A Perspective on “The Art of Jamaican Sculpture” at National Gallery West

Installation view – The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, National Gallery West (left to right: work by Alvin Marriott, David Miller Junior, Kay Sullivan and Alvin Marriott)

Art museums have been under pressure recently. Not a week goes by without some high-profile protest action or controversy and it appears that no major art museum is exempt. This has involved protests against certain exhibitions and against certain artists and artworks, such as the contentions about Chuck Close, after allegations surfaced about a history of sexual harassment of his models, or the protests against a painting in last year’s Whitney Biennial, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), which depicted the corpse of Emmett Till, a black 14-year old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, and which was deemed exploitative. There have also been contentions about how art museums are governed and funded, such as the recent protest at the Metropolitan Museum led by artist Nan Goldin against the role in the opioid painkiller addiction crisis of the Sackler family, who made their fortune in the pharmaceutical industry and who are major donors to the Met. On a more foundational level, these contentions have pertained to the ideological premises on which art museums operate, particularly their role in perpetuating dominant social, political and cultural interests and the manner in which this is reflected in the canons and narratives that such museums have produced and presented.

This is of course not, as such, new, since the canonical functions of art museums have been regularly questioned since the 1960s (and earlier, if we count in the advent of modernism and movements such as Dadaism). One such example is the Puerto Rican artist Rafael Ferrer, who dumped autumn leaves and other debris in the lobby of MoMA in the late 1960s, as a performative intervention that questioned the exclusion of artists like himself from the canons of modernism. Another example is the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of feminist artists that was established in 1985 and that has questioned, through various pointed and witty public interventions, the role of art museums in perpetuating (white) patriarchy. The frequency and intensity of such controversies have however increased exponentially in recent years, as has the intensity and immediacy of the coverage of such actions in the conventional and social media.

While the increasingly contentious relationship with stakeholders has made the leadership positions in museums far more demanding than they used to be, the effects on how museums operate have been generally beneficial, as it has forced museums to become more self-reflexive and to re-examine their ideological foundations. This has, to varying degrees, resulted in more thoughtful and innovative approaches to exhibitions and programmes, which interrogate and challenge the very same canons and grand narratives such museums have historically produced and which invite conversation about them, rather than to impose them unilaterally and unquestioningly. The Victoria and Albert in London comes to mind as a museum that has made interesting strides in interrogating its colonial foundations through its recent exhibitions and projects.

Installation view – The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, National Gallery West (left to right: Laura Facey – foreground and background – and Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds)

For us here in Caribbean, the question arises where this leaves public cultural institutions such as the National Gallery of Jamaica, Jamaica’s national art museum. I need to acknowledge at this point that I am the immediate past Executive Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica and have played a key role in its exhibitions and programmes up to three months ago. The debates and new expectations that surround museums elsewhere in the world also apply here, however, and there needs to be frank critical discussion about the present moment in the Caribbean art world, at a time where criticality seems to have all but disappeared from the region. I believe that I have a contribution to make to these conversations and so I am offering my perspective, while acknowledging my potential biases and personal interests, and my readers can decide whether I have risen to the occasion.

The National Gallery of Jamaica has been the fulcrum of the local culture wars since it was established in 1974 and it has always held an ambivalent position with regards to the production and promotion of art-historical canons. On one hand, it has made some interesting, if conflicted and at times controversial counter-canonical moves, such as the validation of aspects of self-taught, popular art under the Intuitive label (which has its own problems, but that is another story) and its more general role of claiming Jamaica’s place vis-à-vis the canons and grand narratives of the metropolitan West. On the other hand, it is Jamaica’s very own canonical institution, which has been centrally preoccupied with articulating Jamaica’s national canons from the mid-1970s, albeit always  heavily contested ones, and which until quite recently did not question its canonical role or ideological premises. I am not knocking the National Gallery’s early efforts, as these were necessary in their time, but in the present context, these canons and underlying interests need to be unpacked and critiqued, and this ideally needs to be part of the scholarly and curatorial practice of the organization itself. And this takes me to The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, an exhibition which has been on view at National Gallery West, the Montego Bay branch of the National Gallery of Jamaica, since March 7.

