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.

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The End of an Era

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Cover of Some Persistent Themes, the catalogue of a solo exhibition by David Boxer held a this home in 1988

This is a sad moment in Jamaica’s cultural and artistic history. I understand that the house of David Boxer, the late art historian, artist and collector, is slated for demolition, to make way for what will probably be another run-of-the-mill apartment complex, of which Kingston hardly needs any more. For those who did not know him, Boxer was the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Director/Curator from 1975 to 1991 and then its Chief Curator until 2012. His art collection was one of the most significant in the island, and indeed in the Caribbean, and covered the breadth and depth of Jamaican art and visual culture. His house was a must-visit for any overseas-based art researcher coming to Jamaica and he always welcomed such visitors. Many well-attended and memorable art-related receptions and exhibitions took place there. The house and collection have been featured in many art journals, most recently in Art+Auction in May 2017. Boxer’s own art was ground-breaking in the Jamaican context and deeply influenced the trajectory of many younger artists. He received the Order of Jamaica in 2016.

Boxer died nearly two years ago, after a long illness, but it had been his vision, expressed on many occasions, for his house and collection to be preserved as a museum. Setting up a museum like this requires significant start-up and operational funds, a workable legal framework and business plan, and specialist professional oversight and adequate staffing. Usually some form of state support is also needed for such initiatives to be sustainable. Perhaps Boxer’s plans were not realistic but his hopes for a museum represented an important implied recognition of his collection’s public cultural value, and he had actually established a foundation to this effect.

The house itself has architectural and historical value, even though it had been significantly expanded while Boxer owned it (and mainly to accommodate his growing collection). It is a quite beautiful example of the Cuban-Spanish style in Jamaica, with some Art Deco influences, and with screen-printed floor tiles and other period details. Very few such dwellings remain in Kingston and if the current trend is anything to go by, they will soon all be gone. Other famous Jamaicans had also lived there. According to Brett Ashmeade-Hawkins, the house was built in the 1920s and originally owned by Douglas James Verity, who then sold it to Director of Tourism, John Pringle in 1961. Margaret Bernal recently told me that the Jamaican national anthem was actually written there (the Verity and Sherlock families were related by marriage). In other countries, such sites would have been proactively protected and preserved, or at least thoroughly documented. The Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera museums in Mexico City and the Frick Collection in NYC come to mind.

Part of the collection has already been dispersed. A number of works had been sold prior to and after Boxer’s passing and there was an auction some weeks ago, accompanied by an estate sale (which some have, distressingly, described as a flea market, with items lying on the floor). The auction appears to have been mainly of secondary works from the collection and also included a significant amount of Boxer’s own work — too much of it for a single auction in my estimation. According to a newspaper report, about half of what was on offer sold during and after the auction.

It is as yet unclear what has happened, or is to happen, to the most important works in the collection which included iconic examples of Jamaican art that surely ought to have been in public hands – major works by the likes of John Dunkley, Edna Manley, Ronald Moody, Carl Abrahams, Kapo, Everald Brown, David Miller Senior and Junior, Colin Garland, and Milton George, along with key examples of Boxer’s own work. A promotional Observer article just before the auction cryptically stated that certain works from the collection would be not be sold but would be exhibited “from time to time.” No specifics were provided, in terms of which works have been reserved for this purpose and how these will be kept and exhibited. Will these works be available to the public, students and researchers? Are they properly stored and conserved? More specifically, will they be available to or at the National Gallery? The house and collection may be private property, and what happens with private property is as such private business, but significant cultural property is a matter of public interest. A clear public statement from the Estate would be helpful to quell the current speculation and anxiety.

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