Caribbean Conversations: Phillip Thomas – Part II

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Phillip Thomas – “Mr Chin, Yuh Fih Sell Dih Rite Ting” (2016, mixed media on canvas, 74 x 49″)

Here is the second part of my extended conversation with the Jamaican painter Phillip Thomas (part I can be found here), in which he talks about his work and issues and interests that have influenced him, and on which he has strong and at times very provocative views. It is long but well worth reading to the end, as Thomas talks in detail about his engagement with music, with some very interesting views expressed.

VP: You are a Senior Lecturer in Painting at the Edna Manley College. How important is teaching to your work as an artist and what, other than the professional affiliation and income, do you get out of it? What is it that you are seeking to impart to your students.

Teaching art is a very strange activity. When I was doing my post-grad fellowship, I was working on my Fellows exhibition at the New York Academy as well as being an assistant lecturer for Jenny Saville, Eric Fischl, and Vincent Desiderio. As working artists, they have figured out ways of meeting their own studio demands as well as giving their time and expertise to younger artists, both formally at the college and informally on their own time. Those lessons were simply invaluable and I was keen on doing the same in my own country.

I learned a lot about explaining aesthetic information to varying minds and abilities. It is a very difficult thing to do. Upon returning to Jamaica, I really had no intention of teaching formally. I was thoroughly busy with my own work and the idea of teaching would have been a distraction, to be honest. It was Petrona Morrison who told me that she would like to have my presence at the Edna Manley College, to expose students to another voice within the Painting department and the wider school. So I started on a part-time basis and began interacting with students.

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Phillip Thomas – Exit (2017, oil on canvas, 84 x 48″)

Teaching challenges your ideas on a given subject and it allows for dialogue with the varying positions on the same. However, one easy error to make is the idea that teaching is one-directional. True exchange has to function both ways and it has to be a conversation with your students in order to have a better understanding of their position on their given ideas. That balancing act between teacher and student is an art form in itself. A lecturer like Omari Ra is a master at student engagement and he is so advanced at allowing the student to understand the sum total of their ideas. He has become a kind of benchmark for me in the idea of teaching art.

In the end, my responsibility as a lecturer is to allow my students to develop ideas and to challenge these ideas from as many angles as I can in order for that individual to have a full grasp of the subject and its potentialities. It is “easier” to impart art theory and history, since these are standards in art and practice, for the most part. Those foundational bits of information are only the first step in laying in a structure on which artists are better able to challenge the same structures and build anew.

The emotional aspect of teaching is something that I am more hesitant about. This is what I mean: when I was a student (sigh, I am getting to that age now when the “back in my day” becomes the go-to line), there was a more, let’s say, robust way of teaching and many of us as students developed harder skins because of it. Cecil Cooper alone would be a hard-enough task master to get by, and in my opinion we were better able to face the world. He was such a tough art teacher that his methods were considered too caustic for some. In this current period, there are so many psychological minefields to contend with and that gives me some pause in managing some students. I don’t have the answer to these problems, but when you are critiquing a student’s work and the student’s forearms are covered in scars, it gives me some hesitance in the delivery of my criticisms. Now, am I being sensitive to that student’s needs? Or am I under-preparing that student? I must admit, I don’t know and I won’t profess to know what the happy median is either. I am learning as I go, but there are major concerns for me as it relates to younger artists today.

Also, social media has created a whole new generation of professional student/artists – kids in school with professionally developed websites and social media platform pages etcetera. I am unsure as to how I feel about this kind of new way of “careering” before the “product”. Yes, I do know how romantic I sound, and how nostalgic these positions could be, but being on the ground and seeing the impact of student’s preoccupation with their career imaging, while failing in class, is frightening to me. I guess with every new advancement there are a set of Luddites complaining in the wings.

On a promising note, the “Rubis InPulse” project is a shining beacon that is doing important things at the high school level.  As you know, myself and a few of the other artists from our community have participated in this art project for high schoolers. This gives us a chance to interface with students who are even younger and it gives us an opportunity to prepare the next batch of Edna Manley College students before they get to that institution. I can say with much certainty that this programme is delivering on its promises and we are seeing the results, and it is raising the stakes in art education.

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Phillip Thomas – Yes, We Have Met Before (2018, mixed  media installation, variable dimensions)

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Caribbean Conversations: Phillip Thomas – Part I

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Phillip Thomas – The N Train (2008, oil on canvas, 77 x 147″)

This is the first part of an extended conversation with the Jamaican painter Phillip Thomas. Part two can be found here.

Phillip Thomas was born in 1980, in Kingston, Jamaica. He holds a BFA in Painting in 2003 from the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and an MFA from the New York Academy of Art. He has exhibited extensively locally and internationally and is represented in major collections. His recent exhibitions include his solo show “Rich in Black History” (2019) at the RJD Gallery, Bridgehampton, NY, and “Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox” at the Museum of the African Diaspora San Francisco. His awards include the Bronze Musgrave Medal of the Institute of Jamaica, the Public Prize in the 2006 SuperPlus Under 40 Artist of the Year competition, the Aaron Matalon Award in the 2008 National Biennial at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and the Albert Huie Award for Painting at the Edna Manley College in 2003. Thomas lives and works in Kingston, Jamaica, and lectures in Painting at the Edna Manley College.

Veerle Poupeye: How do you situate and define yourself as an artist, in the contemporary Jamaican and Caribbean context? Is that, in fact, the context in which you situate and define yourself and, if not, how else would you contextualize your practice?

Phillip Thomas: It has been a very complicated problem for contemporary artists of the region for some time now. The very structure of the question suggests that artists of the region ought to, in some way, self-consciously produce works of art that reflects some sort of idea about Caribbean aesthetics. As one can imagine, these types of problems produce not just specific aesthetic problems, but ultimately complicate the ways in which we go about the very nature of aesthetic problem-solving. We must, at some point, make up our minds as to what it is that we intend to produce here in the Caribbean – art or artifacts. If we are going to question whether or not the “subaltern” can speak, we cannot merely be content with speaking in unison, where that is appropriate, but, perhaps more importantly, we must also strive for individuality.

Regionalism through art must be, in my opinion, firstly an endeavor that occurs through the rigors of academic and aesthetic inquiry. Secondly, we must use our present lives and experiences in conjunction with the understanding of our historical narratives in order to convey our truest selves. If our aesthetic investigations are merely remnants of the demands of the “art market”, in other parts of the world, then those demands will produce a false sense of homogeneity. This problem of aesthetic uniformity almost destroyed Haitian Art, for example. Remember, there was a time when Haitian artists were driven to singularity by the global art market. This in turn rendered the works almost indistinguishable in their make and subject matter. Thankfully now, we can all see that this financial suffocation has changed over the years and I think for the better. Certainly, some cultures are more susceptible to these kinds of globally recognized iconographies, and Jamaica is one such cultural product. We even go as far as calling our culture “Brand Jamaica.”

Phillip Thomas – Pimper’s Paradise – The Terra Nova Nights Edition (2019, mixed media on canvas, 87 x 192″)

As for my own Jamaican or Caribbean contextualization in art, I am often speaking from a very personal space and experience through which I am “reverse-engineering” some of our national and perhaps regional concerns. One of the ways in which I have gone about discussing some of the aesthetic issues here in Jamaica, is through critiquing the problems of representation, authenticity, authorship and ownership. Much of “our” art history in Jamaica, going back to the 18th century, has primarily been about the depiction of ownership and the “other”. This meant that much of the depictions of Jamaican life was designed to present the land and people as resources that are primed for exploitation. The depictions of Jamaican life, or rather, life in Jamaica, in much of the work of the “Itinerant Painters”, didn’t simply present their subject as merely the acquisition of property but more importantly, they presented the ownership of “subjects”. This manner of depicting acquisition presented a very clear distinction between owner and owned. Now, I have argued that much of those structures are still in place today and we haven’t been able to have an honest discussion about the ways in which our search for “authenticity” has created, inadvertently or otherwise, the means through which the subject of Jamaican art is made synonymous with the demography of the working-class.

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Phillip Thomas – George Stiebel (2018, oil on canvas, 83 x 52″)

Herein rests a very big problem. If Jamaica’s “authentic” cultural expressions are designated in the manner that they are, then this one-dimensional delineation will only allow one demography of Jamaicans to be the subject of inquiry, rendering another demography of Jamaicans the sole collector and distributor of these findings. Am I saying that these stories are not true? Certainly not. Am I saying that “middle-classed” Jamaicans have no right to tell these stories? Not at all, but what I am saying here is that the danger of a national homogeneous brand allows, on the one hand, a one-directional flow of national self-definitions. However, at the other end of the discussion, it is also clear to see that there is something that is very dangerous about untold stories. Untold stories have the ability to mystify their undiscovered subjects. And that mysticism is a major part of how the “powerful” maintain power. In my own work, I have made a very conscious effort to open these dialogues about the idea of the “subject” of Jamaican art. Much of what I have done is to ignore the notions of the “authentic” Jamaican subject matter and allow for the development of my work to follow those natural progressions. That opening up of the subject allow me to produce works that excavates our varying demographics and the result were works of art that dealt with Jamaica’s inter-demographic relationships, and that was very fruitful for me.

