“As I Am”: Kimani Beckford’s Affirmations

The young Jamaican painter Kimani Beckford currently has a solo-exhibition tour project, titled Affirmation. The exhibition is shown at two venues: its inaugural display was held at the Jamaica Conference Centre in Kingston, in space that is used for art exhibitions by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), and has now closed. The second leg of it will be shown at National Gallery West in Montego Bay, where it is scheduled to open on May 19. This review is based on the Kingston edition of the exhibition but I also  raise a few issues that are relevant to the upcoming Montego Bay showing.

The Affirmation exhibition project is supported by the inaugural Dean Collection TDC20 St(art) Ups Artist Grants, of which Kimani Beckford was one of twenty awardees and the only Jamaican. The US-based Dean Collection was  founded by Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean and Alicia Keys and is, as the TDC20 website states, “a contemporary, family art collection focused on the support of living artists.” The grants are available by competitive application to artists globally and serve to support young and emerging artists in organizing a solo exhibition, irrespective of themes, genres or media (and I understand that in the future, it may be available to a larger number of artists). Other than providing funding support and lending its name to the venture, and of course making sure that the artists deliver on their commitments, the Dean Collection is not involved in the resulting exhibitions, which are the sole responsibility of the awardees and no commissions are charged. It is an exemplary, development-focused patronage model that surely warrants emulation in the Jamaican context, where such initiatives are sorely needed as there is still nothing that has taken the place of the now defunct but influential Mutual Gallery Super-Plus Under-Forty Artist of the Year Awards.

Kimani Beckford is a 2011 graduate of the Edna Manley College and he has distinguished himself since then, among others being the co-winner, with Camille Chedda, of the inaugural Dawn Scott Memorial Award in the 2014 Jamaica Biennial. He has exhibited regularly at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), in the 2012, 2014, and 2017 biennials, and in the Digital exhibition in 2016. His international exposure to date includes Icons: Ideals of Black Masculinity (2018) at Xavier University in New Orleans, and Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora (2016) at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol. While he has also worked in other media (his contribution to Digital was a video installation), he is first and foremost a painter and one of a strong cohort of contemporary figurative painters who have emerged from the Edna Manley College in recent years, which includes Michael Elliott, Phillip Thomas, Alicia Brown, and Greg Bailey (the reception and politics of figurative painting in Jamaica’s contemporary art scene is one of the subjects I will be discussing in a forthcoming interview with Phillip Thomas).

Affirmation is Kimani Beckford’s first solo exhibition, which is an important step for any young artist, and it is the first exhibition in which he has shown a significant body of work. The exhibition consists of thirty new paintings, made for this exhibition and over an intensive work period of five months, and only the earliest painting in the exhibition, Affirmation, from which the exhibition also takes its title and concept, is dated 2018. The exhibition is accompanied by a small catalogue publication with various texts, including an extended artist’s statement.

The catalogue introduction cites Omari Ra, the head of the EMC Painting department, who describes Kimani Beckford as “an artist of conscience.” Without displaying the more strident rhetoric that often characterizes such art, Kimani Beckford’s work indeed engages deeply, and very politically, with the social landscape of Jamaica and the African Diaspora, and is primarily concerned with affirming blackness. In the works he has exhibited previously, for instance in the Jamaica Biennials, he has shown mainly anonymous figures, with facial features obscured or undefined. In these works, he navigates and interprets an image economy of representations of blackness which includes formalized group photographs of families and army recruits, and references to the work of other contemporary African Diaspora artists who deal with the visual politics of blackness, such as Barkley Hendricks, Kerry James Marshall, and perhaps even Amy Sherald.

