This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.
Taking a closer look at the NGJ Summer Exhibition reveals a few pleasant surprises but also pulls the exhibition’s weaknesses and failings into sharper perspective.
Perhaps the most outstanding work in the exhibition is Lucille Junkere’s The Yoruba Blues from Abeokuta Nigeria to Abeokuta Jamaica, which consists of a set of patterned embroidery stitch samples on handmade paper dyed with natural indigo. It is a sophisticated and visually stunning example of research-based artistic practice that delves sensitively but knowingly into the transatlantic cultural connections between Africa and the Caribbean. And I will agree with the curator’s essay that there is a triumph of textile and fiber arts of sorts, as another outstanding work in the exhibition is Katrina Coombs’ Golden Flow, a handwoven red and gold draped scarf form, which transforms the exhibition space allocated to it into a beautifully articulated, quasi-architectural form, making a simple but powerful statement.
Norma Rodney Harrack has contributed two exquisitely beautiful sculptural vase forms, which are among her most remarkable works in recent years. Laura Facey is another artist who understands that artists should only submit their best to a NGJ exhibition. There is debate about the politics of her continued engagement with the slavery and plantation history, and the imagery used in the process, but I will leave that for another time, as there is no doubt that Heart of a Man (Inspired by Henry Blake’s “Black Man Hung By the Ribs” and a seed from the Barringtonia Tree) is an exceptional work, formally and technically, but also because of its historical and art-historical references and powerful emotional impact.
Noteworthy and interesting work was also contributed by Amy Laskin, Carol Crichton, Camille Chedda, Shoshanna Weinberger, Winston Patrick, Richard Nattoo, Rani Carson, Esther Chin, Claudia Porges Byer and Ania Freer – as the names I have mentioned thus far illustrate, women appear to have outperformed the men in this exhibition. And it was good to see recent graduates of the Edna Manley College such as Jordan Harrison, Tiana Anglin, and Nadine Hall, especially since younger, contemporary artists are not very well represented in the exhibition.
On the other side of the spectrum, the photography entries are particularly disappointing and only a few transcend the club photography level, which is unfortunate since Jamaica has produced quite a few outstanding modern and contemporary photographers. I have to ask what a box set with reproductions of photographs Albert Chong produced more than twenty years ago is doing in this exhibition and must conclude that he is simply taking his invited artist status for granted. I am also non-plussed by the two bizarre mixed-media heads by Hasani Claxton, as I fail to see any artistic merit or interest, or the patently amateurish textile collage by Bernard Hoyes, which is not consistent with the standard of work this quite well-established artist is known for. In both instances, it appears that it was the subject, rather than the quality of the work itself, that caused it to be selected by the judges: the issues of black female anger in Claxton’s work and the reference to Sparrow in Hoyes’. But in both instances, the work is simply not good enough.
I could go on with several other examples of works that should really not have been in this exhibition, but perhaps the most distressing sight was a piece of “string art,” as this was something I never imagined I would see at the NGJ, let alone in a competitive, juried exhibition. Its maker, George Lecky, a retired mathematics teacher, has recently received major publicity in the form of a feature in the Gleaner, and he apparently runs a small business producing and selling such items – more power to him if he can supplement his income from making and selling these items, while connecting it to his interest in mathematics, and furthermore gets the support of a national newspaper for his efforts. And I gather that Mr Lecky is a very friendly elderly gentleman who was over the moon that his work had been accepted by the NGJ. But the truth is that Mr Lecky is not done any real favors by being shown at the NGJ and in this exhibition, as it creates a false impression, to him and others, of where he is at artistically. By being shown in the Summer Exhibition, his work will furthermore be subjected to the sort of critical scrutiny, as art, that it would not have encountered if it was shown in a more appropriate forum for such products.
