Some time in late 2018, the National Gallery of Jamaica decided to cancel the Jamaica Biennial, of which two editions had been held, in 2014 and 2017. The Jamaica Biennial was the re-conceptualized successor to the National Biennial and, before that, the Annual National Exhibitions. While still hamstrung by the expectations and entitlements that had been generated by its predecessors, the Jamaica Biennial was widely recognized as groundbreaking and poised for further developments that would be beneficial to the Jamaican and Caribbean art worlds. The exhibition was opened up to the Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora, it was shown at multiple locations in Kingston and Montego Bay, and it included special projects that invited a more in-depth look at some of the featured artists, instead of the customary one or two works.
The idea (and for the sake of disclosure, it was a project I directed) was that the Jamaica Biennial would become a fully curated exhibition, with a changing cast of guest curators, although I had hoped that there would still be a call for submissions, so that the inclusion of new artists would be encouraged. I strongly felt that the “invited for life” system that had existed since the 1980s was elitist and counterproductive to the inclusive development and exposure of Jamaican art, and needed to be abandoned. This was however resisted by the board, who were concerned about the fallout from prominent and well-connected artists, as there had been some such rumblings. Whether there should have been another exhibition to accommodate these “legacy artists” was a matter for discussion, although I was doubtful that this would reduce the pressure, as being included in the Biennial would no doubt still be regarded as an entitlement by many of these artists.
Already in 2018, I had expressed concern at the National Gallery of Jamaica’s failure to make any public statements on this reversal in its exhibition programme, when it came to my attention that only the “invited list” artists had been invited to a meeting to discuss the way forward, instead of having a public forum with the entire artistic community. In my view, this discussion, which was furthermore attended by only about ten artists, illustrates the extent to which the National Gallery continues to feel beholden to a particular cohort of “inner circle” artists, and a particular social cohort, as it is widely recognized that the invited artist list is uncomfortably aligned with Jamaica’s class and power hierarchies.
This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.
Taking a closer look at the NGJ Summer Exhibition reveals a few pleasant surprises but also pulls the exhibition’s weaknesses and failings into sharper perspective.
Perhaps the most outstanding work in the exhibition is Lucille Junkere’s The Yoruba Blues from Abeokuta Nigeria to Abeokuta Jamaica, which consists of a set of patterned embroidery stitch samples on handmade paper dyed with natural indigo. It is a sophisticated and visually stunning example of research-based artistic practice that delves sensitively but knowingly into the transatlantic cultural connections between Africa and the Caribbean. And I will agree with the curator’s essay that there is a triumph of textile and fiber arts of sorts, as another outstanding work in the exhibition is Katrina Coombs’ Golden Flow, a handwoven red and gold draped scarf form, which transforms the exhibition space allocated to it into a beautifully articulated, quasi-architectural form, making a simple but powerful statement.
Norma Rodney Harrack has contributed two exquisitely beautiful sculptural vase forms, which are among her most remarkable works in recent years. Laura Facey is another artist who understands that artists should only submit their best to a NGJ exhibition. There is debate about the politics of her continued engagement with the slavery and plantation history, and the imagery used in the process, but I will leave that for another time, as there is no doubt that Heart of a Man(Inspired by Henry Blake’s “Black Man Hung By the Ribs” and a seed from the Barringtonia Tree) is an exceptional work, formally and technically, but also because of its historical and art-historical references and powerful emotional impact.
Noteworthy and interesting work was also contributed by Amy Laskin, Carol Crichton, Camille Chedda, Shoshanna Weinberger, Winston Patrick, Richard Nattoo, Rani Carson, Esther Chin, Claudia Porges Byer and Ania Freer – as the names I have mentioned thus far illustrate, women appear to have outperformed the men in this exhibition. And it was good to see recent graduates of the Edna Manley College such as Jordan Harrison, Tiana Anglin, and Nadine Hall, especially since younger, contemporary artists are not very well represented in the exhibition.