In the 2014 Jamaica Biennial, Kimani Beckford showed a large painting B.I.B. (Black is Beautiful) that responded to Barkley Hendricks’ iconic Lawdy Mama (1969). Some observers complained that the work was too derivative of the Hendricks painting and I posted a response on the NGJ blog, as I was of the view that the work was being misconstrued. I argued the following about the substantive differences between the two works:

While Hendricks’ realistically painted portrait represents a lanky, brown-skinned young woman with a large Afro who gazes at the viewer with stern confidence, Beckford’s subject is so dark-skinned that her features are practically invisible, except for the schematic eyes. Beckford’s painting is in actuality not a portrait at all but represents a more abstract “type” and reminds more of the “hyper-black” images of contemporary African-American artist Kerry James Marshall than of Barkley Hendricks’ portrait. The flattened, largely undefined features of Beckford’s figure transition almost seamlessly into the equally flat black halo/hair background and the woman also seems younger, shorter and less confident than Hendricks’ subject – an awkward young girl rather than a self-assured young woman. The fashionable, well-fitting 1960s dress in the Hendricks painting has been replaced by a less glamorous and ill-fitting, uniform-like outfit, which further adds to the deliberate awkwardness of Beckford’s depiction.

I cite this discussion here because the differences between Barkley Hendricks’s Lawdy Mama and Kimani’s B.I.B go to the heart of the latter’s artistic politics. While iconicity is obviously important, he avoids the idealization that often accompanies racially affirmative images, and the unspoken socio-racial hierarchies these in themselves reflect. Instead, he depicts his subjects “as they are,” in a way which is un-embellished, matter-of-fact, and relatable but no less powerful and affirmative, implicitly arguing that true affirmation does not require idealization. As he puts it in his catalogue:

My aim it to project respect for ‘self’ and re-contextualizing the accepted and proliferated notion of what and who is seen as beautiful. My subjects in these paintings are all persons I know personally. We are all images of what we conceive to be beautiful and acceptable and accepted and everyone deserves affirmation in this regard. Their expressions portray one of affirmation – of having humility and power in their own right.

Kimani’s current body of work is less dependent on his earlier sources and takes him in different directions, although earlier characteristics remain, such as the use of brilliant colour patterns juxtaposed with deep blacks and grisaille, and the tension between the two-dimsenionality of the patterns and the volume and space suggested by the bodies, furniture and spatial contexts. The series consists of actual portraits of family members, friends and fellow artists — a collective portrait of the community that surrounds him as a person and an artist, which is another kind of affirmation, of where he comes from and belongs and of who has helped to define him in his life and artistic development. The iconicity of the resulting images still resonates with some of his earlier sources, which after all draw from the same iconographic conventions, but a more personally grounded artistic voice appears to be emerging and it will be very interesting to see where next Kimani will take this.

While Affirmation generally presents a strong and distinctive body of work, there were a few problems in the exhibition too. The sort of painting that Kimani typically practices is a slow and intricate craft, and painting thirty canvases in five months is a very challenging proposition for an artist like him. Some of the work seems rushed and even unfinished, and a number of paintings are in effect presented as studies. Most of the works in Affirmation are portraits, as noted earlier, and in a few there seems to be a technical struggle between realistically representing facial features and his earlier abstracting and flattening approach. This too may be a consequence of the fast pace of production or a challenge that is to be expected when an artist moves into new representational and technical territory.

Part of the problem was also with how these weaker works were positioned in the exhibition, in a way which was inadvertently prominent: they were the first ones I saw when I walked in through the lower corridor, which is the normal point of access for visitors to that part of the building, and this initially set the tone for my response to the exhibition. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised by the much stronger and technically resolved works in the prime exhibition space upstairs. I briefly raised my concerns with Kimani who told me that the works downstairs were what he considered his “process works” but that he had included them to show the project in its entirety. There could have been some strategic curatorial intervention, in the display layout or in the form of a text panel or better signage, that explained the relationship of the process work downstairs to the resolved paintings upstairs.

Those are fairly minor technical and curatorial issues that do not detract from the significance of the exhibition or the value and validity of the body of work shown. There is however another problematic issue I need to raise and I want to make it clear that, in doing so, it is not my intention to throw cold water on the efforts of a young artist I greatly admire and respect. What I am discussing here is not in fact Kimani Beckford’s problem but something the NGJ needs to address. While I cannot think of a more deserving exception, the use of National Gallery West as an exhibition venue for this project raises questions of policy and precedent.

