Provocations: What about the Kingston Biennial?

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

Some time in late 2018, the National Gallery of Jamaica decided to cancel the Jamaica Biennial, of which two editions had been held, in 2014 and 2017. The Jamaica Biennial was the re-conceptualized successor to the National Biennial and, before that, the Annual National Exhibitions. While still hamstrung by the expectations and entitlements that had been generated by its predecessors, the Jamaica Biennial was widely recognized as groundbreaking and poised for further developments that would be beneficial to the Jamaican and Caribbean art worlds. The exhibition was opened up to the Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora, it was shown at multiple locations in Kingston and Montego Bay, and it included special projects that invited a more in-depth look at some of the featured artists, instead of the customary one or two works.

The idea (and for the sake of disclosure, it was a project I directed) was that the Jamaica Biennial would become a fully curated exhibition, with a changing cast of guest curators, although I had hoped that there would still be a call for submissions, so that the inclusion of new artists would be encouraged. I strongly felt that the “invited for life” system that had existed since the 1980s was elitist and counterproductive to the inclusive development and exposure of Jamaican art, and needed to be abandoned. This was however resisted by the board, who were concerned about the fallout from prominent and well-connected artists, as there had been some such rumblings. Whether there should have been another exhibition to accommodate these “legacy artists” was a matter for discussion, although I was doubtful that this would reduce the pressure, as being included in the Biennial would no doubt still be regarded as an entitlement by many of these artists.

Already in 2018, I had expressed concern at the National Gallery of Jamaica’s failure to make any public statements on this reversal in its exhibition programme, when it came to my attention that only the “invited list” artists had been invited to a meeting to discuss the way forward, instead of having a public forum with the entire artistic community. In my view, this discussion, which was furthermore attended by only about ten artists, illustrates the extent to which the National Gallery continues to feel beholden to a particular cohort of “inner circle” artists, and a particular social cohort, as it is widely recognized that the invited artist list is uncomfortably aligned with Jamaica’s class and power hierarchies.

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Creative Iconoclasm: What To Do With Those Colonial Monuments? – Part 2

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Gabriel -Vital Dubray – statue of Empress Josephine (1859), La Savanne, Fort-de-France, Martinique (decapitated in 1991) (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

This is the second part of a two-part post. Part 1 can be found here.

The Caribbean is replete with statues that represent similar ideas about White Supremacy and Colonialism. Some of these statues date from the Plantation era but others, such as the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo, which was unveiled in 1992, are of more recent dates and are associated with oppressive political regimes in the postcolonial era. Calls are mounting, as the present upheaval inevitably and necessarily resonates in the Caribbean, to remove several of those.

There is a long-standing campaign, in Barbados, for instance, to remove the statue of Lord Nelson, which stands on what is now called National Heroes Square (formerly Trafalgar Square) in front of the Parliament building and more recently there have also been calls to remove the Queen Victoria and Columbus statues in Jamaica and the Bahamas. Some are of the view, however, that such statues are part of the region’s history and should therefore remain, while others suggest that they should be moved to museums, where they can be more easily contextualized and interpreted. For the latter is one of the problems with public art, in that it is more difficult, without significant interventions, to present such works in a frame that provides a critical context which counters their original, and often still quite effective, propagandist messages.

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Errol Ross Brewster – Exploring Victoria’s Secrets (1981) – all rights reserved by the Artist

There is a fairly long history of protest actions against such statues in the Caribbean, including removal and defacement, which has usually occurred at times of socio-political upheaval. In Georgetown, Guyana, the Queen Victoria statue was dynamited in 1954. As Nigel Westmaas has documented, its head was subsequently re-attached and the statue remained in place until 1970 when Guyana became a Corporate Republic (the country had become independent in 1966). The statue was moved to the Georgetown Botanical Gardens, where it remained for many years. A 1981 photograph by the Guyanese artist Errol Ross Brewster captured a group of children playing and clambering on the statue, with one girl quite irreverently seated on its head, in what was surely an inadvertent but potent anti-colonial statement in and of itself, as it suggests that the Empire the statue once represented had lost its hold over them.

The dynamiting, which only partially damaged the statue – blowing of its head and left arm, along with the scepter and orb – was a protest action against colonial rule, at a time when Guyana was going through a period of leftist political radicalization which was countered with active repression by the colonial authorities (the specific trigger was the 1953 election victory of the radical, anti-colonial People’s Progressive Party). The marble statue, which dates from 1894 and was made by the English artist Henry Richard Hope-Pinker, was restored and reinstalled in 1990 in what may have been a way to suggest that Guyana had moved past its radical phase and was again “open for business” and foreign investment. Its re-installation generated its own debates, but the statue remains in place today, although it was, according to Westmaas, in 2018 splashed with red paint.

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Creative Iconoclasm: What To Do With Those Colonial Monuments? – Part 1

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Edward Colston’s statue being tossed into the River Avon , Bristol, June 7, 2020 (Image source: Wikimedia)

This is the first of the two-part post. Part 2, which can be found here, examines the implications for the Caribbean.

As an art historian and curator, I am supposed to be beholden to the preservation of art and my response to any incident whereby an art work is deliberately damaged or destroyed is expected to be abhorrence and denouncement, with appeals for more conservative approaches such as removal to a museum. There are, however, moments when the destruction, alteration or violent take-down of a work of art has significant symbolic potency, particularly when it involves public art, and may in fact be called for. And in some cases, such interventions become symbolically powerful, performative creative acts in and of themselves, which is the main reason why I am interested in them.

