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the Barringtonia Tree) is an exceptional work, formally and technically, but also because of its historical and art-historical references and powerful emotional impact.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 become of the projects they have worked 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.
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.
The Independence Generation
The years around Independence were, as the artist and critic Gloria Escoffery (1986) has argued, characterized by a combination of great ambitions and sometimes naïve idealism. The period was marked by the advent of a new generation of artists, most of whom had studied abroad. The three most influential among them were Karl Parboosingh, who had studied in Paris, New York and Mexico; Eugene Hyde, who had studied in California, and Barrington Watson, who had attended the Royal Academy in London and several continental European academies. Their choices illustrate that England was no longer the obligatory overseas study destination, as it had been for the previous generation. Each returned home with new ideas about art – high Modernist in the case of Parboosingh and Hyde and academic in the case of Watson – and an ambitious, cosmopolitan outlook which actively challenged the more limited outlook of earlier nationalist art. Their subject matter was still recognizably Jamaican but they combined this with formal experimentation, a preference for monumental scales that transcended the “living room format” preferred by the nationalist school, and a new critical attitude.
Watson, Hyde and Parboosingh, who were more securely middle class than most of their predecessors, presented themselves emphatically as professionals and made unprecedented public demands about the support Jamaican society should provide for their work. Along with the art collector and engineer-builder A.D. Scott, they founded the Contemporary Jamaican Artists Association (CJAA) which was active from 1964 to 1974 as the first professional artists association in Jamaica. Watson was in 1962 appointed Director of Studies of the Jamaican School of Art and Craft (JSAC) which he, in a move that reflected his commitment to “high art” ideals, renamed the Jamaica School of Art, thus dropping the “craft.” He transformed the previously informal, part-time school into a full-time institution with a four-year diploma curriculum, modeled after the then English art school system. This further contributed to the professionalization of the arts and better equipped graduates for further studies abroad.
Predictably, there was animosity between these ambitious young artists and their artistic elders and this went beyond mere aesthetic differences. They were the first to openly challenge Edna Manley’s dominance. Watson stated in a 1984 interview that the older artists “were in a different mould, and they were already established and not prepared to make the big breakout in the way we were” (Waugh 1987, 136) and:
The Edna Manley, the [Junior Center director] Robert Verity and that lot were doing a really good job in the arts before [but it] had something like a colonial approach to it in a sense. It was [a] sort of ‘giving a break to a talented youngster’ type of thing […] They patronized a lot of the artists and kept them at a certain level, unfortunately or inadvertently, by this kind of patronizing approach. (137)
It could certainly be argued that the nationalist intelligentsia’s missionary zeal to promote local talent replicated the colonial notion of the child-like native whose potential had to be awakened and nurtured. Watson and his colleagues were not interested in obtaining any “from the top down” patronage but in self-empowerment – and it is implied, as black postcolonial artists – and they were quite successful in becoming outspoken public figures that functioned as cultural icons and self-sufficient entrepreneurs.
The introduction of high Modernist ideas represented a departure from the populist beginnings of modern Jamaican art and this resulted in what could be construed as a more elitist and “foreign” kind of art. Yet this new generation was more proactively involved in bringing their art into the public domain than their predecessors and took the initiative to be involved in public art projects, to be visible in the local media and to establish new galleries. […]
[The artists of the CJAA generation] wanted “proper” spaces and display methods that matched the high Modernist “white cube” gallery concept (O’Doherty 1986). In 1964, the CJAA opened its own gallery, simply known as the Gallery, which was the first modern gallery space in Jamaica. The Gallery mainly showed the work of its directors but also of like-minded artists such as Kofi Kayiga (né Ricardo Wilkins), Milton Harley and George Rodney – all pioneers of abstract painting in Jamaica. In 1970, Hyde opened his own gallery, the John Peartree Gallery, which provided space for avant-garde artists such as David Boxer, who had solo exhibitions there in 1976 and 1979. Watson followed suit in 1974, when he established Gallery Barrington, although this gallery served primarily to promote his own work. When the CJAA folded in 1974, A.D. Scott established his Olympia International Art Centre, as an expansion of the hotel and apartment complex he had previously built near the UWI campus on the north-eastern outskirts of Kingston. In an effort to integrate art and life, Olympia housed his substantial collection, hosted occasional exhibitions and provided affordable housing for some artists.[…]
While self-promotion was a factor in their public initiatives, the idealism of the CJAA members was genuine. They wished to create art that would be meaningful to the new, progressive Jamaica and to stimulate new thinking, shifting the focus of local art production from the affirmative to the critical. Hyde stated in 1964:
[The] artist needs to be aware of public interest. This doesn’t necessarily mean compliance. In fact one wishes there was more counter-reaction to the artist from the public. It is hard to describe just what we’re seeking, but it is a kind of friction, a sort of force, one against the other, which the artist must have, if he is not to exist in a vacuum (Gloudon 1964).