On the other side of the spectrum, the photography entries are particularly disappointing and only a few transcend the club photography level, which is unfortunate since Jamaica has produced quite a few outstanding modern and contemporary photographers. I have to ask what a box set with reproductions of photographs Albert Chong produced more than twenty years ago is doing in this exhibition and must conclude that he is simply taking his invited artist status for granted. I am also non-plussed by the two bizarre mixed-media heads by Hasani Claxton, as I fail to see any artistic merit or interest, or the patently amateurish textile collage by Bernard Hoyes, which is not consistent with the standard of work this quite well-established artist is known for. In both instances, it appears that it was the subject, rather than the quality of the work itself, that caused it to be selected by the judges: the issues of black female anger in Claxton’s work and the reference to Sparrow in Hoyes’. But in both instances, the work is simply not good enough.
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.
Marcel Pinas at the Jamaica Biennial 2017 (photo: Veerle Poupeye)
Leasho Johnson at Devon House, Jamaica Biennial 2017
Laura Facey’s Ceiba arrives for the Jamaica Biennial 2017 (photo: Veerle Poupeye)
Installation view of the central gallery during Jamaica Biennial 2014, with work by Charles Campbell, Rex Dixon, Shoshanna Weinberger, and Kimani Beckford
David Gumbs’ Xing Wang interactive video installation, Jamaica Biennial 2017, National Gallery West
Ebony G. Patterson at Devon House, Jamaica Biennial 2014 (photo: Veerle Poupeye)
For some time now, the Jamaican and Caribbean art world has been buzzing with questions about the next Jamaica Biennial. Launched in 2014, as the successor to the National Biennial and, before that, the Annual National exhibitions, the second Jamaica Biennial was originally scheduled to be held in December-March 2016, as had been the traditional timing of its earlier incarnations. It was however postponed to February-April 2017, because of the delayed appointment of a new Board after the 2016 General Elections. The new opening date also allowed the National Gallery to consider whether opening at that time of the year would be more advantageous. Because of this change, it was widely anticipated that there would be a third Jamaica Biennial in February 2019 and that the call for submissions would have gone out in summer 2018, if not earlier. Not surprisingly, the National Gallery’s prolonged (and rather unwise) silence on the matter has caused consternation and much speculation.
About a week ago, I was told, emails went out to the artists who had been on the invited list for previous Biennials and Annual Nationals, who were invited to a meeting which took place yesterday morning, to discuss the National Gallery’s new plans for the Biennial. The meeting, I understand, was chaired by Dr Jonathan Greenland, the (acting?) Executive Director; and attended by Ms Susanne Fredricks, Board member and chair of the Exhibition Committee; Ms Annie Paul, Board member and member of the Exhibition Committee; Mr O’Neil Lawrence, Senior Curator; and Ms Roxanne Silent, Registrar. Only 10 of the invited artists were also in attendance, from a list which, at the last count, stood at 74 (although 6 of these persons have passed away in recent years), so it was not well attended. This is not surprising, for a meeting held on a Monday morning, at relatively short notice and in the days leading up to the Holidays, although it also suggests a lack of interest in what would be discussed on the part of those who were absent.
Dr Greenland, I was reliably informed, announced to the meeting that the National Gallery’s new leadership had come up with new ideas and that it had been decided by the Board, the Exhibition Committee and the professional staff, that going forward there would be two exhibitions: a national exhibition, which would be held in the summer and which would be curated by the National Gallery team, and what would now be the Kingston Biennial, which would return to the Biennial’s original December opening slot and which would be international and guest-curated. While the new national exhibition would be held at the National Gallery only, the Biennial would be at different locations throughout Kingston and would involve other partners and more interdisciplinary approaches.
So basically, if I understand it well, this means that the old National Biennial will be re-established, albeit on a different schedule and perhaps a different name, and that the Kingston Biennial will take a form similar to what was done for the Curator’s Eye exhibitions in the 2000s, for which guest-curators were also used, and for the invited and off-site projects in the Jamaica Biennials in 2014 and 2017, although the engagement with the Kingston as a Creative City initiatives would add a new dimension. Dr Greenland also announced that the invited list would be maintained for the new summer exhibition, although this was later contradicted by a Board member who claimed that it would be phased out. I gather that persons left the meeting without much clarity about the format of the new Biennial and summer exhibition, and the future of the invitation system, or whether there was any room for further discussion.
