all see that this financial suffocation has changed over the years and I think for the better. Certainly, some cultures are more susceptible to these kinds of globally recognized iconographies, and Jamaica is one such cultural product. We even go as far as calling our culture “Brand Jamaica.”

Phillip Thomas – Pimper’s Paradise – The Terra Nova Nights Edition (2019, mixed media on canvas, 87 x 192″)

As for my own Jamaican or Caribbean contextualization in art, I am often speaking from a very personal space and experience through which I am “reverse-engineering” some of our national and perhaps regional concerns. One of the ways in which I have gone about discussing some of the aesthetic issues here in Jamaica, is through critiquing the problems of representation, authenticity, authorship and ownership. Much of “our” art history in Jamaica, going back to the 18th century, has primarily been about the depiction of ownership and the “other”. This meant that much of the depictions of Jamaican life was designed to present the land and people as resources that are primed for exploitation. The depictions of Jamaican life, or rather, life in Jamaica, in much of the work of the “Itinerant Painters”, didn’t simply present their subject as merely the acquisition of property but more importantly, they presented the ownership of “subjects”. This manner of depicting acquisition presented a very clear distinction between owner and owned. Now, I have argued that much of those structures are still in place today and we haven’t been able to have an honest discussion about the ways in which our search for “authenticity” has created, inadvertently or otherwise, the means through which the subject of Jamaican art is made synonymous with the demography of the working-class.

THOMAS_George Stiebel_Framed_LowRes
Phillip Thomas – George Stiebel (2018, oil on canvas, 83 x 52″)

Herein rests a very big problem. If Jamaica’s “authentic” cultural expressions are designated in the manner that they are, then this one-dimensional delineation will only allow one demography of Jamaicans to be the subject of inquiry, rendering another demography of Jamaicans the sole collector and distributor of these findings. Am I saying that these stories are not true? Certainly not. Am I saying that “middle-classed” Jamaicans have no right to tell these stories? Not at all, but what I am saying here is that the danger of a national homogeneous brand allows, on the one hand, a one-directional flow of national self-definitions. However, at the other end of the discussion, it is also clear to see that there is something that is very dangerous about untold stories. Untold stories have the ability to mystify their undiscovered subjects. And that mysticism is a major part of how the “powerful” maintain power. In my own work, I have made a very conscious effort to open these dialogues about the idea of the “subject” of Jamaican art. Much of what I have done is to ignore the notions of the “authentic” Jamaican subject matter and allow for the development of my work to follow those natural progressions. That opening up of the subject allow me to produce works that excavates our varying demographics and the result were works of art that dealt with Jamaica’s inter-demographic relationships, and that was very fruitful for me.

8 I.M.F...cked
Phillip Thomas – I.M.F.@cked (2014, mixed media on canvas, 108 x 252″)

One of the difficulties for me in approaching an unexplored subjects in Jamaican art is how do I go about securing source material for these, more or less, unfamiliar ideas. One way I had to secure source material for a financial inquiry into my painting I.M.F@cked (2014), I selected a number of ATM machines in key locations and took the receipts from the trash receptacles, then organized them by the balance figures and regions and communities. The first reading is, as expected, the high financial threshold on some slips in some areas as opposed to others. But, what was even more interesting for my purpose was the ATM machines that were literally across the road from each other. Those machines showed some of the same disparities as machines in entirely different communities. This suggests to me that our social silos are completely exclusive, no matter how close they are to each other. It is common knowledge in Jamaica that the distance between many affluent communities and poorer ones are best expressed in culture as opposed to mileage. These contextual problems are very difficult to unravel because of my particular perspective on our national ideas of authenticity, however, they create interesting cross-fertilization for my work, they moreover, allow me to delve deeper into the very structure of our ideas of representation and invisibility. 

Phillip Thomas – An Upper St Andrew Concubine (2012, oil on canvas, 87 x 192″)

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[un]finished (December 20-22, 2019)

Visitors to art exhibitions usually get to see finished art works and usually have only a limited sense of the process involved in the production of art, in terms of the development of concept, theme, technique and style that goes into the production of a single work of art, and into the development of an artist’s general artistic language. In contemporary art, this process has been pushed to the forefront, and is often a defining aspect of the work itself, in ways that allow us to consider what art really is and how it is created. The question of when a work of art is finished, or if it is ever finished, also arises in this context.

The artistic process is the theme of the upcoming exhibition [un]finished, which features work by five senior students of the School of Visual Arts of the Edna Manley College – Kobi Bailey, Demar Brackenridge, Sasha-Kay Hinds, Tevin Lewis and Brad Pinnock – as well as two recent graduates – Yvad Campbell and Trishaunna Henry. These artists work in a variety of media, techniques and styles, from realist painting on canvas to a video installation, digital photo-manipulations, experimental prints, interventions into found objects, and, even, figurative sculptures made from bread and margarine. Themes and concepts vary widely but each selected work sheds light on the process of artistic creation, the importance of research and experimentation, the development of a distinctive artistic voice in the work of young artists, and the use of process as a key concept in contemporary art.

