“It’s All Broken” – or, Why the Imagination Needs to Rule

“It’s all broken,” the child said to his mother. And right he was, as there is very little that remains intact and functional at the once bustling Kingston railway terminus on Pechon Street in downtown Kingston. The occasion was a recent guided tour, facilitated by Kingston Creative, and guided by the Jamaican architect Patrick Stanigar. It was my second visit to the station (the first one was many years ago) and my most comprehensive to date, as I was able to visit the freight section, which I had not seen before. There is still a functional, air-conditioned office in the main building and a fair amount of staff, including a resident caretaker. Like most of the visitors present, I was however shocked at the deterioration, which is taking parts of the complex to the point where rehabilitation may become very costly and even impossible.

While I do no share his extraordinary photographic eye and technical skills, and can only contribute amateur photos taken with my phone camera, I was inevitably taken back to the Guyanese artist Errol Ross Brewster’s haunting photo-essay Beware the Promise Today, which was published on this blog in October of last year. In this photo-essay, Brewster used the demise of Guyana’s train system in the early 1980s as a metaphor for the failings of that country’s political culture and the detrimental effect this had not only on the abstracted, depersonalized national economic plane, but also on a human level, deeply affecting the most vulnerable and disenfranchised, while benefiting undeserving and corrupt interests. I had to ask what the neglect of Jamaica’s railway system says about Jamaica, and its own political culture, which may be different from Guyana’s but nonetheless has much in common, and what this says on a more general level about the postcolonial Caribbean.

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The opening of the Kingston terminus and the Western Jamaica Connecting Railway in 1845 (source: Wikipedia)

The history of Jamaica’s railway system starts in 1845, with the inauguration of the Kingston terminus and the first part of the Western Jamaica Connecting Railway, from Kingston to Angels in St Catherine, a 14.5 mile track. It was among the earliest such ventures in the Western Hemisphere, along with the railway system in Guyana, which opened a year later. The very first was actually the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the USA, which transported freight and passengers, and which was inaugurated in 1827 with a 13 mile long track. Initially, the main impetus to introduce trains to Jamaica was the modernization of the sugar cane industry, in the wake of Emancipation, and it was driven by the economic interests of the plantocracy rather than the transport needs of the common person. The railway system was however steadily expanded during the 19th century, and gradually became focused on passenger transport as well as freight. By 1895, it was possible to travel from Kingston to Montego Bay by train. This opened up previously inaccessible parts of the island and allowed for efficient and affordable travel between the country’s cities, towns, and other centres of economic activity. Trains also played a major role in the inland postal service and in getting produce from the country to the urban markets.

Below is an archival video from 1913, part of which was filmed from a train leaving Montego Bay (scene starts at 1.20″).

With the start of bauxite mining in the 1940s, the train system was further expanded and acquired an additional role, the transport of bauxite and alumina to the ports, and of the chemicals used to process the bauxite to the plants. What is left of Jamaica’s railway system still fulfills that function today. Lack of maintenance and investment, and the impact of several major hurricanes, however caused Jamaica’s railway infrastructure to deteriorate and the Jamaica Railway Corporation, which had been established as a government corporation in 1960, began to accrue major losses. Several trajectories stopped operating and public railway transport ceased in 1992, save for a brief revival of the May Pen to Linstead line in 2011-2012.

Jamaica’s train routes c1945, before the addition of the bauxite lines (source: Wikipedia)

The vision and mission statement of the Jamaica Railway Corporation board (there must, of course, be a politically appointed board for what is largely a defunct organization) reads as follows:

Restore………….. Modernize………… Expand…………

To recommence a safe, reliable and affordable freight and passenger rail service throughout Jamaica, to synchronize with other modes of transportation, with emphasis on the cost effective movement, while meeting the needs of the JRC, its customers and stakeholders in an environmentally friendly atmosphere, always striving to develop the communities served.

At least there is hope, it appears, but it is hard not to be cynical. While we toured the train station, a fellow visitor spotted a water-damaged file folder which had been casually left among the debris in the freight terminal. Its header was “Rehab Plan” and the folder appeared to date from 1989, when the passenger train system was on its last legs. The folder says it all in a way, as there have been many such plans since then, and even more political announcements, none of which have thus far come to fruition

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“Rehab Plan” c1989, Photo: Veerle Poupeye, January 26, 2020

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Field Notes # 1: How to Prepare for Juried Art Exhibitions

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Installation view of the central gallery during Jamaica Biennial 2014, with work by Charles Campbell, Rex Dixon, Shoshanna Weinberger, and Kimani Beckford. This exhibition combined invited and juried submissions.