The CJAA artists were thus not interested in “art for art sake” but wished to produce art that played an active, productive role in Jamaican society. […]
Eugene Hyde is the only major Jamaican artist of his generation who studied entirely in the USA and who did not have an exclusive fine arts training: he had studied advertising design at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in the early 1950s and then obtained a scholarship to pursue an MFA in painting and graphic design at the Los Angeles Art Institute. He returned to Jamaica in 1960 but after failing to obtain a teaching position at UWI or the JSAC, he left again for the USA, to do further studies in advertising and architectural ceramics. He finally found a job at a Jamaican advertising firm in 1961 and permanently returned to the island. (Smith McCrea 1984)
Hyde’s inaugural Jamaican solo exhibition, which was held at the Institute of Jamaica in 1963, is widely credited as the first local exhibition of abstract art although the works he showed were essentially figurative and perhaps best described as “abstracted expressionism”. Hyde’s work was sometimes excessively influenced by the Italian-American painter Rico Lebrun, an exponent of the “New Imagist” stream in Modernist Western painting which focused on the human figure, represented in an abstracted, expressionistically distorted manner to represent the anxieties of modern existence (Smith-McCrae 1984).
Hyde’s solo exhibition included three mural-size multi-figure paintings, Colonization I, Colonization II and The Lynch Mob, but the entire exhibition, which also included etches and drawings, had an expansive, dramatic quality. This sense of scale and the gestural, abstract expressionist technique of Hyde’s paintings – or, as Eker regretted, his preoccupation with the act of painting itself – was regarded as “American” by some local observers and their responses reveal a deep distrust of the emerging US-American influence in Jamaican culture. The fact that Hyde was primarily trained as a graphic designer was also invoked to suggest that the work lacked “deep” content. Eker denounced “the hectoring tone of the show. It was as though the artist – who, significantly, is also an advertising executive – were shouting ‘Listen to me! Listen to me!’ and when I listened, I found that they had very little to tell me” (1963, 12). The American critic [and Haitian self-taught art promoter] Selden Rodman, in his travel book on the Caribbean, also located Hyde’s work outside of Jamaican culture and summarily dismissed it as “perfectly indigenous to Madison Avenue” (1968, 35). Despite these misgivings, Hyde became influential in the local art community and the ownership of the works in his 1984 retrospective indicate that he was supported by the professional class of his generation.
Hyde’s work challenged local artistic conventions [of the nationalist school] but, as with Parboosingh and Barrington Watson, is better understood in terms of its relationship with the rest of Jamaican art than in terms of any irredeemable difference. While he was certainly concerned with the act of painting (and drawing) in its own right, Hyde was no true formalist and many of his works make socio-political statements, as the titles of his early murals well illustrate. Like his nationalist predecessors and contemporaries such as Parboosingh, Hyde was preoccupied with the effects of colonialism and the challenges of building a modern, independent society but his perspective was more pessimistic. Hyde’s political works, far from being empty rhetorical gestures, represented Jamaica as a wounded, blighted society, disabled by its past and present traumas. Works such as Future Problems (1962), an ink on paper portrait of a poor young man, prophetically captured the discontent among the youth as the main source of social tension in Jamaica.
