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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Talking Back: Visual Conversations about Sexual Abuse

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Nicola Ricketts (3rd year BFA Sculpture) – as shown in Manifestations, the 2019 SVA student exhibition at the CAG[]e] gallery in 2019

The Edna Manley College, where I teach, has been in the news recently with allegations of sexual harassment. Here is not the place to comment on that particular instance but it is widely recognized that it is part of a much bigger problem in Jamaica, that affects many, if not all public and private sector organizations, including the education sector, and also the social interactions in communities and families and on the streets. Several recent incidents in different parts of the country whereby young girls were raped and murdered had already set the stage for intensified public attention to those most brutal, violent and devastating forms of sexual predation and violence that are also all too common in this country.

If there is a positive side to any of this, it is that it generates new opportunities for public agitation and sensitization about the high incidence of sexual abuse and harassment in Jamaican society, along with the culture of silence and acceptance that still surrounds this, and its devastating social and individual effects, on women and also on men. And perhaps most important, it creates opportunity to talk frankly about what is needed to change the toxic gender dynamics that are at the roots of sexually predatory behavior. Even though none of this is new, as there is a long history of such issues, there is a mounting sense of crisis and a sense of public urgency that there needs to be prompt and decisive action to change the culture that produces this and to put in place more appropriate and effective preventative and remedial frameworks, at the level of law and policy, of the reporting and investigation protocols, and of education and social intervention.

The arts have a vital role to play in this, by providing expressive opportunities for victims to reclaim their voice, by generating public awareness about the prevalence, causes and effects of such abuses, and by sensitizing all parties involved to their rights and responsibilities. Examples of this can be found in recent Jamaican literature, theater and music (Queen Ifrica’s haunting Daddy Don’t Touch Me There of course comes to mind), as well as in the visual arts. One recent activist campaign, the Tambourine Army, utilized provocative but engaging performative strategies that were part of the reasons why this “name and shame” campaign appealed to the public imagination. More attention needs to be paid to what creative interventions can achieve for such social problems and how these can best be deployed in the present moment in Jamaica. This post seeks to contribute to that discussion with a brief look at how certain female (and one male) Jamaican artists have engaged with these issues, including work that has been featured in recent and current exhibitions at the Edna Manley College itself (and the College indeed has a major role to play in this conversation).

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Avagay Osborne (BFA Painting) – Untitled (2015), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

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In the Trenches: On Being the Subject of Hostile Art Works

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Michelangelo – King Minos in The Last Judgement (1535-1541) , Sistine Chapel, Vatican

There is a long and not always auspicious history of artists using their work to retaliate against critics and other personal enemies. One famous example is the King Minos figure in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (1535-1541) fresco in the Sistine Chapel, which was very controversial at the time of its creation (and on several occasions after), because of the frontal (male and female) nudity and the orgiastic quality of the composition. (There is a fascinating TEDx talk art historian Elizabeth Lev on the scandal caused by the Last Judgment – I highly recommend viewing it.) King Minos, who is in the bottom of the hell section of the painting, donkey-eared and besieged by demons and serpents, is actually a portrait of Biagio da Cesena, the master of ceremonies at the Vatican, who had questioned the fresco’s suitability for the Sistine Chapel and notoriously exclaimed it would be more suitable for a tavern or a public bath. De Cesena had objected to Michelangelo’s artistic retaliation to Pope Paul III but the Pope refused to intervene, quipping that he had no jurisdiction in hell, and the Last Judgement remained as it had been completed.

There was at least one more such reference to a critic in the fresco – to the satirist, critic (and pornographer) Pietro Aretino, who is depicted as the elderly St Bartholomew. And more oddly, the flayed skin held by St Bartholomew (who was flayed as part of his martyrdom) is believed to feature an anguished (or angry) self-portrait of Michelangelo himself. It is much harder to decipher what Michelangelo is saying in this particular instance, but it may well be that he is depicting himself as the target of an unfair attack. Aretino had written Michelangelo a letter about the Last Judgment in which he expressed similar concerns as de Cesena subsequently expressed and had, after being dismissed by the artist, lambasted Michelangelo for being gay and “godless,” which were potentially dangerous allegations even in Renaissance Italy. Ironically, Aretino was himself known to have had sexual relationships with men.

