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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On Making Things

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My father, Karel “Karlo” Poupeye, ON4PU in his radio shack, c1953 (Maria Poupeye-Roose family archive – all rights reserved)

My father was a ham radio amateur. His call sign was ON4PU. He was a technical engineer by training and made almost everything for his hobby himself, from scratch. He made his own radios, his own antennas, for use at our home and for his car, buying components from old army stocks and other, more random sources. It did not always make us popular with the neighbours, the big ass antenna in the garden, the occasional interference with their radios and TVs (although my father volunteered to install whatever it was that was needed to stop the interference in their devices – I believe it involved a diode).

My earliest memories are of playing in his “radio shack,” while my mother was out shopping on Saturday mornings. It was a small room in our attic, chock-full of radio-related stuff. I would play on the ground with boxes with radio components and other fascinating objects, while he was busy on the radio. My first visual memory is of two world maps on the wall of his shack. I must have been about two years old then, since he apparently had two maps while we were briefly living in a particular house when I was that age. In our later home, he only had one map.

I was mesmerized with him endlessly repeating, “CQ, CQ,  ON4PU,” into his microphone, like an incantation, inviting other ham radio amateurs from all over the world to chat with him. The calls involved all sorts of other abbreviations and coded phrases and most were with total strangers – a world in itself, limited to the initiated and the technical. It was quite difficult to get a ham radio license at that time, since there was a stringent technical exam, and he had the greatest contempt for CB radio amateurs, who did not have to meet those technical standards and did not use the prescribed call codes.

Ham radio was my father’s window on the world, much like social media today. My father kept a record of his calls in his log book, and on his world map – I wish I could find both now, and know how far his network really reached. While it was an almost exclusively male world, there was a curious lack of judgement in these conversations, quite unlike social media and, no doubt, other aspects of my father’s own life. He was as excited about talking with a ham radio amateur in Nigeria, as with an American army man in Fort Bragg – strangers who found each other and managed to communicate, although usually only fleetingly, over their shared passion.

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Picnic with the Dacosta Pinto family near Lisboa, c1972 (Maria Poupeye-Roose family archive – all rights reserved)

Even our vacation travel was shaped by this global fraternity, as my father would only travel to countries where he could get a visiting license (Franco’s Spain was out of the question, for that reason). After he finally managed to get permission to drive through Spain with his radios in the car, albeit without being allowed to use them, we had two amazing, month-long vacations in Portugal where we were hosted by fellow radio ham amateurs. I remember an amazing picnic in the countryside near Lisboa, eating spicy foods from East Timor (the daughter-in-law of our host, a Mr Dacosta Pinto, was from there). Our family vacations were surely not ordinary. When I moved to Jamaica, my father tried for to make contact with ham radio amateurs here but never succeeded. I even identified and visited a ham radio amateur in Hope Pastures, but to no avail. They never found each other.

Not that living with my father was easy. He was a brilliant man, fiercely intelligent and perceptive, and technically gifted, but he was no match to his own demons, his self-doubts, his explosive temper, his addiction to alcohol. Everything I wanted to do in my life involved passing a test of wills with him and I was as determined as he was to get my way, which led to many conflicts. My father died of a stroke a few years after I moved to Jamaica, just short of his 58th birthday. I have made my peace with our history, although I wish that he had found greater peace and balance in his own life, and his relationships with others. But I also recognize that I am my father’s daughter and that I learned a lot from him, if only how to channel my own demons more productively. But I also learned how to stand up for myself and for what I believe in, even if it goes against the tide or involves talking back to power.

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Eddie Harris shantie (2017)

And my father also gifted me with a deep admiration for people who can make things, for the inventors and the creatives among us, who can make something of great beauty or utility (or both), whether it is out of practically nothing or with high end materials and technology, using their intellect, their imagination, their talents, and their skilled eyes and hands. It is this admiration, I believe, that shaped my interest in art, as a form of invention, which involves both imagining and making things and communicating through them.

It makes me as interested in the shanties of Eddie Harris, which are made from found and recuperated pieces of wood or bark, or the rag mats of Sane Mae Dunkley, as I am in the visually mesmerizing, interactive video installations of David Gumbs or the incredibly intricate, symbolism-laden paintings of Jan van Eyck – gifted and passionate inventors and magnificent artists each of them. And while ham radio allowed makers of things like my father to communicate  in real time across space and culture, art allows people to communicate across space, culture and time. We became human when we started making things like that and it is what ties us together beyond difference and conflict, and allows us to look beyond, into who we are, where we came from, and how we can shape and re-shape the world we live in.

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Cueva de Manos, Argentina, c11,000-9,000 BC (image source: unesco.org)

[Updated with photos of my father and the picnic with the Dacosta Pintos on August 21, 2018]

My New Blog

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Welcome to my new personal blog. It will feature research essays, reviews, opinions and interviews on art in the Caribbean and beyond. While context and issues of representation will also be discussed, the work of art will be the focus and point of departure in most of my posts. This is a position inspired by recent conversations with the Trinidadian artist and art writer Christopher Cozier, who has called for a return to the art work in art writing relevant to the the Caribbean. Cozier has a strong point. Much of the recent writing about art in the Caribbean has indeed been hyper-focused on the social and historical significance of art and on issues of representation. This is important, and our understanding of art in the region has been deepened significantly by these contributions,  but a much richer picture emerges (pun intended) when the art work itself is given due consideration. And this has been neglected, to the point where the work of art is often sidelined as illustrative material instead of being at the center of the argument. This blog is also committed to unearthing the hidden and as yet untold stories about art in the Caribbean, especially with regards to the role of women in art.

My analysis will be hard-hitting when necessary but even-handed, respectful and,  as much as I can muster, well-informed. I welcome comments and discussions that meet those same standards and hope that what I have to offer will contribute to lively and constructive dialogue about art, its context and its representation in the Caribbean.

(Photo (c) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved)