“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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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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[un]finished (December 20-22, 2019)

Visitors to art exhibitions usually get to see finished art works and usually have only a limited sense of the process involved in the production of art, in terms of the development of concept, theme, technique and style that goes into the production of a single work of art, and into the development of an artist’s general artistic language. In contemporary art, this process has been pushed to the forefront, and is often a defining aspect of the work itself, in ways that allow us to consider what art really is and how it is created. The question of when a work of art is finished, or if it is ever finished, also arises in this context.

The artistic process is the theme of the upcoming exhibition [un]finished, which features work by five senior students of the School of Visual Arts of the Edna Manley College – Kobi Bailey, Demar Brackenridge, Sasha-Kay Hinds, Tevin Lewis and Brad Pinnock – as well as two recent graduates – Yvad Campbell and Trishaunna Henry. These artists work in a variety of media, techniques and styles, from realist painting on canvas to a video installation, digital photo-manipulations, experimental prints, interventions into found objects, and, even, figurative sculptures made from bread and margarine. Themes and concepts vary widely but each selected work sheds light on the process of artistic creation, the importance of research and experimentation, the development of a distinctive artistic voice in the work of young artists, and the use of process as a key concept in contemporary art.

In addition, the exhibition also includes an interactive element with Nanook Founder, Joan Webley undertaking a great “art return.” The Nanook community space operated in Kingston from 2013 to 2016 and housed many artistic offerings. Among these were Iset Sankofa’s, Sankofa Sessions: live painting DJ events, where persons in attendance were given materials and invited to produce spontaneous art works in response to the “vibes” at the gatherings. The guests first painted the walls and floors, in an experimental approach to creativity and the artistic process. Later, event co-convener and Edna Manley College graduate, Matthew McCarthy introduced posterboards and the works started to increase in numbers. Some of these artists and works travelled to Europe for exhibitions in 2015 and many of the art pieces only made the final leg of the return trip to Jamaica in 2018. Nanook is now returning all these works to their creators and facilitating a discussion about the “UPTour: a journey from creation to commercialisation that went ‘unfinished’ for so long.” The selections include work by several artists who are now quite well-known, such as Taj Francis and Richard Nattoo, as well as by self-taught artists from the community and even persons who had not painted before. The Nanook community space will reopen in 2020 and this exhibition is the first rekindling of that creative community flame.

Installation view – Nanook community works

[Un]finished will be held at 132 Harbour Street, Downtown Kingston, from December 20-22, 2019., and will be open to the public from 11 am to 4 pm on each day. The artists and Joan Webley will be present on Sunday, December 22 to talk about their work and Nanook as part of the Kingston Creative Art Walk programme on that day – more details about this event, which will take place from 2 to 3 pm, will be communicated separately.

[Un]-finished is co-curated by Veerle Poupeye, Waldane Walker and Joan Webley. The exhibition is presented in association with the following sponsors and partners: Itopia Life; the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Tetley and Caribbean Dreams Teas; the Gleaner; the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts; Kingston Creative; and VP Projects.

For queries and more information, please contact vpcuratorialprojects@gmail.com or follow <vpprojects.wordpress.com>.

From the Archives: Osmond Watson (1934-2005)

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Osmond Watson – Peace and Love (1960), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

While I work on several new blog posts, here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011) – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved. Osmond Watson was one of the key artists of the post-independence period in Jamaica.

The painter and sculptor Osmond Watson grew up in Jones Town, a West Kingston neighborhood, in a Garveyite working class environment. Africa had more concrete meaning for his family than most since his mother was born in Sierra Leone, as the daughter of a West India Legionnaire who was stationed there. After attending the [Institute of Jamaica’s] Junior Centre’s youth art classes, he received a scholarship to attend the Jamaica School of Art and Craft. He subsequently received a British Council scholarship to attend the St Martin’s School of Art in London (1962-1965) and returned to Jamaica in the late 1960s.

While his earliest work was in line with that of the earlier generation and mainly concerned with Kingston street life, it was during his stay in London that Osmond Watson developed a formal language and iconography that was uniquely his own and one of the most recognizable among Jamaican artists. Visits to the British Museum and other cultural institutions provided him a range of formal and iconographic sources, such as traditional African sculpture, cubism, Byzantine icons, stained glass windows and Early Flemish painting. Jazz and the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam were also important influences. His most important source, however, was Jamaican popular culture, not only in terms of his subjects but also in his bricolage aesthetic: he routinely combined conventional, meticulously executed oil painting and woodcarving with found objects such as decorated plastic mirrors and sparkly costume jewellery, thus lending dignity and value to these “low brow” tokens of local pop culture. Although he remained firmly committed to the art object and was perhaps the most skilled technician of his generation, Osmond Watson thus subtly undermined the “high art” pretensions that were promoted by contemporaries such as Barrington Watson (no relation). As David Boxer put it, Osmond Watson “strove to create works that could be understood and appreciated by all levels of society” (2004).

