I always look forward to the annual final year exhibition of the School of Visual Arts of the Edna Manley College and the opening is usually a much-anticipated, well-attended local art world event. It is, by and large, in this exhibition that we see the future of art in Jamaica (and the broader Caribbean) emerging and it is always exciting to spot new talent and the new ideas and new directions they bring to the table. This year, I missed the June 2 opening because of travel but I participated in A Taste for the Arts, a special evening event on June 14, which involved a tour of the exhibition and the opportunity to speak with the students, most of whom were present, as well as performances in the exhibition by students from the School of Music and School of Dance. Despite the sweltering heat that evening, it was a very enjoyable visit that allowed for an in-depth look at the exhibition.
Since I always prefer to put my cards on the table, let me do so first: I have taught several of the final year students and also serve as an examiner for Painting, Sculpture, Printmaking and Photography. But the exhibition is quite different from the exams, as it is curated by faculty from the exam projects, and includes the work of departments that I would not have seen before, namely the Visual Communications, Textile and Fibre Arts, and Fashion programmes, allowing for a collective, comparative view of this year’s BFA cohort that I do not have in the exams. So I decided to share a few of my thoughts on the exhibition and on six of the projects that I found particularly outstanding.
One of the most exciting developments is, as the Visual Arts Dean Miriam Smith points out in her catalogue foreword, the increasingly interdisciplinary approach that is evident in the work produced. When I first started teaching at the Jamaica School of Art in 1984, the situation was very different, painting students had to paint, sculpture students sculpted, ceramics students worked in clay, etcetera, each with a fairly rigidly imposed focus on the “appropriate” media and techniques. Up to the mid 2000s, crossing disciplinary boundaries was not encouraged: I remember how Painting student Marvin Bartley’s final year project — a stunning group of surreal, composite photographs on the theme of Dante’s Hell — raised eyebrows, with some earnest discussion as to whether it was acceptable for him not to present any work in painting media, even though such boundaries had long become obsolete in the contemporary art practice.
Today, while the Visual Arts programme maintains its departmental structure, students have significantly more freedom and interdisciplinary approaches are actively encouraged: Painting and Printmaking students produce work in textile and photographic media, Visual Communication students present ambitious painting projects, and Textile and Fibre Arts students produce work that has sculptural, almost architectural qualities. And those who wish to work within the conventional disciplinary boundaries are also catered to, as is illustrated by the strong showing of traditional painting techniques by this year’s final year students in the Painting department. The result is a pervasive, enthusiastic spirit of inquiry and experimentation and the final year show includes work that comes closer to what one would expect from MFA students than a BFA programme, which is no minor achievement since resources and facilities at the College are still limited.
Two of the most outstanding and ambitious projects in this year’s exhibition came from Visual Communication students, Leighton Estick and Tiana Anglin. Both present large, panoramic mural paintings. Visual Communication, where students can choose between a Graphic Design and an Illustration focus, has long been the department of choice for many Visual Arts students, in part because it is an area where professional outcomes are more certain, given the demand for designers and illustrators in the local graphic design and marketing/advertising industry. In the past, the focus of the department was strongly on providing the entry-level skill sets required by the industry but perhaps not enough on the capacity to “vision” things, which is equally important to support the standard of graphic design and illustration the local industry needs. This has changed significantly in recent years and while industry expectations continue to receive due attention, students are encouraged to push the envelope and to go beyond what is expected from graphic designers and illustrators. Leasho Johnson, who is now one of Jamaica’s leading contemporary artists but who also works in the graphic design sector, was one of the early examples of this development in the Visual Communication department and unapologetically chose to work across disciplines when this was not as yet the norm.
Leighton Estick, whose painting Origin can be seen in the outdoor amphitheatre that is located between the College’s Schools of Art, Drama and Dance, presents a swirling, almost dizzying panorama of origin myths, beliefs and theories from all over the world, using animal and human forms. His painting style draws freely from the worlds of pop culture and fine art alike, and the mural, which literally surrounds the viewer because of its circular set-up, creates an immersive environment that reminds us, as his artist’s statement puts it, that we are ultimately one human race, despite seemingly insurmountable cultural differences and conflicts.
Tiana Anglin turns her attention to Downtown Kingston, contrasting three moments in its history: the colonial past, the present, and a visually stunning, utopian future that seems to erase the traumas of history and the urban squalor of the present to capitalize on the grand but underrated natural beauty of the Kingston Waterfront area — the sort of future we would all like to see for the city. This panoramic mural is separated into several crisply drawn and painted tableaux that use a changing visual vocabulary that deftly supports the narrative: the move from history to present to future is subtly emphasized by the visual transition from grey scale to full colour, and from night to day, while the distortions in the perspective in the scene that depicts the city’s future give this particular image a surreal, dream-like quality that contrasts with the more realist, quasi-documentary quality of the earlier images.