Public monuments, because of their collective symbolic value, their fundamentally propagandist nature and association with power, and their visibility and accessibility in the public domain, often serve as a lightning rod for the social and political frictions that trouble the societies in which they stand. And, irrespective of their historical value and artistic merit (which varies significantly as public statues are often among the most uninspired and conservative works of art), many are indeed very problematic representations that publicly propagate oppressive and obsolete ideas, historical narratives, and power structures. Such monuments are a form of symbolic and representational violence, that is met with retaliatory counter-violence when they are defaced or torn down.

A number of racist and colonialist public statues have been forcibly removed or defaced in recent days during the increasingly widespread Black Lives Matter uprising. Initially, the protests were limited to the US, where several Confederate and colonialist statues have been targeted, but the take-down of such statues has spread to other parts of the globe along with the unrest. Along with the forcible removals, there are also numerous new and revived campaigns and petitions to have certain problematic statues removed and replaced. This widespread iconoclastic fervor — and I do not see that in a negative light — suggests that we are presently dealing with epochal, potentially revolutionary changes. In such contexts, symbolic actions matter a great deal and careful attention has to be paid to what is being said and negotiated in the process.

By far the most publicized and visually eloquent of these take-downs has been the dramatic removal, on June 7, of the statue of the pioneer slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, England, which was taken down from its base, splashed with blood red paint,  rolled down the streets, and dumped into the River Avon by a group of protesters — as several observers have noted, this hauntingly paralleled the manner in which ill or rebellious enslaved persons were thrown overboard on slave-ships, resulting in a kind of symbolic justice.

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Follow up: My April 24, 2018 Letter to Kei Miller

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Two years ago, on April 28, 2018, I posted to this blog an open letter to Kei Miller (it is linked here for easy reference). The letter was written as my critical response to an essay by Kei, “The White Women and the Language of Bees”, which had been published a few days earlier in the inaugural issue of the online Pree Lit Magazine. Kei Miller’s essay caused quite a furor on social media, with sometimes heated discussions in which Kei and myself both participated, and in various other forums (Bocas Lit Fest was in progress). The controversy reached the Guardian newspaper (linked here), in which my letter to him was referenced and quoted. The essay was withdrawn from Pree Lit, at Kei’s request, and subsequently republished but in a revised from (linked here). My response was to the original version. I understand that the essay will also be published in Kei Miller’s forthcoming book of essays, as he recently announced.

Yesterday morning, Kei Miller made a long post on Facebook (which is linked here) in which he reflects on the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations and their implications in Jamaica. He also comments on the lessons he claims he learnt from the debate about his “The White Women and the Language of Bees” essay. He itemizes those “lessons” in a list of ten points. My letter and I are the subject three of those ten points, point 3, 4 and 5. Although I am, curiously, not mentioned by name, most people who read his post would have known perfectly well that he was referring to me, given the public attention my letter had received.

Under point 3 of his list, Kei accuses me of not having published his response to my blog. He writes:

3) I learnt, fortunately or unfortunately, to be less trusting. When one particular white woman living in Jamaica wrote a public letter to me, I decided to engage. No – she wasn’t at all on my side, but I don’t expect everyone to be. That is arrogance. I still appreciated the attempt at some form of dialogue. I took the time to write out a response to that public letter, but she chose not to publish it. For weeks I checked and my response just withered there on her blog, hidden, ‘waiting approval’, even though she approved other supporting comments that came after. Eventually I just gave up and never even called her out on it. I learnt from that what every writer should learn: to be careful about whose hands we put our voices in. And I’m sure I’m mixing metaphors now – but the very hands that profess they are opening a door for you, would sometimes prefer, given half a chance, to put those hands over your mouth instead – to stifle you or just shut you up.

To be absolutely clear: I am the “white woman living in Jamaica” and I would have preferred to be referenced by name, instead of being alluded to, as I had also called for him to do with the white female writers he similarly alluded to in his “Bees” essay. And for the record, I did not personally know any of these women writers when I wrote my open letter to him, although two were distant acquaintances, and I was speaking solely on my own behalf.

Yesterday morning, when I became aware of Kei Miller’s Facebook post, I sent him the following note via FB Messenger, which speaks for itself (I have corrected one typo for the sake of clarity):

“Dear Kei,

I just read what you wrote about me on Facebook, without mentioning my name although my identity must be clear to a lot of your respondents, as they would have been aware of my letter. If I would have received the response to which you make reference, I would most certainly have published it, and if you were concerned that I was trying to suppress or ignore you in any way, you knew where to find me, on Facebook and via email. I am generally speaking very easy to reach and responsive. I did not in fact receive any comments to that post — what I published are links to other publications where my letter to you was referenced. It is unfortunate that you should represent me in this manner, two years later and without any verification with me, as this matter could have been easily have been cleared up and dealt with in its time.

Best regards,

Veerle”

I am aware that Kei saw my message fairly soon after it was sent, but he has not reacted or responded to date, at least not to me. I then decided to post an earlier version of this blog post to Facebook, in which Kei was tagged. To that, too, there has been no response.

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