‘Jamaica, Jamaica’ and the Jamaican Curatorial Imagination – Part 2

At the opening of the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica on February 24, 2020
At the opening of the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica on February 24, 2020 (Photo credit: Veerle Poupeye)

In this second of a two-part article on Jamaica, Jamaica, which has just reopened at the National Gallery of Jamaica, we take a closer look at the issues arising from this ground-breaking exhibition.

The Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition as I first saw it in Paris, transcended facile exoticization that all too often surrounds the global representation of Jamaican music and was imaginatively curated and installed, in a way that effectively captured the energetic and expansive nature of Jamaica’s music culture. Naturally, there was significant funding to support the exhibition in Paris, at what is France’s national music museum, and the curator was able to work with a top-of-the-line exhibition design team to realize his vision. It was evident from then that it would be challenging to translate this ambitious exhibition design, with far less resources available, into the more regimented spaces of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s exhibition galleries. However, Jamaica, Jamaica also provided the curators in Jamaica with an opportunity to think through the issues and to articulate a curatorial language that would be suitable to represent Jamaican museum culture and to lead, rather than to follow in this process.

My eyes were admittedly trained by the extraordinary Paris edition of Jamaica, Jamaica but I have to say that the Jamaican edition does not live up to expectations. The exhibition has its moments, if only because of the inclusion of rarely seen iconic objects such as Peter Tosh’s machine-gun guitar. And, there are some excellent music-themed wall-paintings that were specially commissioned for the exhibition from the downtown mural artists Bones, Gideon and Ras Lava. Other than that, it appears that the exhibition was curated downwards, rather than re-imagined and re-curated with the sort of inspired vision and panache I would have expected from the subject’s country of origin. There is a polite and tediously conventional “picture on wall, picture on wall, object on a stand, label to the side” approach to most of the installation which takes it down to a pedestrian level that does not do justice to the nature and significance of the exhibition subject.

It was sad to see, for instance, how the iconic long-sleeved “star” shirt worn by Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come was mounted in a most unimaginative and pedestrian manner, on a dry-cleaner’s hanger against a plain white wall and with poor lighting. In Paris, using simple and quite affordable devices such as a more appropriate dark background and focus lighting, the same shirt was one of the star exhibits. The same holds true for Peter Tosh’s machine gun guitar, an object that has tremendous charisma and resonance, but which is practically stripped of these evocative qualities because of the unimaginative way it is mounted here.



Exactly how such historical objects are mounted, contextualized, and lit is of paramount importance in exhibitions of this nature and the Jamaican version of Jamaica, Jamaica lacks the visual and narrative cohesion and immersive quality of the Paris original. The feeble attempts at creating a unifying “vibe,” such as throwing in some bold, flag-inspired, diagonally separated colours on a few accent walls and using exhibition graphics inspired by vintage Sassafras Dancehall posters did not help to cover up these deficiencies. Instead of being engaging, and inviting conversation and diverse perspectives, the exhibition provides a rather pedantic from-top-down “lesson” about its subject, which is not how such exhibitions ought to be curated at a supposedly progressive, twenty-first century museum. Surely, it cannot be that Jamaica is not capable of representing its own culture with the same acumen and imagination that others have brought to the subject.

The point is that representing Jamaican music in a museum or exhibition context cannot be guided by a didactic, academic vision. It takes specialist technical skills, and a good measure of curatorial imagination, to exhibit any kind of music in a way which is academically sound but also compelling and engaging. Jamaican music cannot be represented in the same way as, say, French Baroque music; it needs to be represented in a way that is informed by the energy, subversiveness, and theatricality of Jamaican culture, which is and has always been “broader than Broadway” and defiant of the conventions and dictates of “Babylon”. It is very disappointing, given the unique opportunity the exhibition represents, that the curators of the Jamaican edition of Jamaica, Jamaica edition did not rise to that occasion.

If it is to be successful and sustainable, the Jamaica Music Museum needs to acquire the requisite skills and develop a curatorial language to exhibit Jamaican music which is appropriate and effective in the local context and which will speak to international audiences as well, without succumbing to the lure of the exotic and the stereotypical. In fact, it should seek to position itself as the institution to provide the international curatorial and critical leadership that is so needed in this specialist field. I can only hope that the powers that be will understand the urgencies and opportunities that arise from this, and finally provide the Jamaica Music Museum with the resources it needs. Given the contribution of the music industry to Jamaica’s economy, this should not be beyond reach.

Note: An error was made in the first part of this article, which was published on October 10. The correct opening hours of the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston are, until further notice: Tuesdays to Friday, from 10 am to 12 noon and from 1 pm to 3 pm, not 4 pm.

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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