The history of Kingston is also the subject of Painting student Desanna Watson‘s large untitled mural, which is executed in textile and print media, but her focus is on the manner in which the changing social landscape of the city has been codified in its maps and aerial views. Based on sound research into the history and social significance of these representations, and the manner in which different historical periods and power regimes have imposed themselves on the natural topographies, this textile mural is surely one of the most impressive and resolved works I have seen in a SVA final year exhibition. The visual evocativeness of the printed map imagery and the stitched, appliqued and quilted elements that mimic the actual topographies of the city, is complemented by printed text elements based on Kingston’s street and community names, which have a poetry of their own and significant and often troubling historical resonances (the contested origin of the street name Lady Musgrave Road is one such example).
It is interesting that three of the final year students present epic, technically ambitious panoramic images but this points to something that I find particularly important in art schools: whether or not there is a strong, mutually supportive cohort in a particular year. Individual talent is of course crucially important but it makes a world of difference when students, and lecturers, have good synergies, work together closely and share ideas, encouraging and pulling each other along in productive directions. The current final year was obviously one such instance and the positive effects of such cross-fertilization are obvious throughout the exhibition.
As the work of Estick and Anglin in Visual Communication also illustrates, representational painting continues to hold an important place in contemporary art in Jamaica. In the Painting department, Kevin McIntyre and Jordan Harrison quite comfortably join ranks with the likes of Phillip Thomas (who was one of their lecturers), Greg Bailey, Kimani Beckford, and Michael Elliott, as outstanding representational painters with related styles and iconographies, which are used to explore critical issues related to race, class, sexuality and gender, history and current affairs (and why this approach seems to attract mainly male painters while their female counterparts are more likely to work in less conventional media is an interesting question to which I do not yet have an answer).
Kevin McIntyre uses W.E.B. Dubois’ concept of “double consciousness” to explore the dynamics of race and class in postcolonial Jamaican society, while paying particular attention to the aspirational, largely fictional social identities that are articulated on social media. While his visual vocabulary is, at the present time, perhaps too indebted to Phillip Thomas, his painterly, imaginative and intellectual skills are such that I am quite confident that he will quickly develop a more autonomous artistic voice, and his inventive, technically confident use of traditional fresco techniques suggests that this is already well in progress.
Contemporary artists in Jamaica do not stay away from difficult subject matter and the last two decades have seen artists delving into subjects that are surrounded by strong taboos in Jamaican society. Jordan Harrison tackles one of the most difficult such subjects, the rarely discussed matter of male rape and the effect such traumatic violations have on body and psyche. The limp, impaled, seemingly emasculated male bodies in his haunting paintings are juxtaposed with architectural images drawn from Greco-Roman antiquity that are associated with particular notions of (hyper-)masculine confidence, as well as instruments of torture that allude to rape. The roughly painted imagery is, in two of the paintings, superimposed with what at first glance appear to be partly concealed photo-collage elements but are in fact hyper-realistic painted images of persons who may be judgemental onlookers, enablers or perpetrators, or some perverse combination thereof — the quality and range of Harrison’s painting skills is truly impressive and lends itself well to treating such difficult subject matter with the formal and conceptual complexity it warrants, without making it needlessly sensational or crass. It is of note that Harrison is an alumnus of the InPulse programme, an innovative art development programme that is funded by the Rubis Mecenat and focused on nurturing young talent and imparting professional exposure and standards to young artists (a blog post on this programme, which is increasingly influential in shaping the future of art in Jamaica, is forthcoming.)
Last, I want to turn my attention to the Textile and Fibre Arts and Fashion departments, which also presented a strong show. I was particularly taken with the work of Bridgette Birch, who took her inspiration from the East Indian Hosay festival, which exists in Trinidad, Suriname, Guyana and, to a lesser extent, in Jamaica, and from traditional West African design motifs. Hosay is itself the product of Caribbean cultural syncretism, as it merges Muslim and Hindu cultural influences, and by adding the African elements, Birch’s designs speak to the complex diasporic dynamics that have shaped Caribbean culture. Her use of media and techniques is equally eclectic and of multiple origins, and involves batik and textile printing, beading, coiling, and weaving, and the result of all this research and experimentation is a fashion and textile line that is avant-garde, traditionally rooted, and wearable at the same time and reinvents traditional garments such as the sari.
There is a lot more to see in the exhibition: the contemporary animal fables by Jhomo Moodie (Painting), which which provocatively address current social issues; the visually stunning black and white light box images by Akeem Bell (Photography) and the Vodun-inspired mixed media textile collages by Amanda Frederick (Painting), both of which explore the racial and cultural dynamics of the contemporary Caribbean; the fascinating miniature paintings by Yvad Campbell (Painting), which capture childhood memories as if seen through a distant lens; and the arresting, life size paper sculptures by Romario Reid (Sculpture), which are on view outside near the exit gate of the College, just to mention a few other outstanding examples. I highly recommend a visit if you have not already seen the exhibition.
The School of Visual Arts final year exhibition continues until the end of this week.