Talking Back: Visual Conversations about Sexual Abuse

Nicola Ricketts (3rd year BFA Sculpture) – as shown in Manifestations, the 2019 SVA student exhibition at the CAG[]e] gallery in 2019

The Edna Manley College, where I teach, has been in the news recently with allegations of sexual harassment. Here is not the place to comment on that particular instance but it is widely recognized that it is part of a much bigger problem in Jamaica, that affects many, if not all public and private sector organizations, including the education sector, and also the social interactions in communities and families and on the streets. Several recent incidents in different parts of the country whereby young girls were raped and murdered had already set the stage for intensified public attention to those most brutal, violent and devastating forms of sexual predation and violence that are also all too common in this country.

If there is a positive side to any of this, it is that it generates new opportunities for public agitation and sensitization about the high incidence of sexual abuse and harassment in Jamaican society, along with the culture of silence and acceptance that still surrounds this, and its devastating social and individual effects, on women and also on men. And perhaps most important, it creates opportunity to talk frankly about what is needed to change the toxic gender dynamics that are at the roots of sexually predatory behavior. Even though none of this is new, as there is a long history of such issues, there is a mounting sense of crisis and a sense of public urgency that there needs to be prompt and decisive action to change the culture that produces this and to put in place more appropriate and effective preventative and remedial frameworks, at the level of law and policy, of the reporting and investigation protocols, and of education and social intervention.

The arts have a vital role to play in this, by providing expressive opportunities for victims to reclaim their voice, by generating public awareness about the prevalence, causes and effects of such abuses, and by sensitizing all parties involved to their rights and responsibilities. Examples of this can be found in recent Jamaican literature, theater and music (Queen Ifrica’s haunting Daddy Don’t Touch Me There of course comes to mind), as well as in the visual arts. One recent activist campaign, the Tambourine Army, utilized provocative but engaging performative strategies that were part of the reasons why this “name and shame” campaign appealed to the public imagination. More attention needs to be paid to what creative interventions can achieve for such social problems and how these can best be deployed in the present moment in Jamaica. This post seeks to contribute to that discussion with a brief look at how certain female (and one male) Jamaican artists have engaged with these issues, including work that has been featured in recent and current exhibitions at the Edna Manley College itself (and the College indeed has a major role to play in this conversation).

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Avagay Osborne (BFA Painting) – Untitled (2015), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

Before I discuss those examples, let me provide a few quick background notes. Even though women hold a relatively strong position in the visual arts of Jamaica, in terms of numbers and positions of power, this is still today strongly mediated by race and class, and the average profile of recognized female artists has historically been more elite than that of their male counterparts. While the social profile of female artists and other art professionals is slowly becoming more diverse and inclusive, active efforts have to be made to make space for the voices of women and artistic practices that were previously ignored or excluded. With the contraction of the field for contemporary and popular art that is currently taking place in Jamaica, this is all the more important, since there are a number of emerging artists – most, but not all of them female – who deal actively with the issues under discussion here and it is important to ensure that their voices can be heard, and understood.

Second, it also needs to be recognized that sexism and gender biases have been part and parcel of Jamaica’s mainstream art history, in ways that are yet to be fully unpacked and critiqued. This is evident in the work of certain celebrated artists and in the way in which this art history has been framed and represented. The strong male bias in how the Intuitives canon was articulated is a case in point for the latter and further illustrates how women have been marginalized in the recognition of popular art forms. There has also been little or no criticism of local art with sexist content. Most of Barrington Watson’s representations of women, for instance, unapologetically involve the “male conquering gaze” and the sexual objectification of the female body, and the lack of critical interrogation of that side of his work suggests an unwillingness to subject a revered “Great Master” to such critical scrutiny. In 1975, Barrington Watson held an exhibition titled Woman in Sexual Captivity, which was presented under the dubious motto: “In matters of love a woman is the captive of her thoughts, insecurities and jealousies.” It consisted of explicitly erotic scenes between a man and a woman, with a second, distraught-looking and supposedly irrationally jealous woman looking on, drawn and painted in a way that suggested that it was happening in her imagination. This exhibition was, quite remarkably, held to mark International Women’s Year, but did not cause any noteworthy critical push-back, even though this happened at a time when there was an active feminist movement in Jamaica. I am left to wonder if he could have an exhibition like this in Jamaica today and what the reception would be.

