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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.