Shifting the Conversation: Ania Freer's "All That Don't Leave"

Work by Alexander “Bamboo King” Dempster in foreground, with exhibition sign by Kemel Leeford Rankine in the background

Ania Freer describes herself as “an Australian/Jamaican filmmaker and creative story-teller.” She operates and curates an online gallery and Instagram platform, Goat Curry Gallery, which features work by the Jamaican craft producers she works with as well as her documentaries on the subject. Goat Curry Gallery is a self-funded project and proceeds from sales go fully to the artists, while visitors can donate towards the film projects – a subtle but pointed non-profit alternative to the hyper-capitalist frenzy around art and its markets in this Art Basel Miami Beach silly season.

And this commitment to ethical and equitable engagement is part of what I like about Ania Freer’s current curatorial project, All That Don’t Leave, which is on view at New Local Space (NLS) in Kingston until December 7. The exhibition features work and filmed oral histories of seven Jamaican craft producers: Racquel Brown, a basket maker from Robins Bay, St Mary; Alexander “Bamboo King” Dempster, from Anotto Bay, St Mary, who creates fantastic creatures from bamboo roots; Jennifer “Eighty” Stewart from Downtown Kingston, who makes crochet garments; Kemel Leeford Rankine, a sign painter from Holland Bamboo, St Elizabeth; Jeffett “Georgie” Strachan, a woodcarver from Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, who works in Lignumvitae; Cecil “Bingy” Smith, who makes calabash hats in Annotto Bay, St Mary; and Albert “St John” Phipps from Port Antonio, who makes bead curtains from natural and recycled materials (please do watch the linked videos on the artists, as they are excellent and essential to understanding this project). The works on view are for sale, at fair and reasonable prices, with 100 % of the proceeds going to the artists.

Painted Signs by Kemel Leeford Rankine

All That Don’t Leave, and the accompanying essay, is the inaugural product of the NLS Curatorial/Writing Intensive, a mentoring programme for young art writers and curators that is funded in part by the Prince Claus Next Generation Partnership, a major grant NLS has recently obtained. As part of this programme, Freer had access to an advisory panel of experienced curators and writers to develop her project, which crucially included Raphael Fonseca, curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Niterói, Brazil; and Rosanna McLaughlin, art editor, The White Review (who was herself in residence at NLS some time ago).

All That Don’t Leave is the second exhibition shown in the newly expanded exhibition and project space at NLS, a much-needed addition to Kingston’s deficient art infrastructure – the first was the recent T’Waunii Sinclair exhibition, which was a major, very provocative breakthrough for this young artist. Sinclair’s exhibition concluded his artist’s residency at NLS, which was also part funded by Prins Claus Fund and supported by a panel of mentors. These sort of intelligent, ideas- and conversation-driven projects are exactly what is needed to move beyond the numbing malaise that appears to have overtaken the Jamaican art world, and its future certainly looks brighter as a result.

Bags by Racquel Brown

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Parochialism or Inclusiveness? The Inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition – Part I

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Laura Facey – Heart of a Man…

This is the first of a two-part post on the National Gallery of Jamaica Summer Exhibition. Part 2, which takes a closer look at the exhibition itself, can be found here.

Having worked in curatorial positions in a museum context, at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), for the better part of my thirty-five years in Jamaica, I understand all too well how protective curators tend to be of the projects they work on, as I have been there myself on many occasions. The NGJ staff works very hard, and is highly committed, and that has always been one of the institution’s greatest assets. What they do involves long hours of challenging work, sacrificing personal time and work-life balance, and engaging deeply with the material on view. The resulting protectiveness is not unlike how most artists feel about their own work and that certainly deserves our respect.

So when I read the curatorial essay by the lead curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson, of the inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition, which opened on July 28, I know perfectly well where she is coming from. Her determination to serve as an advocate for the art works and the artists in the exhibition she curated is commendable and shared by most curators, and is in fact part of the professional ethics attached to the field. Nonetheless, I also have reason to be concerned about the overly defensive, legitimizing tone of the essay, which appears to leave no room for any critical engagement. The coyly dismissive references to “vitriol” and the “big, bad critic” and cryptic declarations such as “I do not believe that this is the moment for maintaining demarcations based on opinions of achievement” do not bode well in that regard. If a curatorial project is to be successful, there must be room for healthy and diverse critical engagement, from within and without, and this should be welcomed and even solicited rather than feared, resisted or dismissed.

