Caribbean Conversations: Phillip Thomas – Part II

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Phillip Thomas – “Mr Chin, Yuh Fih Sell Dih Rite Ting” (2016, mixed media on canvas, 74 x 49″)

Here is the second part of my extended conversation with the Jamaican painter Phillip Thomas (part I can be found here), in which he talks about his work and issues and interests that have influenced him, and on which he has strong and at times very provocative views. It is long but well worth reading to the end, as Thomas talks in detail about his engagement with music, with some very interesting views expressed.

VP: You are a Senior Lecturer in Painting at the Edna Manley College. How important is teaching to your work as an artist and what, other than the professional affiliation and income, do you get out of it? What is it that you are seeking to impart to your students.

Teaching art is a very strange activity. When I was doing my post-grad fellowship, I was working on my Fellows exhibition at the New York Academy as well as being an assistant lecturer for Jenny Saville, Eric Fischl, and Vincent Desiderio. As working artists, they have figured out ways of meeting their own studio demands as well as giving their time and expertise to younger artists, both formally at the college and informally on their own time. Those lessons were simply invaluable and I was keen on doing the same in my own country.

I learned a lot about explaining aesthetic information to varying minds and abilities. It is a very difficult thing to do. Upon returning to Jamaica, I really had no intention of teaching formally. I was thoroughly busy with my own work and the idea of teaching would have been a distraction, to be honest. It was Petrona Morrison who told me that she would like to have my presence at the Edna Manley College, to expose students to another voice within the Painting department and the wider school. So I started on a part-time basis and began interacting with students.

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Phillip Thomas – Exit (2017, oil on canvas, 84 x 48″)

Teaching challenges your ideas on a given subject and it allows for dialogue with the varying positions on the same. However, one easy error to make is the idea that teaching is one-directional. True exchange has to function both ways and it has to be a conversation with your students in order to have a better understanding of their position on their given ideas. That balancing act between teacher and student is an art form in itself. A lecturer like Omari Ra is a master at student engagement and he is so advanced at allowing the student to understand the sum total of their ideas. He has become a kind of benchmark for me in the idea of teaching art.

In the end, my responsibility as a lecturer is to allow my students to develop ideas and to challenge these ideas from as many angles as I can in order for that individual to have a full grasp of the subject and its potentialities. It is “easier” to impart art theory and history, since these are standards in art and practice, for the most part. Those foundational bits of information are only the first step in laying in a structure on which artists are better able to challenge the same structures and build anew.

The emotional aspect of teaching is something that I am more hesitant about. This is what I mean: when I was a student (sigh, I am getting to that age now when the “back in my day” becomes the go-to line), there was a more, let’s say, robust way of teaching and many of us as students developed harder skins because of it. Cecil Cooper alone would be a hard-enough task master to get by, and in my opinion we were better able to face the world. He was such a tough art teacher that his methods were considered too caustic for some. In this current period, there are so many psychological minefields to contend with and that gives me some pause in managing some students. I don’t have the answer to these problems, but when you are critiquing a student’s work and the student’s forearms are covered in scars, it gives me some hesitance in the delivery of my criticisms. Now, am I being sensitive to that student’s needs? Or am I under-preparing that student? I must admit, I don’t know and I won’t profess to know what the happy median is either. I am learning as I go, but there are major concerns for me as it relates to younger artists today.

Also, social media has created a whole new generation of professional student/artists – kids in school with professionally developed websites and social media platform pages etcetera. I am unsure as to how I feel about this kind of new way of “careering” before the “product”. Yes, I do know how romantic I sound, and how nostalgic these positions could be, but being on the ground and seeing the impact of student’s preoccupation with their career imaging, while failing in class, is frightening to me. I guess with every new advancement there are a set of Luddites complaining in the wings.

On a promising note, the “Rubis InPulse” project is a shining beacon that is doing important things at the high school level.  As you know, myself and a few of the other artists from our community have participated in this art project for high schoolers. This gives us a chance to interface with students who are even younger and it gives us an opportunity to prepare the next batch of Edna Manley College students before they get to that institution. I can say with much certainty that this programme is delivering on its promises and we are seeing the results, and it is raising the stakes in art education.

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Phillip Thomas – Yes, We Have Met Before (2018, mixed  media installation, variable dimensions)

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Caribbean Conversations: Phillip Thomas – Part I

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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.