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Michelangelo – St Bartholomew in The Last Judgement (1535-1541) , Sistine Chapel, Vatican

Such art works make for good anecdotes and some are in fact quite entertaining – having our enemies dragged by demons into the burning pits of hell is something we all fantasize about at times. But while they were meant to “throw shade” at the person depicted, they also shed light on the personality and intentions of the artist, as the creation of such works sometimes reflects oversized and fragile egos, an unwillingness or inability to contend with criticism, petty vindictiveness, and even clear personal malice. Tellingly, very few are good works of art (OK, OK, I’ll make an exception for the Last Judgement).

This post is not focused on the satire to which public figures should expect to be subjected in the modern world, although even there the question arises about where where the line should be drawn between “acceptable satire,” subject to the principles of freedom of speech, and malicious, personally demeaning representations that may  shade into hate speech. Locally, the cartoons of the Jamaican politician and prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller by the Jamaica Observer cartoonist Clovis are a controversial example and I do believe that lines were often crossed there, with depictions of Mrs Simpson-Miller as an ignorant “ghetto” virago that were arguably sexist, classist and even racist.

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One of the many Trump Cartoons that appear on the daily basis

But what to say about Trump? He is such a problematic public figure, and such a threat to important social, cultural and political values, that it is hard to feel sorry for how he is depicted in the many cartoons, memes, comedy routines and late night TV roasts that pop up constantly in the USA and elsewhere in the world (as well as the occasional work of art). Most are funny and, while politically pointed, not personally offensive, as the one above illustrates, although it is obviously hard to resist the lure of his crazy, self-inflicted hairdo. Normally, I get uncomfortable when public figures are depicted in a sexually demeaning fashion, as these may amount to unwarranted personal violations, and there have been a few such of Trump that focused on alleged penis size etcetera. But then again, his openly sexist attitudes towards women, his own appearance, which does not exactly qualify as the “perfect 10” standard to which he holds women, and the allegations of unwanted sexual approaches to various women, make it harder to object when he is so depicted.

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Ines Doujak – Not Dressed for Conquering/Haute Couture 04 Transport (2011)

But to return to art, a well-known instance of an art work that raised questions about the representation of public figures is Not Dressed for Conquering/Haute Couture 04 Transport (2011), a mixed media installation by the radical feminist Austrian artist Ines Doujak.  In this work the former Spanish King Juan Carlos I is sodomized by the late Bolivian labour leader and feminist Domitila Barrios de Chungara, who is in turn sodomized by a dog. It was included in 2015 in an exhibition at Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, which was temporarily closed by the museum director Bartomeu Marí, who also fired two of the exhibition curators — an act of censorship triggered by this particular work that outraged many in the international art world. Marí subsequently resigned and the work has since then been shown elsewhere in Europe and South America.

Most of the discussion was focused on the depiction of the Spanish monarch, but it appears to me that Domitila Barrios, who is in fact the central figure in the work, fared no better, and it is not clear to what end exactly, as there has been very little discussion of the actual content and intent of the work. To me, that is where Not Dressed for Conquering is problematic and a lot of Doujak’s work can in fact be construed as sensationalist and sexually exploitative, of the very women and feminist interests she claims to represent. So perhaps lines were crossed in Not Dressed for Conquering, and arguably not those that attracted the most public attention, but I do not think that censorship was the answer, as pointed critiques and careful analysis of the work would have been far more useful. Doujak has, ironically, been sheltered from any such critiques by being “martyred” as a victim of censorship.Read More »

From the Archives: “Big Bamboo” and the Politics of Space in Fern Gully

 

Here is a second excerpt, on a more controversial subject and with some minor edits, from my chapter on art and tourism in my doctoral dissertation “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (2011, Emory University). The first post can be found here. I have not been back to Fern Gully since the opening of the North-South Highway, which bypasses the area, but an update is long overdue since the site now probably attracts less traffic, as this must have affected the dynamics with the vendors, but I thought it was nonetheless still worthwhile to publish these observations from the 2000s. All rights reserved by the author (C).

