Some time in late 2018, the National Gallery of Jamaica decided to cancel the Jamaica Biennial, of which two editions had been held, in 2014 and 2017. The Jamaica Biennial was the re-conceptualized successor to the National Biennial and, before that, the Annual National Exhibitions. While still hamstrung by the expectations and entitlements that had been generated by its predecessors, the Jamaica Biennial was widely recognized as groundbreaking and poised for further developments that would be beneficial to the Jamaican and Caribbean art worlds. The exhibition was opened up to the Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora, it was shown at multiple locations in Kingston and Montego Bay, and it included special projects that invited a more in-depth look at some of the featured artists, instead of the customary one or two works.
The idea (and for the sake of disclosure, it was a project I directed) was that the Jamaica Biennial would become a fully curated exhibition, with a changing cast of guest curators, although I had hoped that there would still be a call for submissions, so that the inclusion of new artists would be encouraged. I strongly felt that the “invited for life” system that had existed since the 1980s was elitist and counterproductive to the inclusive development and exposure of Jamaican art, and needed to be abandoned. This was however resisted by the board, who were concerned about the fallout from prominent and well-connected artists, as there had been some such rumblings. Whether there should have been another exhibition to accommodate these “legacy artists” was a matter for discussion, although I was doubtful that this would reduce the pressure, as being included in the Biennial would no doubt still be regarded as an entitlement by many of these artists.
Already in 2018, I had expressed concern at the National Gallery of Jamaica’s failure to make any public statements on this reversal in its exhibition programme, when it came to my attention that only the “invited list” artists had been invited to a meeting to discuss the way forward, instead of having a public forum with the entire artistic community. In my view, this discussion, which was furthermore attended by only about ten artists, illustrates the extent to which the National Gallery continues to feel beholden to a particular cohort of “inner circle” artists, and a particular social cohort, as it is widely recognized that the invited artist list is uncomfortably aligned with Jamaica’s class and power hierarchies.
This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.
Taking a closer look at the NGJ Summer Exhibition reveals a few pleasant surprises but also pulls the exhibition’s weaknesses and failings into sharper perspective.
Perhaps the most outstanding work in the exhibition is Lucille Junkere’s The Yoruba Blues from Abeokuta Nigeria to Abeokuta Jamaica, which consists of a set of patterned embroidery stitch samples on handmade paper dyed with natural indigo. It is a sophisticated and visually stunning example of research-based artistic practice that delves sensitively but knowingly into the transatlantic cultural connections between Africa and the Caribbean. And I will agree with the curator’s essay that there is a triumph of textile and fiber arts of sorts, as another outstanding work in the exhibition is Katrina Coombs’ Golden Flow, a handwoven red and gold draped scarf form, which transforms the exhibition space allocated to it into a beautifully articulated, quasi-architectural form, making a simple but powerful statement.
Norma Rodney Harrack has contributed two exquisitely beautiful sculptural vase forms, which are among her most remarkable works in recent years. Laura Facey is another artist who understands that artists should only submit their best to a NGJ exhibition. There is debate about the politics of her continued engagement with the slavery and plantation history, and the imagery used in the process, but I will leave that for another time, as there is no doubt that Heart of a Man(Inspired by Henry Blake’s “Black Man Hung By the Ribs” and a seed from the Barringtonia Tree) is an exceptional work, formally and technically, but also because of its historical and art-historical references and powerful emotional impact.
Noteworthy and interesting work was also contributed by Amy Laskin, Carol Crichton, Camille Chedda, Shoshanna Weinberger, Winston Patrick, Richard Nattoo, Rani Carson, Esther Chin, Claudia Porges Byer and Ania Freer – as the names I have mentioned thus far illustrate, women appear to have outperformed the men in this exhibition. And it was good to see recent graduates of the Edna Manley College such as Jordan Harrison, Tiana Anglin, and Nadine Hall, especially since younger, contemporary artists are not very well represented in the exhibition.