Over the 35 years I have lived in Jamaica, I have been the lead curator of more than 45 exhibitions and I have been involved in many others, as a juror, as a supervisor or mentor of other curators, as curatorial and organizational support staff, as a contributing writer, and also as an observer and critic. Most of my curatorial work has been in the Caribbean and, specifically, for the National Gallery of Jamaica. I also lecture at the Edna Manley College, in Curatorial Studies among other subjects, and I have been involved in a number of exhibitions there too, for the CAG[e] gallery as well as the final year show. While these experiences have been mostly positive, I have also seen and heard it all, so to speak, and this has convinced me of the need for greater professionalization for artists, in terms of being more informed about what is involved in participating in exhibitions and working with galleries, cultural institutions and curators. Not being aware of how to navigate this terrain effectively can  sabotage  artists’ careers, causing them to miss out on important opportunities, not to be represented in the best possible way, and, even, to become involved in needless contentions.

Artists may participate in many types of exhibitions, commercial and non-commercial, group and solo, and thematic or not, and each requires its own approach and preparations, but I thought it would be useful, to focus on submission-based, juried exhibitions, as this seems to be a process many artists struggle with. While fairly lengthy and detailed, this post is not meant to be a “handbook” or to be complete or definitive in any way,  and merely consists on notes and thoughts based on my own experiences and observations and it is presented as work in progress. I invite feedback and further discussion and questions, and I may add further notes to this post in response. This post is meant primarily for young and emerging artists but I hope that others will also find them useful and perhaps even thought-provoking.

CAGe gallery with Manifestations exhibition
Manifestations: the 2019 SVA Student Exhibition (April 2-15, 2019) at the CAG[e] gallery, Edna Manley College, was a project of my Introduction to Curatorial Studies class and was organized as a juried exhibition.

Juried Exhibitions

Many cultural organizations, galleries and museums organize regular juried exhibitions, which are usually recurrent and held on an annual, biennial or other schedule. Some have a theme or are restricted according to a particular medium or genre (for instance, painting or photography), while others are open to a broad scope of work. There are usually eligibility restrictions, for instance regarding nationality, country or city of residence, and even age. Usually, there is a limit on the date of production of the work as most submission-based exhibitions accommodate recent or new work only, and there are often also limits on size and weight. It is important for artists to be fully aware of these requirements, and to adhere to them, and of course also for these to be clearly articulated and communicated by the exhibition organizers.

There is usually a call for submissions, which is published well ahead of the submission deadline, and the exhibition is selected from the submissions by a panel of jurors. Today, these calls are often circulated mainly via social media and it is therefore important to follow those cultural organizations that may have relevant exhibition opportunities. While the published call for submission may consist of a simple notice, there are normally more detailed documents with rules and regulations, submission guidelines, and submission forms that can be downloaded, collected or requested – make sure to receive, peruse and understand these documents and to adhere to the instructions. There is normally also a contact number, email or online platform for additional information or queries.

For submission-based exhibitions, production and delivery costs are normally the responsibility of the artist but in some instances financial and other support are offered, although usually only once the work is accepted (I wish this could be the norm but most Caribbean cultural organizations work with very limited resources and staging exhibitions is, as such, an expensive undertaking). If such support is provided, this ought to be clearly communicated; artists should never assume that such support is in place. Request clarification on this count if needed. Submission deadlines are normally non-negotiable. As part of the submission package, artists are usually required to submit a short bio and/or CV, and, increasingly also, a publishable artist statement about the proposed work(s), as well as photographs of the work(s), with details if possible and allowed. Such texts will help to inform the decisions of jurors and curators, and may be used in the catalogue and exhibition text panels and, while this will involve editing, they should be prepared with care (handout on artist bios and statements) Photographs should, wherever possible be of reproduction quality and may also be used in the catalogue and exhibition promotion and reviews, and the submission and acceptance process implies that permission to do so is given (this should, in fact, be specified in the guidelines).

The submission process in the past typically involved the delivery of the actual, completed and framed or mounted art work (although these standards are changing quickly, and it is increasingly acceptable, for instance, to submit and exhibit unframed works on paper, using magnets or clips). Physical submissions can pose challenges for large or heavy works or for artists who live far away or who do not have the resources to support delivery without assurances that the work will actually be exhibited. Increasingly, submissions are done online via email or another submission platform. While online submissions make submitting easier, faster and less costly, and reduce the storage burdens for the host organization, the main disadvantage is that jurors may have a less wholesome understanding of the work when they see only a digital image on screen instead of its actual, physical incarnation.Read More »