Osmond Watson - The Lawd is My Shepard (1969)
Enter a captionOsmond Watson – The Lawd is My Shepard (1960), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

Osmond Watson’s affectionate engagement with the popular culture is evident in the painting The Lawd is My Shepard (1969) which, like Eugene Hyde later did in Mask a Come, appropriates the Jamaican Creole language in its title. It is a striking, monumentalized image of a market woman seated in a typical stall made from recuperation materials, surrounded by her produce, all lovingly detailed, and with an open bible in her lap, at the very geometrical centre of the image. The work was obviously conceived as a social icon which comments on economic self-sufficiency and the defining role of religion in Jamaican society, but unlike Karl Parboosingh’s Jamaica Gothic, its tone is affirmative and celebratory rather than critical. The work exemplifies Osmond Watson’s style, which is characterized by ample, geometrically stylized forms influenced by cubism, a fondness for patterns, deep, glowing colours and heavy black outlines, which give many of his paintings a precious, stained glass appearance.

Like Hyde, Osmond Watson was attracted to the Jonkonnu masquerade as a defining African-Jamaican tradition, which he depicted in his Masquerade series of the late 1960s and 1970s. One such work is Masquerade No. 6 (1971), a depiction of a dancing “Horse head” masquerader. Most of Osmond Watson’s other images are static but the Masquerade series depicts dance movement, for which he uses a Cubist, or rather, Futurist faceting and repetition of the forms, especially the limbs of the figure, which gives these images a dynamic, filmic quality. His Jonkonnu paintings have nothing of the threatening, disorderly quality that gives Eugene Hyde’s 1938 – Mask A Come (1976) its political ambiguity but represent the masquerade in an aestheticized manner which is closer to Rex Nettleford’s National Dance Theater Company “high art” representations of Jamaican traditional culture than to the actual sources – a good example of what Partha Chatterjee has called the “classicization of tradition” in nationalist cultural products (1993, 73). While this may seem to contradict Osmond Watson’s anti-elitist agenda, it also reflects his resolve to represent Jamaican culture in an affirmative, dignified light.

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Parochialism or Inclusiveness? The Inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition – Part II

Katrina Coombs – Golden Flow

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.

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Lucille Junkere – Yoruba Blues…

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.

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Rani Carson – Transfiguration

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.

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Installation view, gallery 3 – Bernard Hoyes’ Silent Sparow is to the right. Laura Facey’s Heart of a Man is on the opposing side of that gallery.

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.

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Parochialism or Inclusiveness? The Inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition – Part I

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Laura Facey – Heart of a Man…

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.

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NGJ Summer Exhibition – installation view of central gallery, with work, from left to right, by Jordan Harrison, Bryan McFarlane and Esther Chin

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.

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From the Archives: Ken Abendana Spencer (1929-2005)

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Here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011), which is taken from a section which explores how artists in Jamaica have marketed their work – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.

The post is not illustrated, as I was unable to get permissions from the Spencer estate in a timely manner at the time of submitting my dissertation and am not able to pursue this solely for the purpose of this impromptu post. Reproductions of Ken Spencer’s work are however widely available online and I encourage readers to search and peruse these.

[There are a number of] Jamaican artists who have devised effective individual marketing strategies and acquired significant wealth in the process. Barrington Watson, as we have seen, has controlled the promotion and pricing of his work by operating his own galleries. His friend and contemporary Ken [Abendana] Spencer (1929-2005), who peddled his works to locals, expatriates and tourists, was a more extreme example.[1]

Spencer started out selling his sketches on a street corner in Downtown Kingston. He joined Barrington Watson in London in 1952 but did not study art there, as Watson had hoped. Instead he started selling his works directly to Jamaican professionals who were hungry for reminders of home. (Greenland 2006) On returning to Jamaica, he continued this direct marketing strategy and Watson remembered that “he would go around the island in a car, and sell his work in Montego Bay and Negril. He would put a bunch of works into a car and his idea was to come back with none” (Ibid.). He personally visited potential buyers, many of them first-time art buyers, and often left the hesitant with a stack of paintings to ponder, to come back a few days later to an almost guaranteed sale (Moo Young 2006). His paintings can be seen in many hotel and bank lobbies, the offices of doctors, dentists and other professionals, and middle class homes.

