Art Buzz (January/Febraury 2006)

Jamaica’s National Gallery looks at new artists through the Curator’s Eye • Che Lovelace explores the mysteries of Carnival and freedom

Charles Campbell. Photograph courtesy Charles CampbellHelping Devil (25” x 30”, oil on board). Photograph by Alex SmailesMaroon Mandala, by and courtesy Charles CampbellMoonlit Sleeper with Watchers (25” x 30”, oil on board). Photograph by Alex SmailesYoung Devil Watching Ants on a Beach (25” x 30”, oil on board). Photograph by Alex Smailes

An eye for the new

Jamaica’s stately National Gallery is renowned for its historic collection of Jamaican art. Under the watchful eye of director emeritus and former chief curator David Boxer, the gallery has amassed an impressive collection of the work of Jamaican masters.

But even a doyenne needs a makeover now and then. Every two years, the gallery invites a guest curator to mount an exhibition in an innovative new programme intended to provide both objective commentary and a refreshing personal perspective on the state and practice of Jamaican art.

“The aim is to bring new eyes and fresh ideas to the Jamaican contemporary art scene,” says Dr Jonathan Greenland, executive director of the National Gallery. “We need to bring in someone who is not tied to any particular aesthetic or style. Otherwise, we run the risk of getting stuck in a routine.”

The Curator’s Eye programme — which alternates with the Jamaica National Biennial exhibition — debuted two years ago with an exhibition of works selected by Lowery Stokes Sims, executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem.This year’s guest is Eddie Chambers, an art critic and curator with a long history of challenging artistic conventions.

Born in Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom to Jamaican parents, Chambers is a rare Caribbean presence in the rarified world of British art. He has curated shows around the world, building his expertise in the works of artists from the African diaspora. In 1989, he established the African and Asian Visual Artists Archive, a black artists’ research and reference facility, which he led until 1992. In his curating, teaching, and writing, his goal is to “contribute to the pluralisation of the art world”, to carve a place for artists of colour on the mainstream agenda. Given the opportunity to curate an entirely Jamaican exhibition, his goal was to broaden the dialogue on what art is considered noteworthy within the Jamaican community, eschewing the conventional criteria of mastery.

His selection, titled Identity and History: Personal and Social Narratives in Art in Jamaica, opened on December 11, 2005, and will run until March 2006. The show is a highly personal collection that, with its dual themes of history and identity, tells as much about Chambers as about the artists he selected.

“I was looking for work that commented on issues of history and identity,” says Chambers. “Jamaica has always held a fascination for me. When I was growing up, I learned a lot about Jamaica from my parents. I grew up on the music of Marley and Tosh, so I naturally became curious about what Jamaica’s visual artists have to say about Jamaican history, its place in the African diaspora and the world.”

Chambers’s personal art collection includes the works of Jamaican artists Charles Campbell, the late sculptor Woody Joseph, Alan Zion Johnson, and British-based Jamaican painter Eugene Palmer. To create his Curator’s Eye collection, Chambers embarked on a three-week whirlwind tour of Jamaica’s art scene, through the island’s leading galleries, homes of private collectors, and artists’ studios. He explored the work of over four dozen artists, before narrowing his selection to sixteen.

The result is Chambers’s take on Jamaica’s best and brightest stars: Charles Campbell, Keisha Castello, Carol Crichton, Christopher Clare, Shoshana Fagan, Tricia Gordon-Johnston, Andrae Green, Christopher Irons, Raymond Mangoensemito, Khepera Oluyia Hatsheptwa, Ebony Patterson, K. Khalfani Ra, Omari Ra, Zawdie Reece, Oneika Russell, and Oya Tyehimba.

The work, especially Carol Crichton’s, reflects a fascination with visual representations of the past. Crichton, whose pieces Chambers calls “illustrations of Jamaican history”, fuses elements drawn from Jamaican history with culture and geography.

“Oftentimes we think of history as something we learn at school. When we look at works like Crichton’s, history comes alive in ways that are fascinating. They’re paintings about history. But they’re very much alive, contemporary works.”

Crichton is one of the few established artists in Chambers’s collection. Most of his selections are young and just emerging on the international stage. “There is a new vanguard of Jamaican artists like [Shoshana] Ferguson, Ebony Patterson, Tricia Gordon Johnston, who are doing truly wonderful work that interweaves complex social and personal issues,” says Chambers.

“These aren’t names that are immediately recognisable. But their work reflects an interplay between the issues that are deeply personal to them and deeply pertinent to Jamaican society. They engage us in ways that are new and fresh and relevant.”

Creating opportunities for that work to engage a new generation of art lovers is what motivates both Chambers and the National Gallery, often criticised for having an elitist bent. “My goal as a curator,” says Chambers, “is to shift the terms of reference for what art is and who can appreciate it.

“It’s challenging. But it’s also immensely rewarding.”

Kellie Magnus

Dancing with the devil

The white walls of Che Lovelace’s studio in the Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA7) centre are spattered with paint. Large canvases lean along one side of the room; in a corner is a drawing table with a book of Matisse reproductions propped open. The tap under the window needs a plumber’s attention. It will not stop dripping; its trickle is the background to our conversation.

“I’m really excited about painting right now,” Lovelace is telling me, as he bounces around the room, wide-eyed. “So much of what I was doing before was about restraining and thinking. Paint has this secret kind of spirit in it, and I’m trusting it.”

I’ve come to look at the paintings he’s been working on in recent months, stacked in a small pile on the studio floor. Carnival paintings: sketches of J’Ouvert revellers, covered in mud or huddled in groups in fields of dark colours; and a series depicting blue devils, the weird, sinister characters who descend into Port of Spain under cover of J’Ouvert darkness and stalk bystanders and other masqueraders, threatening them wordlessly with a smearing of ultramarine pigment.

Lovelace’s blue devil paintings are enigmatic vignettes, hinting at some bigger narrative but refusing to disclose more than a few disconnected fragments of plot. In one sketch, a devil lies sprawled across the road, staring straight at the viewer; a second devil bends over him — whispering, picking him up, holding him down? In another, a sleeping devil is watched over by three of his fellows, their crouching or kneeling forms suggested by rough, nervous brushstrokes. In a third painting, a winged devil flees from a group of people — has he just set some mischief in train, have these mud-caked revellers somehow alarmed him?

Lovelace has long been fascinated by the characters and traditions of Trinidad Carnival, but whereas his earlier canvases were intricately, painstakingly detailed — encrusted with swirls and blobs of thick paint, creating a coruscating surface texture recalling closely set gems — these blue devil paintings are a major departure in style, dashed off with the brio of exercises in improvisation, quick strokes and thin oil paint on rectangles of board. The images in the paintings — some of them remembered from dreams — haunt him for weeks or months, Lovelace says, but when he knows he’s ready to execute them he works quickly, decisively.

“What I like is the physicality of it,” he says, “how it’s put on — it’s like I’m doing it with a kind of chance, a trust. But you know what you’re doing, somewhere in the back there.” He’s been learning to really trust his painterly instincts, to think with his hands and wrists.

Though the best of these small paintings have the presence of finished works, Lovelace is also using them as studies for larger works on board and canvas, enlarging the puzzling images to an epic scale while trying to preserve their energetic spontaneity. But it’s the paint itself, he insists, that drives this latest work. “The simplicity of paint, and the complexity and the mystery and the surprise — of what just paint alone on a piece of paper can reveal about the human character, the sophistication of the human mind,” he rhapsodises.

“Painting can’t be outdated.”

Nicholas Laughlin