Art Museums and Social Hierarchy – Epilogue

Daylight Come…Picturing Dunkley’s Jamaica at the National Gallery of Jamaica

Sometimes you think you said everything you had to say on a particular subject, and perhaps too much–my two-part post on Art Museums and Social Hierarchy was not exactly short (you can find part I here and part II here). But then something else happens, and you are forced to rethink some of your assessments, and then you have a few more things to say.

Today was one such instance, when I attended part of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Last Sundays programme, which involved the opening of a new exhibition, Daylight Come…Picturing Dunkley’s Jamaica. This new exhibition is offered as an adjunct to the John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night exhibition, and also continues until July 29, and was curated by National Gallery Assistant Curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson.

The May 23, 2018 press release on the opening and Last Sundays programme rather unhelpfully stated that:

This new exhibition Daylight Come… explores themes such as tourism, immigration and the emergence of cultural nationalism in Jamaica during Dunkley’s lifetime. The exhibition provides further context to Dunkley’s creative output; exploring the works of his contemporaries David Miller Snr and David Miller Jnr, Carl Abrahams, Albert Huie, David Pottinger, Ralph Campbell and Henry Daley among others.

And if I may digress for a moment, the National Gallery really needs to do better with communications: an upcoming exhibition is not a state secret, to be disclosed only at the eleventh hour and in the vaguest possible terms, as seems to have become the norm. Members of the public have a right to know what to expect, with reasonable notice and in sufficient detail.

Wall quote, gallery 1

Based on the description in the press release, I was not particularly excited at what I feared was going to be a boilerplate presentation on photography and other art during Dunkley’s lifetime. And the title of the exhibition was not exactly encouraging either, as it was of course taken from Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (Day-O) (1956) which, while very popular and musically engaging, represents an exoticized and sanitized vision of Jamaican life, polished and prettied up for the consumption of North American audiences and tourists. I had to wonder what the National Gallery was up to.

Wall quote, gallery 2

The exhibition I saw this afternoon, as such, contains few surprises, in terms of the contents or presentation, but I was excited by it, and that was a function of the simple but sophisticated and subtly provocative way in which the exhibition is framed. Divided over three galleries, the exhibition consists of a selection of photographs, archival film footage, paintings and sculptures, and a selection of objects that include a slide lantern and the toolkit of David Miller Jr. Together, these displays explore issues such as the living conditions and economic exploitations that prevailed during Dunkley’s lifetime and which contributed to the labour migrations of that period; the emergence of tourism and what Krista Thompson has called the “tropicalization” of places like Jamaica to suit tourist expectations; and then, in the final gallery, the work of the nationalist school around artists such as Edna Manley, more independent artistic figures such as Carl Abrahams, and the other two self-taught artists who came to the local art world’s attention then, David Miller Sr and Jr.Read More »