This does not mean that patriarchy has not been challenged in the visual arts of Jamaica and gender issues and sexual politics have, in fact, become major themes in the contemporary art. But to return to the specific subject of the post, there are several artists who have addressed the subject of sexual abuse in their work. The early paintings of Roberta Stoddart, which she produced in Jamaica in the mid to late 1990s, after returning from studies in Australia, comes to mind as one of the first bodies of work that I am aware of that responded to the socio-historical context of Jamaica’s sexual culture and the psychological and physical traumas experienced by those who have been victims of abuse. Sexual violence and trauma are also relevant to the work of Laura Facey, who has in a recent documentary on her life and work, Paddlin’ Spirit, come out as a victim of rape and sexual abuse. Much of her artistic work, especially those examples that represent the female body, has been part of her coming to terms with that traumatic history. Both artists are white, upper-class Jamaicans and their engagement with these issues drives home that sexual abuse occurs across the spectrum of race and class in Jamaica.

In recent years, the experiences of sexual abuse has loomed large over the work of female art students at the Edna Manley, which in and of itself illustrates the growing prevalence of the problem in Jamaica. Most of these references are indirect, and may be hard to decipher for those not familiar with the stories behind them, but a few have taken the courageous step of dealing more openly with the subject, challenging the culture of silence by forcing the viewer to engage with the subject while providing catharsis for those who produce it.

Avagay Osborne (BFA Painting) – installation view from 2015 SVA Final Year exhibition, Edna Manley College

Avagay Osborne, who graduated in 2015, presented a group of large, collaged textile wall hangings that referred to her experiences of sexual trauma as an adolescent and as an adult. The references took a diaristic form, consisting of text fragments that sample her response to these traumatic life events or numbers that appear to be significant dates related to those events. Seemingly belied by their colorful, almost festive appearance, the wall hangings spoke quite frankly about the trauma involved but also about courage and recovery, and about finding one’s voice. The body of work was subsequently exhibited in the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Young Talent 2015 exhibition and one of her wall hangings was acquired for the collection. I have not seen any recent work by her but I do hope that her artistic practice continues to develop and will find its rightful place in the local art world and beyond, as she is a young artist with a very powerful and relevant voice.

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Jordan Harrison (BFA Painting), 2018 SVA Final Year Show, Edna Manley College

The sexual abuse of women and girls is a subject that is shrouded in secrecy and denial in Jamaican society but this applies even more to the sexual abuse of men and boys which, while less common, also occurs and is usually perpetrated by men but occasionally also by women. One Edna Manley graduate recently tackled this challenging subject: male rape was the subject of a group of paintings by Jordan Harrison (BFA Painting) in the 2018 Final Year Show. In these works, limp, violated black male bodies are juxtaposed with classical Greco-Roman architecture, which stands in for white, heteronormative masculinity and patriarchy and thus also makes reference to the related issue of the historic disempowerment of black men.

Yulanah Mullings (BFA Painting) – installation view, 2019 SVA Final Year Show. Edna Manley College

The current Final Year show features three projects by female artists that are relevant here. One is an installation by Yulanah Mullings (BFA Painting) which explores, as her artist statement starkly puts it, “the trauma of sexual abuse and incest in childhood and the long-term consequences of these experiences.” The body of work uses the notion of “baggage” as its central metaphor and the large cardboard constructions that make up the installation take the form of the sort of bags and containers that most Jamaican children use in their daily lives, from the school back-pack to the lunch boxes. Such bags are usually fancifully decorated with designs that appeal to children and evoke idyllic notions of childhood innocence and care that stand in contrast with the brutal realities of sexual abuse.