It pains me to do so, on a personal level, but I have to say it like it is: while made and mounted with care and potentially a pleasant addition to someone’s home or office décor, there is nothing extraordinary or outstanding about the sort of string art Mr Lecky practices. In fact, such string art was the rage among craft hobbyists and in high school art departments in the 1970s and it is still popular today. Just google “string art” or “geometric string art” and look at the images that come up and you will see exactly how common and formulaic the sort of work Mr Lecky produces is. If Mr Lecky would just have taken the technique a few steps further, and produced something that went, formally and imaginatively, beyond the well-worn formulas, I could have seen the point in including such a work in the exhibition. But as it stands now, I must question the good judgement of the judges on the inclusion of this work.
The social and individual identity of an artist is important to explain a work of art (and, for museums in the 21st century and, especially, the postcolonial world, to ensure that there is adequate diversity and equity), but it should never be used to justify work that otherwise lacks interest. Yet that seems to be exactly what is happening in the Jamaican art world today. Our newspapers are flooded, week after week, with enthusiastic stories about aspiring artists who, in what has become a remarkably standardized narrative, overcame personal adversity to practice their art but have found a way to make it into their small business venture.
In all but a few instances, the art works featured in those (usually lavishly illustrated) promotional articles lack interest, and some are just plainly bad. The mere fact that it is labelled as “art” and that there is a story of personal perseverance and entrepreneurship behind it seems to be enough to warrant exposure in a national newspaper. There is absolutely no critical engagement in those articles – in fact, the art itself is not usually discussed in any detail at all – and there is no sense on the part of the artist or the writer that any critical assessment or further development may be needed. I have to wonder how such “write-ups” are brokered and what purpose they are supposed to serve, other than some misguided attempt at promoting the individuals featured as notable examples of creative entrepreneurship.
I worry about the impact this sort of press coverage has on how art is perceived by the general public. This is important in a context where many have very conservative and narrow views on art, and where more challenging and accomplished art is routinely ignored by the media or only superficially reported on, with a focus on the social event rather than on the art – I do not think that I have seen a serious exhibition review in the local press since Rachael Barrett’s review of the 2014 Jamaica Biennial in the Observer, which is five years ago now and which was already then an exception. I am also concerned about the implications of the quality of art that is being promoted in the press for the sustainability of the local cultural industries, which will not thrive and reach their full potential if there is no insistence on quality, originality, and innovation, of the kind that the Jamaican cultural community is more than capable of producing. The bar needs to be raised in that field too.
There is, related to this, a much bigger and long-standing problem in the Jamaican art world, namely the inability to separate the personality and social persona of the artist from the art itself and to assess a work of art on its own merits. The NGJ’s reluctance to part with the invited list, in itself, illustrates a lack of will (and courage) to look beyond the social status of the artists involved and the powers, alliances and connections that come with that (and illustrates to whom, in terms of the social cohort represented, the NGJ believes it is most accountable). It ought to be possible to critique a work of art on its own merits and demerits, and to select it on that basis for an exhibition, without fear of social repercussions, and irrespective of who the artist is, or who the artist is connected to. Yet that is practically impossible, as I have found out to my own detriment on several occasions over the years when I wrote for the local newspapers (and for this blog!) I believe it is one of the reasons why there is no critical engagement with art in the local media, beyond the brokered “vanity write up.”
And this brings me back to the vexing inconsistencies in terms of how the NGJ Summer Exhibition is composed. It consists of work by invited artists that is not held to the same standards of that of the juried artists, and of the results of a jury process that itself appears to have been quite inconsistent, to the point of being erratic and even unfair to some of the artists whose work was rejected – both the NGJ and the judges have a lot of explaining to do. The judges’ report in the catalogue is stiltedly written and too vague to be of any real use to most artists but it contains a few interesting statements that inadvertently speak to these inconsistencies. It lists among its recommendations that for the juried artists that “[a]rtists working in representational modalities should have their anatomical drawings and paintings reviewed before submission.” I have to ask why this concern is not applied to the invited artists also.
There are, for instance, clear technical deficiencies in the figure paintings of Judy Ann MacMillan, an artist of considerable social status and privilege who has been on the NGJ invited list for many years. Ms MacMillan’s best landscapes are engaging and luminous, and her best portraits brilliantly capture the essence of the person portrayed, so it is not that she has no merit as an artist, but her inability to paint properly articulated and defined limbs, hands, feet and shoulders is a major failing for an artist who has opted for realist, traditional painting techniques. This deficiency is painfully evident in her two paintings in the Summer Exhibition. I am quite sure, however, that I will be lambasted for pointing that out.