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Phillip Thomas – I.M.F.@cked (2014, mixed media on canvas, 108 x 252″)

One of the difficulties for me in approaching an unexplored subjects in Jamaican art is how do I go about securing source material for these, more or less, unfamiliar ideas. One way I had to secure source material for a financial inquiry into my painting I.M.F@cked (2014), I selected a number of ATM machines in key locations and took the receipts from the trash receptacles, then organized them by the balance figures and regions and communities. The first reading is, as expected, the high financial threshold on some slips in some areas as opposed to others. But, what was even more interesting for my purpose was the ATM machines that were literally across the road from each other. Those machines showed some of the same disparities as machines in entirely different communities. This suggests to me that our social silos are completely exclusive, no matter how close they are to each other. It is common knowledge in Jamaica that the distance between many affluent communities and poorer ones are best expressed in culture as opposed to mileage. These contextual problems are very difficult to unravel because of my particular perspective on our national ideas of authenticity, however, they create interesting cross-fertilization for my work, they moreover, allow me to delve deeper into the very structure of our ideas of representation and invisibility. 

Phillip Thomas – An Upper St Andrew Concubine (2012, oil on canvas, 87 x 192″)

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Throwing Words at the Status Quo

Waldane Walker, 2019 Valedictorian, Edna Manley College
One night, an evil spirit held me down
I could not make one single sound
Jah told me, 'Son, use the word'
And now I'm as free as a bird

- Peter Tosh - Oh B@&#o k$&%t (1981)

Every culture, and every language has its expletives and some are, well, more potent than others. The standard Jamaican expletives – lets call them The Cloth Collection – are of the most potent variety and make certain people very uneasy, as they are surrounded by strong social taboos and ideas about propriety. In fact, the public use of indecent language is prohibited under section 9C of The Town and Communities Act, which states, somewhat comically, that:

Any person who shall make on any fence, wall or other building, any obscene figure, drawing, painting, or representation, or sing any profane, indecent, or obscene song or ballad, or write or draw any indecent or obscene word, figure or representation, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language publicly can be subject to a fine not exceeding $1,500 or to imprisonment with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding thirty days.

It is an example of the sort of colonial, socially oppressive laws, designed at controlling and civilizing the “unruly masses,” that entered Jamaica’s law books in the years around and after Emancipation. I understand that this law, in its original form, dates from 1834 and, although there have been calls for it to be repealed, there has been no action on that to date.

Despite these taboos and prohibitions, expletives are omnipresent in Jamaican life, in ways that cut across class and circumstance. I pride myself that I can curse in six languages, Jamaican included, and that is a facility I use liberally and unapologetically when I spar with the rogue taxis and coaster buses on the Red Hills and Constant Spring roads. And I understand that tirades of expletives are regularly heard in certain government ministries and other halls of power.

Yet the Jamaican creole expletives are seen by many as the ultimately assault on propriety and they rank up there with unruly hairstyles and spaghetti strap tops in public buildings as the sort of social infractions Jamaica’s increasingly strident “moral majority” seeks to curtail, with a sense that all will be lost if their desperate containment efforts fail. I picture the legendary Dutch boy with his finger in the hole in the dike, heroically holding the threatening flood at bay.

What we have to ask, though, is what is perceived to be at stake in a society which, for arguably quite different reasons, already tethers on the brink of anarchy. And if such petty social control efforts effectively quell or fuel the fire. The responses are, at times, extreme and destructive: in 2012, a highly pregnant woman, Kayann Lamont, was shot and killed by a Police officer in Yallahs, St Thomas, during an altercation when he tried to arrest her after she let loose a string of expletives about a stolen phone – a tragic fate that would almost certainly not have befallen an Upper St Andrew denizen involved in a similar incident. For Jamaica’s efforts at social control are, invariably, targeted at the lower classes, whose supposedly inherent “unruly” conduct is regarded as a perennial threat to the established social order.