On the other side of the spectrum, the photography entries are particularly disappointing and only a few transcend the club photography level, which is unfortunate since Jamaica has produced quite a few outstanding modern and contemporary photographers. I have to ask what a box set with reproductions of photographs Albert Chong produced more than twenty years ago is doing in this exhibition and must conclude that he is simply taking his invited artist status for granted. I am also non-plussed by the two bizarre mixed-media heads by Hasani Claxton, as I fail to see any artistic merit or interest, or the patently amateurish textile collage by Bernard Hoyes, which is not consistent with the standard of work this quite well-established artist is known for. In both instances, it appears that it was the subject, rather than the quality of the work itself, that caused it to be selected by the judges: the issues of black female anger in Claxton’s work and the reference to Sparrow in Hoyes’. But in both instances, the work is simply not good enough.
This is the first of a two-part post on the National Gallery of Jamaica Summer Exhibition. Part 2, which takes a closer look at the exhibition itself, can be found here.
Having worked in curatorial positions in a museum context, at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), for the better part of my thirty-five years in Jamaica, I understand all too well how protective curators tend to be of the projects they work on, as I have been there myself on many occasions. The NGJ staff works very hard, and is highly committed, and that has always been one of the institution’s greatest assets. What they do involves long hours of challenging work, sacrificing personal time and work-life balance, and engaging deeply with the material on view. The resulting protectiveness is not unlike how most artists feel about their own work and that certainly deserves our respect.
So when I read the curatorial essay by the lead curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson, of the inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition, which opened on July 28, I know perfectly well where she is coming from. Her determination to serve as an advocate for the art works and the artists in the exhibition she curated is commendable and shared by most curators, and is in fact part of the professional ethics attached to the field. Nonetheless, I also have reason to be concerned about the overly defensive, legitimizing tone of the essay, which appears to leave no room for any critical engagement. The coyly dismissive references to “vitriol” and the “big, bad critic” and cryptic declarations such as “I do not believe that this is the moment for maintaining demarcations based on opinions of achievement” do not bode well in that regard. If a curatorial project is to be successful, there must be room for healthy and diverse critical engagement, from within and without, and this should be welcomed and even solicited rather than feared, resisted or dismissed.
Perhaps the defensiveness of the essay is unconsciously pre-emptive, and really an implied acknowledgement that there are, in fact, serious problems with the exhibition, for the Summer Exhibition is not even close to the level that we ought to expect from the NGJ, as Jamaica’s national art museum. My expectations were admittedly not very high, given the self-limiting manner in which the exhibition was framed, but I am still shocked at its plodding, uninspiring, and dramatically uneven quality. There are some outstanding and interesting works, but the bulk of the exhibition ranges from disappointingly average to, in several instances, totally inappropriate for the NGJ. And I am not the only one to have these views, which are shared by far more observers than the NGJ may care to acknowledge.
There is a long and not always auspicious history of artists using their work to retaliate against critics and other personal enemies. One famous example is the King Minos figure in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (1535-1541) fresco in the Sistine Chapel, which was very controversial at the time of its creation (and on several occasions after), because of the frontal (male and female) nudity and the orgiastic quality of the composition. (There is a fascinating TEDx talk art historian Elizabeth Lev on the scandal caused by the Last Judgment – I highly recommend viewing it.) King Minos, who is in the bottom of the hell section of the painting, donkey-eared and besieged by demons and serpents, is actually a portrait of Biagio da Cesena, the master of ceremonies at the Vatican, who had questioned the fresco’s suitability for the Sistine Chapel and notoriously exclaimed it would be more suitable for a tavern or a public bath. De Cesena had objected to Michelangelo’s artistic retaliation to Pope Paul III but the Pope refused to intervene, quipping that he had no jurisdiction in hell, and the Last Judgement remained as it had been completed.
There was at least one more such reference to a critic in the fresco – to the satirist, critic (and pornographer) Pietro Aretino, who is depicted as the elderly St Bartholomew. And more oddly, the flayed skin held by St Bartholomew (who was flayed as part of his martyrdom) is believed to feature an anguished (or angry) self-portrait of Michelangelo himself. It is much harder to decipher what Michelangelo is saying in this particular instance, but it may well be that he is depicting himself as the target of an unfair attack. Aretino had written Michelangelo a letter about the Last Judgment in which he expressed similar concerns as de Cesena subsequently expressed and had, after being dismissed by the artist, lambasted Michelangelo for being gay and “godless,” which were potentially dangerous allegations even in Renaissance Italy. Ironically, Aretino was himself known to have had sexual relationships with men.
Such art works make for good anecdotes and some are in fact quite entertaining – having our enemies dragged by demons into the burning pits of hell is something we all fantasize about at times. But while they were meant to “throw shade” at the person depicted, they also shed light on the personality and intentions of the artist, as the creation of such works sometimes reflects oversized and fragile egos, an unwillingness or inability to contend with criticism, petty vindictiveness, and even clear personal malice. Tellingly, very few are good works of art (OK, OK, I’ll make an exception for the Last Judgement).
This post is not focused on the satire to which public figures should expect to be subjected in the modern world, although even there the question arises about where where the line should be drawn between “acceptable satire,” subject to the principles of freedom of speech, and malicious, personally demeaning representations that may shade into hate speech. Locally, the cartoons of the Jamaican politician and prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller by the Jamaica Observer cartoonist Clovis are a controversial example and I do believe that lines were often crossed there, with depictions of Mrs Simpson-Miller as an ignorant “ghetto” virago that were arguably sexist, classist and even racist.
But what to say about Trump? He is such a problematic public figure, and such a threat to important social, cultural and political values, that it is hard to feel sorry for how he is depicted in the many cartoons, memes, comedy routines and late night TV roasts that pop up constantly in the USA and elsewhere in the world (as well as the occasional work of art). Most are funny and, while politically pointed, not personally offensive, as the one above illustrates, although it is obviously hard to resist the lure of his crazy, self-inflicted hairdo. Normally, I get uncomfortable when public figures are depicted in a sexually demeaning fashion, as these may amount to unwarranted personal violations, and there have been a few such of Trump that focused on alleged penis size etcetera. But then again, his openly sexist attitudes towards women, his own appearance, which does not exactly qualify as the “perfect 10” standard to which he holds women, and the allegations of unwanted sexual approaches to various women, make it harder to object when he is so depicted.
But to return to art, a well-known instance of an art work that raised questions about the representation of public figures is Not Dressed for Conquering/Haute Couture 04Transport (2011), a mixed media installation by the radical feminist Austrian artist Ines Doujak. In this work the former Spanish King Juan Carlos I is sodomized by the late Bolivian labour leader and feminist Domitila Barrios de Chungara, who is in turn sodomized by a dog. It was included in 2015 in an exhibition at Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, which was temporarily closed by the museum director Bartomeu Marí, who also fired two of the exhibition curators — an act of censorship triggered by this particular work that outraged many in the international art world. Marí subsequently resigned and the work has since then been shown elsewhere in Europe and South America.
Most of the discussion was focused on the depiction of the Spanish monarch, but it appears to me that Domitila Barrios, who is in fact the central figure in the work, fared no better, and it is not clear to what end exactly, as there has been very little discussion of the actual content and intent of the work. To me, that is where Not Dressed for Conquering is problematic and a lot of Doujak’s work can in fact be construed as sensationalist and sexually exploitative, of the very women and feminist interests she claims to represent. So perhaps lines were crossed in Not Dressed for Conquering, and arguably not those that attracted the most public attention, but I do not think that censorship was the answer, as pointed critiques and careful analysis of the work would have been far more useful. Doujak has, ironically, been sheltered from any such critiques by being “martyred” as a victim of censorship.Read More »
Marcel Pinas at the Jamaica Biennial 2017 (photo: Veerle Poupeye)
Leasho Johnson at Devon House, Jamaica Biennial 2017
Laura Facey’s Ceiba arrives for the Jamaica Biennial 2017 (photo: Veerle Poupeye)
Installation view of the central gallery during Jamaica Biennial 2014, with work by Charles Campbell, Rex Dixon, Shoshanna Weinberger, and Kimani Beckford
David Gumbs’ Xing Wang interactive video installation, Jamaica Biennial 2017, National Gallery West
Ebony G. Patterson at Devon House, Jamaica Biennial 2014 (photo: Veerle Poupeye)
For some time now, the Jamaican and Caribbean art world has been buzzing with questions about the next Jamaica Biennial. Launched in 2014, as the successor to the National Biennial and, before that, the Annual National exhibitions, the second Jamaica Biennial was originally scheduled to be held in December-March 2016, as had been the traditional timing of its earlier incarnations. It was however postponed to February-April 2017, because of the delayed appointment of a new Board after the 2016 General Elections. The new opening date also allowed the National Gallery to consider whether opening at that time of the year would be more advantageous. Because of this change, it was widely anticipated that there would be a third Jamaica Biennial in February 2019 and that the call for submissions would have gone out in summer 2018, if not earlier. Not surprisingly, the National Gallery’s prolonged (and rather unwise) silence on the matter has caused consternation and much speculation.