One major illegal vending area is Fern Gully, a rare and delicate rainforest ecosystem that has served as a tourist attraction since the late 19th century and that is, controversially, also a busy traffic thoroughfare and part of the main road between Kingston and Ocho Rios. An attempt in 1997 to relocate the vendors, some of whom had occupied their spot for more than 20 years, to a nearby but less visible authorized vending site led to violent riots in which the road was blocked for an entire day and the vegetation and fixtures allegedly vandalized by protesters (Gleaner March 12, 1997, A3 & March 14, 1997, A2). While environmentally regrettable, this incident made a strong statement about the vendors’ sense of ownership of the site (Walsh 1997). Thus far, the various attempts to remove the vendors have not been successful: some were temporarily relocated but have since returned and several others have joined them. Fern Gully thus remains as a prime illegal craft vending site.

Among the most remarkable items seen in the Fern Gully stalls are life-size carvings of dreadlocksed, ganja-pipe smoking males with giant erect penis, which is often detachable, lest there be any doubt about the reference to the commodification of black male sexuality in tourism. Phallic carvings are fairly common among the exotic tourist arts but in Jamaica their life-size, publicly displayed and specifically Rastafarian incarnation seems to date from the late 1990s. While they have also appeared in other formal and informal craft markets, they seem to have occurred first and foremost in Fern Gully.[1] The carvings have been controversial in the local public sphere, much more so than the (admittedly more modest) sexy tourism posters from the early 1970s and 1980s. In 2002, the then Minister of Tourism Portia Simpson-Miller, expressed her outrage at the lewd statues when she visited various tourist sites and the journalist Barbara Gloudon waged a campaign against them on her radio call-in programme during 2003. The Fern Gully vendors have countered that tourists like the carvings and stop to have their photographs taken with the larger, less saleable examples – they can do so for a small fee – turning them into scandalous attractions that bring much-needed attention to the stalls.[2]

The carvings are in potential breach of Jamaica’s Obscene Publication (Suppression of) Act (1927) which prohibits the making, trading or public exhibition of “any obscene writings, drawings, prints, paintings, printed matter, pictures, posters, emblems, photographs, cinematograph films or any other obscene objects.” This law may seem stringent but does not define what constitutes obscenity and the punishment is a maximum of 40 Jamaican dollars fine, less than 50 US cents, or imprisonment for up to three months. Not surprisingly, the attempts at censoring the carvings have thus far been ineffective and, to my knowledge, nobody has been taken to court over them. Explicitly erotic art is regularly shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica, where it is sheltered from accusations of obscenity by its “high art” status. This does not mean that such work can readily be taken into the public domain, as was illustrated by the furore about the Emancipation monument in 2003. Several critics then made comparisons to the “Big Bamboo” or “Ready Freddy” carvings, as they are popularly known, and expressed concern that the monument would reinforce tourists’ already problematic perceptions about black and, specifically, black male sexuality. Interestingly, Gloudon was one of the defenders of the monument, which reflects the double standards that are typically applied to high and low culture, although the fact that Facey’s nudes were not actively sexual of course also played a role.

Obviously, the public and comical representation of black male sexuality for tourist consumption strikes a raw nerve with many Jamaicans but the controversy reveals several other interesting issues. It is noteworthy, for instance, that criticisms have mainly come from middle class commentators, which supports Peter Wilson’s (1969 & 1973) argument that the conflict in Jamaican popular culture between “respectability” and “reputation” is class- and gender-driven. To their critics, the “Big Bamboo” carvings also represent an affront to Rastafarian dignity – an example of the high moral burden imposed on the figure of the male Rastafarian in Jamaican society.