The preceding National Gallery West exhibition—a smaller version of the Spiritual Yards exhibition which had previously been shown at the National Gallery in Kingston and which was the last exhibition I had overseen there—was slated to close on February 25 and I was, of course, interested to see what would come next. The first inkling of what would be the next exhibition was an Instagram story which appeared on the National Gallery’s timeline on February 27, which stated that an exhibition titled The Art of Jamaican Sculpture was coming soon. The post showed a snippet of video footage of sculptures that had clearly just arrived at the gallery for installation and I glimpsed work by Ronald Moody, Christopher Gonzalez, Lawrence Edwards, Osmond Watson, and David Miller Senior. There was also a closure notice on Facebook on that day, which stated that the gallery would be closed until March 6 to facilitate the installation of The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, with a note that further information on this exhibition would be coming soon.

Installation view – The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, National Gallery West (Left to right: work by Ted Williams, Laura Facey and Fitz Harrack)

Piqued by the rather ambitious exhibition title and the curious lack of any explanatory context, I contacted National Gallery West for more information and was told that the exhibition would have a soft opening on March 7, with a reception at a later date to be announced, but that information on the exhibition itself was forthcoming. On the evening of March 10, three days into the run of the exhibition, an e-flyer which announced that the exhibition reception would be on March 18 was posted to social media, but again without any accompanying information on the exhibition itself. Since I had to be in Montego Bay on March 13 for other reasons, I decided to have a look at the exhibition, which was indeed mounted and open, although there was not as yet any text panel or signage, other than the usual identifying labels besides each work of art. I was again told that the supporting information was forthcoming but that the exhibition was organized around the themes of nationalism, spirituality and abstraction. It is only in late afternoon on March 14, one week after the exhibition had opened to the public, that a press release was finally published and circulated and further queries on March 15 revealed that the curator’s essay that would also serve as the main text panel was still being written and would be posted to the National Gallery West blog. The essay was eventually posted on the day of the reception, March 18, when the text panel was also mounted.

I belabor this sequence of events here because it is unusual, to say the least, that a National Gallery of Jamaica exhibition would have been up and running for a week without any published and shareable information about it. The standard practice is that there will be press and social media advisories at least a week before the exhibition opens for viewing, and ideally much earlier than that, and that the public will be given a fair idea of what to expect in the exhibition, in terms of its scope and the artists featured. I do not wish to be too uncharitable about this unusual radio silence, which may well have been caused by unavoidable practical challenges, but the delay in publishing this information also suggests that there were other problems with this exhibition.

Let me return to why I was piqued by the exhibition title. For a museum exhibition, a title is a promissory note and a statement of intent, which creates certain expectations in terms of what will be presented in the exhibition and also signals how the exhibition is being framed. Titling this exhibition The Art of Jamaican Sculpture may seem innocuous but it implies a lot. It implies a certain position about what is meant with “art” and artistic merit, with “sculpture,” and with “Jamaican art” and “Jamaican sculpture.” Or to put it differently, the title suggests that the National Gallery of Jamaica is in full-throttle canonical mode, at a time when a more self-reflexive and questioning approach is expected. And the title also suggests that the exhibition will sample the full range of sculptural work that has been produced by artists who somehow qualify as “Jamaican” (which is another difficult issue).

Unfortunately, there is no evidence in the exhibition of any such breadth of range or any critical interrogation of its canonical underpinnings. The exhibition consists almost entirely of figurative sculpture—nineteen of the twenty-two sculptures on view are figurative, while three are abstract—and the majority of the sculptures are woodcarvings. One work is a stone carving (an alabaster carving by John “Doc” Williamson) and there are two bronzes, by Edna Manley (the 1982 version of her Negro Aroused, which was in its original, 1935 form a woodcarving) and by Kay Sullivan, as well as a plaster sculpture by Christopher Gonzalez. And only one work steps outside of the conventional formats of pedestal or relief sculpture, namely Laura Facey’s wall- and ground-based installation Goddess of Change (1993), although even this work involves, as its core element, a figurative woodcarving. Clearly, the operative definition of sculpture in this exhibition is a very narrow one and, on the technical front alone, it should be evident that there is a lot more to sculpture in Jamaica than carving and casting alone, especially in the contemporary practice, which is virtually absent from this exhibition. From a thematic, iconographic and stylistic point of view, the exhibition is equally conservative and reflects a very narrow, conventional and, frankly, dated conception of what is deemed legitimate as “Jamaican art.” The three themes of “nationalism, spirituality and abstraction” and the inclusion of self-taught, “Intuitive” artists are well within the range of how that has been conventionally conceived.

