“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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Shifting the Conversation: Ania Freer’s “All That Don’t Leave”

Work by Alexander “Bamboo King” Dempster in foreground, with exhibition sign by Kemel Leeford Rankine in the background

Ania Freer describes herself as “an Australian/Jamaican filmmaker and creative story-teller.” She operates and curates an online gallery and Instagram platform, Goat Curry Gallery, which features work by the Jamaican craft producers she works with as well as her documentaries on the subject. Goat Curry Gallery is a self-funded project and proceeds from sales go fully to the artists, while visitors can donate towards the film projects – a subtle but pointed non-profit alternative to the hyper-capitalist frenzy around art and its markets in this Art Basel Miami Beach silly season.

And this commitment to ethical and equitable engagement is part of what I like about Ania Freer’s current curatorial project, All That Don’t Leave, which is on view at New Local Space (NLS) in Kingston until December 7. The exhibition features work and filmed oral histories of seven Jamaican craft producers: Racquel Brown, a basket maker from Robins Bay, St Mary; Alexander “Bamboo King” Dempster, from Annotto Bay, St Mary, who creates fantastic creatures from bamboo roots; Jennifer “Eighty” Stewart from Downtown Kingston, who makes crochet garments; Kemel Leeford Rankine, a sign painter from Holland Bamboo, St Elizabeth; Jeffett “Georgie” Strachan, a woodcarver from Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, who works in Lignumvitae; Cecil “Bingy” Smith, who makes calabash hats in Annotto Bay, St Mary; and Albert “St John” Phipps from Port Antonio, who makes bead curtains from natural and recycled materials (please do watch the linked videos on the artists, as they are excellent and essential to understanding this project). The works on view are for sale, at fair and reasonable prices, with 100 % of the proceeds going to the artists.

Painted Signs by Kemel Leeford Rankine

All That Don’t Leave, and the accompanying essay, is the inaugural product of the NLS Curatorial/Writing Intensive, a mentoring programme for young art writers and curators that is funded in part by the Prince Claus Next Generation Partnership, a major grant NLS has recently obtained. As part of this programme, Freer had access to an advisory panel of experienced curators and writers to develop her project, which crucially included Raphael Fonseca, curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Niterói, Brazil; and Rosanna McLaughlin, art editor, The White Review (who was herself in residence at NLS some time ago).

All That Don’t Leave is the second exhibition shown in the newly expanded exhibition and project space at NLS, a much-needed addition to Kingston’s deficient art infrastructure – the first was the recent T’Waunii Sinclair exhibition, which was a major, very provocative breakthrough for this young artist. Sinclair’s exhibition concluded his artist’s residency at NLS, which was also part funded by Prins Claus Fund and supported by a panel of mentors. These sort of intelligent, ideas- and conversation-driven projects are exactly what is needed to move beyond the numbing malaise that appears to have overtaken the Jamaican art world, and its future certainly looks brighter as a result.

Bags by Racquel Brown

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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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“As I Am”: Kimani Beckford’s Affirmations

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 Black Masculinity (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).

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.

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Taming the Lion? A Few Thoughts on the International Reggae Poster Contest

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At the 2018 Reggae Poster Contest exhibition, National Gallery of Jamaica, February 2019 (photo Veerle Poupeye – all rights reserved)

The International Reggae Poster Contest, which was launched in 2011, was the brainchild of the Jamaican poster artist and designer Michael Thompson “Freestylee”. His vision was quite specific and went beyond his obvious desire to celebrate the international cultural impact of reggae through a poster competition. He saw it as a platform to promote the establishment of what he had named a Reggae Hall of Fame, a high-profile reggae museum on the Kingston Waterfront that would pay tribute to the greats of the genre and for which he had even envisaged the architect, Frank Gehry. It was a romantic vision, which was quite different from the more scholarly and didactic Jamaica Music Museum that was being development by the Jamaican government, and Thompson was obviously mindful of the immense cultural and urban renewal effect of Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. He also conceived the contest as a fundraiser to support the Alpha Boys School, in tribute to that school’s seminal role in the development of Jamaican music, and supported the school in various other ways, among others contributing its distinctive new logo.

The National Gallery of Jamaica, after the cancellation of the Jamaica 50 exhibition it had originally planned, agreed to show the 100 best of the inaugural competition, along with poster designs on the same subject by the jurors, under the title World-a-Reggae, which was held from September 30 to November 10, 2012. What better way to celebrate Jamaica 50 than to highlight the global impact of reggae culture, we thought? It was certainly remarkable that the competition had attracted a total of 1142 entries by 678 designers from 80 countries and included interesting designs. The exhibition was well received and concluded with a fundraising auction of the exhibited posters, with the proceeds going to Alpha.

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At the 2018 Reggae Poster Contest exhibition, National Gallery of Jamaica, February 2019 (photo Veerle Poupeye – all rights reserved)

Despite the spirit of goodwill that surrounded the project, there were some rumblings from the start and it was clear that the project did not resonate equally well with all, locally. Local designers appeared to be uninterested and there were very few Jamaican submissions of which only one made it in the top 100, by the illustrator Taj Francis, who took the fifth place. And some of the local architects were not amused at the idea that Frank Gehry might design a high-profile Jamaican museum, as this letter to the editor illustrates. The National Gallery of Jamaica, which I headed at the time, took the position that the project was worthwhile but declined to host the competition exhibition annually, as we were pressured to do; instead, we offered to include a smaller selection of the best posters in the Jamaica Biennial but this offer was not pursued by the organizers.

Since then, the contest has been held annually, although the organizers have recently announced that it will now become a biennial event, and the associated exhibitions have been shown in various parts of the world. Michael Thompson passed away unexpectedly in 2016 but the project was continued by his Greek business partner, Maria Papaefstathiou (the co-founder of the contest). The exhibition in 2017 returned to Jamaica, and the posters from the 2017 and 2018 contests were shown at the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, with which Papaefstathiou had developed an active working relationship (several Freestylee reggae posters are now featured as murals in the airport). The 2018 exhibition is now also on view at the National Gallery of Jamaica, where the exhibition has thus returned after five years and, if the last-moment notifications are anything to go by, this appears to have been arranged at short notice to coincide with Reggae Month. The exhibition will on view there until May 26, 2019.

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At the 2018 Reggae Poster Contest exhibition, National Gallery of Jamaica, February 2019 (photo Veerle Poupeye – all rights reserved)

In the local media, the International Reggae Poster Contest has been regularly covered by Richard Johnson of the Observer and most of these reports have included lamentations about the lack of Jamaican participation and success in the contest. On January 9, 2018, for instance, or three weeks before the deadline of the 2018 competition an article appeared under the header No Jamaican Entries: Local Participation Missing from Reggae Poster Contest. In it, Papaefstathiou is quoted as saying: “I am very disappointed with the lack of posters from Jamaica. I hope until the last minute there will be some submissions. Actually, I will take the opportunity of this article, and I will urge them to participate. This contest is about their country and their music. It’s a shame to see posters from all over the world and not from reggae’s own land.” The article concludes with similar wording as I had noted in previous articles by Johnson on the subject: “No Jamaican has ever won the contest. In the first two years Jamaican artists fared reasonably well. In year one (2012), Taj Francis placed fifth, with the eventual winner being Alon Braier from Israel. In year two, Rohan Mitchell copped fourth position to Balazs Pakodi of the United Kingdom who took the top spot. Since then, Jamaican artists have failed to fall within the top 100 entries to the competition.”

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