The least recognized aspect of the controversy is, however, that the objections are not so much about the production and sale of the carvings per se but about their public display, in a place where Jamaican audiences are confronted with them. Portia Simpson-Miller, for instance, plainly stated: “But I am saying that if, as they claim, they have a good market for it and people are buying (they can be allowed to sell in selected areas) but we are not supporting the public display” (Clarke C. 2002). A similar position was implied in a 2007 editorial in the industry weekly Hospitality Jamaica, a supplement of the Gleaner. It stated:

Whatever is in the minds of the merchants who peddle this type of ware, in my mind it is pornography being forced on the public, our innocent children and the people who take the route through this beautiful gully. It is sad that some of our so-called artisans cannot find more innovative ways to attract the lucrative tourist trade. Our Jamaican men and their supposed ‘big bamboos’ are already an attraction; we don’t need wood carvings on the streets. (Silvera 2007)

The carvings thus also represent a rare and, to many in Jamaica, unwelcome public admission that sex is an integral part of what is transacted in contemporary tourism.

The moralistic condemnation of these carvings, however, obscures other aspects of their significance as culturally expressive objects. The public, road-side display of the carvings can also be read as a carnivalesque gesture in service of the politics of informal vending: the “Big Bamboo” man, for all his obvious problems, forcefully claims space and visibility in a tourism industry that has marginalized his producers and vendors, and it is probably no coincidence that he has appeared primarily in the contested space of Fern Gully.

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From the Archives: Dangerously Close to Tourist Art

I have not posted as often as I’d like recently, even though I have several new posts working on, as I have been bogged down with project and publication deadlines (and a nasty bout of flu) – not complaining about anything, except for the latter. So instead of a new post, I am presenting another piece from my archives, a slightly edited  excerpt from the chapter on art and tourism in my doctoral dissertation, Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica (2011, Emory University), as it involves a subject that has been central to my practice as an art historian and cultural researcher. The chapter is based on research I conducted in the early to late 2000s and also presented when I served as visiting faculty at New York University (2003) and, subsequently, as Research Fellow at the Edna Manley College (2006-2009).  More such excerpts will follow, as well as,  in due time, new research on the subject. All rights reserved by the author (C)

While the popular, despite the ambivalence and contention that surround it, is generally recognized as the source of cultural truth and authenticity in Jamaican culture, tourism is seen as its negation. Phrases such as “this is dangerously close to tourist art” have been part and parcel of the critical discourse about Jamaican art, as if “tourist art” were some dreadful disease from which true Jamaican culture had to be quarantined. Much of what is discussed in this chapter is “airport art” and emphatically “for sale” and thus challenges my own prior assumptions about cultural authenticity, aesthetic value, the ideological role of art, and good taste – moralized judgments which are shared by many core players in the mainstream art world and which have caused tourist art not to be recognized as a part of modern Jamaican art production. Scholarly attention has been paid, recently, to early Caribbean tourist imagery (e.g. Thompson 2006), and there are now a few collectors of early Jamaican tourist art and imagery, aided by the eBay internet auction craze. While these vintage items have been consecrated as “Jamaicana” – an effect of their rarity and age – tourist art as such remains virtually unstudied, save for a few criticisms of its often racist and sexist content. There can be no credible analysis of the dynamics of the Jamaican art world without considering tourist art on its own merits, however, and for this purpose, preconceptions have to be put aside.

The term tourist art covers a wide range of possibilities, from cheap, mass-produced souvenir trinkets – much of which is now imported from East Asia or Haiti and only tenuously customized for the Jamaican market – to works that conform to the norms of mainstream art but are marketed to tourists, usually because the subject matter and formal characteristics match the expectations of that market. Somewhere in the middle are handmade but standardized items such as the Rasta-themed woodcarvings that are currently the most “typical” locally made tourist art. Not all of what I have listed here as tourist art would be defined as “art” by their makers, sellers or buyers but I regard them as such because they have, as Ruth Phillips and Christopher Steiner have argued, “all the communicative and signifying qualities of ‘legitimate’ or ‘authentic’ works of art” (1999, 15) and generally employ the same media and techniques.