Most of Spencer’s works represent “traditional” Jamaican subject matter, such as market women and mento musicians – reassuring images of “Old Time Jamaica,” as one contributor to his obituary put it (Greenland 2006). They are painted in a recognizable, confident gestural style: typically, the image is invoked by just a few broad brush or palette knife strokes and set against a monochrome background, often the white gesso undercoating of the canvas. [His large, prominently placed and curvilinear signature served as his trademark.] Spencer’s sketchy semi-abstract style – which in itself challenges the assumption that Jamaican audiences do not respond to abstraction – also reflected his goal to produce and sell as many works as possible. He reputedly worked on several canvases simultaneously, which were lined up so that he would not have to clean off his brushes to change colors, and thus saved time and paints. (Moo Young 2006) He also once told David Boxer that a painting was not economical if it took more than 30 minutes to complete – the sort of stories that horrified “knowing” art lovers in Jamaica.[2]

Spencer’s expansive, jovial personality played a crucial role in his sales and he cultivated his image as a notorious eccentric. He lived in Portland in a self-designed, six-storied castle and willingly entertained local and tourist visitors there, although it was implied that works would be bought. Spencer also frequented the New Kingston hotel bars in search of sales. The art dealer and framer Herman van Asbroeck tells a story that illustrates Spencer’s ingenious “traveling salesman” tactics:

A year ago a man came into the shop and put a Ken Spencer on the desk. He wanted to have it framed. I asked him: ‘You bought a Ken Spencer?’ And he replied: ‘No, I won it!’ Apparently, he had come to Kingston for a builder’s conference and a group of them had gone out for a drink. They ended up in the Hilton at 2:00 a.m. Suddenly a gentleman approached their table and asked if they wanted to play a game. He told them he had a number in his pocket and then he marked out cards 1 to 5. Everyone took a number and the customer in my shop was the winner. Then Ken Spencer introduced himself. By the end of the night, all the people at the table had bought paintings! (Greenland 2006)

These anecdotes, also, marked Spencer as one who was not a “serious” artist.

While he occasionally produced more ambitious works, Spencer was not an artist who strove to produce “masterpieces” but one who deliberately produced generic paintings that were recognizably “a Ken Spencer.” [He] did not significantly pressure local cultural institutions for public recognition and never had an exhibition in a gallery.[3] When asked why, he claimed that he did not need such exposure because all of Jamaica was his gallery (Moo Young 2006). His sense of achievement thus came from the prevalence of his work in the Jamaican environment. Others, however, took up his cause and already during his lifetime there were heated arguments within the art community about Spencer’s artistic merits and the NGJ’s neglect of his work was cited as evidence of the elitism of the Jamaican art establishment.

Spencer was an undeniably gifted painter and the local popularity of his work is a cultural phenomenon that warrants its own recognition. The recent attempts at inserting him into the national canons, however, obscure that had he handled his work differently, he could certainly have been a recognized member of the post-Independence mainstream. Spencer was unapologetic about being primarily motivated by economic gain and opted to disregard the processes by which artistic worth is conventionally determined. He thus represents an instructive counterpart to those contemporary artists who resist the forces of the market and, despite the fact that he had far less to say, succeeded where they have failed by reaching deep into Jamaican society. Spencer’s choices also separate him from Barrington Watson, who used more conventional art sales methods and always asserted the “high art” status of his work. While Watson’s exact position in the local art hierarchies has been contentious, his inclusion in the national canons is quite secure, unlike Spencer whose chances at consecration as a “Jamaican master” will always be tenuous, because he broke the codes of “high art” in his pursuit of commercial success.

Endnotes

[1] He was commonly known as Ken Abendana Spencer during his lifetime but the lawyers responsible for his estate insist that his legal name was “Kenneth Abondarno Spencer” (Forth Blake 2006).

[2] Personal communication, David Boxer, January 11, 2006.

[3] The NGJ owns three Spencers but none are on permanent display. One of these works was transferred from the IoJ collection in 1974 and the other two were part of a major donation by the then Chairman of the NGJ Aaron Matalon in 1999, which sought to address lacunas in the NGJ’s collection. While there may have been other expressions of discontent on Spencer’s part, I know of only one incident, a year or two before he died, when he complained to the NGJ Registrar about not being adequately represented in the NGJ’s collection (personal communication, Roxanne Silent, Registrar, NGJ, March 12, 2008).

SOURCES

Greenland, Jonathan. “Remembering Ken Spencer.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1-2

Moo Young, Howard. “Jamaica Is My Gallery.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1