It had since 1974 been the well-documented policy position of the NGJ not to accept privately initiated exhibitions, and not to host solo exhibitions for artists unless these were initiated and curated by the NGJ itself. This would not apply to touring exhibition that were offered on an institution-to-institution basis or through established touring exhibition organizations, although the acceptance of such has, of course, always been at the discretion of the NGJ. Until recently the only exception to these policies had been the inaugural International Reggae Poster Contest exhibition in 2012, which was accepted because it was deemed to be of sufficient public interest and consistent with the objectives of Jamaica 50, but even that resulted in problems, namely untenable assumptions that the NGJ would be able and prepared to host this exhibition annually.  The 2018 version of this exhibition is now on view at the NGJ.

The reason for that is obvious and consistent with the policies of public museums worldwide: the NGJ is Jamaica’s national art museum, which needs to operate with an appropriate degree of curatorial autonomy and in the public interest, maintaining high standards and a healthy detachment from any particular private interests. It is, quite plainly, a conflict with its mandate to serve as a third-party exhibition venue. While diversity of curatorial voices is welcome and needed, and can also be remedied with guest-curated exhibitions, relying excessively on externally generated and proposed exhibitions represents a poor use of the organization’s own curatorial capacity. The last Young Talent exhibition was held in 2015 and another edition is now well overdue, as several very promising new artistic voices have appeared that have not yet had significant national exposure – Kimani Beckford and some of the artists who graduated from the EMC in recent years would be prime candidates.

And in another sticky issue, hosting what is, as it was shown in Kingston, also a sales exhibition is outside of the  remit of a national art museum. The NGJ for many years sold art from some of its exhibitions, for which it charged a commission, and while this was a source of controversy it was also normalized with some in the artistic community, to the point where it seemed that this was part of what national art museums are supposed to do. This was stopped in May 2010 when its then Board adopted the ICOM Code of Ethics, which sets the internationally accepted minimum ethical standards for public museums, as such institutions are fundamentally non-profit and should not involve themselves directly in the art market. I do not know what arrangements are in place between the artist and the NGJ for the upcoming National Gallery West exhibition but the NGJ ought to make sure that there is transparency and a well-articulated policy position on the matters at hand, going forward.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the NGJ should not be receptive to external proposals in developing its exhibition programs but a public art museum should consider such only if these are consistent with its mandate, policies and best practices. For the NGJ, which is a publicly funded organization, to lend its name and reputation to an exhibition is an important step which cannot be taken lightly and which has implications for how it deals with other artists and stakeholders. Some contemporary art museums operate project spaces for which artists are invited or can submit proposals, to be reviewed on a transparent, competitive basis, and these normally come with curatorial oversight and support, and have to be consistent with the museum’s standards and practices. Perhaps the time has come for the NGJ to consider offering such project space under carefully considered and articulated terms and conditions and, for instance, for an annual call for proposals to be issued, to which artists like Kimani could then respond.

The important point is however that the NGJ must retain the right to say no to unsolicited proposals if they are not appropriate or feasible, or get in the way of its own programs and exhibitions, no matter who or where the request comes from. And if it does accept them, the terms of the accepted proposal and the funding and approval processes should be transparent and equitable. The last thing the Jamaican art world needs is for the NGJ to be forced to entertain potentially inappropriate private or corporate exhibition proposals, at taxpayers expense, and, as all too often happens in Jamaica, for such to be granted based on considerations of social or political access and status, or personal affiliation, as this would surely erode its curatorial standards and institutional reputation. I am not suggesting that any of this is the case with Kimani Beckford’s exhibition, but precedent must be handled carefully as it can have major consequences for an institution such as the NGJ.

