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 Annotto 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

All That Don’t Leave raises important, interconnected questions about art, craft and the people who make it; about curating; about the representation of popular culture; about the politics and ethics of the art market; about humanizing the cultural narratives, and about engaging with heritage and identity in ways that step outside of the usual trajectories and constructs. These critical considerations are placed at the center of the project and, as Freer states in her introduction, the exhibition seeks to shift the conversation on two key questions: “who can be called an artist” and “how do we assign value to works.” These questions apply to the work of the artists she features as well as to Freer’s own practice and it will be very interesting to see where she goes next with both.

Detail of bead curtains by Albert “St John” Phipps

The art versus craft debate is, as such, hardly new. It is widely understood, in the Caribbean context, that the hierarchical distinction between the two is, as such, an inherited, Eurocentric construct that is of questionable relevance, and even counterproductive to postcolonial culture but most of the challenges to this construct have been remarkably ambivalent and unresolved. Much is lost when “craft” is recuperated into a “fine arts” paradigm, which is how this is usually dealt with, without questioning the assumptions and conventions that inform “fine art,” or without considering the intent and inherent qualities of “craft.” In fact, recuperating it as “fine art” only reinforces the hierarchies and constructs involved and makes it impossible to consider “craft” on its own terms, with regards to its purpose and the intent of its makers, its technical qualities, and its cultural and individual significance. It was the failure to recognize and address these crucial dilemmas that made the conceptualization of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Beyond Fashion (2018-19) exhibition so unsatisfactory.

Crochet by Jennifer “Eighty” Stewart

All That Don’t Leave presents a far more productive and resolved alternative, in terms of how it deals with the work on display and the artists who produced it, and in terms of the important questions it generates in the process. The exhibition is presented in what is, despite the unpolished bareness of the NLS space compared to more conventional galleries, still a “white cube” of sorts, and more or less conventional art exhibition methods are used. The so-called “museum effect” — the powerful aestheticization of the object on display that almost automatically comes with such formalized display methods — is certainly at work and must be acknowledged. But this “museum effect” also invites a focused and intensified way of looking at the objects, to which what is regarded craft is not usually subjected, and this has its own place in the cultural politics this exhibition explores. And it certainly needs to be acknowledged that All That Don’t Leave is a visually stunning exhibition.

Detail of bag by Racquel Brown

This aestheticizing thrust is however countered by the strong focus on the makers and the making in the accompanying video documentaries, which reinserts the work on display into the artists’ own physical, cultural and philosophical space, and largely on their own terms. The exhibition strategies employed for each of the artists, furthermore, echo those they use in their own context, without feeling staged, and there was active consultation on the presentation. There were even some special commissions: the hand-painted exhibition sign is by Kemel Rankine and the bamboo and tree root stand for Bamboo King’s fantastic staffs was produced by that artist for the exhibition. The result is a revealing tension between the exhibition’s invitation to regard the works in the context of the artists’ life worlds and vision, and as a formal display of rarefied, extraordinary objects, and it is arguably in this tension that the exhibition’s most pertinent questions of “who can be called an artist” and “how do we assign value to works” are raised. The artists are positioned as individual creators, emphatically as artists, rather than as anonymous craft producers, and the artistic and cultural value of what they produce is quietly but eloquently asserted.

All That Don’t Leave is also an exhibition in which the boundaries between the curatorial, the critical, and the documentary, on one hand, and art, on the other, are interrogated and implicitly challenged. The voices of the artists are powerfully present in the exhibition, and their personal narratives humanize their work beyond any abstracted appreciation of the objects on view, but the voice of the curator is also crucially present although more subtly implied. The project is a part of her engagement with her Jamaican heritage, and her grandmother’s roots in rural St Mary, a process she has started only quite recently and which is central to her own artistic practice, of which All That Don’t Leave is an important part.

Work by Alexander “Bamboo King” Dempster in the front; Ania Freer (l) in conversation with Prudence Lovell in the back.

The relationship between artists and curators is always a complex one and is often fraught by differences in actual and perceived professional power — the much-loathed gate-keeping functions. When popular art is involved, this is amplified by what are often significant differences in social status and access to information and resources. It is not that such representational dynamics are not present in All That Don’t Leave but they are tackled with a healthy degree of critical self-reflexivity. The exhibition is reassuringly devoid of the sort of missionary, self-righteous patronage that often mars representations of popular culture and is instead based on genuinely collaborative, equitable, and even affectionate person-to-person relationships, which are clearly based on mutual respect, trust, and a solid sense of common cause.

And this relationship of trust and common cause is crucially important to the politics of All That Don’t Leave. Making a living from craft has a troubled history in Jamaica, in which the grassroots makers and vendors of craft often feel exploited, disempowered and disregarded. There is significant justification for this, especially in the context of the tourism industry, where the question of who does and who should reap the profits is acutely raised. Informal, “illegal” craft vending has been a recurrent source of social conflict and contention, and even those who are part of formalized arrangements, such as the vendors in the official craft markets, feel marginalized and displaced, especially by the powerful duty-free shopping consortia. The craft markets are furthermore flooded by cheap, mass-produced craft that is imported from other parts of the world and displaces the more expensive and hard to procure local work.