So that we all understand what this invited list represents and why it is problematic, let me give you a bit of history here. While there are other, earlier antecedents, such as the Institute of Jamaica’s All Island Exhibitions, the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Annual National exhibition was established in 1977 and held annually until it was replaced by the National Biennial in 2002 which was, as the new name implied, held every two years. The format for the early Annual Nationals had varied but by the mid-1980s, the exhibition had a fixed format that featured two groups of artists: invited artists and artists who entered through the jury process, and this format was maintained for the National Biennial. The invited list consisted of artists who were deemed by the National Gallery to be “established” and, while invitations were “for life,” the list was expanded annually, although the inclusion was based on rather loose criteria that were never clearly articulated. Invitees could enter up to two works of their choice, as long as these fit within the media for which the artist was invited and the date range and format guidelines for the exhibition, so there was little or no curatorial input for that part of the exhibition.
I have a bee in my bonnet. And I have been writing about it here and there on social media, as those who follow me on Facebook will have noticed. It is about the incestuousness, the cliquishness, and the endemic conflict of interest issues that plague the Caribbean art world. Issues that are, if they are even recognized, often quietly accommodated, buttressed by a disturbingly common “wink-wink, nod-nod, it’s all good as long as I benefit” mentality. Or even vociferously defended as being somehow desirable and beneficial to all, especially in light of the supposedly immense and all-justifying personal sacrifices made by those involved, etcetera. Yet these issues are also the greatest source of alienation, bitterness and division within the Caribbean art world and too much that is (or could be) of real value is not supported or ever seen because the person(s) associated with it are not “in the loop.” And while these issues are a common topic in hushed, “off the record” conversations throughout the region, they are only rarely spoken about in public, at least not in any detail. It appears that we are all afraid of shaking up that particular dolly house. Perhaps there is too much fear of repercussions, of being ostracized or missing out for not “playing along”?
I will be told that this is not unique to the Caribbean art world, that it is endemic throughout the global art world. And indeed, there are countless stories all over about curators including work by their lovers in the exhibitions or acquisitions they are handling, and about art jobs and appointments being negotiated in the bedroom, and there is significant, inappropriate overlap between the for-profit, market functions of the art world and those that are supposed to be not-for-profit and for the public benefit. But somehow it feels worse, and more damaging here in the Caribbean, perhaps because there is still more at stake, in terms of artists and other art professionals who are competing for scarce resources and opportunities, and who often do not get the support and compensation their efforts or talents deserve, and in terms of the broader social stakes.
Part of this has to do with how Caribbean societies function, the smallness and the close proximity. Everybody knows everybody, and sometimes too well: people went to school together, they are related, they are past or present friends or lovers (or hopefuls!), or bitter rivals and enemies, and one does not have to exclude the other. Much of this incestuousness is fueled by the unearned privilege and deep-rooted sense of entitlement of those who are already major beneficiaries of how Caribbean societies typically function, by virtue of their position in the race-class hierarchies, their education, their access to travel and resources (and that includes the ability to get visas), and their personal and political affiliations–positions of privilege which very few are ever willing to surrender or even acknowledge. And yes, some are new, or relatively new, to these positions of privilege, and many are struggling financially (or think they are, although they are not really poor), but their lack of self-reflexivity about these issues is often just as real as that of those who have a more established and secure position in it. And some participate just as enthusiastically in the self-perpetuating “mutual benefit societies” that make the Caribbean art world tick.
