Provocations: “The National Gallery Nah Keep Again?”

At the opening of the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition

“The National Gallery nah keep again?”, said one artist scathingly; another quipped if “the National Gallery had been postponed?”; and yet another marveled how a postponement announcement could also be a museum’s first public announcement about a particular exhibition.

They were all responding to the National Gallery of Jamaica’s announcement last week, on its blog on August 25, that the inaugural Kingston Biennial had been postponed until December of 2021. No mention was made, in that post, of what had originally been planned for the biennial or what would happen in the interim, in terms of other exhibitions and programmes. Nor was it stated if and when the National Gallery would reopen to the public. Other than some very brief and vague mentions of the new exhibition plans in the announcements, opening speeches and catalogue foreword of last year’s inaugural Summer Exhibition, last week’s postponement announcement was indeed, and bizarrely, the very first public statement from the National Gallery on the inaugural Kingston Biennial, a much-anticipated exhibition, which has already caused much speculation and concern in the Jamaican art world, fueled by the lack of information. It was the first time the National Gallery has provided any kind of detail on who is curating the exhibition (David Scott, with Wayne Modest, Nicole Smythe-Johnson, and the National Gallery’s acting Chief Curator O’Neil Lawrence) and what is being planned, in terms of the exhibition theme (“Pressure”). No artist list was however disclosed, nor was the curatorial selection process clarified, and the question of whether artists can submit work for consideration by the curators, which has been raised by many, thus remains unaddressed. The shoddy public communications about this exhibition do not add much credibility to the National Gallery’s boast that the Kingston Biennial will bring its biennial exhibition in line with international biennial standards.

I have on two occasions expressed my concerns about the poor public communications regarding the Kingston Biennial on this blog (these posts can be read here and here) and I have little else to say on that count. I am more concerned, at this stage, about what this belated first public announcement of the Kingston Biennial says about the state of affairs at the National Gallery of Jamaica – Jamaica’s national art museum, a foundational and defining part of Jamaica’s cultural ecology and one of the most prominent and influential such institutions in the Caribbean region. Because when I consider the handling of the biennial, the lack of information about any other forthcoming exhibitions, and the National Gallery’s lethargic and decidedly uninspired online programming during the Covid-19 lock-down, I must indeed ask whether the National Gallery of Jamaica “a keep”? The once very active and in many ways groundbreaking exhibition programme appears to have dried up to a trickle, and even the Summer Exhibition, which should next be held in 2021, appears to have dropped off the radar screen.

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Provocations: What about the Kingston Biennial?

installation-shot-jamaica-biennial-deborah
Installation view of the central gallery during Jamaica Biennial 2014, with work by Charles Campbell, Rex Dixon, Shoshanna Weinberger, and Kimani Beckford

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.

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Provocations: Navigating The Creative Industries

Charlie Chaplin in Moscow
Still from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936)

This is the first of a new series of shorter critical interventions on salient issues. The posts will pose questions, rather than to attempt to provide answers, and they are meant to be conversation starters, and comments are welcomed, as usual.

There have been a lot of conversations here in the Caribbean, of late, on Covid-19 and the Cultural Industries, most of them online of course, making use of the dreaded Zoom or other online communication platforms. It is, as such, heartening that there is a fair amount of engagement with how the cultural sector is affected by the cultural crisis, and also that funds are being made available for various remedial projects, from local governmental and non-governmental sources as well as international funders.

Observing some of these events has, however, also been very troubling, for a number of reasons. One is that only very few have involved actual practicing artists (visual, performing, or literary – a broad and diverse group that also includes film and design) and that the discussion has been articulated, led and, indeed, dominated by policy makers, consultants, entrepreneurs, and academics in the field. The other, related concern is that it has illustrated the insufficiently questioned, but deeply entrenched focus on the Cultural Industries, at the expense of more nuanced and contextualized discussions about culture, the arts and artistic practice, which appear to have become marginalized and even ignored in the Cultural Industries debate. And that may well come from not giving sufficient voice to those who are directly involved in and knowledgeable about artistic practice, including those who operate at grassroots level, which has led for such discussions to become woefully disconnected from what should by their foundation, anchor and primary point of reference. This disconnect was certainly evident in a recent discussion on the affiliated term Creatives, on the Critical.Caribbean.Art Facebook site, where a majority of artists expressed reservations about being so labelled and pointedly objected to the “flattening” homogenization of the cultural field this involved.

I will not go into the details of how the Cultural and Creative Industries, and the Cultural and Creative Economies, are variously defined, and the shifts in meaning that occur between these terms — that has already been covered extensively by many others. But it behooves us to remember that the term was introduced by Adorno and Horkheimer in the context of a deep and concerned critique of mass popular culture as propaganda and of the role of these Cultural Industries in Monopoly Capitalism. In its present incarnations, the term and its spin-offs are rooted in the ethos of Neo-liberalism and increasingly, there is a very reductive conflation the monetization and commodification of culture as the primary manner in which cultural production is validated and supported. I prefer the term Creative or Cultural Ecology, as it is a more inclusive terms that de-emphasizes monetization as a primary goal, without disregarding it, and leaves room for and validates a variety of cultural and artistic practices that may not be motivated by profit or entrepreneurship.

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