The Kingston Biennial – Part 4: In a Holding Pattern

Mixed media on canvas Phillip Thomas
Phillip Thomas – Tank (2017, mixed media on canvas, 84 x 127?) (Photo credit: courtesy of the artist and RJD Gallery)

In this final part of my commentary on the Kingston Biennial, I take a closer look at the implications of the key decisions that framed this edition of the National Gallery’s biennial, as some of these appear to be retrograde. As inevitably happens, when an exhibition such as the Kingston Biennial opens, there is a lot of talk in the local art world, and some are questioning whether David Scott is qualified to curate the biennial, as he is not a professional curator. I do not necessarily share that concern, as Scott does in fact have curatorial experience, as do the other two guest curators. It is however obvious that we need to have a serious conversation about what qualifies persons to label themselves and, more so, to act as curators, art historians, museologists and museum directors in the context of a public cultural institution. When it comes to that, David Scott and his team are the least of the National Gallery’s problems.

My own concern is that the three guest-curators are too closely associated, in terms of their personal history, with certain members of the National Gallery board. The idea behind using guest curators is that they should be able to present an independent curatorial vision. I see no evidence that the decisions of the Kingston Biennial curators were unduly influenced but appearances matter in such situations, and It would have been wiser for the National Gallery to start its Kingston Biennial series with guest curators who were not so closely connected.

One of my main regrets is that the exhibition has returned to being a strictly Jamaican one, after the Biennial was opened to the Caribbean and its Diaspora for the 2014 and 2017 editions. That all artists, curators and catalogue contributors for the present edition are Jamaican (although not all define themselves as such) and that the theme of “pressure” is presented as an exclusive Jamaican idiom, one that panders to a myopic kind of Jamaican exceptionalism that is not productive in today’s globalized and interconnected world. It also limits our understanding of the chosen theme of “pressure” which has much wider implications in the Global Caribbean. How can we have a credible discussion on the theme without reflecting on the Trinidadian Horace Ové’s ground-breaking feature firm Pressure (1976), which portrayed the racial and cultural tensions faced by the Caribbean Diaspora in the UK in the seventies, or without considering the Haitian artists of the Atis Resistanz, whose work embodies the very idea of urban pressure in the Caribbean context? I could go on.

The small size of the Kingston Biennial, with a mere 24 artists and 56 works of art, is also regrettable. The 2017 Jamaica Biennial may have been too large, and not selective enough, but its successor, the 2022 Kingston Biennial is needlessly small, limited in outlook and exclusionary. By being confined to the National Gallery’s exhibition galleries, and no longer held at multiple locations, the exhibition has, furthermore, retreated into the privileged “white cube” space of an institution which is still viewed as elitist by many, and this further constrains public engagement.

At an online presentation which preceded the Kingston Biennial ,some months ago, I asked David Scott if there would be fringe events. His response was rather curt and dismissive, and he reiterated that the Biennial would be at the National Gallery itself only. Perhaps Scott misunderstood me, but what I meant with fringe events were concurrent exhibitions and programmes that are independently organized by third parties and, if they meet certain criteria, recognized on the main event calendar as associated events. Such fringe programmes are common practice at cultural festivals and biennials across the world, and add to their substance and diversity. Some are so successful that they become recognized in their own right, such as the popular Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which is framed as a celebration of creative freedom.

Having a city-wide itinerary of associated events, if the programme absolutely had to be limited to Kingston, would have helped to animate Jamaica’s capital city as a creative city in a much more meaningful and dynamic manner than any small, institutionally confined exhibition such as the Kingston Biennial could possibly do. Having recognized fringe events would also have removed some of the representational pressures from the Biennial itself, as artists who were not selected would have had the opportunity to exhibit elsewhere but in a related context. It would have opened up and diversified the conversation significantly, without costing the National Gallery a penny. There is much the National Gallery could learn from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

I also have to question the unusually long duration of the Kingston Biennial, which will be on view for more than six months. The organizers may have taken the duration of the Venice Biennale as their model, but there the schedule coincides with the tourism season for that city, which is one of the world’s popular tourist destinations. Such a synergistic alignment is not evident in the timing of the Kingston Biennial, which unwisely spans the Atlantic Hurricane Season, and the obviously expedient decision of now pinning it to Jamaica 60, after multiple postponements, comes at various other costs.

As an art museum curator with more some thirty-five years of experience, I know well that exhibitions have a limited shelf live, as the target audience for each is finite. Unless the exhibition is exceptionally popular, which would, in our case, have to be well beyond Jamaica, and supported by intensive programming, public interest usually tapers off after the first two months or so. If an exhibition is left to languish past its prime, it dilutes its impact and reflects a lack of vitality and initiative on the part of the organizing institution. There has been only one associated programme thus far: a rather ad hoc set of two panel discussions with some of the artists in the Kingston Biennial on the day after the opening. A month has gone by since then and no other events have as yet been held or announced, so it does not appear that there will be the sort of well-strategized public engagement programme that is needed to keep the Kingston Biennial alive and relevant until December 31.

Since the National Gallery does not have the space to mount concurrent exhibitions, the current trend of having much longer exhibitions also means that that the diversity of its exhibition programme is significantly curtailed. The National Gallery used to have an average of four to five exhibitions per year, each typically two to three months long. National Gallery West in Montego Bay, which opened in 2014, initially maintained a similar schedule. It now appears that the number of exhibitions at each venue has been reduced to one, or perhaps two per year, with a typical duration of six months.

This means that recurrent exhibitions such as the Kingston Biennial and the Summer Exhibition now take up most of the schedule, leaving no time for the other, research-based types of exhibitions – retrospectives, historical and thematic exhibitions, young artist exhibitions etcetera – that the National Gallery must also have in order to stay relevant and representative. To make matters worse, there has been an excessive dependence on externally curated, touring exhibitions in recent years, and we have not seen any exhibitions that reflect the current scholarship and curatorial vision of the National Gallery’s curatorial team, and its recently appointed Chief Curator, itself for quite some time now.

So where does the Kingston Biennial take the National Gallery? Does it mean that the National Gallery has finally emerged from its deep rut, which precedes the pandemic? It is the first exhibition of any substance that was specifically curated for the National Gallery for a while now, and that is as such a good thing. But unless the National Gallery’s exhibition and programme activities are restored to the previous levels of quality, scope and frequency, the insufficiently ambitious Kingston Biennial is merely a token gesture which inadvertently underscores that the National Gallery is still in a holding pattern.

Dr Veerle Poupeye is an art historian specialized in art from the Caribbean. She lectures at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica, and works as an independent curator, writer, researcher, and cultural consultant. Her personal blog can be found at

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