When the sale of local craft is handled by persons who are socially far removed from its production, there is often a lack of transparency and accountability towards the artists. It is not unusual for high-end craft retailers to buy work at rock-bottom prices, that are either the result of hard bargaining or the producers’ ignorance of the fair market value of their work, and then to sell them in “curated” contexts with exorbitant mark-ups, from which the artists do not benefit. I am not suggesting that there should be no mark-ups or commissions when craft is sold by third parties — it was Ania Freer’s choice not to do so — but All That Don’t Leave provides a timely platform to discuss what needs to be done to ensure fair trade, and social and environmental sustainability in the Jamaican craft sector (I add environmental here since several artists use recyclage techniques that have long standing in the popular culture, and are part of a creative response to scarce resources and poverty, but that are now recognized as environmentally friendly practices.)

Lignumvitae carvings by Jeffett “Georgie” Strachan

As Ania Freer documents, there is a prevailing sense among many traditional craft producers today that their skills are no longer wanted or appreciated, that young people are not interested in carrying on the traditions, and that they are not even recognized as an important part of Jamaican culture. The title of the exhibition, in fact, actively refers to this sense of frustration and loss — it is taken from a conversation between Freer and the basket weaver Racquel Brown, in which the latter bemoaned the decline of the type of craft she produces, stating that “all that don’t leave, die” (or, that most of her peers have migrated or died), which implies that her practice has no future beyond herself.

The questions of value raised by the exhibition are indeed not only applicable to market value and fair trade, but also their status in Jamaica’s cultural and social hierarchies, which is is arguably lower than ever, as there were some solid efforts until not so long ago to validate such traditions – such as the old craft markets at Devon House and Harmony Hall, where many grassroots producers were present, along with the foundational work of Things Jamaican. I am also reminded of the efforts in the 1970s and 80s to recognize the work of Louisa “Ma Lou” Jones, who was one of few remaining exponents of the African-Jamaican pottery tradition.

It is fair to say that, today, Jamaica is failing its grassroots craft artists and the important cultural traditions and equally important areas of innovation they represent. The quality, imaginativeness and diversity of what is on view in All That Don’t Leave makes an eloquent statement about what is at stake, humanly, artistically and culturally, and proposes a model for how these artists and practices can be more appropriately and productively recognized, valued and supported. It is an implied call for action and I cannot help but ask what our cultural institutions could and ought to be doing, in terms of any concerted effort, to facilitate this.

Calabash hats by Cecil ‘Bingy’ Smith

This takes me to a question raised by my colleague, Nicole Smythe-Johnson, namely how I view the All That Don’t Leave project against my critique of the Intuitives construct. In summary, I have argued that the Intuitives construct is a narrowly defined, dogmatic and heavily policed artistic canon that was selectively imposed on popular art forms, based on contradictory cultural nationalist and primitivist notions about cultural purity and truth, as well as fixed conceptions about what can be validated as “fine art.” I have expressed concern about the extremely uneven social dynamics involved in the patronage of such artists and their lack of empowerment in how their work was defined and represented. But I have also argued, that for its troubling ideological flaws, the Intuitives construct has validated aspects of the popular culture that were previously disregarded and made possible the production and exposure of what is, at its best, exceptional art.

All That Don’t Leave offers an interesting counterpoint, as it consists of the sort of work that would typically have been left out of the Intuitives canon and its “fine art” underpinnings, with the possible exception of Kemel Rankine and perhaps, if the concept’s unyielding boundaries are pushed a bit further than they usually are, Alexander “Bamboo King” Dempster. There is no doubt that the work presented in All That Don’t Leave is of a generally high quality and obviously personal choices were made in the selection of artists and work. There are however no assertions of privileged expertise on Ania Freer’s part, nor is there any sense that she is trying to constructing “the” canon of Jamaican craft or trying to insert what she presents in any kind of artistic hierarchy. The work on view is not corralled into any externally imposed, limiting concepts but presented for what it actually is. The project is refreshingly free of such canonical aspirations and of the problematic sense of ownership and privileged understanding that is so typical of the patronage of the Intuitives. Importantly, it suggests that the story of Jamaican art and culture can be told without resorting to socially and culturally problematic hierarchical constructs, while asserting that there is great value and achievement in the blind spots of the dominant narratives and support structures.

The questions raised by All That Don’t Leave, in relation to the Intuitives construct, also dovetail with one of the key points in an extended conversation I am having with the painter Phillip Thomas, parts of which will be posted to this blog next: the long-standing consensus that the truth and legitimacy of postcolonial Jamaican culture lies in the popular, as a source of art in and of itself, and more commonly as a subject. This view is problematic for various reasons because, as Thomas rightly argues, it is framed in a troubled power dynamic by which the elite renders itself culturally invisible while remaining firmly at the representational controls.

These concerns are, at least to some extent, also applicable to Ania Freer’s project and it is of note that her effort to engage with her Jamaican heritage almost inevitably took her to Jamaica’s popular culture and furthermore, its more traditional, threatened exponents. This choice may have been mediated by her anthropology background and the particulars of her family history but she could have focused on aspects of contemporary Jamaican culture, such as Dancehall, or the cultural products and interests of her social peers, the educated middle classes. While worth noting, this critique does not mean that there is no truth or value in the popular culture, well to the contrary, or that it is wrong for her to look there in an effort to come to terms with her Jamaican origins. But All That Don’t Leave, and the broader project of which it is a part, is just one part of Ania Freer’s artistic and curatorial trajectory. And who’s to say what she will turn to next?

One thought on “Shifting the Conversation: Ania Freer’s “All That Don’t Leave”

  1. Thanks Veerle, for me the distinctive feature is indeed the presentation of ‘craft as art.’ The structure of the show… a white box, museum style was a key part of it. Necessary for one main reason… Unlike typical conceptual art, so many of these pieces are functional (a hat, a bag, etc.) … Always the most difficult to place in the ‘fine art’ paradigm.

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