Whither the National Gallery of Jamaica? – Part 1

National Gallery of Jamaica
The central gallery at the National Gallery of Jamaica, 2017 (Photo credit: Veerle Poupeye)

Last week, the Jamaican art world was in an uproar. The 30 or so artists who had been invited to participate in the inaugural Kingston Biennial at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) received an email from the biennial’s guest curator, David Scott, stating that the exhibition had been postponed until June 2022. No specific reasons were given, other than the uncertainties and scheduling issues related to the reopening of the NGJ.

Senior Director Jonathan Greenland, in an email response to questions I had sent to him in preparation for this article, stated that there would be a public release after all artists had been notified. He also disclosed that part of the scheduling problems involved the obligations towards Jamaica, Jamaica, a touring exhibition on Jamaican music culture which originated at the Cité De La Musique-Philharmonie de Paris and which had opened at the NGJ in February 2020. This opening was also delayed over the original announced date and was cut short by the lockdown the following month. The question arises as to why this had not been planned for from earlier on, with regard to the timing of the Biennial.

The Kingston Biennial had first been announced for December 2020. This was already a long interval since its most recent precursor, the 2017 Jamaica Biennial. The advent of the pandemic resulted in a one-year postponement to December 2021. There has now been a second, far more questionable postponement, for what was already, in 2020, a significantly delayed and highly anticipated exhibition. When the exhibition finally opens in 2022, assuming that there will be no further postponements, it will be more than five years since the last NGJ biennial was held.

With some curatorial and organizational imagination (an outdoor exhibition, perhaps?), the Kingston Biennial could in fact have been held in 2020 and would have given a positive sign about the resilience and capacity for innovation of the Jamaican cultural sector. It should certainly have been possible to have the exhibition this year, as there was more than adequate time to plan for any eventualities, whatever needed to be done to do justice to Jamaica, Jamaica included, and postponing the Biennial to June 2022 still seems unjustified, despite the pandemic.

The artists participating in the inaugural Kingston Biennial originally received their letters of invitation around March 2020 for an exhibition which was then to be held in December of that year. Those who accepted will have been strung along for more than two years by the time the exhibition finally opens. I understand that the latest postponement is not going down well with several of the artists as it, of course, affects their own plans and work schedules negatively. It is quite amazing that this was done without any prior consultation with them.

The NGJ’s cavalier handling of its flagship exhibition raises many troubling questions in terms of its professional practices and lack of regard for the artists and the public alike. The public secretiveness that has surrounded this revamped, and supposedly improved Kingston Biennial does not help matters. We do not even know at this time which artists will be in the exhibition, although this has been an issue of contentious speculation in the art world since the exhibition was first announced. Concerns are inevitably raised about favoured artists and the exclusion of others. More transparency and consultation, and better communications are urgently needed.

Last week’s developments also amplified already mounting concerns about the general state of affairs at the NGJ. Since the start of 2018, for instance, the NGJ has held only five exhibitions at its main venue in Kingston, two of which (Jamaica, Jamaica included) were furthermore touring exhibitions that were organized and curated outside of the NGJ. So, only three exhibitions have been organized and curated by the NGJ itself over the last four years. This represents a major step back from the NGJ’s previous exhibition schedule, which typically consisted of four to five curated exhibitions per year. As of 2014, there was an equally active exhibition programme at the new National Gallery West (NG West) satellite location in Montego Bay. Ironically, NG West has been more active than the NGJ in Kingston, recently: an exhibition, Surrealism Black, is presently on view there and can be viewed by the public. It would be good to hear why NG West was reopened and not the main venue in Kingston, and why the Montego Bay reopening was not publicly announced. Dr Greenland also divulged that other exhibitions were being planned for NG West, but it appears that the extension of the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition and then the Kingston Biennial in June 2022 is all we can expect for Kingston over the next year.

Read more next week in part 2 of this article.

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 veerlepoupeye.com.

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