From the Archives: Ken Abendana Spencer (1929-2005)

empty-art-gallery-in-museum

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

Notes on Jamaica’s Art Histories #3: Intuitive Art as a Canon, Redux

Tabois, Gaston Road Menders, 1956 - NGJ
Gaston Tabois – Road Menders (1956), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

As I continue my reflections on Jamaica’s art histories, I am now sharing some of my thoughts on the Intuitive art designation, which has been an essential but problematic and controversial part of Jamaica’s main art-historical narration. Earlier versions of this essay, which was itself extracted from my doctoral dissertation in progress (Emory, 2011 – Chapter 7), served as the basis for a public lecture which was delivered at the National of Jamaica on October 26, 2006 and an earlier version also appeared in Small Axe 24 (2007).

I am posting this essay again here, with updates and new questions asked, because I believe that this discussion needs to be ongoing, with new thinking about how the artists who have been labeled and canonized as Intuitives are to be located, named and understood, and with strategies to recover what was overlooked or misrepresented in the process. The issues I am raising here relate to the first two posts I made on the subject of Jamaica’s art histories and how to retell them, which can be found here and here. There is some overlap between these three posts but I have left this “as is” for the sake of cohesion in each post.

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Articulating a Narrative

In the summer of 2006, the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) staged Intuitives III, a survey exhibition of what its Chief Curator of many years, David Boxer, had called Intuitive art, the work of a particular group of self-taught, popular artists from Jamaica. It was an important exhibition, not only in its own right but also in terms of the NGJ’s institutional history and the debates that have surrounded it, and the original version of this essay was written in response to the conversations that emerged in that moment.

Intuitives III was the NGJ’s third such exhibition of Intuitive art. The first one such, The Intuitive Eye, was held in 1979 and the second, Fifteen Intuitives, was shown in 1987. The NGJ had up to that time also presented four retrospectives of Intuitive artists: John Dunkley in 1976, Sidney McLaren in 1978 (although this one was actually shown at the St Thomas Parish Library), Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds in 1983, and Everald Brown in 2004. All but the latter, which I curated, were the curatorial work of David Boxer, the first Director/Curator and, later, Chief Curator of the NGJ.

The Intuitives have also been well represented in the rest of the NGJ’s permanent collection and many of its other exhibition. Kapo has a specialized gallery in the NGJ’s permanent collection since 1983 and was the first Jamaican artist to be so honored, more than six years before Edna Manley. In its initial form, this gallery featured the substantial collection of Kapo’s paintings and sculptures that had been amassed by the American owner of the Stony Hill hotel, Larry Wirth, which was acquired after the latter’s death with the help of Kapo’s most prominent patron, the then prime minister Edward Seaga. Today, this gallery features a selection of paintings and sculptures from the Larry Wirth Collection, along with paintings from the John Pringle Collection (a major donation of Kapo paintings which was received in 2011), a painting and two sculptures from the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection (a general general donation of Jamaican art and historical prints and maps in 1999), as well as a few works from the NGJ’s main collection.

The Intuitive Eye exhibition had in 1979 launched the concept and the term “Intuitive,” as a noun and an adjective and an alternative to more obviously problematic terms such as “primitive” and “naïve” (although it had, strictly spoken, already been used as such in the NGJ’s The Formative Years catalogue in 1978). The Intuitive Eye exhibition was part of a series of landmark exhibitions, The Formative Years included, that served to articulate the NGJ’s foundational narrative on Jamaican art. This articulation process was a necessary part of the early work of the NGJ, which had opened in 1974 and had been mandated to document and articulate a national (and nationalist) Jamaican art history.[i]

The process of articulating a comprehensive account of Jamaica’s visual art history, which had not been attempted prior to the establishment of the NGJ, had started with Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1975), David Boxer’s first major exhibition and the NGJ’s first survey, which provided an overview of art in Jamaica from the start of the Spanish period to the 1970s. It culminated with Jamaican Art 1922-1982, a survey of modern Jamaican art which was from 1983 to 1985 toured in the USA, Canada and Haiti by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and which was subsequently shown at the NGJ itself in 1985.

The Intuitives concept played a major role in the articulation of the NGJ’s narratives and had started with the Dunkley retrospective in 1976, which consecrated this then near-forgotten artist as one of the masters of Jamaican art (and also launched him in the emerging local art market, with several of the works that were still in the family’s hands going to local private collections in the years that followed). Some of the artists that were thus labeled as Intuitives – John Dunkley, David Miller Sr and Jr, Sidney McLaren, Gaston Tabois, Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds and Everald and Clinton Brown – had already received some national and international acclaim as Jamaican “primitives.” Their position in the Jamaican artistic hierarchies was, however, ambivalent, especially vis-à-vis highly educated artists such as Barrington Watson who actively claimed recognition as professionals and modern masters and left little doubt that they considered themselves at the apex of the Jamaican art world.