I am concerned about where the NGJ is going with its policies and practices but my sympathy is firmly with Kimani Beckford in this case and I am glad that he will be able to exhibit in Montego Bay in what is furthermore a proper gallery space. The real problem is that there are little or no alternatives in Jamaica, in terms of sizable, suitably equipped art exhibition spaces that are available to artists at reasonable cost and furthermore provide much-needed curatorial, organizational and marketing support. There are some  potential pop-up spaces and commercial venues that might have been available in Montego Bay but none are really suitable or affordable or, to put it frankly, readily available to an artist who has no influential social connections. And the same holds true for Kingston, with the possible exceptions of the Olympia Gallery and the new gallery at the R Hotel, although those venues would presumably come with commercial costs such as standard sales commissions. Even the Jamaica Conference Centre exhibition space barely rises above the pop-up level and consists of two semi-open corridor spaces, with many visual and spatial distractions and segmented walls, and with no climate control and only limited exhibition-standard lighting.

For Jamaica to develop a robust art ecology in which artists such as Kimani Beckford can thrive, well-managed and -equipped exhibition and studio spaces of sufficient size and substance are needed, and ideally there should be a healthy combination of independent not-for-profit, public and commercial spaces. Not having such facilities puts a lot of pressure on the NGJ, which has to be too many things to too many people, and severely limits how artists can get the public to engage meaningfully and democratically with their work. There is urgent work to be done in this regard and it would certainly not hurt to have some community-based cultural centers with (partially subsidized) exhibition space that are available on the basis of merit – perhaps this is something for the Montego Bay Cultural Centre, the host organization of National Gallery West, to look into for any expansion plans it may have, although such an exhibition space would have to be clearly separated by name and operations from the NGJ.

To have a healthy art ecology, finally, there also needs to be adequate support for artists, including diverse and engaged audiences and a receptive art market, and a broadly shared commitment to the development of Jamaican art, with keen concern for its future. I arrived late at Kimani Beckford’s Kingston opening and when the formalities were already over, as I had misread the start time. While he still had a reasonably sized and supportive crowd, there were glaring absences – most of the “usual suspects” at major art exhibition openings were not there and had, I gather, not turned up at all. One of the reasons may be that the artist had personally handled much of the publicity and mainly used Instagram, which will limit its reach to a generally younger social cohort, although he also got some marketing support from JCDC. Many in the art world may however not have been aware. But I had to ask whether a reason was also that he does not (yet) have the social visibility and standing and the “name recognition” that is more likely to attract Jamaica’s status-conscious art crowds.

Observing the exhibition in Kingston, in which Kimani Beckford served as the “head cook and bottle washer” regarding organizational matters, despite the help he received from JCDC and persons close to them, also drove home that there is a need for affordable and accessible professional support services for such projects. Quite frankly, Kimani should have been able to focus on his work. The notion that he had a “big grant” or organizational support from The Dean Collection may, ironically, not have helped in that regard. Perhaps it is time to form local collective of like-minded artists, curators and writers who are organized to support each other on a pro bono basis in such ventures and there are also for-profit professional opportunities there that are, as yet, insufficiently explored. Generally, the Jamaican art world would benefit from a greater sense of community and common cause, beyond the petty personal interests.

For a young artist who is as talented, committed and enterprising as Kimani Beckford and whose work is furthermore also collectible (and has already made it into a few major collections, locally and internationally), I had expected a larger and more diverse audience and the presence of enthusiastic collectors. Many in the Jamaican art world  missed out on seeing a strong and inspiring body of work by an artist who will surely help to shape the future of art, in Jamaica and beyond. So despite my misgivings about the use of the space, I strongly recommend the Montego Bay edition of the exhibition and do hope that, with the help of the NGJ and National Gallery West, Kimani Beckford will have the large and diverse audience and market support he so richly deserves this time around. I will myself be there for a second viewing, at National Gallery West on Sunday, May 19, at 2 pm.

4 thoughts on ““As I Am”: Kimani Beckford’s Affirmations

Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on jhohadli and commented:
    Sharing for the critique of the artist’s work but especially for the timely discussion re artistic spaces in Jamaica which is of relevance to us here in Antigua and Barbuda, and I would believe in the wider Caribbean.

    Liked by 1 person

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