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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.

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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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Ivanhoe Martin and the Hotel

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View of the restaurant section, AC Marriott Hotel. Work by Laura Facey on the left and middle, Andre Woolery at the back. The étagère at the front has work by Laura Facey on the fourth shelf from the bottom.

I had lunch with a friend at the new AC Marriott Hotel today, because I wanted to see the art that was acquired for and installed in the lobby, which has received enthusiastic coverage in the local press. I had initially planned to write about it in the context of a more general post about art and hotels in Jamaica, which I may still do at a later date as it is an interesting subject in and of itself. After viewing the work by Laura Facey, Leasho Johnson, Katrina Coombs, Andre Woolery, David Pinto, Shoshanna Weinberger, Jag Mehta, Cosmo Whyte and a few others as installed in the space, however, I was compelled to change my subject.

Let me first say that I like the building, at least its exterior. It could have been yet another cookie-cutter contemporary high rise, but the quirky, asymmetrical placement of the balconies is genius, and gives the facades a simple but distinctive quality. I am far less taken with the lobby, which has far too much marble and mirrors for my taste (I have a strong aversion for the grandiose), but which also has a curious, interior design magazine, aspirational “living room” quality, which is waging a fierce battle with its clean, large spatial volumes.

The art selected is by artists I greatly admire and, although there is nothing that really pushes the envelope, in terms of being exceptional works by these artists, it is generally of a high quality. I applaud the hotel for acquiring and exhibiting these works of art and for supporting Jamaican contemporary art in the process, as local market support for such art is still lagging, and Susanne Fredricks for curating the selection.

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General view of the lobby, with Laura Facey work at front

What bothered me, though, is the manner in which the art is contextualized with the omnipresent “tchotchkes” that seem to have come from a hotel décor catalogue – utterly generic metal, marble, ceramic and wood decorative objects, along with the fore-mentioned books – that can be seen on practically every table and counter across the space as well as on the rather curious, bottom-lit étagère in the restaurant section. If the intention was to “warm up” the space and to make it more inviting, it does no such thing, at least not in my view. But more important, the presence of these non-descript decorative items does the art no favors at all and seems to pull everything down to the level of décor. It appears that interior design considerations, and not particularly good ones, took precedence over installing the art in a way that would have allowed it to speak for itself and that would have been much more effective, aesthetically, in bringing a local character and distinctiveness to the space.

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View of the entrance lobby with work by Laura Facey at the front, and Cosmo Whyte’s Shotta at the back.

But my eye fell on the work by Cosmo Whyte, titled Shotta, a large collage and drawing on paper which confronts those who enter via the main entrance and I could not help but to ponder the ironies of its presence there. It is one of a number of works by Cosmo in which he interprets the famous photo-shoot scene in The Harder They Come: the scene in which the lead character, the notorious but elusive rebel-gunman Ivanhoe Martin had himself photographed, cowboy-style and with guns in both hands, and sent the photos to the press to taunt the authorities. In one of the earlier scenes in the film, Ivanhoe had been chased from the same sort of luxury hotel in which his image now hangs.

The photo-shoot stills of Ivanhoe Martin are among the most iconic images in Jamaica’s modern cultural history. They embody the defiance of Jamaica’s poor, their challenge to social and economic power and hierarchy, and they represent the cultural energy that has emanated from this defiance, the very same, truly remarkable energy that has given Jamaica its global cultural visibility. By virtue of its presence in the hotel lobby, this icon of resistance is now being repositioned, sanitized and co-opted as an icon of urban chic, without any hint of redeeming irony or subversion. (I could make a similar argument about the dissonance between content and intent, and the context in which the work is presented, for Leasho Johnson’s or even Shoshanna Weinberger’s work, but let me focus on the most obvious example.)

The tensions arising from Cosmo Whyte’s work in the AC Marriott lobby inadvertently tell us a lot about where Jamaican society is at. The AC Marriott is, for all intents and purposes, an uptown place and has quickly become an intensely aspirational site, as the lobby décor strongly signals. It is already a meeting place of choice for those who are, or wish to be “somebody” in Jamaican society, and a place to see and be seen. For a country that was once an influential hotbed of socially radical thought, a place where local and global hierarchies were courageously challenged, it never ceases to amaze me how uncritical, socially aspirational values appear to have overtaken the minds of so many, including some of those who see themselves as racially and politically conscious (and who may even wear the occasional “Down with Babylon” T-shirt), in a way that re-inscribes those very same values and hierarchies that were once questioned. It is a remarkable sight, for sure, to see ambitious young black men and women enthusiastically go to polo matches, dressed in their finest designer outfits, without questioning this sport’s colonial roots and its association with social hierarchies that continue to exclude them where it really matters. And the engagement with art, particularly the collecting and patronage of art, is inevitably entangled with these aspirations.