Tourism is a quintessentially capitalist and, in postcolonies such as Jamaica, neo-colonial endeavor, of which tourist art has been an integral part. To quote Phillips and Steiner again: “The inscription of Western modes of commodity production has been one of the most important aspects of the global extension of Western colonial power. Moreover, the role of this process in transforming indigenous constructions of the object has intensified rather than diminished in many parts of the world since the formal demise of colonial rule” (1999, 4). I am therefore skeptical of the celebratory tone of some of the literature on tourism, cultural commodification and cultural agency (e.g. Appadurai 1986; Carcía Canclini 1995). Too often, it is implied that commodification is inherently empowering for all involved and that the global spread of capitalism into every aspect of human life is as desirable as it has been inevitable. I believe that the jury is still out on both counts. As Jamaica Kincaid has powerfully argued in A Small Place (1988), tourism and economic need make an unwholesome combination in poor postcolonial societies, especially those that were shaped by the experience of slavery, the ultimate form of human commodification. Tourism poses serious social and cultural challenges in such countries and any critical appraisal of tourist art must be regarded in that context.

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Kapo and the Father of Spirulina

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Some time ago, while doing some leisurely online research, I came across a lengthy and most curious Wikipedia entry, which you can read here. The Wikipedia entry is on Christopher Hills, who was one of the owners of the Hills Art Gallery, along with his wife Norah, formerly Deputy Headmistress at Wolmer’s High School for Girls, who took care of day to day operations. The Hills Art Gallery was Jamaica’s first major commercial art gallery and operated from 1953 to 1977 at 101 Harbour Street in downtown Kingston, within walking distance from the Myrtle Bank Hotel, which was then Kingston’s main hotel. The entry discusses the Hills Art Gallery in some detail, and features a remarkable photo of a young Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds at the opening of his 1957 exhibition there, in the company of Christopher Hills and Governor Sir Hugh Foot. Christopher Hills, we are told, was also an early advocate of Rastafari.

Most of that I already knew, because of previous research. The Hills Art Gallery, while heavily focused on tourism, was crucially important in launching the careers of artists such as Alexander Cooper, Kapo, Gaston Tabois and Sidney McLaren, and made serious efforts to encourage the appreciation of self-taught popular art and to develop local art audiences. It provided an important commercial counterpart to the efforts of the Institute of Jamaica and its art gallery, and also took on occasional non-profit projects, such as an exhibition of Puerto Rican printmaking on the occasion of the state visit of Luis Muñoz Marin in 1955, which was the first exhibition in Jamaica of Caribbean art from outside of the English-speaking islands.

But imagine my surprise, when I read in the Wikipedia article that Christopher Hills is regarded as the “Father of Spirulina” and was a major figure in the New Age movement as well as a friend of Nehru. The praise heaped on Hills in the Wikipedia entry is effusive and I cannot vouch for its accuracy, although Wikipedia has fairly good checks and balances these days, and the entry has not been flagged as problematic, so I have to assume that it is substantially accurate.

My own knowledge of spirulina really begins and ends with the Chronixx song but Christopher Hills’ life story, embellished as it may be, is certainly fascinating. I have to wonder how his visionary ideas and projects were influenced by his years in Jamaica and his encounters with the likes of Kapo and the Rastafari movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The Wikipedia entry actually claims that his involvement with Rastafari awakened his spiritual interests and describes him as the “first white Rasta.” And I also wonder whether Hills’ advocacy of spirulina, which started when he was still regularly visiting Jamaica, might in turn have influenced the health food culture of Rastafari. It is a subject well worth exploring for those who are interested in these subjects, so I thought it worth sharing here.

 

Fashioning Exhibitions: Some Thoughts on “Beyond Fashion”

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Jessica Ogden – A Dozen Dresses – photo: courtesy of the Artist

I had initially decided not to review the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ)’s Beyond Fashion exhibition, which opened on September 30.

There were several reasons for that decision. One is that I have written quite a bit about the NGJ, recently, and felt that I needed to step back for a bit. I can hardly be accused of being dispassionate about the subject, given my recently ended history of some thirty-four years of association with the organization. Not that critics need to be dispassionate, that is a major misconception: good criticism, while it needs to be fair and well-informed, must be passionate, opinionated and, where necessary, contrary. Without that, criticism would be quite redundant. But to be as close as I still am to the subject comes with certain challenges, among others that what I have to say, whether it has merit or not, may be dismissed a priori by some as “sour grapes.” At the same time, however, I am also uniquely placed to talk about some of the issues arising from the current exhibition, as a curator and art historian of some experience here in the Caribbean, and I have not seen any published reviews or commentaries, other than the usual social reporting. So I’ve decided to post my comments after all, despite my misgivings, and I do hope that what I have to say will be regarded on its own merit.

