This week’s article continues the discussion on controversies involving public and other art works in Jamaica, several of which have involved censorship. Part 2, published last week, looked at reactions to Albert Huie’s nude entitled Miss Mahogany and Christopher Gonzalez’ Bob Marley statue.
This week we look at the work of the contemporary artist Khalfani Ra, that is on display at the recently opened ROK Hotel on the Kingston Waterfront and which attracted the ire of some visitors and attracted the attention of the media. The Star headline of 9 August screamed “Black Gal Artwork Draws Rage – Downtown Hotel Mounts Racy ‘Hole’ painting”. The mixed media collage in question depicts the body of a squatting woman, clad in a pink bikini and high heels, and has the inscription “Big Hole Gal. See Ow Yu Black …” over it, echoing the sort of racialized and sexualized personal insults that are not uncommon in the popular culture, but which, the artist rightly argues, reflect a lack of racial self-respect. The work is also collaged with pages from the bible, which allude to the moral hypocrisy that surrounds sexuality in Christian Jamaica.
The hotel management has defended the work and cited the artist’s critical intent. The question, however, is whether this undeniably provocative work, which, arguably, needs explanation for its critical intentions to be understood, is a good choice for a hotel environment where people of different backgrounds and beliefs congregate. The work is furthermore exhibited along with a giant banana sculpture, which suggests a lack of regard for the work’s political intent and a sensationalist desire to play up its “racy” content. An extended label with the artist’s statement would have been far more appropriate.
I have my own history with this work. Khalfani Ra was an invited artist to the 2014 Jamaica Biennial at the National Gallery of which I was the lead curator, and he had submitted the work in question. This happened in the months after the censorship incident that I alluded to in last week’s column, and which had also involved the representation of sexuality in art. My colleagues and I realized that we had another inflammatory, no-win situation on our hands if we chose to exhibit the work. I thus consulted with the artist, and we agreed to exhibit a related but less provocative work instead.
Khalfani Ra is an artist I have known since 1984 and greatly respect, but I have mixed feelings about some of his recent work which I find too preoccupied with provocation and not enough with critical nuance, or technical and formal resolution. There is also a hectoring, moralistic preoccupation with the politics of Black female sexuality which could be construed as misogynistic on the part of a male artist. But whether I personally approve of the work, or its politics, is not at issue here. The work is perhaps not Ra’s best but, under different circumstances, I would have accepted and exhibited it, albeit probably with some precautions regarding location and signage. Equally provocative art works, by various artists, have been exhibited on many occasions at the NGJ, including under my watch, and most such instances have been incident-free. In 2014, however, it was a matter of picking our battles in what was already a volatile moment for the NGJ.
For all the contention that has surrounded these examples, art controversies and censorship are rare in Jamaica, and usually only occur when art is given high public visibility outside of the confines of the artworld, for instance in a public location. Context is always a major consideration in such matters and the quality of the work, as art, usually has nothing to do with the controversy. With the exception of the public statues, where the concerns more commonly pertain to the representational expectations about historical figures, it is clear that the representation of sexuality, race and religion are the most powerful triggers, especially when they appear in combination. And, there is no doubt, as the artists have pointedly reminded us in some of the examples cited here, that this involves significant and largely unresolved double standards.
Dr Veerle Poupeye is an art historian specialized in art from the Caribbean. She works as an independent curator, writer, researcher, and cultural consultant. The second, revised and expanded edition of her best-known book “Caribbean Art” was recently published in the World of Art series of Thames and Hudson. Her personal blog can be found at veerlepoupeye.com.