The socially aspirational culture that has overtaken Jamaica is so strong right now that it may even have won elections – is that not, after all, what the traction of the “prosperity” slogan is really all about? One of my theories for the PNP’s loss of the 2016 general elections, is that its principals did not recognize the powerful draw of this culture, and that by questioning the magnificent house that was being built on the hill as part of their campaign rhetoric, they seemed to question, begrudge and devalue what is presently the ultimate aspiration of many.

But for all this aspirational drive, the underlying socio-economic inequalities of this country have changed very little. The cast of characters at the top of the totem pole may have changed, and has become a bit more diverse, but the truth is that the Ivanhoe Martins of today would still not be welcome at Jamaica’s upscale hotels. Their anger and frustration continue to grow and their rage is expressed in the waves of crime and violence that mercilessly batter this country, all the more because they know that the aspirational prosperity that is dangled in front of them on a daily basis will never reach them, unless they force the issue. The staggering number of Porsches, high-end Audis, Range Rovers, and Jaguars that are now on our roads alone will do that. It is something for which Jamaica may eventually pay dearly, for its current veneer of socio-political stability is most tenuous.

But to return to art, I believe that it is crucially important for artists in and from Jamaica today to consider very carefully where they stand on these issues, including the questions of co-optation that arise here, and how they see their role in the current socio-cultural dynamic. I would certainly love to hear from Cosmo Whyte about how he sees his work in this context. And I would certainly like to see more artists who engage actively and knowingly with the social dilemmas of today, for there are very few who do, especially among the established artists. Phillip Thomas is one very interesting exception and there will be more on that in my upcoming interview with him.

As those around me are aware, I work a lot with younger artists and art students and thankfully, there are signs of change there, of a return to a more critical, questioning mentality, a new, more self-reflexive radicalism, a commitment to social justice, and, mercifully, a new willingness to talk back to power. Much of their work is very political, and thus far without concessions to the social dynamics of patronage and without the stifling baggage of the 1970s and 80s. And I see very little of the blindly aspirational mentality that is so evident among the generation before them. So perhaps there is hope. The future is, after all, in the hands of the young.

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

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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.

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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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The Wheels of History: Museums, Restitution and the Caribbean – Part 1

 

This is the first of a two-part post on the restitution debate and its significance to the Caribbean. This first part explores the general context and the second part  specifically looks at the Caribbean.

It is a time of reckoning for museums: museums are increasingly pressured to come to terms with their historical origins, their past and present ideological foundations, the manner in which they have acquired their collections, and the cultural and social politics in which they are embedded. There has been intensified debate recently about the association between museums and colonialism, and about the manner in which they are governed and funded. Such challenges have come at the state-political level, such as the high-profile, country-to-country restitution negotiations that have captured the attention of the international media recently, and from activist groups such as Decolonize This Place. My earlier post about the renovation of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, Belgium, also speaks to some of these issues.

Over the last few months, I have posted a significant number of recent articles and essays on the restitution, decolonization, and museums debate to a Facebook site I manage, the Critical.Caribbean.Art page, using the #restitution hashtag. I will not seek to retrace the entire argument here – you can read more about that via the Facebook site, if you have not already done so — but I do want to focus on a few issues that have, at least in my view, received insufficient attention with regards to the restitution requests between the former colonizing states and their former colonies. Passionate debates, and the manner in which these are reported in the media, along with the instant “call-out” culture that prevails on social media, do not always leave much room for nuance or for the careful consideration of contrary positions, even though this is a necessary part of the conversation on issues such as restitution.

The current media frenzy may create the impression that the restitution debate is new and that it is being fiercely and universally resisted by North American and European museums (although this latter perception has not been helped by the ill-conceived public pronouncements of certain high profile museum professionals such as the British Museum Director who recently defended Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon sculptures from Greece, which took place in the early 19th century, as a creative act).