Not all of Hyde’s early works were political, however, and he also produced abstract, formalist paintings. He obviously preferred to apply the formal explorations of high Modernism to Jamaican subject matter, however, and this resulted in his extended series of Sunflowers, Spathodias and Crotons of the late 1960s to early 1970s. These highly abstracted explorations of the Jamaican vegetation were, with their bold designs and intense colors, as celebratory as Albert Huie’s light-infused landscapes (although his Sunflowers, inevitably, also referenced van Gogh’s more morbid use of this floral theme.)
Kimani Beckford – Today I Ask Yesterday about Tomorrow ((2019) – courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved
Kimani Beckford – Affirmation (2018) – courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved
The young Jamaican painter Kimani Beckford currently has a solo-exhibition tour project, titled Affirmation. The exhibition is shown at two venues: its inaugural display was held at the Jamaica Conference Centre in Kingston, in space that is used for art exhibitions by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), and has now closed. The second leg of it will be shown at National Gallery West in Montego Bay, where it is scheduled to open on May 19. This review is based on the Kingston edition of the exhibition but I also raise a few issues that are relevant to the upcoming Montego Bay showing.
The Affirmation exhibition project is supported by the inaugural Dean Collection TDC20 St(art) Ups Artist Grants, of which Kimani Beckford was one of twenty awardees and the only Jamaican. The US-based Dean Collection was founded by Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean and Alicia Keys and is, as the TDC20 website states, “a contemporary, family art collection focused on the support of living artists.” The grants are available by competitive application to artists globally and serve to support young and emerging artists in organizing a solo exhibition, irrespective of themes, genres or media (and I understand that in the future, it may be available to a larger number of artists). Other than providing funding support and lending its name to the venture, and of course making sure that the artists deliver on their commitments, the Dean Collection is not involved in the resulting exhibitions, which are the sole responsibility of the awardees and no commissions are charged. It is an exemplary, development-focused patronage model that surely warrants emulation in the Jamaican context, where such initiatives are sorely needed as there is still nothing that has taken the place of the now defunct but influential Mutual Gallery Super-Plus Under-Forty Artist of the Year Awards.
Kimani Beckford is a 2011 graduate of the Edna Manley College and he has distinguished himself since then, among others being the co-winner, with Camille Chedda, of the inaugural Dawn Scott Memorial Award in the 2014 Jamaica Biennial. He has exhibited regularly at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), in the 2012, 2014, and 2017 biennials, and in the Digital exhibition in 2016. His international exposure to date includes Icons: Ideals of BlackMasculinity (2018) at Xavier University in New Orleans, and Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora (2016) at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol. While he has also worked in other media (his contribution to Digital was a video installation), he is first and foremost a painter and one of a strong cohort of contemporary figurative painters who have emerged from the Edna Manley College in recent years, which includes Michael Elliott, Phillip Thomas, Alicia Brown, and Greg Bailey (the reception and politics of figurative painting in Jamaica’s contemporary art scene is one of the subjects I will be discussing in a forthcoming interview with Phillip Thomas).
Kimani Beckford – Portrait of Silveta Clarke (2019) – courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved
Kimani Beckford – Forever as I Am (2019) – courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved
Affirmation is Kimani Beckford’s first solo exhibition, which is an important step for any young artist, and it is the first exhibition in which he has shown a significant body of work. The exhibition consists of thirty new paintings, made for this exhibition and over an intensive work period of five months, and only the earliest painting in the exhibition, Affirmation, from which the exhibition also takes its title and concept, is dated 2018. The exhibition is accompanied by a small catalogue publication with various texts, including an extended artist’s statement.
As I continue my reflections on Jamaica’s art histories, I am now sharing some of my thoughts on the Intuitive art designation, which has been an essential but problematic and controversial part of Jamaica’s main art-historical narration. Earlier versions of this essay, which was itself extracted from my doctoral dissertation in progress (Emory, 2011 – Chapter 7), served as the basis for a public lecture which was delivered at the National of Jamaica on October 26, 2006 and an earlier version also appeared in Small Axe 24 (2007).
