The year 2021 will surely go down as one of the most challenging years in human history, and this also applies to the Jamaican art world. The pandemic measures have continued to impose significant limitations on public activities and the Jamaican art calendar has been one casualty. It has also been a year in which new approaches and initiatives have emerged and in which certain lingering problems have come into sharper profile. This “year in review” has three parts: the first two look at the local scene and the third one at Jamaican and Caribbean art in the international arena.
While Jamaica had a thriving gallery scene in the 1980s and 1990s, most commercial galleries have closed since then or diverted to stock sales and picture framing. One reason for that has been the high overheads and the financial uncertainties that come with a commission-based approach to funding exhibitions in a cultural environment that is not receptive to such arrangements. An increasingly weak local art market, which is presently focused on direct, off-the-record resales and which largely disregards contemporary art, has also undermined the sustainability of conventional galleries.
Not having a robust commercial gallery system, or alternative, non-profit spaces of any substance, has caused a major gap in Jamaica’s art ecology as the exhibition opportunities for artists have been significantly reduced. The National Gallery of Jamaica used to compensate for the decline in the commercial gallery sector with its active exhibition programme, but its reduced level and scope of activity is now only contributing to the problem. There are opportunities in every crisis, however, and a new dispensation is emerging which may, ultimately, yield a more balanced and sustainable artistic ecology. Artist initiative plays an increasingly important role in this, in a way not seen since the Contemporary Jamaican Artists Association in the 1960s and early 70s and, subsequently, the Jamaica Artists and Craftsmen’s Guild.
A key pioneer of this new direction is New Local Space (NLS), an initiative that is directed by the contemporary artist Deborah Anzinger and located at the Creative Sounds studio site on Mountain View Avenue. NLS has established itself as a meeting ground for local and visiting artists and a site for experimentation and critical debate. Recently, there have also been more informal, independent initiatives, such as the artist-curated And I Resumed the Struggle exhibition series, hosted at the Olympia gallery.
And I Resumed the Struggle, which is curated by an artist team that includes Phillip Thomas and Camille Chedda, started last year as an initiative that responded to the existential crisis caused by the pandemic. The first edition made a strong but uneven statement, as often happens with artist-curated exhibitions, as curating the work of peers makes it harder to make the tough decisions that are needed to yield a cohesive exhibition. The exhibition was however deftly installed in the large but challenging exhibition space at Olympia and made an important, even defiant statement that signalled that the Jamaican art world is alive and well. The second edition, held this summer, was significantly weaker, cluttered with too many works by too many artists, but the current, third edition is the most outstanding yet. More selectively curated, and beautifully installed, itincludes work by some of the pioneers of contemporary Jamaican art, such as Petrona Morrison and Prudence Lovell, but also by recent graduates of the Edna Manley College, such as Brad Pinnock, Tevin Lewis and Sasha-Kay Hinds, providing them with a timely first exhibition opportunity.
The exhibition includes realist painting and work in new and mixed media, with several installations, which signals that these forms can coexist productively, as part of a healthy and diverse spectrum of artistic practices. Consisting entirely of work by faculty and graduates of the Edna Manley College, the exhibition also speaks to the continued role of the College in charting the course of Jamaican art. It continues until the end of January.
The just-closed Textured Lines, the debut solo exhibition of Joni Gordon at NLS, is another highlight of the current exhibition season. A recent Edna Manley College graduate, Gordon has been the beneficiary of two NLS residencies, in a programme that is presently funded by the Prince Claus Fund. The body of work presented engages critically with her experiences in the US State Department’s Summer Work and Travel programme, where she had encountered racism and demeaning labour conditions. It took the form of a series of photographed self-portraits and mixed media works, in which she evocatively used materials such as mops and other items associated with menial labour. The exhibition built, in artistically exciting and generative ways, on the work Gordon had presented for her final year exhibition at Edna Manley and illustrates the need for programmes and opportunities that help young artists navigate the transition from art school to professional practice. NLS deserves great credit for addressing that need.
That Jamaica’s young artists are not afraid to tackle current social issues frankly and provocatively was also evident in the painter Greg Bailey’s debut solo exhibition Post-Colonial Paraphernalia at CreativSpace which, taking the ceremonial wigs that are still worn in parliament and the courts of many post-colonial societies as its central metaphor, explored the social and cultural impact of such symbolic colonial hangovers (for disclosure, I served as the curator of that exhibition.) A few weeks earlier, CreativSpace had also hosted Fibreactive Germination, a group exhibition of work by fibre and textile artists, all of them women, which made a strong statement the growing importance of these media in contemporary Jamaican art. The exhibition was curated by Blaqmango Consultants (Katrina Coombs and Winston Campbell), which furthermore illustrates that independent curating is also finding its place in the Jamaican art world.
One game-changing development in the Jamaican art world is the arrival of “for hire” multipurpose spaces which, in addition to CreativSpace at 2 Windsor Avenue, also includes Blank Space at the Trade Centre; 10A West Kings House Road; and the just-opened Sky Gallery at 11 Phoenix Avenue. These spaces provide new opportunities for artists to exhibit their work in circumstances that are better equipped than popup locations, and to handle their own sales, curation, and publicity, or to contract those services out to other parties. They help to fill the gap left by the demise of Jamaica’s commercial gallery scene, while offering a flexible approach to exhibitions in which artists are more empowered, as the approach can be tailored to their budget and vision. However, it shifts the organizational burdens and financial risk involved in staging art exhibitions almost entirely to the artists. This is bound to create its own problems and exclusions, as not all artists are able to underwrite those risks.
Other drawbacks have ranged from irregular opening hours, as it is quite challenging for artists to man such exhibitions fulltime, to exhibitions that are so short, because of limited rental budgets, that they prevent meaningful public engagement. While adjustments will be needed to make this new gallery model more practical and sustainable, the new spaces provide independent exhibition spaces that allow artists to exhibit their work on their own terms.
Part 2 will discuss developments at the National Gallery and the Edna Manley College, the pitfalls and opportunities of virtual exhibitions, the relationship between art and urban renewal, the need for proactive artistic heritage preservation, and what to do about a myopic, counterproductive customs regime that obstructs rather than supports the development of the arts.
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.