Jamaican art: open house

Founded forty years ago, the National Gallery of Jamaica has long taken a leading role in the country’s art scene. Now innovative new programmes are attracting a broader audience, Kellie Magnus discovers. Meanwhile, the new art space NLS is opening doors for younger artists

A performance in the atrium of the National Gallery of Jamaica. Courtesy National Gallery of JamaicaCultural Soliloquy (A Cultural Object Revisited (2010), by Ebony G. Patterson; mixed media installation, size irregular. Courtesy National Gallery of JamaicaI Took the Liberty of Designing One (2013), by Matthew McCarthy; mixed media installation, size irregular. Photograph by Marlon JamesBanana Plantation (c 1945), by John Dunkley; mixed media on plywood, 74 x 46 cm. Courtesy National Gallery of JamaicaPeaceful Quietness (1967), by  Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds; oil on hardboard, 74 x 97 cm. Courtesy National Gallery of JamaicaCrop Time (1955), by Albert Huie; acrylic on board, 87 x 99 cm. Courtesy National Gallery of JamaicaDuppy Cotton Tree (1994), by Everald Brown; oil on canvas, 82 x 62 cm. Courtesy National Gallery of JamaicaNegro Aroused (1935), by Edna Manley; mahogany, height 63.5 cm. Courtesy National Gallery of JamaicaStefan and Camille (2009), by Marlon James; digital black and white photograph (digitised from negative). Photograph by Marlon JamesKingston’s NLS space hosts exhibitions, discussions, screenings, visits by curators, and other activities to support contemporary artists. Courtesy NLSDetail of Conversation (1981), by Barrington Watson; oil on canvas, 127 x 101 cm. Courtesy The National Gallery of Jamaica

It’s a hot Sunday afternoon, and the streets of downtown Kingston are still and silent. It’s a bit of a surprise, then, to open the doors of the venerable National Gallery of Jamaica and be greeted with laughter and vibrant dancehall music.

A standing-room-only audience claps along to the performance of Ackee and Saltfish, a visiting Japanese dancehall duo. It’s a mixed crowd — Jamaica’s newly minted Poet Laureate, Mervyn Morris, brushes past edgy photographer Marlon James. Notable collectors and stylish uptown art patrons sit next to artists on hand to discuss their pieces in Anything With Nothing, a ground-breaking exhibition that has brought street artists into the National Gallery to mount large-scale installations.

It’s also a noticeably younger crowd than the typical NGJ audience of a decade ago, remarkable in the high concentration of young artists, and a group of teenagers present to check out the closing day of Japan: Kingdom of Characters, a traveling exhibit facilitated by the Embassy of Japan. The energy is palpable. With the clink of glasses, pull-ups from the deejay, and the giggling of a couple of cosplay-loving teens, one thing is clear: this is not your parents’ National Gallery.

The fun, eclectic gathering was just one in the NGJ’s Last Sundays series of monthly events mixing the visual arts with performance — dance, drama, music, — as well as panel discussions, book launches, and even yoga. What began as an experiment in 2012 is now a fixture on the Kingston art calendar, and has been credited with increasing and broadening traffic to the gallery.

“It’s interesting what happens when we let all the arts interact,” says O’Neil Lawrence, senior curator at the NGJ (and a practicing visual artist). “Sometimes what happens isn’t exactly what’s planned. It’s interesting to see how the artists respond to what’s around them.” Those words could apply just as well to the gallery itself — in its fortieth anniversary year, the oldest and largest national art museum in the Anglophone Caribbean seems to be reinventing itself, reflecting and in some ways driving changes in the field it represents. In the middle of an economic downturn that has posed challenges for the local art scene, the NGJ appears more accessible, more dynamic, and, most of all, more relevant to a broader cross-section of Jamaican artists and art lovers.

“It’s an interesting time [in Jamaica’s art scene],” says Lawrence. “There’s a particular energy. There are artists challenging the various status quos, and accurately tapping into the social pulse — a wave of artists tackling issues like poverty, gender, sexuality; taking them on explicitly, and making statements. There’s a social consciousness, and they’re trying to make a difference.”

 

Which is exactly what the NGJ itself is trying to do. In the past two years, four of Jamaica’s handful of commercial art spaces have shut their doors or scaled back their activities. That has given an added challenge to the National Gallery: to balance its mandate as a national art museum, reflecting and representing the history of Jamaican art and all its forms, with an effort to support and catalyse the contemporary arts space. It’s a delicate balance that has drawn criticism from some corners of Jamaica’s art world, but that has played a critical role in bringing emerging artists whose work might be more controversial than commercial to the eyes of the local public and the global art world.

Younger artists like Matthew McCarthy, Leasho Johnson, Ebony G. Patterson, and Marlon James have flourished through their exposure at the gallery, presenting challenging and thought-provoking work. For James, a photographer, exposure here has had both cultural and commercial resonance. “It’s hard to explain what it means to be exhibited in the National Gallery,” says the thirty-four-year-old. “It affirms you to know that your own country appreciates and values your work.

