“Jamaica, Jamaica,” or, the Problem of “Good Enough”

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Philharmonie de Paris building, designed by Jean Nouvel

In 2017, I had the opportunity to travel to Paris for the opening of Jamaica, Jamaica, a major exhibition on Jamaican music curated by the French music journalist Sebastien Carayol for the Philharmonie de Paris/Cité de la Musique. I did so in my capacity as the then Executive Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ). I am always rather skeptical of how Jamaican music culture is represented in the global sphere, as this is often couched in rampant exoticism and reductive stereotypes, and I came to the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition opening in Paris with those concerns. While not entirely devoid of such issues, which are after all an integral part of the dynamic that has surrounded the subject since the 1970s, I was blown away by the exhibition, and the excellent and very engaging way in which it had been curated and designed, with an expansive, immersive vision which perfectly captured the conquering spirit of Jamaican popular music. Those who know me well, know that I am not easily impressed but I was delighted to be proven wrong on that occasion.

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Installation view, Jamaica, Jamaica, Philharmonie de Paris, 2017

Discussions about having the exhibition at the NGJ had started from the moment the exhibition was first planned, with the understanding that not all loans to the original exhibition would be available for travel but that this would not be a major problem, as there are enough memorabilia, other artifacts and images available in Jamaica to make suitable substitutions. I am delighted that this has now come to fruition, at the NGJ and in a collaboration between the NGJ and the Jamaica Music Museum. It was already known in 2017 that the exhibition would travel to Brazil, where it was shown in 2018 (with, if the online photos are anything to go by, an equally spectacular installation, to which sections on Brazilian reggae were added), and the consensus was that it could come to Jamaica as its concluding edition, which would also coincide with the return to the island of those artworks and artifacts that had been borrowed from Jamaican sources, including the NGJ collection. It made perfect sense.

Jamaica, Jamaica is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition on Jamaican music to date. That Jamaica has itself failed to initiate and produce an exhibition at this level despite having a Jamaica Music Museum for more than ten years now, is nothing to be proud of, as it suggests a near-inexplicable lack of initiative, in contrast with the drive and ambition that have fueled the Jamaican music industry itself. And that the Jamaica Music Museum is still in small, temporary premises at the Institute of Jamaica and does not yet have the large, suitably outfitted museum building or the collections needed to mount comprehensive exhibitions is downright embarrassing, especially after countless political announcements. The now-routine excuses about the lack of resources no longer have much credibility, as resources have been found for many other, less worthwhile ventures. It is simply a matter of priorities, and of vision, or rather, of the sad lack thereof. Jamaica, Jamaica, by implication, shows up these deficiencies and, having originated in France, also raises question of cultural ownership.

So it ought to have been clear from day one that showing Jamaica, Jamaica in Jamaica would be a fraught affair, which would generate all sorts of discussions, and that the stakes would be high in terms of how the Jamaican edition would be presented. In addition, it was obvious that it would be challenging to translate the complex and ambitious exhibition design into the more regimented spaces of the NGJ’s exhibition galleries but there was no doubt in my mind that it could be done, as the NGJ team has designed and installed complex exhibitions many times before, on limited budgets and often in record time.

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Installation view, Jamaica, Jamaica, National Gallery of Jamaica

The NGJ had no new exhibition after the closure of last year’s Summer Exhibition, which left the museum exhibition-less for the normally busy Holiday season. This was, in and of itself, unusual and disappointing but I assumed that this meant that the NGJ was pulling out all the stops to present Jamaica, Jamaica in grand style, and to equal or surpass the manner in which it was shown in Paris. It would have been helpful if there had been an announcement from the NGJ as to why Jamaica, Jamaica was not shown in November, as had been originally announced, and I only heard of the new February 2 opening date by happenstance, because of communications with an overseas contact. The NGJ was, once again, publicly silent on these matters and did not start promoting the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition until about two and a half weeks ago, which is very late for a major exhibition. Many people I had mentioned the exhibition to recently did not know about it at all, which illustrates the detrimental effect of such late, low-key promotions. Unfortunately, these long silences and last minute announcements have now become the norm with the NGJ’s public communications and it is hard to fathom why it has come to that after all the efforts to increase the public visibility of the NGJ.