The point is that The Art of Jamaican Sculpture does not explore “the rich tradition of Jamaican sculpture in the 20th and 21st century,” as the press release claims, but only a specific and narrowly delineated part thereof, and there are only two works that date from the 21st century (Laura Facey’s Radiant Comb of 2011 and a 2006 abstract by Ted Williams). Even the use of the word “tradition” is worrying in this context, since it suggests that sculpture necessarily belongs in a traditional framework. And it is also worth noting that of the seventeen artists in the exhibition, only three are women, so there appears to have been an unconscious gender bias in the selection process (a masculinist gender bias which was, by the way, also evident in the canonical hierarchies from which the exhibition draws.) And if there is still any doubt that old canons are being re-inscribed, the curator’s essay actually states that the exhibition takes as its point of departure the 1975 Ten Jamaican Sculptors exhibition which was guest-curated for the Commonwealth Institute Art Gallery by the then soon-to-be National Gallery Director/Curator David Boxer. This 1975 exhibition was in effect a key moment in the development of Jamaica’s art historical canons, particularly with regards to sculpture.

Let me be clear, I have no difficulty per se with any artist or works of art in The Art of Jamaican Sculpture which, other than the artists already mentioned, also features work by Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, Roy Lawrence, David Miller Junior, Fitz Harrack, Winston Patrick, and Namba Roy. Most of the works are well-known and frequently exhibited at the National Gallery of Jamaica (and a few have even been shown at National Gallery West before). The exhibition includes several personal favorites, such as Alvin Marriott’s Banana Man (1955), Ronald Moody’s Tacet (1938), Lawrence Edward’s Rapture (1992) and Osmond Watson’s Revival Kingdom (1969), all four from the National Gallery’s collection, which is the source of most of the works in the exhibition.

I was also delighted to see the work of two Montego Bay artists, Roy Lawrence and Ted Williams, since these are two artists who had thus far not received a lot of attention or recognition from the National Gallery of Jamaica, although Roy Lawrence was included in the Masculinities exhibition in 2015-16. But canons are not substantially challenged or questioned by simply adding a name or two, no matter how underrated these artists may be, and the work of Lawrence and Williams furthermore fits quite comfortably within the aesthetic, iconographic and technical premises that inform this exhibition. If anything, their inclusion reinforces the uncritical canonical aspirations of the exhibition.

Putting together a collection of strong works of art by artists of obvious merit and presenting it in an aesthetically pleasing manner (an issue to which I will return in a bit) does not necessarily make for a compelling and meaningful exhibition. The public deserves more than that from a museum exhibition and a well-curated exhibition needs to be more than the sum-total of the works of art therein: it needs to present new perspectives on the significance of what is exhibited, and facilitate new dialogues, between the works of art themselves and with its audiences. The Art of Jamaican Sculpture fails to deliver in terms of producing such surplus value. And this takes me back to the National Gallery’s odd, prolonged silence on this exhibition, as this suggests a reluctance or perhaps even an inability to articulate and justify its scope and intentions. This, in turn, may be an implied admission that its premises are indeed problematic and it may well be that the exhibition was titled, selected and mounted before its conceptual underpinnings were fully articulated. And that, of course, would amount to putting the cart before the curatorial horse.

I also need to say something about the exhibition installation. Installing any exhibition that consists purely of sculpture is a technically and conceptually challenging undertaking, especially in the sort of small and open exhibition space as is available at National Gallery West. The installation has its moments: Laura Facey’s Goddess of Change looks stunning in the entrance to the exhibition, and comfortably commands its space while interacting beautifully with the dome above and the other works in its vicinity. There are also some glimmers of the sort of dialogues and juxtapositions that would have added value to this exhibition, for instance between the muscular, assertive black masculinity of Alvin Marriott’s Banana Man and the supplicant, emaciated figure of the Kay Sullivan’s Star Boy (1972), who slyly talk to each other over the sulking, self-absorbed mass of David Miller Junior’s Head (1958). But overall, I found the installation to be rather dull and unimaginative and it is too crowded in most sections, with bulky sculptures competing for space and attention in ways that actually inhibit the hoped-for artistic dialogues. All sculptures are positioned against the gallery walls, even though several would have benefited from being seen in the round. I was also puzzled by the cobalt-blue paint on the tops of the sculpture stands, as this does not seem to add anything to the exhibition, other than serving as décor and rather distractingly so.