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Notes on Jamaica’s Art Histories # 1: Critiquing the Main Narrative

Jamaica’s art histories have been on my mind recently, as part of broader considerations about the art histories of the Global Caribbean.

Most of the recent art-historical work in and about Jamaica (and the broader Caribbean) has consisted of reflecting on but, ultimately, rehashing what was already done with very little new primary research or new ideas or interpretations–the production of new scholarship and insights that is a necessary part of a vibrant and viable art world. Those few efforts to seriously build on the older art-historical work have, furthermore, focused on filling in gaps and elaborating on certain artists and issues, but insufficiently on rethinking those structures, hierarchies, and methodologies, and those underlying interests and ideologies that informed the foundational narratives. And this includes reflection on the need for and implications of national and, more specifically, nationalist art-historical narratives.

What really needs to be done is to consider HOW the stories of art in, around and about places like Jamaica can be re-conceptualized and, importantly, re-researched to be more relevant to their present cultural context and what is necessary for that to happen–a line of inquiry that has implications beyond the Caribbean. I want to encourage this very necessary conversation with a number of blog posts over the next few months. Here is my first contribution, an older critique of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s foundational art-historical narrative which I believe serves as a good starting point. It is excerpted and slightly adapted from Chapter I of my doctoral dissertation Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011 – all rights reserved). The chapter in question was completed in 2006.

David Boxer’s Jamaican Art 1922-1982 essay has been the main general historical text on Jamaican art since it was first published in 1983 and when Boxer was Director/Curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ). It was published in the catalogue of the like-named exhibition which was circulated from 1983 to 1985, in the USA and also to Canada and Haiti. by the Smithsonian Institution Travelling exhibition Service (SITES). It is useful to start this discussion with a closer look at this text, since it provides a benchmark to assess the rest of the published material on the subject as well as a brief introduction to conventional Jamaican art history, especially since that essay has also served as the basis for the NGJ’s initial permanent exhibition, which was put in place in 1983-1984 when the museum moved to its present location. Boxer’s narrative, which in effect merely amounts to a ten-thousand word essay, is relatively easy to summarize, as I have attempted below, with special emphasis on how his argument is strategized. For citation purposes, I have used the 1998 version of his essay, which was published in the book Modern Jamaican Art and which is more widely available than the original.

After first establishing that, Jamaican art was, in his view, “the art that has developed as an integral part of the nationalist, anti-colonialist consciousness underlying the cultural and intellectual life of the island since the 1920s” (1998, 11), Boxer moved on to sketching its “prehistory.” This started with a brief discussion of the art of the Taino, the now-extinct Amerindians who inhabited Jamaica at the time of Columbus’s first arrival in the island in 1994. He particularly praised four woodcarvings of Jamaican Taino zemes (or divinities), three of which are in the British Museum and one from the Rockefeller Collection in the Metropolitan Museum. The Metropolitan Museum, based on recent scholarship (e.g. Kerchache 1994), now attributes the latter carving to the Dominican Republic but Boxer refused to accept this re-allocation, a good example of how nationalist agendas sometimes motivate attributions. The 1998 version of Boxer’s essay included a footnote in which he described three major Taino carvings that were recovered in the small town of Aboukir in central Jamaica in 1994 and are now housed at the NGJ (26). Another major carving, a dujo or ceremonial seat, has since been found in the Hellshire hills, not far from Kingston, and is now also on view at the NGJ. He then cursorily mentioned the Spanish period (1494-1670) and its main artistic relic, the so-called Seville Carvings (c1530), a group of decorative architectural stone and stucco carvings that were made to adorn the Governor’s mansion and other structures at Jamaica’s first capital of Sevilla Nueva.

The discussion of the English colonial period, which officially started in 1670 when the island was formally ceded to Cromwell’s England, was divided into three short parts. In the first, Boxer discussed the work by major European artists that was commissioned and imported into the island by the plantocracy, especially the Neo-Classical commemorative and funerary sculptures, such as John Bacon’s 1790 Rodney Memorial in Jamaica’s former capital Spanish Town. In the second, he discussed the work of the itinerant naturalists and topographical artists, most of them Europeans but also a few US-Americans, who produced landscapes, depictions of the flora and fauna, and picturesque scenes, often as clients of major planters. In this section, he made special mention of Isaac Mendes Belisario, who, he stated, established a painting and printmaking studio in Kingston in 1835 (and who is the first documented Jamaica-born artist, although this was not yet established when this essay was written). The discussion of colonial art concluded with its most significant and controversial part, in which Boxer claimed that no African-Jamaican art of any significance had survived from before the 20th century and that very little such art ever existed, which he attributed to the forced deculturation of the African-Jamaicans under colonialism and slavery. This absence, he argued, set the stage for what “real” Jamaican art had to redress in the 20th century.