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NGJ Summer Exhibition – installation view of central gallery, with work, from left to right, by Jordan Harrison, Bryan McFarlane and Esther Chin

Perhaps the defensiveness of the essay is unconsciously pre-emptive, and really an implied acknowledgement that there are, in fact, serious problems with the exhibition, for the Summer Exhibition is not even close to the level that we ought to expect from the NGJ, as Jamaica’s national art museum. My expectations were admittedly not very high, given the self-limiting manner in which the exhibition was framed, but I am still shocked at its plodding, uninspiring, and dramatically uneven quality. There are some outstanding and interesting works, but the bulk of the exhibition ranges from disappointingly average to, in several instances, totally inappropriate for the NGJ. And I am not the only one to have these views, which are shared by far more observers than the NGJ may care to acknowledge.

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Field Notes # 1: How to Prepare for Juried Art Exhibitions

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Installation view of the central gallery during Jamaica Biennial 2014, with work by Charles Campbell, Rex Dixon, Shoshanna Weinberger, and Kimani Beckford. This exhibition combined invited and juried submissions.

Over the 35 years I have lived in Jamaica, I have been the lead curator of more than 45 exhibitions and I have been involved in many others, as a juror, as a supervisor or mentor of other curators, as curatorial and organizational support staff, as a contributing writer, and also as an observer and critic. Most of my curatorial work has been in the Caribbean and, specifically, for the National Gallery of Jamaica. I also lecture at the Edna Manley College, in Curatorial Studies among other subjects, and I have been involved in a number of exhibitions there too, for the CAG[e] gallery as well as the final year show. While these experiences have been mostly positive, I have also seen and heard it all, so to speak, and this has convinced me of the need for greater professionalization for artists, in terms of being more informed about what is involved in participating in exhibitions and working with galleries, cultural institutions and curators. Not being aware of how to navigate this terrain effectively can  sabotage  artists’ careers, causing them to miss out on important opportunities, not to be represented in the best possible way, and, even, to become involved in needless contentions.

Artists may participate in many types of exhibitions, commercial and non-commercial, group and solo, and thematic or not, and each requires its own approach and preparations, but I thought it would be useful, to focus on submission-based, juried exhibitions, as this seems to be a process many artists struggle with. While fairly lengthy and detailed, this post is not meant to be a “handbook” or to be complete or definitive in any way,  and merely consists on notes and thoughts based on my own experiences and observations and it is presented as work in progress. I invite feedback and further discussion and questions, and I may add further notes to this post in response. This post is meant primarily for young and emerging artists but I hope that others will also find them useful and perhaps even thought-provoking.

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Manifestations: the 2019 SVA Student Exhibition (April 2-15, 2019) at the CAG[e] gallery, Edna Manley College, was a project of my Introduction to Curatorial Studies class and was organized as a juried exhibition.

Juried Exhibitions

Many cultural organizations, galleries and museums organize regular juried exhibitions, which are usually recurrent and held on an annual, biennial or other schedule. Some have a theme or are restricted according to a particular medium or genre (for instance, painting or photography), while others are open to a broad scope of work. There are usually eligibility restrictions, for instance regarding nationality, country or city of residence, and even age. Usually, there is a limit on the date of production of the work as most submission-based exhibitions accommodate recent or new work only, and there are often also limits on size and weight. It is important for artists to be fully aware of these requirements, and to adhere to them, and of course also for these to be clearly articulated and communicated by the exhibition organizers.

There is usually a call for submissions, which is published well ahead of the submission deadline, and the exhibition is selected from the submissions by a panel of jurors. Today, these calls are often circulated mainly via social media and it is therefore important to follow those cultural organizations that may have relevant exhibition opportunities. While the published call for submission may consist of a simple notice, there are normally more detailed documents with rules and regulations, submission guidelines, and submission forms that can be downloaded, collected or requested – make sure to receive, peruse and understand these documents and to adhere to the instructions. There is normally also a contact number, email or online platform for additional information or queries.

For submission-based exhibitions, production and delivery costs are normally the responsibility of the artist but in some instances financial and other support are offered, although usually only once the work is accepted (I wish this could be the norm but most Caribbean cultural organizations work with very limited resources and staging exhibitions is, as such, an expensive undertaking). If such support is provided, this ought to be clearly communicated; artists should never assume that such support is in place. Request clarification on this count if needed. Submission deadlines are normally non-negotiable. As part of the submission package, artists are usually required to submit a short bio and/or CV, and, increasingly also, a publishable artist statement about the proposed work(s), as well as photographs of the work(s), with details if possible and allowed. Such texts will help to inform the decisions of jurors and curators, and may be used in the catalogue and exhibition text panels and, while this will involve editing, they should be prepared with care (handout on artist bios and statements) Photographs should, wherever possible be of reproduction quality and may also be used in the catalogue and exhibition promotion and reviews, and the submission and acceptance process implies that permission to do so is given (this should, in fact, be specified in the guidelines).