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Peter Tosh machine gun guitar, as shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica

My eyes were admittedly trained by the extraordinary Paris edition of  Jamaica, Jamaica, and I am aware that those who saw the exhibition for the first time yesterday may have reacted differently to it, with the keen excitement that inevitably comes with seeing the first general survey of Jamaica’s music history ever to be shown in Jamaica. The exhibition certainly has its moments, if only because of the inclusion of rarely seen iconic objects such as Peter Tosh’s machine-gun guitar. And there are some excellent music-themed wall-paintings that were specially commissioned for the exhibition from the downtown mural artists Bones, Gideon and Ras Lava. But that does, as such, not make for the caliber of exhibition I had anticipated, and critical unpacking is necessary. I will not comment on the music scholarship that is on display in the exhibition, as this is outside of my area of professional competence, but I will instead comment on how it is curated and designed.

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Installation view, Jamaica, Jamaica, at the National Gallery of Jamaica, 2020

What I saw yesterday afternoon was, at least from my perspective, an exhibition which was curated downwards, rather than re-imagined and re-curated with the sort of inspired vision and panache I would have expected from the subject’s country of origin. There is a polite and tediously conventional “picture on wall, picture on wall, object on a stand, label to the side” approach to most of the installation which takes it down to a pedestrian level that does not do justice to the nature and significance of the exhibition subject.

My heart wept when I saw how the iconic long-sleeved “star” shirt worn by Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come was mounted. It does not get more unimaginative and pedestrian than that – just compare how it is shown in Jamaica with the manner in which it was shown in Paris, where something as simple and achievable as the effective use of accent lighting and background colour made all the difference. The same held true for Peter Tosh’s machine gun guitar, an object that has tremendous charisma and resonance, but which was practically stripped of these evocative qualities because of the unimaginative manner in which it was mounted. Exactly how such objects are mounted, contextualized, and lit is of paramount importance in exhibitions of this nature – that is Exhibition Design 101.

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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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The National Gallery and Public Scholarship

Pat Byer’s work (left) in the book “What Kind of Mirror Image: Art in Barbados” (1999) by Alissandra Cummins, Allison Thompson and Nick Whittle

Update: the NGJ has this morning, November 16, 2019, corrected its obituary and it now includes accurate family information.

My dissertation director at Emory University, the late Ivan Karp – one of the leading voices in the debates about museums and representation, liked to describe museums a “institutions of public scholarship.” And indeed, museums are, or should be, institutions where knowledge is produced, shared, critiqued and debated, and which are in the front-line of knowledge-production in their respective disciplinary and specialist fields. And it speaks for itself that the knowledge produced needs to be of the highest quality and, while not immune to critical challenge, must be sound and credible. That is part of a museum’s pact with the public.

To do this, museums are led by persons who are eminent scholars and curators in their field, and who also have the capacity to translate this expert knowledge into expert curatorial form that can be engaged with by the public, through the objects they exhibit and the manner in which these are presented and contextualized. That is so for all museums, and no less for art museums.

In the Caribbean, all of this is no less important. In fact, I’d say that the stakes are higher, because there is so much pioneering work to do in writing and documenting the art histories in a way that produces innovative, relevant and credible scholarship, in ensuring that there is a healthy and well-informed critical climate, and in building a curatorial and audience engagement practice that is innovative and relevant to the context – all of this in a setting where specialist art historical and museum skills are scarce and resources even scarcer. But perhaps the biggest threat in the Caribbean is that there is so little regard for such specialist scholarship, and even less understanding as to why sound, in depth expert scholarship matters so much in museums. And unfortunately, this is evident in how some of our cultural institutions are managed.