“The gallery opens a world of possibilities,” he contines. “It has the kind of platform that helps us to showcase our work internationally. Because of their title and their reputation in the Caribbean and in the world, people come into the National Gallery and get a sense of who is representing Jamaica.”

James first exhibited at the National Gallery in 2010’s Young Talent V exhibition. That exposure led to his inclusion in Shot in Kingston, a small exhibition at Alice Yard in Trinidad; Wrestling with the Image, a World Bank-supported show in Washington, DC; an exhibition of Jamaican artists in Canada, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Jamaica’s Independence in 2012; and the publication Pictures from Paradise, released the same year.

The National Gallery recently acquired his work Mark and Gisele, which now forms part of its permanent collection. Although the Gallery’s acquisitions budget is limited, it makes a special effort to acquire key pieces from new artists, recognising their pull and power alongside the attraction of the evergreens in an outstanding collection that includes iconic Jamaican artists like Edna Manley, Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, Barrington Watson, Albert Huie, Gene Pearson, and Karl Parboosingh. The gallery recently added two pieces from the Anything With Nothing show to the permanent collection, as well as a Matthew McCarthy piece from the New Roots show in 2013. Other recent acquisitions include two Marvin Bartley pieces donated by the artist.

“We have a difficult role in a society that has a lot to say,” says Lawrence. “Our role is finding the right balance in serving all our constituencies, in balancing the contemporary and the historic. The National Gallery is more about making space for conversations.”

The gallery’s executive director, Veerle Poupeye, describes those conversations as placing contemporary Jamaican art “in dialogue with, rather than in opposition to, the other historical and more recent conventional dimensions of Jamaican art” — an approach that leads to provocative curatorial and placement choices in the NGJ’s recent exhibitions, including its latest. Retrospect: 40 Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica is a mammoth show that aims to chronicle the role the gallery has played in the way Jamaican art is understood. It includes highlights from the original two hundred and sixty-two paintings and sculptures with which the gallery began in 1974, plus highlights from its seminal exhibitions, major donations, as well as major developments in Jamaica’s art, the gallery’s history, and the contributions of key figures.

The NGJ’s exhibitions calendar includes three to four major exhibits each year, as well as a biennial celebration of artists from the island and its diaspora. It stages travelling exhibitions of Jamaican art, and lends works to galleries across the Caribbean and internationally. The Last Sunday events and an expansive arts education programme all form part of the gallery’s mandate to promote Jamaican and Caribbean art, and bring international art to the Jamaican public. And there’s an increasing urgency to make the gallery more relevant to the Jamaican public.

In July, the NGJ opened National Gallery West, a collaboration between the gallery, the St James Parish Council, and the Montego Bay Arts Council. Located in the beautifully restored Montego Bay Cultural Centre — a former civic centre and court house that once served as the seat of political power for Western Jamaica — the space now hopes to play a similar centring role for Montego Bay’s arts community. Since its opening, NGJ West has attracted more than two thousand visitors — locals and tourists alike. The objective is to use the space to stage significant exhibitions that need to be shared — and to showcase artists and programmes centred on Western Jamaica.

Its focus on relevance has also changed the way the gallery engages the public. “What kind of stories can we tell with this work?” asks Lawrence. “What can we get out of it as scholars? Which audiences might be interested in this topic? We can’t focus on the interests of just one set of people.”

The gallery also now makes expansive use of social media — specifically, its popular blog, Facebook, and Twitter — to ensure that it reaches a wider audience. For many, the Young Talent V exhibit in 2010 was a turning point in the gallery’s interaction with the public. It was heavily promoted online, and yielded a surprisingly large and responsive audience. That increasing engagement with the public via social media has brought a clear shift in the demographics of NGJ visitors, but it also marks the gallery’s recognition of the shifting sands in Jamaica’s art ecosystem, with the locus of importance moving from the local to the global. Whereas a generation ago local corporate and major private collectors held sway, this generation of artists sees the world as its gallery.

“Our ecosystem isn’t as confined as it used to be,” says Lawrence. “Through social media, artists get approached for exhibits all over the world. There’s more empowerment for artists now that they can promote themselves.”

 

About fifteen minutes away from the National Gallery, a fledgling space is contributing to creating that global platform. NLS is part art gallery, part visual arts initiative — an ambitious mandate that belies its tiny physical space. Led by visual artist Deborah Anzinger — widely respected as one of the leaders of the younger generation of proactive contemporary artists in Jamaica — NLS aims to showcase the best of Jamaican art, while dismantling some of the pathologies that have stymied collaboration and collective growth.