About a week ago, I was told, emails went out to the artists who had been on the invited list for previous Biennials and Annual Nationals, who were invited to a meeting which took place yesterday morning, to discuss the National Gallery’s new plans for the Biennial. The meeting, I understand, was chaired by Dr Jonathan Greenland, the (acting?) Executive Director; and attended by Ms Susanne Fredricks, Board member and chair of the Exhibition Committee; Ms Annie Paul, Board member and member of the Exhibition Committee; Mr O’Neil Lawrence, Senior Curator; and Ms Roxanne Silent, Registrar. Only 10 of the invited artists were also in attendance, from a list which, at the last count, stood at 74 (although 6 of these persons have passed away in recent years), so it was not well attended. This is not surprising, for a meeting held on a Monday morning, at relatively short notice and in the days leading up to the Holidays, although it also suggests a lack of interest in what would be discussed on the part of those who were absent.
Dr Greenland, I was reliably informed, announced to the meeting that the National Gallery’s new leadership had come up with new ideas and that it had been decided by the Board, the Exhibition Committee and the professional staff, that going forward there would be two exhibitions: a national exhibition, which would be held in the summer and which would be curated by the National Gallery team, and what would now be the Kingston Biennial, which would return to the Biennial’s original December opening slot and which would be international and guest-curated. While the new national exhibition would be held at the National Gallery only, the Biennial would be at different locations throughout Kingston and would involve other partners and more interdisciplinary approaches.
So basically, if I understand it well, this means that the old National Biennial will be re-established, albeit on a different schedule and perhaps a different name, and that the Kingston Biennial will take a form similar to what was done for the Curator’s Eye exhibitions in the 2000s, for which guest-curators were also used, and for the invited and off-site projects in the Jamaica Biennials in 2014 and 2017, although the engagement with the Kingston as a Creative City initiatives would add a new dimension. Dr Greenland also announced that the invited list would be maintained for the new summer exhibition, although this was later contradicted by a Board member who claimed that it would be phased out. I gather that persons left the meeting without much clarity about the format of the new Biennial and summer exhibition, and the future of the invitation system, or whether there was any room for further discussion.
So that we all understand what this invited list represents and why it is problematic, let me give you a bit of history here. While there are other, earlier antecedents, such as the Institute of Jamaica’s All Island Exhibitions, the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Annual National exhibition was established in 1977 and held annually until it was replaced by the National Biennial in 2002 which was, as the new name implied, held every two years. The format for the early Annual Nationals had varied but by the mid-1980s, the exhibition had a fixed format that featured two groups of artists: invited artists and artists who entered through the jury process, and this format was maintained for the National Biennial. The invited list consisted of artists who were deemed by the National Gallery to be “established” and, while invitations were “for life,” the list was expanded annually, although the inclusion was based on rather loose criteria that were never clearly articulated. Invitees could enter up to two works of their choice, as long as these fit within the media for which the artist was invited and the date range and format guidelines for the exhibition, so there was little or no curatorial input for that part of the exhibition.