Some Reflections on Petrona Morrison’s “New Works” Exhibition

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Installation view of Petrona Morrison’s New Works (2019), with the installation Archives in the back

Some works of art reveal their content easily. Others challenge the viewer, and sometimes also the artist, to the point of resisting explanation. This is not a popular approach these days, in a context where easy artistic legibility is promoted by some, populistically, as a necessary condition for democratizing the arts, and artistic opacity dismissed as elitist and undesirable. There however needs to be room in art for the poetic and political implications of opacity, as this is, for many reasons, fertile artistic territory. In fact, sometimes it is art’s very point.

The body of work presented in Petrona Morrison’s current exhibition, New Works, does not read easily, at least not at first sight.  Having spent some time engaging with visitors, at the opening and in the exhibition since then, I can see that some are non-plussed at first. It does not help that the exhibition consists of work created and produced in digital media, and mounted without the usual legitimizing trappings, such as picture frames. Or that it furthermore involves photographs produced by the artist as well as found images and objects, as these challenge common notions of exclusive artistic authorship. Or, even, that there is no price list.

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Petrona Morrison – Cross-section IV (from the Mapping series), 2017

The latter is worth noting because to many in the Jamaican context, an art exhibition is first and foremost a sale, and art is validated primarily by its standing in the art market. The Petrona Morrison exhibition was deliberately not conceived as a sale; it is first and foremost an exhibition, as a way of displaying and sharing with various audiences a cohesive and immersive body of work, as a communicative act. It is not that there is anything inherently wrong with selling art, or with producing and promoting it for sale, but it is problematic and very reductive when serving as a luxury commodity becomes art’s sole purpose, and its primary method of consumption and validation. There must be room for other approaches, and alternative artistic economies, if we are to have a healthy, diverse and dynamic art ecology. This exhibition is thus also, by implication, about (re-)claiming space for different types of contemporary art, at a time when the terrain for contemporary art appears to be contracting in Jamaica, and about asserting the validity and importance of those artistic approaches that do not conform to dominant expectations.

To return to the question of opacity, and the apprehension this causes in many viewers: in Petrona Morrison’s exhibition this usually dissipates quickly when visitors are engaged in conversation with the artist or myself, although these conversations merely provide some insights, a point of entry, and not the definitive explanation some may have expected. While it takes some effort to unpack it, and a willingness to accept that not everything can be explained, the content of the exhibition is actually quite relatable, as much of it is couched in current debates and relevant to the personal experiences of many visitors. Many stimulating conversations have already been had in the exhibition and it is a pleasure to see visitors opening up about how the exhibition speaks to them, with significant room for personal interpretation. Chances are that this would not have happened if the art works on view delivered their content in a more obvious and prescribed way.

The body of work presented in this exhibition follows and builds on a previous project by Petrona Morrison in which she explored the cultural and political implications of the “selfie,” and the various (self-)imposed conventions and acts of staging and self-fashioning involved. This time around, the  point of departure was the recent debate about NIDS, Jamaica’s proposed national ID system and the accompanying draft legislation, which among other provided for collecting blood samples, DNA, and vein and skin prints, as possible means of recording and identifying individuals, far beyond the customary biodata and photographs. Much of the controversy revolved around privacy rights, and the draconian proposed penalties and denial of state services for those who failed, or did not wish to become part of this system.

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