The NLS vision is built on engaging both the public and fellow artists, providing a physical space where artists can test new ideas and new ways of making work. It offers low-cost, subsidised studio space, as well as forums for experimental exhibitions and discussions about art. The gallery runs a nine-week artist residency programme, and offers both indoor and outdoor exhibit space. NLS resident artists contribute to the development of the community by hosting two studio visits and an exhibition during their tenure. In addition to the practical solutions it offers to artists, its larger goal is to create a hub to nourish them individually and collectively.

Anzinger moved back to Jamaica in 2012, having run the District of Columbia Art Centre in Washington. Since opening, NLS has been home to a wide range of artists, including Jamaica’s Varun Baker and Michael Elliott; Wilmer Wilson IV from Washington, DC; Trinidadian Rodell Warner; and Grenadian Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe, who will come on board in December 2014. Recently, filmmaker Bruce Hart used the space for post-production on his innovative work Ching Pow: Far East Yardies, a “remix” film dubbing an originally scripted audio track over an edited compilation of the 1980s Taiwanese trilogy Ninja Death.

For artists like Marlon James, the tiny gallery at NLS fills a critical gap in Jamaica’s arts scene. “NLS is the first step for artists before you get the nod from the National Gallery,” says James. “It’s what a lot of artists need. You have the freedom to express yourself, and get the reaction from the public.” James’s first solo exhibition was staged at NLS in 2013, and he later participated in a show called Float in Washington, DC, which NLS curated.

That show was part of NLS’s active exhibition schedule, which includes both local shows of its resident artists and collaborations with galleries outside Jamaica. It also hosts visiting artists and curators, recently showcasing thirteen artists for a delegation from Miami’s Perez Art Museum.

Both Veerle Poupeye of the National Gallery and Deborah Anzinger of NLS see their respective institutions, large and small, as complementing and supplementing agents, supporting Jamaica’s art scene.

“The National Gallery has Jamaica’s art gold,” says Anzinger. “NLS is about taking contemporary treasures and moving them in contemporary ways.” Like the NGJ, NLS actively relies on social media and reaches out to curators around the world, mining the connections of artists in its network. Largely through its virtual outreach, NLS has successfully set up meetings for Jamaican artists with galleries in the US.

Anzinger balances her work with NLS with a full time job and her own studio practice. She describes her artworks as abstract, with fragments embedded with realism, addressing the idea of creating new realities in which fragments are grounded in legacy but reconfigured to make something new. It’s a theme that could also describe her vision for NLS — looking at the ways in which the visual experience of being part of the Jamaican landscape can be used to create new images and new ways of being.

“I want to keep going more deeply into the theme of reconfiguring one’s reality based on a dynamic that’s heavily based on self-empowerment rather than dominion over one’s environment,” she says. “This generation of artists is breaking away from the confines of the past. We’re using the tools we have available to create our own realities.”

 

Thinking outside the “big building”

Caribbean Beat talks to Veerle Poupeye, executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica

How does NGJ define its role?
The Gallery is Jamaica’s national art museum, and its mandate is to represent the story of art in Jamaica to the widest possible audiences, in a way that is engaging and scholarly sound, and that promotes and supports the development of art in and of Jamaica. We are both a historical art museum and a contemporary art space.

What are the challenges facing Jamaica’s contemporary arts now?
The two main problems are the lack of local patronage and the scarcity of independent project space. Jamaica had a vigorous local art market from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, which benefitted many, but this market had a narrow and conservative focus, in which contemporary art was only supported when it involved the production of saleable objects.

NLS provides a much more engaged and active platform, and does very valuable work, but still does not provide space for the sort of large-scale projects we are seeing now. So the NGJ remains the main space for such projects, by design — our own programme focus and mandate to serve as a platform and catalyst for contemporary art development — and by default — the lack of alternatives. But we hope that there will be more local initiative and new forms of patronage, local or international, that will support the local contemporary art scene.

How does NGJ West fit in with the gallery’s broader vision and plans?
It makes our operations less Kingston-centred, which is a major concern for stakeholders in other parts of the island, who feel underserved by cultural institutions in Kingston.
In the past, the thinking was that the NGJ needed to operate from the “big building,” a centralised location with impressive, state-of-the-art facilities. While visibility and proper facilities are very important to an art museum, the “big building” can also be very intimidating to novice, non-specialist visitors. A more decentraliszed approach — bring the NGJ to its potential audiences rather than to expect the audiences to come to the “big building” — seems to be much more inviting, and certainly lowers the thresholds for new visitors, as we are already seeing in Montego Bay.

 

See Jamaican art here

The National Gallery of Jamaica
12 Ocean Boulevard, Kingston
Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 4:30 pm
Last Sunday of each month, 11 am to 4 pm
nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com

The National Gallery West
Montego Bay Cultural Centre
Sam Sharpe Square, Montego Bay

NLS
190 Mountain View Avenue
NLSKingston.org