One thing is sure, most of these social rules are not based on any broad social consensus, as they really should be, but they are articulated and imposed by what is still, for all intents and purposes, a privileged minority which, hypocritically, does not always apply the same standards to itself. The contradictions of Carnival of course come to mind. At the same time, notions about respectability are also internalized by many of those it seeks to corral, and thus produces some of its most strident and missionary advocates, initiated and propagated through the channels of church and school, which only helps to consolidate the social status quo.

I am not suggesting that there should be no social rules, or standards of civility, and that there should be no public order, but that the prevailing laws and rules need to held up to critical scrutiny to ensure that they are fair, reasonable, culturally attuned and socially inclusive, and devoid of needlessly oppressive social agendas. I see no reason, for instance, why the use of expletives should be of any concern to the Law and the security forces, or why there should be such a hysterical and largely irrelevant insistence on “proper” hairstyles and dress codes, at the expense of practicality, in a tropical environment, and of well-established cultural practices, such as the wearing of locks.

There has been heated debate about the origins and significance of Jamaica’s creole expletives, and their references to the female body and menstruation. The most common argument is that they are demeaning of women – and perhaps they do reflect the undeniable misogynistic tendencies in Jamaican culture and the strong taboos that surround female sexuality and bodily functions – but there are also other ways to look at them. One is to ask whether these references are, in fact, necessarily demeaning, and to question why they are regarded that way, and whether they can be turned on their heads to challenge those perceptions (to borrow Ebony G. Patterson’s admonition in her keynote address at the 2015 Edna Manley College graduation). Carolyn Cooper, in a 2013 Gleaner column entitled Divine Jamaican Bad Words, argued a similar case, that the Jamaica’s creole expletives should be regarded as a provocative celebration of the female fertility, rooted in African religions and cultural traditions.

The defiant, spiritual power of Jamaica’s “cloth” words was celebrated in song by the great Peter Tosh, who fully grasped their poetic, socially subversive, and indeed revolutionary potential. And they are, for all sorts of reasons, including this very same defiance, a common occurrence in contemporary dance hall music, with endless controversies, calls for parental guidance ratings, fines, and Police interventions resulting.

But more importantly, we need to remember that Jamaican culture has captured the global imagination exactly because of its powerful, inspiring challenge of the status quo – a rebellious spirit which has become sadly jaded and attenuated in recent decades and for which there is insufficient tolerance and appreciation in Jamaica itself. For the local status quo is not amenable to any real, substantive threats to its ever more entrenched privileged position, which is now fueled and supported by the socially aspirational culture that has overtaken Jamaican society. If Jamaica’s rebel culture is accommodated in that context, it is merely in a cosmetic, co-opted and disempowered manner.

And this takes me to what provoked this impromptu blog post: the 2019 valedictory speech by the Edna Manley College graduate Waldane Walker, who is an actor, which has been the source of intense debate and controversy because he ended his presentation with the words: “Big up unno b#@&&%$t selves.” I was not present at the function (I admittedly avoid public functions in Jamaica because of the routine insistence on endless, ponderous and pointless protocols that turns such events into hostage situations – another exponent of this oppressive “propriety syndrome” I am alluding to). Like many in Jamaica, I first saw the video clip with the final words, which had gone viral on social media before the function was even concluded. It was immediately clear that there would be controversy but it was also clear that Waldane Walker had the support of most, if not all of his fellow graduates, who spontaneously rose from their chairs to applaud and cheer him. It was obvious that he had in fact spoken for them, as a valedictory speech is supposed to do.

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Talking Back: Visual Conversations about Sexual Abuse

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Nicola Ricketts (3rd year BFA Sculpture) – as shown in Manifestations, the 2019 SVA student exhibition at the CAG[]e] gallery in 2019

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).

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Avagay Osborne (BFA Painting) – Untitled (2015), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

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The School of Visual Arts/EMC Final Year Exhibition: Six Highlights

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Leighton Estick (Visual Communication) – Origin

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.

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Tiana Anglin (Visual Communication) – Metroparadise (detail)

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.

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Leighton Estick (Visual Communication) – Origin (detail)

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.

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Tiana Anglin (Visual Communication) – Metroparadise (detail)

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.

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Desanna Watson (Painting) – Retention of A Colonial Past

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).

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Desanna Watson (Painting) – Retention of A Colonial Past (detail)

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