Last week, Hugh Dunphy, the proprietor of the storied Bolivar gallery and book shop, passed away. He had been ailing for some time and Bolivar had closed in 2016, which marked the end of a gallery which had been a major player in the Jamaican art world for several decades and one of several such losses in recent years. The National Gallery of Jamaica, on November 7, 2019 published an obituary on its blog and I must admit that I did not pay a lot of attention to it initially, as I feared it was yet another example of the sort of loosely stitched-together obituaries the Gallery tends to issue these days. When I finally read it, however, I realized that the obituary, which goes into great detail about certain aspects of Dunphy’s life, was also curiously silent about major other parts of it, such as his first two marriages. In fact, his first wife was a well-known artist and jeweler who was active in Barbados and Trinidad, Pat Byer – something the curatorial leadership should have know – and they had a son together, Damian Dunphy, who now lives in Australia. His second wife was from Curacao and he owned and restored a great house there, Landhuis Siberie. It was clear that whoever wrote the obituary did not know much about Hugh Dunphy and had not researched his life and work with any kind of care. And that whoever approved it for release clearly did not know any better.

Not surprisingly, a few persons who did knew Dunphy well, started to comment on social media and questioned why the National Gallery had issued such a poorly researched obituary which misrepresented Hugh Dunphy’s life and which may have caused distress to his family. I cannot disagree with them – the omissions in the obituary are embarrassing. I am not suggesting that the National Gallery staff should have in depth knowledge on the lives of all major figures in the art world, but merely that its staff should do its homework when such a document is prepared and that there should be the sort of oversight that is necessary to prevent such embarrassing blunders from being published. Or that, if the National Gallery was for any reason not able to produce a sensible and sensitive obituary for Mr Dunply, somebody else who is better equipped to do so should have been invited to guest-author one.

The National Gallery has historically been the main producer of art-historical knowledge in Jamaica. Agree with his perspectives or not, David Boxer was an eminent scholar of Jamaican art and culture. And other senior staff members such as Rosalie Smith-McCrea, Petrine Archer-Straw, myself and more recently Nicole Smythe-Johnson, have also contributed original and pioneering scholarship. The National Gallery used to be the go-to place for cutting edge, expert knowledge on Jamaican art, as it indeed ought to be. The question arises whether that is still so today, and whether that is even recognized as a problem by the current powers-that-be.

This unfortunate obituary raises serious questions about where the National Gallery is at, in terms of the quality of its scholarship, research, critical engagement and writing. I have also seen text panels and catalogue essays recently that were seriously deficient in research, analytical depth and sound argumentation, to the point of incoherence, or that merely regurgitated old and dated research and ideas. Lapses in basic scholarship and research, such as those that are evident in the Hugh Dunphy obituary, are not minor mistakes, that can just be glossed over, but suggest serious deficiencies. The current leadership must be held to account for this sad state of affairs. Quality does matter in museums, and is in fact a very big deal.

If it turns out that the National Gallery of Jamaica is no longer a leading institution of public scholarship in the Caribbean art world, if it is no longer driven by sound intellectual and critical underpinnings, by passionate, in-depth and responsible scholarship and ongoing research about Jamaican art, and by a relevant, innovative and well-informed curatorial vision, then its future, purpose and relevance would be seriously in doubt.

 

The National Gallery of Jamaica: Some Notes on Governance and Institutional History

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Installation view of the central gallery during the Jamaica Biennial 2014, with work by Charles Campbell, Rex Dixon, Shoshanna Weinberger, and Kimani Beckford

It appears that sometime in June this year, there were two major staff appointments at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ): O’Neil Lawrence, who previously served as Senior Curator, was promoted to Chief Curator, and Dr Jonathan Greenland, who had been acting as Executive Director since shortly after I left, became Senior Director. This first came to light in an unrelated press release to the NGJ blog, on the visit of Epsy Campbell Barr, First Vice President of Costa Rica. A subsequent release by the NGJ, which appeared in the form of a blog post on June 30, confirmed that O’Neil Lawrence was appointed as Chief Curator and outlined his many achievements, including a quite incredible claimed record of more than thirty-five curated exhibitions in what has been a curatorial career of just about ten years, part of which was as Assistant Curator. This was followed on the next day with another post, which took the form of a short interview in which the new Chief Curator outlined some of his plans. My congratulations, and lots of luck, to both men on their new appointments.