The restitution debate in actuality emerged in the period after World War II and there were two major triggers.  One was the end of European colonialism and the emergence of postcolonial cultural nationalism, which resulted in postcolonial nation-states seeking greater control of their cultural heritage. The other was the Nazi looting of European museums (and Jewish-owned private collections) during the war. Curtailing the illicit trade in cultural property, which was and still is a problem, became a major preoccupation of UNESCO, which was established in 1945, and its various treaties and conventions on the subject have provided a regulatory framework and offer legal and ethical guidance in such matters (although these are not universally signed and adopted by member states).

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The Elephant in the Museum

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Chéri Samba –  Réorganisation, 2002, Collection: AfricaMuseum

Late last month, on December 28 to be precise, I visited what is now branded as the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, a suburb of Brussels. My visit, during a family vacation to Belgium, came just a few weeks after the museum had reopened, after being closed for about five years for extensive renovations. The 86 million USD renovation involved: the expansion of the building with a new Visitor Centre (a futurist glass pavilion) and a connecting underground passage; the restoration of the main building; the re-curation of the permanent exhibitions and reinterpretation of the collections; as well as several contemporary art commissions. Because of its origins in the most troubled part of Belgium’s colonial history, and the exceptional African collections it holds, the renovated museum has found itself at the epicenter of the recent debates about restitution and the decolonization of museums. On the eve of its official re-opening on December 8, the French daily Le Soir published an interview with the then President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila, in which he announced that there would be formal demands for the return of art works and other objects from the AfricaMuseum, and that a new national museum was being constructed in Kinshasa, with funding and technical assistance from the Korean government. Guido Gryseels, the present Director of the AfricaMuseum, indicated that the museum would consider such requests.

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A crowded AfricaMuseum on December 28, 2018

The AfricaMuseum’s full and proper name is the Royal Museum for Central Africa and it has been one of the most controversial museums in Western Europe, because of its direct association with the most questionable and violent part of Belgium’s colonial history, namely King Leopold II’s Congo Free State (1885-1908). During this episode, Leopold II ruled the Congo area as the absolute monarch of a personal fiefdom and he enabled and personally profited from the economic exploitation of this populous, naturally rich part of Africa, at the expense of severe human rights abuses, which included widespread forced labor and atrocities against the local population. As many as 10 million Congolese, or about half of the estimated population, perished as a direct or indirect result, and there were also many documented instances of physical abuse and torture, such as the infamous hand amputations of members of communities that did not produce their rubber tapping quota. International outrage grew and in 1908 the territory became a Belgian colony, overseen by the Belgian parliament and known as the Belgian Congo, until Independence in 1960.

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The museum’s entrance, prior to the recent renovation (Image source: Wikimedia)

The AfricaMuseum, which has been described by Gryseels as “the last colonial museum,” has its origins in 1897 as a propagandist showcase of Leopold II’s Congo Free State, which was presented as part of the colonial section of the Brussels World Exhibition that year. Further adding to the problematic foundations of the museum, this colonial display notoriously also featured a “human zoo” at the same royal domain where the original museum building, then called the Palace of the Colonies, is located. This zoo took the form of a staged “African village,” for which 257 Congolese persons were brought to Belgium, seven of whom died as a result of the ordeal.

The present, larger  museum building, which is located in the same park, dates from 1904 and was constructed to accommodate the rapid expansion of the museum collections. Today, the AfricaMuseum holds one of the world’s most prized collections of Central African art, as well as significant natural history, history and ethnography collections, most of it pertaining to what is now the DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi. The collection comprises some 180,000 artifacts, many of them rare and quite extraordinary. Save for some changes in the late 1950s, the permanent exhibitions had changed very little since the museum’s establishment and, as Gryseels has acknowledged, the old museum could itself be regarded as a museum artifact, that embodied a particular way of thinking about museums, the state, and colonialism. This way of thinking has been a foundational and controversial part of the history of the modern museum, hence the ongoing debates about decolonizing the museum. The recent renovation is a major intervention and the first one such in the museum’s history. One section, the popular “Crocodile Hall,” which is part of the natural history exhibitions, was restored to its original condition in the new museum installation, where it contributes, along with dramatically redesigned and updated sections, to the new, critical dialogues the museum seeks to provoke about its collections and its own history.Read More »