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The Girl and the Magpie – Breathe (2018) / Collection Fragile Jamaica / Love is not enoug

Attendance at the opening event on September 30 was spectacular, and comparable only to other major exhibition openings like the Barrington Watson retrospective in 2012 and the Jamaica Biennial in 2017. There were, as the NGJ has acknowledged in the media, two major factors that contributed to the high attendance. One is Kingston Creative‘s monthly Art Walk, a recent initiative that piggy-backs on the NGJ’s Last Sundays programme (which has itself been in existence since 2012), and is gathering significant momentum, in terms of participation and public visibility. The second was the Quilt performance (which has been an annual, much-anticipated Last Sundays feature since 2015). Quilt is a performing arts troupe based at Taylor Hall at UWI-Mona and comes with a large and enthusiastic fan base, which was very visibly (and audibly) present on September 30. The crowd in attendance was mesmerized by the Quilt performance, which took place in the central gallery area, and rightly so, as it was excellent. What happened on September 30, which was also refreshing because of the function’s informality, is a good illustration of the sort of synergies that can bring new, more socially diverse and larger audiences to museums. So I wholeheartedly applaud all the parties involved, the NGJ crucially included, and I do hope that these shared initiatives will continue to grow and thrive.

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Ayana Riviere – Pay Day (2018)

When the dust has settled, however, what matters most about museum exhibitions is what they choose to exhibit, how they do so, what they communicate to whom in the process, the contribution they make to cultural scholarship, and for exhibitions of contemporary art, also what kind of impact they may have on the artistic field in which they intervene. The NGJ is a national art museum and as my academic mentor, the great Ivan Karp used to insist, museums are, fundamentally, institutions of public scholarship. They are expected to be leading producers and communicators of new knowledge about art, culture, society and science, depending on their mandate, and to do so with savvy about the research, engagement and educational processes involved, and about the social dynamics that surround all of this. And let us acknowledge this here: the NGJ is, by local circumstance, the sole major producer of art-historical and other art-related knowledge in Jamaica, and that comes with special responsibilities. And that is where I have problems with some of the NGJ’s recent exhibitions (and I have written about that previously, for instance in my review of The Art of Jamaican Sculpture at National Gallery West.)

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Jasmine Thomas-Girvan, from the Turntables series

I have no problem with the art and artists on view in Beyond Fashion and that too is a pattern in some of the other NGJ exhibitions I have commented on recently: the art selected is excellent in and of itself, but the curation, supporting research, and concept leave to be desired. Beyond Fashion has several sublime moments: Jessica Ogden’s A Dozen Dresses is one such (and actually features 11 dresses, with the “self” being the 12th dress), as is The Girl and the Magpie’s living necklace (which needs to be misted and kept alive by visitors). And Jasmine Thomas-Girvan’s stunning, thematically and technically sophisticated work never disappoints (although it has been shown very often in recent exhibitions at the NGJ). Ayana Rivière’s simple but powerful installation provides another arresting moment, and refers to the social politics of the trade in second-hand clothing by presenting three bales of such clothing on a blue tarpaulin, indexing the street-side markets where such items are often sold.

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Yasmin Spiro’s works, and a few visitors, in front of one of Seymour Lewis’ walls

I was also delighted, although initially confused, to see the name of Seymour Lewis among the credited artists. I know Mr Lewis as the NGJ’s very talented exhibition installation officer, who works major magic for every exhibition staged at the gallery with his fabrications, many of which require his own design input and significant collaboration with the featured artists and curators. I wondered for a moment whether there was another creative side to Mr Lewis I was not aware of but when I did not see anything in the exhibition or the accompanying texts or labels that indicated for what exactly he was being credited, I decided to ask him myself. He explained that he had designed and produced the (very beautiful) raw pine backdrop walls and platforms that punctuate the exhibition and significantly add to its overall aesthetic and visual cohesion. I am glad that this was recognized by listing him among the artists, which is where he certainly deserves to be, for what he does is art, but a bit of explanation and credit in the exhibition itself would have been even better.

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