The submission process in the past typically involved the delivery of the actual, completed and framed or mounted art work (although these standards are changing quickly, and it is increasingly acceptable, for instance, to submit and exhibit unframed works on paper, using magnets or clips). Physical submissions can pose challenges for large or heavy works or for artists who live far away or who do not have the resources to support delivery without assurances that the work will actually be exhibited. Increasingly, submissions are done online via email or another submission platform. While online submissions make submitting easier, faster and less costly, and reduce the storage burdens for the host organization, the main disadvantage is that jurors may have a less wholesome understanding of the work when they see only a digital image on screen instead of its actual, physical incarnation.Read More »

The Elephant in the Museum

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Chéri Samba –  Réorganisation, 2002, Collection: AfricaMuseum

Late last month, on December 28 to be precise, I visited what is now branded as the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, a suburb of Brussels. My visit, during a family vacation to Belgium, came just a few weeks after the museum had reopened, after being closed for about five years for extensive renovations. The 86 million USD renovation involved: the expansion of the building with a new Visitor Centre (a futurist glass pavilion) and a connecting underground passage; the restoration of the main building; the re-curation of the permanent exhibitions and reinterpretation of the collections; as well as several contemporary art commissions. Because of its origins in the most troubled part of Belgium’s colonial history, and the exceptional African collections it holds, the renovated museum has found itself at the epicenter of the recent debates about restitution and the decolonization of museums. On the eve of its official re-opening on December 8, the French daily Le Soir published an interview with the then President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila, in which he announced that there would be formal demands for the return of art works and other objects from the AfricaMuseum, and that a new national museum was being constructed in Kinshasa, with funding and technical assistance from the Korean government. Guido Gryseels, the present Director of the AfricaMuseum, indicated that the museum would consider such requests.

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A crowded AfricaMuseum on December 28, 2018

The AfricaMuseum’s full and proper name is the Royal Museum for Central Africa and it has been one of the most controversial museums in Western Europe, because of its direct association with the most questionable and violent part of Belgium’s colonial history, namely King Leopold II’s Congo Free State (1885-1908). During this episode, Leopold II ruled the Congo area as the absolute monarch of a personal fiefdom and he enabled and personally profited from the economic exploitation of this populous, naturally rich part of Africa, at the expense of severe human rights abuses, which included widespread forced labor and atrocities against the local population. As many as 10 million Congolese, or about half of the estimated population, perished as a direct or indirect result, and there were also many documented instances of physical abuse and torture, such as the infamous hand amputations of members of communities that did not produce their rubber tapping quota. International outrage grew and in 1908 the territory became a Belgian colony, overseen by the Belgian parliament and known as the Belgian Congo, until Independence in 1960.

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The museum’s entrance, prior to the recent renovation (Image source: Wikimedia)

The AfricaMuseum, which has been described by Gryseels as “the last colonial museum,” has its origins in 1897 as a propagandist showcase of Leopold II’s Congo Free State, which was presented as part of the colonial section of the Brussels World Exhibition that year. Further adding to the problematic foundations of the museum, this colonial display notoriously also featured a “human zoo” at the same royal domain where the original museum building, then called the Palace of the Colonies, is located. This zoo took the form of a staged “African village,” for which 257 Congolese persons were brought to Belgium, seven of whom died as a result of the ordeal.

The present, larger  museum building, which is located in the same park, dates from 1904 and was constructed to accommodate the rapid expansion of the museum collections. Today, the AfricaMuseum holds one of the world’s most prized collections of Central African art, as well as significant natural history, history and ethnography collections, most of it pertaining to what is now the DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi. The collection comprises some 180,000 artifacts, many of them rare and quite extraordinary. Save for some changes in the late 1950s, the permanent exhibitions had changed very little since the museum’s establishment and, as Gryseels has acknowledged, the old museum could itself be regarded as a museum artifact, that embodied a particular way of thinking about museums, the state, and colonialism. This way of thinking has been a foundational and controversial part of the history of the modern museum, hence the ongoing debates about decolonizing the museum. The recent renovation is a major intervention and the first one such in the museum’s history. One section, the popular “Crocodile Hall,” which is part of the natural history exhibitions, was restored to its original condition in the new museum installation, where it contributes, along with dramatically redesigned and updated sections, to the new, critical dialogues the museum seeks to provoke about its collections and its own history.Read More »