I am posting this essay again here, with updates and new questions asked, because I believe that this discussion needs to be ongoing, with new thinking about how the artists who have been labeled and canonized as Intuitives are to be located, named and understood, and with strategies to recover what was overlooked or misrepresented in the process. The issues I am raising here relate to the first two posts I made on the subject of Jamaica’s art histories and how to retell them, which can be found hereand here. There is some overlap between these three posts but I have left this “as is” for the sake of cohesion in each post.
Articulating a Narrative
In the summer of 2006, the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) staged Intuitives III, a survey exhibition of what its Chief Curator of many years, David Boxer, had called Intuitive art, the work of a particular group of self-taught, popular artists from Jamaica. It was an important exhibition, not only in its own right but also in terms of the NGJ’s institutional history and the debates that have surrounded it, and the original version of this essay was written in response to the conversations that emerged in that moment.
Intuitives III was the NGJ’s third such exhibition of Intuitive art. The first one such, The Intuitive Eye, was held in 1979 and the second, Fifteen Intuitives, was shown in 1987. The NGJ had up to that time also presented four retrospectives of Intuitive artists: John Dunkley in 1976, Sidney McLaren in 1978 (although this one was actually shown at the St Thomas Parish Library), Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds in 1983, and Everald Brown in 2004. All but the latter, which I curated, were the curatorial work of David Boxer, the first Director/Curator and, later, Chief Curator of the NGJ.
The Intuitives have also been well represented in the rest of the NGJ’s permanent collection and many of its other exhibition. Kapo has a specialized gallery in the NGJ’s permanent collection since 1983 and was the first Jamaican artist to be so honored, more than six years before Edna Manley. In its initial form, this gallery featured the substantial collection of Kapo’s paintings and sculptures that had been amassed by the American owner of the Stony Hill hotel, Larry Wirth, which was acquired after the latter’s death with the help of Kapo’s most prominent patron, the then prime minister Edward Seaga. Today, this gallery features a selection of paintings and sculptures from the Larry Wirth Collection, along with paintings from the John Pringle Collection (a major donation of Kapo paintings which was received in 2011), a painting and two sculptures from the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection (a general general donation of Jamaican art and historical prints and maps in 1999), as well as a few works from the NGJ’s main collection.
The Intuitive Eye exhibition had in 1979 launched the concept and the term “Intuitive,” as a noun and an adjective and an alternative to more obviously problematic terms such as “primitive” and “naïve” (although it had, strictly spoken, already been used as such in the NGJ’s The Formative Years catalogue in 1978). The Intuitive Eye exhibition was part of a series of landmark exhibitions, The Formative Years included, that served to articulate the NGJ’s foundational narrative on Jamaican art. This articulation process was a necessary part of the early work of the NGJ, which had opened in 1974 and had been mandated to document and articulate a national (and nationalist) Jamaican art history.[i]
The process of articulating a comprehensive account of Jamaica’s visual art history, which had not been attempted prior to the establishment of the NGJ, had started with Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1975), David Boxer’s first major exhibition and the NGJ’s first survey, which provided an overview of art in Jamaica from the start of the Spanish period to the 1970s. It culminated with Jamaican Art 1922-1982, a survey of modern Jamaican art which was from 1983 to 1985 toured in the USA, Canada and Haiti by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and which was subsequently shown at the NGJ itself in 1985.
The Intuitives concept played a major role in the articulation of the NGJ’s narratives and had started with the Dunkley retrospective in 1976, which consecrated this then near-forgotten artist as one of the masters of Jamaican art (and also launched him in the emerging local art market, with several of the works that were still in the family’s hands going to local private collections in the years that followed). Some of the artists that were thus labeled as Intuitives – John Dunkley, David Miller Sr and Jr, Sidney McLaren, Gaston Tabois, Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds and Everald and Clinton Brown – had already received some national and international acclaim as Jamaican “primitives.” Their position in the Jamaican artistic hierarchies was, however, ambivalent, especially vis-à-vis highly educated artists such as Barrington Watson who actively claimed recognition as professionals and modern masters and left little doubt that they considered themselves at the apex of the Jamaican art world.