There has however been no announcement from the NGJ regarding Dr Greenland’s appointment, now nearly three months after it presumably became effective. I have to wonder why there is this protracted silence on that subject, since such appointments have major repercussions for the outlook, development and operations of a cultural institution and are a matter of public interest, certainly to the Jamaican and Caribbean art world. And there needs to be an explanation as to why Dr Greenland was appointed as Senior Director, instead of as Executive Director, as this suggests a change in status. I also understand that Dr Greenland still has oversight of National Museum Jamaica, which is a history and ethnography museum, but this may be temporary until a new Director is recruited there.

In the absence of publicly available information, we can only speculate about the significance of Dr Greenland’s new job title. It presumably means that the Executive Director position no longer exists and that the NGJ is now headed by a Senior Director instead. What this suggests, however, is a closer administrative and oversight relationship with the Institute of Jamaica (IoJ), the NGJ’s parent organization, and, potentially, less de facto autonomy for the NGJ. To understand why this matters, we need to have a look a the NGJ’s history.

The NGJ was established in 1974, as it was recognized at that time that the art collecting and exhibiting activities of the IoJ were not sufficient to support the burgeoning Jamaican art movement and that a specialized institution, with specialized personnel and dedicated programs, was needed to exhibit, collect, document and promote Jamaican art more effectively and to take it to new and diverse audiences. While the net effect of the NGJ on the development and reception of art in Jamaica, forty-five years later, is still to be documented, and while there have been many contentions about the institution’s operations and relationship with the artistic community over the years, there is no doubt that its impact on the Jamaican art world has been tremendous and mostly positive.

Other countries in the Anglophone Caribbean have followed the lead, and there are now also national galleries in Guyana, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, and the NGJ model has certainly been influential on these younger establishments, not only in terms of what to do, but also in terms of what not to do. The latter three have their own, defining legal status and operate on a quasi-governmental basis, which shelters them from the sort of political interference that is possible here in Jamaica.

Barbados has not yet established its own, although it has been planned for several decades now, and there is mounting agitation in the artistic community there about the delays. There has also been discussion in the Caribbean cultural sphere, recently, about whether the national gallery designation and model are really suitable for the postcolonial Caribbean, which is a legitimate question I will leave for another post, but there can be no doubt that a specialized public art institution, whatever form it takes and whatever name it gets, is of potentially tremendous benefit, as a catalyst, to the art communities in which it operates.

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Devon House

The NGJ was originally established as a limited liability company, which was an unusual legal statute for a public art museum, but this was apparently done to allow it to generate revenue to support its operations (and I understand that some of that revenue came from shop and restaurant spaces at Devon House, where the NGJ was originally located). While it inherited most of the art collection of the IoJ, it appears that the early NGJ operated autonomously from the IoJ, with Maurice Facey as the founding Chairman of the Board. David Boxer — a young artist and art historian with a recent PhD from the Johns Hopkins University, who was just short of thirty years old at that time and a close friend and protégé of Edna Manley — joined as Director/Curator in 1975 and set out to develop the NGJ’s curatorial and art-historical vision and program. The NGJ grew rapidly in scope and stature during those years.

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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: Eugene Hyde (1931-1980)

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Eugene Hyde – Bunch Fruit (1959), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

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

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”.[1] 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).[2]

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.

Hyde - Sunflower2
Eugene Hyde – Sun Flowers (1967), Collection: National Gallery of 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.)

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