The Edna Manley College, where I teach, has been in the news recently with allegations of sexual harassment. Here is not the place to comment on that particular instance but it is widely recognized that it is part of a much bigger problem in Jamaica, that affects many, if not all public and private sector organizations, including the education sector, and also the social interactions in communities and families and on the streets. Several recent incidents in different parts of the country whereby young girls were raped and murdered had already set the stage for intensified public attention to those most brutal, violent and devastating forms of sexual predation and violence that are also all too common in this country.
If there is a positive side to any of this, it is that it generates new opportunities for public agitation and sensitization about the high incidence of sexual abuse and harassment in Jamaican society, along with the culture of silence and acceptance that still surrounds this, and its devastating social and individual effects, on women and also on men. And perhaps most important, it creates opportunity to talk frankly about what is needed to change the toxic gender dynamics that are at the roots of sexually predatory behavior. Even though none of this is new, as there is a long history of such issues, there is a mounting sense of crisis and a sense of public urgency that there needs to be prompt and decisive action to change the culture that produces this and to put in place more appropriate and effective preventative and remedial frameworks, at the level of law and policy, of the reporting and investigation protocols, and of education and social intervention.
The arts have a vital role to play in this, by providing expressive opportunities for victims to reclaim their voice, by generating public awareness about the prevalence, causes and effects of such abuses, and by sensitizing all parties involved to their rights and responsibilities. Examples of this can be found in recent Jamaican literature, theater and music (Queen Ifrica’s haunting Daddy Don’t Touch Me There of course comes to mind), as well as in the visual arts. One recent activist campaign, the Tambourine Army, utilized provocative but engaging performative strategies that were part of the reasons why this “name and shame” campaign appealed to the public imagination. More attention needs to be paid to what creative interventions can achieve for such social problems and how these can best be deployed in the present moment in Jamaica. This post seeks to contribute to that discussion with a brief look at how certain female (and one male) Jamaican artists have engaged with these issues, including work that has been featured in recent and current exhibitions at the Edna Manley College itself (and the College indeed has a major role to play in this conversation).
I always look forward to the annual final year exhibition of the School of Visual Arts of the Edna Manley College and the opening is usually a much-anticipated, well-attended local art world event. It is, by and large, in this exhibition that we see the future of art in Jamaica (and the broader Caribbean) emerging and it is always exciting to spot new talent and the new ideas and new directions they bring to the table. This year, I missed the June 2 opening because of travel but I participated in A Taste for the Arts, a special evening event on June 14, which involved a tour of the exhibition and the opportunity to speak with the students, most of whom were present, as well as performances in the exhibition by students from the School of Music and School of Dance. Despite the sweltering heat that evening, it was a very enjoyable visit that allowed for an in-depth look at the exhibition.
Since I always prefer to put my cards on the table, let me do so first: I have taught several of the final year students and also serve as an examiner for Painting, Sculpture, Printmaking and Photography. But the exhibition is quite different from the exams, as it is curated by faculty from the exam projects, and includes the work of departments that I would not have seen before, namely the Visual Communications, Textile and Fibre Arts, and Fashion programmes, allowing for a collective, comparative view of this year’s BFA cohort that I do not have in the exams. So I decided to share a few of my thoughts on the exhibition and on six of the projects that I found particularly outstanding.
One of the most exciting developments is, as the Visual Arts Dean Miriam Smith points out in her catalogue foreword, the increasingly interdisciplinary approach that is evident in the work produced. When I first started teaching at the Jamaica School of Art in 1984, the situation was very different, painting students had to paint, sculpture students sculpted, ceramics students worked in clay, etcetera, each with a fairly rigidly imposed focus on the “appropriate” media and techniques. Up to the mid 2000s, crossing disciplinary boundaries was not encouraged: I remember how Painting student Marvin Bartley’s final year project — a stunning group of surreal, composite photographs on the theme of Dante’s Hell — raised eyebrows, with some earnest discussion as to whether it was acceptable for him not to present any work in painting media, even though such boundaries had long become obsolete in the contemporary art practice.
Today, while the Visual Arts programme maintains its departmental structure, students have significantly more freedom and interdisciplinary approaches are actively encouraged: Painting and Printmaking students produce work in textile and photographic media, Visual Communication students present ambitious painting projects, and Textile and Fibre Arts students produce work that has sculptural, almost architectural qualities. And those who wish to work within the conventional disciplinary boundaries are also catered to, as is illustrated by the strong showing of traditional painting techniques by this year’s final year students in the Painting department. The result is a pervasive, enthusiastic spirit of inquiry and experimentation and the final year show includes work that comes closer to what one would expect from MFA students than a BFA programme, which is no minor achievement since resources and facilities at the College are still limited.
Two of the most outstanding and ambitious projects in this year’s exhibition came from Visual Communication students, Leighton Estick and Tiana Anglin. Both present large, panoramic mural paintings. Visual Communication, where students can choose between a Graphic Design and an Illustration focus, has long been the department of choice for many Visual Arts students, in part because it is an area where professional outcomes are more certain, given the demand for designers and illustrators in the local graphic design and marketing/advertising industry. In the past, the focus of the department was strongly on providing the entry-level skill sets required by the industry but perhaps not enough on the capacity to “vision” things, which is equally important to support the standard of graphic design and illustration the local industry needs. This has changed significantly in recent years and while industry expectations continue to receive due attention, students are encouraged to push the envelope and to go beyond what is expected from graphic designers and illustrators. Leasho Johnson, who is now one of Jamaica’s leading contemporary artists but who also works in the graphic design sector, was one of the early examples of this development in the Visual Communication department and unapologetically chose to work across disciplines when this was not as yet the norm.
Leighton Estick, whose painting Origin can be seen in the outdoor amphitheatre that is located between the College’s Schools of Art, Drama and Dance, presents a swirling, almost dizzying panorama of origin myths, beliefs and theories from all over the world, using animal and human forms. His painting style draws freely from the worlds of pop culture and fine art alike, and the mural, which literally surrounds the viewer because of its circular set-up, creates an immersive environment that reminds us, as his artist’s statement puts it, that we are ultimately one human race, despite seemingly insurmountable cultural differences and conflicts.
Tiana Anglin turns her attention to Downtown Kingston, contrasting three moments in its history: the colonial past, the present, and a visually stunning, utopian future that seems to erase the traumas of history and the urban squalor of the present to capitalize on the grand but underrated natural beauty of the Kingston Waterfront area — the sort of future we would all like to see for the city. This panoramic mural is separated into several crisply drawn and painted tableaux that use a changing visual vocabulary that deftly supports the narrative: the move from history to present to future is subtly emphasized by the visual transition from grey scale to full colour, and from night to day, while the distortions in the perspective in the scene that depicts the city’s future give this particular image a surreal, dream-like quality that contrasts with the more realist, quasi-documentary quality of the earlier images.
The history of Kingston is also the subject of Painting student Desanna Watson‘s large untitled mural, which is executed in textile and print media, but her focus is on the manner in which the changing social landscape of the city has been codified in its maps and aerial views. Based on sound research into the history and social significance of these representations, and the manner in which different historical periods and power regimes have imposed themselves on the natural topographies, this textile mural is surely one of the most impressive and resolved works I have seen in a SVA final year exhibition. The visual evocativeness of the printed map imagery and the stitched, appliqued and quilted elements that mimic the actual topographies of the city, is complemented by printed text elements based on Kingston’s street and community names, which have a poetry of their own and significant and often troubling historical resonances (the contested origin of the street name Lady Musgrave Road is one such example).