In addition, the exhibition also includes an interactive element with Nanook Founder, Joan Webley undertaking a great “art return.” The Nanook community space operated in Kingston from 2013 to 2016 and housed many artistic offerings. Among these were Iset Sankofa’s, Sankofa Sessions: live painting DJ events, where persons in attendance were given materials and invited to produce spontaneous art works in response to the “vibes” at the gatherings. The guests first painted the walls and floors, in an experimental approach to creativity and the artistic process. Later, event co-convener and Edna Manley College graduate, Matthew McCarthy introduced posterboards and the works started to increase in numbers. Some of these artists and works travelled to Europe for exhibitions in 2015 and many of the art pieces only made the final leg of the return trip to Jamaica in 2018. Nanook is now returning all these works to their creators and facilitating a discussion about the “UPTour: a journey from creation to commercialisation that went ‘unfinished’ for so long.” The selections include work by several artists who are now quite well-known, such as Taj Francis and Richard Nattoo, as well as by self-taught artists from the community and even persons who had not painted before. The Nanook community space will reopen in 2020 and this exhibition is the first rekindling of that creative community flame.

Installation view – Nanook community works

[Un]finished will be held at 132 Harbour Street, Downtown Kingston, from December 20-22, 2019., and will be open to the public from 11 am to 4 pm on each day. The artists and Joan Webley will be present on Sunday, December 22 to talk about their work and Nanook as part of the Kingston Creative Art Walk programme on that day – more details about this event, which will take place from 2 to 3 pm, will be communicated separately.

[Un]-finished is co-curated by Veerle Poupeye, Waldane Walker and Joan Webley. The exhibition is presented in association with the following sponsors and partners: Itopia Life; the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Tetley and Caribbean Dreams Teas; the Gleaner; the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts; Kingston Creative; and VP Projects.

For queries and more information, please contact vpcuratorialprojects@gmail.com or follow <vpprojects.wordpress.com>.

Shifting the Conversation: Ania Freer's "All That Don't Leave"

Work by Alexander “Bamboo King” Dempster in foreground, with exhibition sign by Kemel Leeford Rankine in the background

Ania Freer describes herself as “an Australian/Jamaican filmmaker and creative story-teller.” She operates and curates an online gallery and Instagram platform, Goat Curry Gallery, which features work by the Jamaican craft producers she works with as well as her documentaries on the subject. Goat Curry Gallery is a self-funded project and proceeds from sales go fully to the artists, while visitors can donate towards the film projects – a subtle but pointed non-profit alternative to the hyper-capitalist frenzy around art and its markets in this Art Basel Miami Beach silly season.

And this commitment to ethical and equitable engagement is part of what I like about Ania Freer’s current curatorial project, All That Don’t Leave, which is on view at New Local Space (NLS) in Kingston until December 7. The exhibition features work and filmed oral histories of seven Jamaican craft producers: Racquel Brown, a basket maker from Robins Bay, St Mary; Alexander “Bamboo King” Dempster, from Anotto Bay, St Mary, who creates fantastic creatures from bamboo roots; Jennifer “Eighty” Stewart from Downtown Kingston, who makes crochet garments; Kemel Leeford Rankine, a sign painter from Holland Bamboo, St Elizabeth; Jeffett “Georgie” Strachan, a woodcarver from Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, who works in Lignumvitae; Cecil “Bingy” Smith, who makes calabash hats in Annotto Bay, St Mary; and Albert “St John” Phipps from Port Antonio, who makes bead curtains from natural and recycled materials (please do watch the linked videos on the artists, as they are excellent and essential to understanding this project). The works on view are for sale, at fair and reasonable prices, with 100 % of the proceeds going to the artists.

Painted Signs by Kemel Leeford Rankine

All That Don’t Leave, and the accompanying essay, is the inaugural product of the NLS Curatorial/Writing Intensive, a mentoring programme for young art writers and curators that is funded in part by the Prince Claus Next Generation Partnership, a major grant NLS has recently obtained. As part of this programme, Freer had access to an advisory panel of experienced curators and writers to develop her project, which crucially included Raphael Fonseca, curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Niterói, Brazil; and Rosanna McLaughlin, art editor, The White Review (who was herself in residence at NLS some time ago).

All That Don’t Leave is the second exhibition shown in the newly expanded exhibition and project space at NLS, a much-needed addition to Kingston’s deficient art infrastructure – the first was the recent T’Waunii Sinclair exhibition, which was a major, very provocative breakthrough for this young artist. Sinclair’s exhibition concluded his artist’s residency at NLS, which was also part funded by Prins Claus Fund and supported by a panel of mentors. These sort of intelligent, ideas- and conversation-driven projects are exactly what is needed to move beyond the numbing malaise that appears to have overtaken the Jamaican art world, and its future certainly looks brighter as a result.

Bags by Racquel Brown

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