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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[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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Some Reflections on Petrona Morrison’s “New Works” Exhibition

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Installation view of Petrona Morrison’s New Works (2019), with the installation Archives in the back

Some works of art reveal their content easily. Others challenge the viewer, and sometimes also the artist, to the point of resisting explanation. This is not a popular approach these days, in a context where easy artistic legibility is promoted by some, populistically, as a necessary condition for democratizing the arts, and artistic opacity dismissed as elitist and undesirable. There however needs to be room in art for the poetic and political implications of opacity, as this is, for many reasons, fertile artistic territory. In fact, sometimes it is art’s very point.

The body of work presented in Petrona Morrison’s current exhibition, New Works, does not read easily, at least not at first sight.  Having spent some time engaging with visitors, at the opening and in the exhibition since then, I can see that some are non-plussed at first. It does not help that the exhibition consists of work created and produced in digital media, and mounted without the usual legitimizing trappings, such as picture frames. Or that it furthermore involves photographs produced by the artist as well as found images and objects, as these challenge common notions of exclusive artistic authorship. Or, even, that there is no price list.

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Petrona Morrison – Cross-section IV (from the Mapping series), 2017

The latter is worth noting because to many in the Jamaican context, an art exhibition is first and foremost a sale, and art is validated primarily by its standing in the art market. The Petrona Morrison exhibition was deliberately not conceived as a sale; it is first and foremost an exhibition, as a way of displaying and sharing with various audiences a cohesive and immersive body of work, as a communicative act. It is not that there is anything inherently wrong with selling art, or with producing and promoting it for sale, but it is problematic and very reductive when serving as a luxury commodity becomes art’s sole purpose, and its primary method of consumption and validation. There must be room for other approaches, and alternative artistic economies, if we are to have a healthy, diverse and dynamic art ecology. This exhibition is thus also, by implication, about (re-)claiming space for different types of contemporary art, at a time when the terrain for contemporary art appears to be contracting in Jamaica, and about asserting the validity and importance of those artistic approaches that do not conform to dominant expectations.

To return to the question of opacity, and the apprehension this causes in many viewers: in Petrona Morrison’s exhibition this usually dissipates quickly when visitors are engaged in conversation with the artist or myself, although these conversations merely provide some insights, a point of entry, and not the definitive explanation some may have expected. While it takes some effort to unpack it, and a willingness to accept that not everything can be explained, the content of the exhibition is actually quite relatable, as much of it is couched in current debates and relevant to the personal experiences of many visitors. Many stimulating conversations have already been had in the exhibition and it is a pleasure to see visitors opening up about how the exhibition speaks to them, with significant room for personal interpretation. Chances are that this would not have happened if the art works on view delivered their content in a more obvious and prescribed way.

The body of work presented in this exhibition follows and builds on a previous project by Petrona Morrison in which she explored the cultural and political implications of the “selfie,” and the various (self-)imposed conventions and acts of staging and self-fashioning involved. This time around, the  point of departure was the recent debate about NIDS, Jamaica’s proposed national ID system and the accompanying draft legislation, which among other provided for collecting blood samples, DNA, and vein and skin prints, as possible means of recording and identifying individuals, far beyond the customary biodata and photographs. Much of the controversy revolved around privacy rights, and the draconian proposed penalties and denial of state services for those who failed, or did not wish to become part of this system.

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Petrona Morrison – New Works

Petrona e-invite

The acclaimed Jamaican multi-media artist Petrona Morrison will be having a solo exhibition, entitled New Works, which opens at 10A West King’s House Road, on Saturday, September 14.

Petrona Morrison holds a BA (Fine Arts) from McMaster University and an MFA from Howard University. She has exhibited locally and internationally, in exhibitions such as the Havana Biennial in(1997; the Jamaica Biennial 2017, National Gallery of Jamaica,; and History and Infinity (Carifesta XIII), Nidhe Israel Synagogue Gallery, Bridgetown, Barbados  in 2017. New Works is Petrona Morrison’s fifth solo exhibition in Jamaica and she also had a solo exhibition, South African Diary, at 198 Gallery in London in 2005. In 1994-95 she was Artist-in-Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem.  Other residencies include the Caribbean Contemporary Arts Center, CCA7, Trinidad (2000); Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Nebraska (2002); and Fordsburg Artists Studio, Johannesburg, South Africa (2004). She served as the Director of the School of Visual Arts of the Edna Manley College from 2006 to 2014, when she retired. She was awarded the Gold Musgrave Medal in 2014 by the Institute of Jamaica.

Petrona Morrison - ID Series IV, 2019
Petrona Morrison – ID Series IV, 2019

Petrona Morrison’s work has engaged deeply personal, as well as socio-political concerns through assemblages and installations, and more recently digital photography and video. New Works features composite digital collages, video, and an installation. The work in the exhibition dates from 2017 to the present and reflects her recurrent engagement with themes of fragility, resilience, and location. Inspired in part by the debates about Jamaica’s proposed national ID system, it consists of a series of “portraits” that reflect her ongoing concerns about genetics, personal experience, internal and external topographies and images, and the construction of identities and perceptions.

Petrona Morrison - Cross Section III (from the Mapping series), 2017
Petrona Morrison – Cross Section III (from the Mapping series), 2017

New Works is curated by the art historian, independent curator and critic Veerle Poupeye.  Veerle Poupeye was educated at the Universiteit Gent in Belgium (BA and MA in Art History) and Emory University (PhD in Art History and Cultural Studies). She is specialized in Caribbean art and her publications include Caribbean Art, in the World of Art series of Thames and Hudson.

Petrona Morrison - Portrait of Petrina, 2018
Petrona Morrison – Portrait of Petrina, 2018

The New Works exhibition is held on a pop-up basis at 10A West King’s House Road (the present site of Itopia, across from the side entrance of the Canadian Embassy), where Petrona Morrison had a solo exhibition in 1989, at what was then the Babylon Jamaica Gallery. All are cordially invited to the opening reception of New Works on Saturday, September 14 at 6 pm, at 10A West King’s House Road. The exhibition will continue until Saturday, October 5 and can be visited, Mondays to Saturdays, from 12 noon to 7 pm. Catalogue information will be available online and will be accessible via this post. An artist’s talk is being scheduled and the date and time will be announced shortly.

Contact: Veerle Poupeye, email: vpcuratialprojects@gmail.com, website: vpprojects.wordpress.com

Petrona Morrison - ID Series I, 2019
Petrona Morrison – ID Series I, 2019

 

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