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Yulanah Mullings (BFA Painting) – detail of installation in 2019 SVA Final Year Show. Edna Manley College

The cardboard objects in Yulanah Mullings’ installation are unyielding, imposing and impossible to ignore, and their torn and cut surfaces reflect the cathartic anger that was involved in making them. In one work (that is inspired by a child’s lunch box), a child playing on a swing mounted on a tree is juxtaposed with the body of a child hanging from the same tree, speaking graphically to trauma and loss of innocence. Several of the objects have figurative cardboard cut-outs attached to them that depict shockingly explicit scenes of sexual abuse and some of these are also mounted on the walls of the studio, making it impossible for any misreadings of this work to occur. Ironically, because of the graphic sexual content, the College had to place a “parental guidance” sign on the door of the studio in which the installation was mounted but the artist was determined not to yield to the denial and circumspection that conventionally surrounds such matters and decided to be as specific as possible with confronting viewers with the realities involved. It is a haunting, courageous and very timely body of work and the most direct representation of the issues at hand I have as yet seen in Jamaica.

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Sidoni Campbell (BFA Visual Communication) – installation view 2019 SVA Final Year Show, Edna Manley College

Another relevant project in the current Final Year show is by Sidoni Campbell (BFA Visual Communication), who presented a sensitization campaign on the related subject of human trafficking. While perhaps less visually and technically resolved than the previous examples, this interactive work (there are QR codes on the blank cut-out figures that lead to actual stories about human trafficking) reflects a similar desire to remove the veil of secrecy and ignorance from what is a serious but poorly understood social problem.

Sakalia Williams (BFA Visual Communication) – installation view, 2019 SVA Final Year Show. Edna Manley College

The third example in the current Final Year show is another poster installation, by Sakalia Williams (BFA Visual Communication) that comment on “catcalls” and the manner in which what is said (or rather, shouted) is “customized” for different types of women, from the Rasta queen to the white tourist. The manner in which sexual harassment intersects with the dynamics of race, class, appearance, presumed sexual orientation, and belief groups certainly needs to be part of the discussion, as different assumptions and attitudes come into play.

The latter example in the Final Year show brings to mind a suite of paintings on cardboard on the subject by Nicola Ricketts, a 3rd year BFA Sculpture student, that was shown at the College earlier this year, in the 2019 SVA Student exhibition Manifestations at the CAG[e] gallery (a project of my Introduction to Curatorial Studies class). The subject of this work, too, was the culture of the “catcalls” and, in this case, the aggressive, hostile and derogatory responses that often follow when women resist or respond negatively to such approaches. Catcalls are a seemingly omnipresent form of sexual harassment in Jamaica, which can be extremely intrusive, demeaning and threatening to its targets but which is often dismissed and normalized as “part of the culture” and natural male behavior. Using simple but eloquent images and text, and a placard-like format, this work asserted women’s right to talk back, to resist and, quite simply, to be left alone.

Artists in Jamaica have also addressed other forms of sexual and gender violence, such as homophobia, but this brief overview (and I’m sure that there are other examples) suggests that momentum is building in terms of how visual artists are engaging with the specific subject of sexual abuse, in response to what indeed appears to be a mounting social crisis. I am not suggesting that artists who deal with such issues in their work should necessarily make it available for activist purposes, as some such work is quite personal in intent, but the form and content of some of the examples strongly gestures in that direction (for instance the placard format of Nicola Ricketts’ paintings or the posters by Sakalia Williams and Sidoni Campbell) and could certainly be mobilized for intervention strategies in the public domain. But even the more personal work can help to raise consciousness and to promote public discussion if it is presented in an appropriate forum. Perhaps the time has come for a thoughtfully conceived, well-publicized exhibition and performing arts program on the subject.

[Updated on June 12, with an additional image and additional information on a project I had not previously seen]

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