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A Perspective on “The Art of Jamaican Sculpture” at National Gallery West

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Installation view – The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, National Gallery West (left to right: work by Alvin Marriott, David Miller Junior, Kay Sullivan and Alvin Marriott)

Art museums have been under pressure recently. Not a week goes by without some high-profile protest action or controversy and it appears that no major art museum is exempt. This has involved protests against certain exhibitions and against certain artists and artworks, such as the contentions about Chuck Close, after allegations surfaced about a history of sexual harassment of his models, or the protests against a painting in last year’s Whitney Biennial, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), which depicted the corpse of Emmett Till, a black 14-year old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, and which was deemed exploitative. There have also been contentions about how art museums are governed and funded, such as the recent protest at the Metropolitan Museum led by artist Nan Goldin against the role in the opioid painkiller addiction crisis of the Sackler family, who made their fortune in the pharmaceutical industry and who are major donors to the Met. On a more foundational level, these contentions have pertained to the ideological premises on which art museums operate, particularly their role in perpetuating dominant social, political and cultural interests and the manner in which this is reflected in the canons and narratives that such museums have produced and presented.

This is of course not, as such, new, since the canonical functions of art museums have been regularly questioned since the 1960s (and earlier, if we count in the advent of modernism and movements such as Dadaism). One such example is the Puerto Rican artist Rafael Ferrer, who dumped autumn leaves and other debris in the lobby of MoMA in the late 1960s, as a performative intervention that questioned the exclusion of artists like himself from the canons of modernism. Another example is the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of feminist artists that was established in 1985 and that has questioned, through various pointed and witty public interventions, the role of art museums in perpetuating (white) male patriarchy. The frequency and intensity of such controversies have however increased exponentially in recent years, as has the intensity and immediacy of the coverage of such actions in the conventional and social media.

While the increasingly contentious relationship with stakeholders has made the leadership positions in museums far more demanding than they used to be, the effects on how museums operate have been generally beneficial, as it has forced museums to become more self-reflexive and to re-examine their ideological foundations. This has, to varying degrees, resulted in more thoughtful and innovative approaches to exhibitions and programmes, which interrogate and challenge the very same canons and grand narratives such museums have historically produced and which invite conversation about them, rather than to impose them unilaterally and unquestioningly. The Victoria and Albert in London comes to mind as a museum that has made interesting strides in interrogating its colonial foundations through its recent exhibitions and projects.

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Installation view – The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, National Gallery West (left to right: Laura Facey – foreground and background – and Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds)

For us here in Caribbean, the question arises where this leaves public cultural institutions such as the National Gallery of Jamaica, Jamaica’s national art museum. I need to acknowledge at this point that I am the immediate past Executive Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica and have played a key role in its exhibitions and programmes up to three months ago. The debates and new expectations that surround museums elsewhere in the world also apply here, however, and there needs to be frank critical discussion about the present moment in the Caribbean art world, at a time where criticality seems to have all but disappeared from the region. I believe that I have a contribution to make to these conversations and so I am offering my perspective, while acknowledging my potential biases and personal interests, and my readers can decide whether I have risen to the occasion.

The National Gallery of Jamaica has been the fulcrum of the local culture wars since it was established in 1974 and it has always held an ambivalent position with regards to the production and promotion of art-historical canons. On one hand, it has made some interesting, if conflicted and at times controversial counter-canonical moves, such as the validation of aspects of self-taught, popular art under the Intuitive label (which has its own problems, but that is another story) and its more general role of claiming Jamaica’s place vis-à-vis the canons and grand narratives of the metropolitan West. On the other hand, it is Jamaica’s very own canonical institution, which has been centrally preoccupied with articulating Jamaica’s national canons from the mid-1970s, albeit always  heavily contested ones, and which until quite recently did not question its canonical role or ideological premises. I am not knocking the National Gallery’s early efforts, as these were necessary in their time, but in the present context, these canons and underlying interests need to be unpacked and critiqued, and this ideally needs to be part of the scholarly and curatorial practice of the organization itself. And this takes me to The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, an exhibition which has been on view at National Gallery West, the Montego Bay branch of the National Gallery of Jamaica, since March 7.