Art museums have been under pressure recently. Not a week goes by without some high-profile protest action or controversy and it appears that no major art museum is exempt. This has involved protests against certain exhibitions and against certain artists and artworks, such as the contentions about Chuck Close, after allegations surfaced about a history of sexual harassment of his models, or the protests against a painting in last year’s Whitney Biennial, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), which depicted the corpse of Emmett Till, a black 14-year old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, and which was deemed exploitative. There have also been contentions about how art museums are governed and funded, such as the recent protest at the Metropolitan Museum led by artist Nan Goldin against the role in the opioid painkiller addiction crisis of the Sackler family, who made their fortune in the pharmaceutical industry and who are major donors to the Met. On a more foundational level, these contentions have pertained to the ideological premises on which art museums operate, particularly their role in perpetuating dominant social, political and cultural interests and the manner in which this is reflected in the canons and narratives that such museums have produced and presented.
This is of course not, as such, new, since the canonical functions of art museums have been regularly questioned since the 1960s (and earlier, if we count in the advent of modernism and movements such as Dadaism). One such example is the Puerto Rican artist Rafael Ferrer, who dumped autumn leaves and other debris in the lobby of MoMA in the late 1960s, as a performative intervention that questioned the exclusion of artists like himself from the canons of modernism. Another example is the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of feminist artists that was established in 1985 and that has questioned, through various pointed and witty public interventions, the role of art museums in perpetuating (white) patriarchy. The frequency and intensity of such controversies have however increased exponentially in recent years, as has the intensity and immediacy of the coverage of such actions in the conventional and social media.
While the increasingly contentious relationship with stakeholders has made the leadership positions in museums far more demanding than they used to be, the effects on how museums operate have been generally beneficial, as it has forced museums to become more self-reflexive and to re-examine their ideological foundations. This has, to varying degrees, resulted in more thoughtful and innovative approaches to exhibitions and programmes, which interrogate and challenge the very same canons and grand narratives such museums have historically produced and which invite conversation about them, rather than to impose them unilaterally and unquestioningly. The Victoria and Albert in London comes to mind as a museum that has made interesting strides in interrogating its colonial foundations through its recent exhibitions and projects.
For us here in Caribbean, the question arises where this leaves public cultural institutions such as the National Gallery of Jamaica, Jamaica’s national art museum. I need to acknowledge at this point that I am the immediate past Executive Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica and have played a key role in its exhibitions and programmes up to three months ago. The debates and new expectations that surround museums elsewhere in the world also apply here, however, and there needs to be frank critical discussion about the present moment in the Caribbean art world, at a time where criticality seems to have all but disappeared from the region. I believe that I have a contribution to make to these conversations and so I am offering my perspective, while acknowledging my potential biases and personal interests, and my readers can decide whether I have risen to the occasion.
The National Gallery of Jamaica has been the fulcrum of the local culture wars since it was established in 1974 and it has always held an ambivalent position with regards to the production and promotion of art-historical canons. On one hand, it has made some interesting, if conflicted and at times controversial counter-canonical moves, such as the validation of aspects of self-taught, popular art under the Intuitive label (which has its own problems, but that is another story) and its more general role of claiming Jamaica’s place vis-à-vis the canons and grand narratives of the metropolitan West. On the other hand, it is Jamaica’s very own canonical institution, which has been centrally preoccupied with articulating Jamaica’s national canons from the mid-1970s, albeit always heavily contested ones, and which until quite recently did not question its canonical role or ideological premises. I am not knocking the National Gallery’s early efforts, as these were necessary in their time, but in the present context, these canons and underlying interests need to be unpacked and critiqued, and this ideally needs to be part of the scholarly and curatorial practice of the organization itself. And this takes me to The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, an exhibition which has been on view at National Gallery West, the Montego Bay branch of the National Gallery of Jamaica, since March 7.
The preceding National Gallery West exhibition—a smaller version of the Spiritual Yardsexhibition which had previously been shown at the National Gallery in Kingston and which was the last exhibition I had overseen there—was slated to close on February 25 and I was, of course, interested to see what would come next. The first inkling of what would be the next exhibition was an Instagram story which appeared on the National Gallery’s timeline on February 27, which stated that an exhibition titled The Art of Jamaican Sculpture was coming soon. The post showed a snippet of video footage of sculptures that had clearly just arrived at the gallery for installation and I glimpsed work by Ronald Moody, Christopher Gonzalez, Lawrence Edwards, Osmond Watson, and David Miller Senior. There was also a closure notice on Facebook on that day, which stated that the gallery would be closed until March 6 to facilitate the installation of The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, with a note that further information on this exhibition would be coming soon.