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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Too Close for Comfort

bee-e1452114220653I have a bee in my bonnet. And I have been writing about it here and there on social media, as those who follow me on Facebook will have noticed. It is about the incestuousness, the cliquishness, and the endemic conflict of interest issues that plague the Caribbean art world. Issues that are, if they are even recognized,  often quietly accommodated, buttressed by a disturbingly common “wink-wink, nod-nod, it’s all good as long as I benefit” mentality. Or even vociferously defended as being somehow desirable and beneficial to all, especially in light of the supposedly immense and all-justifying personal sacrifices made by those involved, etcetera. Yet these issues are also the greatest source of alienation, bitterness and division within the Caribbean art world and too much that is (or could be) of real value is not supported or ever seen because the person(s) associated with it are not “in the loop.” And while these issues are a common topic in hushed, “off the record” conversations throughout the region, they are only rarely spoken about in public, at least not in any detail. It appears that we are all afraid of shaking up that particular dolly house. Perhaps there is too much fear of repercussions, of being ostracized for not “playing along”?

I will be told that this is not unique to the Caribbean art world, that it is endemic throughout the global art world. And indeed, there are countless stories all over about curators including work by their lovers in the exhibitions or acquisitions they are handling, and about art jobs and appointments being negotiated in the bedroom, and there is significant, inappropriate overlap between the for-profit, market functions of the art world and those that are supposed to be not-for-profit and for the public benefit. I won’t bother going into detail here, but I don’t think I am exaggerating one bit when I claim that some do not even seem to understand the fundamental difference between an art fair and a biennial, with one being an art market event and the other a supposedly non-profit exhibition, and perhaps understandably so because those boundaries have indeed become blurred. But somehow it feels worse, and more damaging here in the Caribbean, perhaps because there is still more at stake, in terms of artists and other art professionals who are competing for scarce resources and opportunities, and who often do not get the support and compensation their efforts or talents deserve, and in terms of the broader social stakes.

Part of this has to do with how Caribbean societies function, the smallness and the close proximity. Everybody knows everybody, and sometimes too well: people went to school together, they are related, they are past or present friends or lovers (or hopefuls!), or bitter rivals and enemies, and one does not have to exclude the other. Much of this incestuousness is fueled by the unearned privilege and deep-rooted sense of entitlement of those who are already major beneficiaries of how Caribbean societies typically function, by virtue of their position in the race-class hierarchies, their education, their access to travel and resources (and that includes the ability to get visas), and their personal and political affiliations–positions of privilege which very few are ever willing to surrender or even acknowledge. And yes, some are new, or relatively new, to these positions of privilege, and many are struggling financially (or think they are, although they are not really poor), but their lack of self-reflexivity about these issues is often just as real as that of those who have a more established and secure position in it. And some participate just as enthusiastically in the self-perpetuating “mutual benefit societies” that make the Caribbean art world tick.

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When It Turns Out That Your Great-Great-Grandmother Was, Sort of, a Museum Curator

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My great-great-grandmother, Virginie Strubbe, c1900 (Maria Roose family archive)

A few days ago, I published a post about some aspects of my family history, based on family photos I found, as a tribute to my mother who passed away recently. It can be read here. One of the questions I raised was how the personalities and life choices of our ancestors are. consciously or unconsciously, echoed in ourselves.

I had always assumed that my art historical and migratory inclinations were indebted mainly to my paternal great-grand-uncle Camille Poupeye (1874-1963), who was an art historian and a theatre and art critic. He was also a world traveler who spent a lot of his time in Asia, as well as in Africa and Central America, and published several books about theatre and dance traditions in Asia–he is probably best described as an Orientalist, with all the critical concerns that entails. I had always intended to write a reflection on that fascinating but ideologically fraught family heritage and will still do so at a future date (I found some interesting new information on him also).

But then I came across another document in my mother’s papers that charted the history of the lace shop that was operated in Bruges by my great-grandparents, Arthur Roose and Irma Deschepper, and I discovered something that complicated that assumption and also shed light on the roles of women in early museums and in the Bruges cultural industries. And I thought it worth sharing here, as a coda, or more correctly, a precursor to my previous post. Read More »