The preceding National Gallery West exhibition—a smaller version of the Spiritual Yards exhibition which had previously been shown at the National Gallery in Kingston and which was the last exhibition I had overseen there—was slated to close on February 25 and I was, of course, interested to see what would come next. The first inkling of what would be the next exhibition was an Instagram story which appeared on the National Gallery’s timeline on February 27, which stated that an exhibition titled The Art of Jamaican Sculpture was coming soon. The post showed a snippet of video footage of sculptures that had clearly just arrived at the gallery for installation and I glimpsed work by Ronald Moody, Christopher Gonzalez, Lawrence Edwards, Osmond Watson, and David Miller Senior. There was also a closure notice on Facebook on that day, which stated that the gallery would be closed until March 6 to facilitate the installation of The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, with a note that further information on this exhibition would be coming soon.

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Installation view – The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, National Gallery West (Left to right: work by Ted Williams, Laura Facey and Fitz Harrack)

Piqued by the rather ambitious exhibition title and the curious lack of any explanatory context, I contacted National Gallery West for more information and was told that the exhibition would have a soft opening on March 7, with a reception at a later date to be announced, but that information on the exhibition itself was forthcoming. On the evening of March 10, three days into the run of the exhibition, an e-flyer which announced that the exhibition reception would be on March 18 was posted to social media, but again without any accompanying information on the exhibition itself. Since I had to be in Montego Bay on March 13 for other reasons, I decided to have a look at the exhibition, which was indeed mounted and open, although there was not as yet any text panel or signage, other than the usual identifying labels besides each work of art. I was again told that the supporting information was forthcoming but that the exhibition was organized around the themes of nationalism, spirituality and abstraction. It is only in late afternoon on March 14, one week after the exhibition had opened to the public, that a press release was finally published and circulated and further queries on March 15 revealed that the curator’s essay that would also serve as the main text panel was still being written and would be posted to the National Gallery West blog. The essay was eventually posted on the day of the reception, March 18, when the text panel was also mounted.

I belabor this sequence of events here because it is unusual, to say the least, that a National Gallery of Jamaica exhibition would have been up and running for a week without any published and shareable information about it. The standard practice is that there will be press and social media advisories at least a week before the exhibition opens for viewing, and ideally earlier than that, and that the public will be given a fair idea of what to expect in the exhibition, in terms of its scope and the artists featured. I do not wish to be too uncharitable about this unusual radio silence, which may well have been caused by unavoidable practical challenges, but the delay in publishing this information also suggests that there were other problems with this exhibition.

Let me return to why I was piqued by the exhibition title. For a museum exhibition, a title is a promissory note and a statement of intent, which creates certain expectations in terms of what will be presented in the exhibition and also signals how the exhibition is being framed. Titling this exhibition The Art of Jamaican Sculpture may seem innocuous but it implies a lot. It implies a certain position about what is meant with “art” and artistic merit, with “sculpture,” and with “Jamaican art” and “Jamaican sculpture.” Or to put it differently, the title suggests that the National Gallery of Jamaica is in full-throttle canonical mode, at a time when a more self-reflexive and questioning approach is expected. And the title also suggests that the exhibition will sample the full range of sculptural work that has been produced by artists who somehow qualify as “Jamaican” (which is another difficult issue).

Unfortunately, there is no evidence in the exhibition of any such breadth of range or any critical interrogation of its canonical underpinnings. The exhibition consists almost entirely of figurative sculpture—nineteen of the twenty-two sculptures on view are figurative, while three are abstract—and the majority of the sculptures are woodcarvings. One work is a stone carving (an alabaster carving by John “Doc” Williamson) and there are two bronzes, by Edna Manley (the 1982 version of her Negro Aroused, which was in its original, 1935 form a woodcarving) and by Kay Sullivan, as well as a plaster sculpture by Christopher Gonzalez. And only one work steps outside of the conventional formats of pedestal or relief sculpture, namely Laura Facey’s wall- and ground-based installation Goddess of Change (1993), although even this work involves, as its core element, a figurative woodcarving. Clearly, the operative definition of sculpture in this exhibition is a very narrow one and, on the technical front alone, it should be evident that there is a lot more to sculpture in Jamaica than carving and casting alone, especially in the contemporary practice, which is virtually absent from this exhibition. From a thematic, iconographic and stylistic point of view, the exhibition is equally conservative and reflects a very narrow, conventional and, frankly, dated conception of what is deemed legitimate as “Jamaican art.” The three themes of “nationalism, spirituality and abstraction” and the inclusion of self-taught, “Intuitive” artists are well within the range of how that has been conventionally conceived.

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