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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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: Ken Abendana Spencer (1929-2005)

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Here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011), which is taken from a section which explores how artists in Jamaica have marketed their work – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.

The post is not illustrated, as I was unable to get permissions from the Spencer estate in a timely manner at the time of submitting my dissertation and am not able to pursue this solely for the purpose of this impromptu post. Reproductions of Ken Spencer’s work are however widely available online and I encourage readers to search and peruse these.

[There are a number of] Jamaican artists who have devised effective individual marketing strategies and acquired significant wealth in the process. Barrington Watson, as we have seen, has controlled the promotion and pricing of his work by operating his own galleries. His friend and contemporary Ken [Abendana] Spencer (1929-2005), who peddled his works to locals, expatriates and tourists, was a more extreme example.[1]

Spencer started out selling his sketches on a street corner in Downtown Kingston. He joined Barrington Watson in London in 1952 but did not study art there, as Watson had hoped. Instead he started selling his works directly to Jamaican professionals who were hungry for reminders of home. (Greenland 2006) On returning to Jamaica, he continued this direct marketing strategy and Watson remembered that “he would go around the island in a car, and sell his work in Montego Bay and Negril. He would put a bunch of works into a car and his idea was to come back with none” (Ibid.). He personally visited potential buyers, many of them first-time art buyers, and often left the hesitant with a stack of paintings to ponder, to come back a few days later to an almost guaranteed sale (Moo Young 2006). His paintings can be seen in many hotel and bank lobbies, the offices of doctors, dentists and other professionals, and middle class homes.

Most of Spencer’s works represent “traditional” Jamaican subject matter, such as market women and mento musicians – reassuring images of “Old Time Jamaica,” as one contributor to his obituary put it (Greenland 2006). They are painted in a recognizable, confident gestural style: typically, the image is invoked by just a few broad brush or palette knife strokes and set against a monochrome background, often the white gesso undercoating of the canvas. [His large, prominently placed and curvilinear signature served as his trademark.] Spencer’s sketchy semi-abstract style – which in itself challenges the assumption that Jamaican audiences do not respond to abstraction – also reflected his goal to produce and sell as many works as possible. He reputedly worked on several canvases simultaneously, which were lined up so that he would not have to clean off his brushes to change colors, and thus saved time and paints. (Moo Young 2006) He also once told David Boxer that a painting was not economical if it took more than 30 minutes to complete – the sort of stories that horrified “knowing” art lovers in Jamaica.[2]

Spencer’s expansive, jovial personality played a crucial role in his sales and he cultivated his image as a notorious eccentric. He lived in Portland in a self-designed, six-storied castle and willingly entertained local and tourist visitors there, although it was implied that works would be bought. Spencer also frequented the New Kingston hotel bars in search of sales. The art dealer and framer Herman van Asbroeck tells a story that illustrates Spencer’s ingenious “traveling salesman” tactics:

A year ago a man came into the shop and put a Ken Spencer on the desk. He wanted to have it framed. I asked him: ‘You bought a Ken Spencer?’ And he replied: ‘No, I won it!’ Apparently, he had come to Kingston for a builder’s conference and a group of them had gone out for a drink. They ended up in the Hilton at 2:00 a.m. Suddenly a gentleman approached their table and asked if they wanted to play a game. He told them he had a number in his pocket and then he marked out cards 1 to 5. Everyone took a number and the customer in my shop was the winner. Then Ken Spencer introduced himself. By the end of the night, all the people at the table had bought paintings! (Greenland 2006)

These anecdotes, also, marked Spencer as one who was not a “serious” artist.

While he occasionally produced more ambitious works, Spencer was not an artist who strove to produce “masterpieces” but one who deliberately produced generic paintings that were recognizably “a Ken Spencer.” [He] did not significantly pressure local cultural institutions for public recognition and never had an exhibition in a gallery.[3] When asked why, he claimed that he did not need such exposure because all of Jamaica was his gallery (Moo Young 2006). His sense of achievement thus came from the prevalence of his work in the Jamaican environment. Others, however, took up his cause and already during his lifetime there were heated arguments within the art community about Spencer’s artistic merits and the NGJ’s neglect of his work was cited as evidence of the elitism of the Jamaican art establishment.

Spencer was an undeniably gifted painter and the local popularity of his work is a cultural phenomenon that warrants its own recognition. The recent attempts at inserting him into the national canons, however, obscure that had he handled his work differently, he could certainly have been a recognized member of the post-Independence mainstream. Spencer was unapologetic about being primarily motivated by economic gain and opted to disregard the processes by which artistic worth is conventionally determined. He thus represents an instructive counterpart to those contemporary artists who resist the forces of the market and, despite the fact that he had far less to say, succeeded where they have failed by reaching deep into Jamaican society. Spencer’s choices also separate him from Barrington Watson, who used more conventional art sales methods and always asserted the “high art” status of his work. While Watson’s exact position in the local art hierarchies has been contentious, his inclusion in the national canons is quite secure, unlike Spencer whose chances at consecration as a “Jamaican master” will always be tenuous, because he broke the codes of “high art” in his pursuit of commercial success.

Endnotes

[1] He was commonly known as Ken Abendana Spencer during his lifetime but the lawyers responsible for his estate insist that his legal name was “Kenneth Abondarno Spencer” (Forth Blake 2006).

[2] Personal communication, David Boxer, January 11, 2006.

[3] The NGJ owns three Spencers but none are on permanent display. One of these works was transferred from the IoJ collection in 1974 and the other two were part of a major donation by the then Chairman of the NGJ Aaron Matalon in 1999, which sought to address lacunas in the NGJ’s collection. While there may have been other expressions of discontent on Spencer’s part, I know of only one incident, a year or two before he died, when he complained to the NGJ Registrar about not being adequately represented in the NGJ’s collection (personal communication, Roxanne Silent, Registrar, NGJ, March 12, 2008).

SOURCES

Greenland, Jonathan. “Remembering Ken Spencer.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1-2

Moo Young, Howard. “Jamaica Is My Gallery.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1