This is the second of a two-part post on the restitution debate and its significance to the Caribbean. The first part explores the general context and this second part explores the implications for the Caribbean.
The Caribbean was one of the first world areas to be colonized by Europe, and was completely transformed in the process, with momentous changes in the population and culture. Inevitably, the Caribbean was also one of the early sources for European museums as these emerged, in tandem with the colonial project. The objects and natural specimens that were acquired and documented in Jamaica by Hans Sloane, who served as the physician of the colonial governor from 1687 to 1689, for instance, became part of the foundational collections of the British Museum. As I have discussed in another post, certain illustrations in Sloane’s book A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (2 vols., 1707-1725) are among the earliest sources on the material culture and arts of the enslaved Africans in the island.
Having been present at the birth of the modern museum, so to speak, we could expect the Caribbean to be strongly invested in the debates that surround the subject, including the question of postcolonial restitution. If what I have personally observed is anything to go by, however, most persons in the Caribbean who are aware of these debates are in agreement that restitution is necessary, but there does not seem to be a lot of passion or discussion about the subject. I assume that there is a prevailing sense that this is about “elsewhere,” mainly about Europe and Africa, and that this does not directly apply to the Caribbean. While there are indeed no high-profile restitution requests from or pertaining to the Caribbean at the present time, there are however significant Caribbean holdings in European and North American museums that were problematically acquired during the colonial era, and some of these could certainly be the subject of restitution requests on the part of Caribbean countries. And conversely, there are public and private collections in the Caribbean that could be the target of such requests, while regional practices with regards to acquisitions often fall short of international standards with regards to provenance. The subject is worthy of a dissertation but I will discuss a few specific instances that have been the subject of some contention.
The British Museum holds three Taino wood sculptures of Zemis (deities) from Jamaica, which are among the best known examples of Taino art. They were found in 1792 by a surveyor in a cave in Carpenter’s Mountain in what was then the Parish of Vere, now southern Manchester. They were in 1799 shown and reviewed at the Society of Antiquaries in London and subsequently entered the British Museum collection. None of them are on view at the present time, although they have been exhibited regularly, at the British Museum and elsewhere, and they have also been studied, written about and reproduced with regular frequency. The canopy figure, which is the smallest of the three sculptures, is the most recently exhibited: it was shown in 2015-2016 at the National Museum of Singapore in the exhibition Treasures of the World’s Cultures, a touring exhibition of works from the British Museum collection.
None of the Carpenter’s Mountain carvings have however ever been exhibited in Jamaica or, for that matter, elsewhere in the Caribbean. Plaster casts were sent to the Institute of Jamaica in 1939 and there has been some speculation that this may have been in response to an early restitution request, although there is no such record (Ostapkowicz 2015, Part I). These plaster casts were part of the permanent exhibits at the Taino Museum (formerly known Arawak Museum), that opened in 1965 at White Marl, a major Taino settlement and midden site in St Catherine. That museum has been closed for several years (with some plans for it to be relocated to Twin Sisters Cave in Hellshire) and the casts are at the National Museum Jamaica. This situation, too, requires attention.
The National Gallery of Jamaica has requested the loan of these carvings on two occasions. The first was when David Boxer was preparing his inaugural exhibition for the recently established National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), which was to be a first survey of Jamaican art history. According to what he repeatedly told me, the loan was declined or not even responded to, and he therefore decided to survey the art from the start of the colonial period onward. The resulting exhibition was Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1975) and was a seminal effort in how Jamaica’s art history was articulated. The second attempt was for the Arawak Vibrations exhibition in 1994, which was presented on the occasion of Jamaica’s quincentennial, but apparently the NGJ was, ironically, unable to meet the British Museum’s stringent loan requirements.
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 »