There is much to be enjoyed in The Art of Jamaican Sculpture but it is an inadequately framed exhibition. Part of its problem is its grandiose but self-defeating title, which may have been decided on too hastily and over-determines the exhibition concept. The selection does not even gesture at the wide range of what could be defined as sculpture that has been produced in Jamaica in the twentieth and twenty-first century. But even with the narrow selection, the exhibition is a missed opportunity: it could have reflected very usefully on those sculptural canons the National Gallery helped to generate in the 1970s and 80s, without appearing to endorse or re-inscribe those uncritically. It could have engaged with the reasons why wood-carving and the stylistic and iconographic conventions that are privileged in the exhibition were given a central position in the Jamaican national canons, and why there appears to be a masculinist bias in that canon. It could also have asked how this sort of art is seen today and why woodcarving and conventional sculpture have, with a few notable exceptions, practically disappeared from the contemporary art practice in Jamaica. Or, along another line of inquiry, the exhibition could have explored how the supremely canonical “fine art” sculptures that were selected for this exhibition relate to the more obviously stereotypically Jamaican, “low-brow” woodcarvings that are produced for and sold in the tourism art market, which is one area where woodcarving continues to thrive (and Montego Bay is, after all, Jamaica’s tourism capital and the Montego Bay Craft Market is just around the corner).

This sort of questioning is unfortunately not evident in the exhibition. My fundamental concern with this is that it appears that the National Gallery of Jamaica is, consciously or unconsciously, engaging in a reactionary re-inscription of its old canons, definitions and curatorial approaches. And I am concerned that this may be part of a broader push-back against the perceived “take-over” by contemporary art and the advent of new curatorial and critical practices, which have deeply challenged the entrenched artistic hierarchies and narratives of the Caribbean in the last two to three decades. Such turf wars are really quite unnecessary, since for the art world to thrive, there needs to be room for artistic, curatorial and critical diversity and openness to change and new ideas. There is ample scope for potentially very productive dialogues between the older approaches and the newer developments.

The Art of Jamaican Sculpture is not the only reason why I have that concern: another is the Kapo Gallery at the National Gallery in Kingston which re-opened in late January 2018. This gallery had been temporarily closed in early 2017, to make room for the (unusually large) Jamaica Biennial 2017 and a selection of the Kapo paintings and sculptures that are normally on view in that gallery was, later in 2017, shown at National Gallery West. It would have been one thing to simply reopen the Kapo gallery with some minor updates and changes, which is in essence what was done, but it is quite another to launch this as if it were a major re-installation, as this would have required a more fundamental rethinking of how Kapo’s work is presented and contextualized. Other than some cosmetic changes, there is nothing in that gallery, or in the educational programme that was staged on February 10 to accompany the reopening, that reflects any new scholarship or any new thinking on what Kapo represents—historically and today, and artistically, culturally and, for that matter, politically—that goes beyond what was already known and established in the early 1980s, when the Kapo Gallery first opened. A revision of this narrative is now well overdue.

The Caribbean, given its historical position in the global dynamics of cultural representation, has a special responsibility to contribute actively to the new self-reflexivity and critical curatorship that is revolutionizing many art museums, globally. Institutions such as the National Gallery of Jamaica also have an obligation to contribute new scholarship and ideas about the art they are mandated to represent and to be on the cutting edge of Caribbean curatorial and art-historical practice, with thoughtful, relevant and innovative exhibitions, research, programmes and publications. The National Gallery cannot afford to rest on its laurels or to be defensive or even ignorant about the nature and implications of the canons and narratives it generated thirty- and forty-odd years ago. The current, hyper-critical cultural environment may be challenging for museums and curators but it presents many exciting new opportunities. The National Gallery’s early curatorial and art-historical labor will always provide a valuable foundation but applying a more self-reflexive, critical curatorial approach to that material is richly rewarding, in terms of the insights this can yield about the art itself, how it functions in Jamaica, how it is understood by various audiences, what this tells us about Jamaican society and culture, and how all of this is changing over time.

While I have also articulated concerns about how this exhibition and the related communications and publications appear to have been handled, I wrote this extended commentary mainly to contribute a much-needed critical perspective on the premises that appear to underpin the exhibition. I hope that this will help to trigger further conversation and reflection about where things are going, or need to be going, in terms of the curatorial and art-historical direction of the National Gallery of Jamaica. And I do hope that there will be educational programming to accompany the exhibition that adds further opportunity for public dialogue. There is no doubt in my mind that the curatorial and education staff of the National Gallery of Jamaica and National Gallery West is more than capable, technically and intellectually, of responding to these challenges.

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