Piqued by the rather ambitious exhibition title and the curious lack of any explanatory context, I contacted National Gallery West for more information and was told that the exhibition would have a soft opening on March 7, with a reception at a later date to be announced, but that information on the exhibition itself was forthcoming. On the evening of March 10, three days into the run of the exhibition, an e-flyer which announced that the exhibition reception would be on March 18 was posted to social media, but again without any accompanying information on the exhibition itself. Since I had to be in Montego Bay on March 13 for other reasons, I decided to have a look at the exhibition, which was indeed mounted and open, although there was not as yet any text panel or signage, other than the usual identifying labels besides each work of art. I was again told that the supporting information was forthcoming but that the exhibition was organized around the themes of nationalism, spirituality and abstraction. It is only in late afternoon on March 14, one week after the exhibition had opened to the public, that a press release was finally published and circulated and further queries on March 15 revealed that the curator’s essay that would also serve as the main text panel was still being written and would be posted to the National Gallery West blog. The essay was eventually posted on the day of the reception, March 18, when the text panel was also mounted.
I belabor this sequence of events here because it is unusual, to say the least, that a National Gallery of Jamaica exhibition would have been up and running for a week without any published and shareable information about it. The standard practice is that there will be press and social media advisories at least a week before the exhibition opens for viewing, and ideally much earlier than that, and that the public will be given a fair idea of what to expect in the exhibition, in terms of its scope and the artists featured. I do not wish to be too uncharitable about this unusual radio silence, which may well have been caused by unavoidable practical challenges, but the delay in publishing this information also suggests that there were other problems with this exhibition.
Let me return to why I was piqued by the exhibition title. For a museum exhibition, a title is a promissory note and a statement of intent, which creates certain expectations in terms of what will be presented in the exhibition and also signals how the exhibition is being framed. Titling this exhibition The Art of Jamaican Sculpture may seem innocuous but it implies a lot. It implies a certain position about what is meant with “art” and artistic merit, with “sculpture,” and with “Jamaican art” and “Jamaican sculpture.” Or to put it differently, the title suggests that the National Gallery of Jamaica is in full-throttle canonical mode, at a time when a more self-reflexive and questioning approach is expected. And the title also suggests that the exhibition will sample the full range of sculptural work that has been produced by artists who somehow qualify as “Jamaican” (which is another difficult issue).
Unfortunately, there is no evidence in the exhibition of any such breadth of range or any critical interrogation of its canonical underpinnings. The exhibition consists almost entirely of figurative sculpture—nineteen of the twenty-two sculptures on view are figurative, while three are abstract—and the majority of the sculptures are woodcarvings. One work is a stone carving (an alabaster carving by John “Doc” Williamson) and there are two bronzes, by Edna Manley (the 1982 version of her Negro Aroused, which was in its original, 1935 form a woodcarving) and by Kay Sullivan, as well as a plaster sculpture by Christopher Gonzalez. And only one work steps outside of the conventional formats of pedestal or relief sculpture, namely Laura Facey’s wall- and ground-based installation Goddess of Change (1993), although even this work involves, as its core element, a figurative woodcarving. Clearly, the operative definition of sculpture in this exhibition is a very narrow one and, on the technical front alone, it should be evident that there is a lot more to sculpture in Jamaica than carving and casting alone, especially in the contemporary practice, which is virtually absent from this exhibition. From a thematic, iconographic and stylistic point of view, the exhibition is equally conservative and reflects a very narrow, conventional and, frankly, dated conception of what is deemed legitimate as “Jamaican art.” The three themes of “nationalism, spirituality and abstraction” and the inclusion of self-taught, “Intuitive” artists are well within the range of how that has been conventionally conceived.