While I recognize the challenges that come with having to make curatorial sense of an extremely uneven and diverse exhibition, my concerns also apply to the exhibition installation, which is utterly uninspired and falls short of museum standards and of what the NGJ is capable of doing. And, for that, unfortunately, I do have to hold the curatorial team responsible. The shade of yellow that was chosen as the main accent color for the exhibition, perhaps in an effort to give the exhibition a “fresh,” less dreary look, is a very difficult color to work with and not a wise choice for the design of the present exhibition. It is furthermore used in all the wrong places, doing absolutely nothing positive for the art works that are placed in relation to it. It certainly does no favors for Norma Rodney Harrack’s extraordinary pieces, which are huddled closely together on a cluster of yellow stands with other, incompatible ceramic works, in a way which furthermore forces frontal viewing, without consideration for the competing visual clutter behind it. It is only after several viewings that I realized how extraordinary they really are.
Nadine Hall’s haunting, ethereal installation, which speaks about troubled masculinities, surely deserved a space of its own, or at least to be placed in dialogue with more compatible works, such as Jordan Harrison’s paintings, which comment on the taboo subject of male rape. Instead, Hall’s work is crammed into a gallery with works that are completely dissonant and unrelated. It is equally hard to understand why Laura Facey’s raw, powerful and physically imposing Heart of a Man has to share its gallery space with some of the bleakest, most lack-lustre art works in the exhibition. Or why Esther Chin’s large weaving installation, Ribbon for Ma, is surrounded by work that relates only on a superficial formal level and, again, placed against a yellow wall with which it is completely incompatible. I could not help but noting that those works in the exhibition that are installed and lit with greater care and sensitivity, such as the installations by Laura Facey and Katrina Coombs, are those where the artist would have been actively involved.
Too much of the exhibition installation seems to be based on merely trying to “match” colours, pattern, or subject matter, instead of generating the sort of inspired and provocative curatorial juxtapositions and conversations that can make a diverse and uneven exhibition like this perform above its pay grade. For an illustration of what such an approach can achieve, please read this short, witty essay for the NGJ blog by Nicole Smythe-Johnson about the dialogues that were strategized, in one of the galleries in the 2012 National Biennial. But that of course also requires having sufficient works of art of the caliber that will facilitate such conversations and that may not have been so evident for the Summer Exhibition. There are just a few hints of such dialogues, for instance between the works of Lucille Junkere, Carol Crichton, Camille Chedda, Courtney Morris and Laura Facey’s second installation in the first major gallery, but most juxtapositions in the exhibition are pedestrian, to the point of seeming haphazard, and several actually detract from the works involved.
I was indeed reminded, with deep nostalgia and sadness, of the 2012 National Biennial, which represented such an exciting moment in the NGJ’s history of curatorial, critical and audience engagement. There was just so much energy and such a strong, intellectually provocative response to that exhibition, which became the stepping stone towards the establishment of the Jamaica Biennial and the Explorations exhibition series. We published several contributed blog posts – the speech by Charles Campbell, who spoke on behalf of the artists at the opening, another post by Nicole Smythe-Johnson, who was Senior Curator at that time, and reflections by Kei Miller and Deanne Bell – the latter was a spontaneous contribution by a visitor who was so inspired by the exhibition that she was compelled to write us about it and we then offered to post her comments.
Today, that energetic spirit seems to have disappeared completely from the NGJ and it is certainly not evident in the Summer Exhibition. I am also saddened by the fate of the NGJ’s blog which, instead as serving as a vehicle for critical engagement and a useful and stimulating resource on Jamaican art and related matters, which is how it was originally conceived, now merely serves as a site for announcements and pointless reports on official visits (in which the NGJ principals, rather than the art, invariably feature prominently.) That too, illustrates where the NGJ is at, and I can only say that an art museum is in serious trouble when its intellectual flame, its commitment to research, self-reflexivity and critical inquiry, appears to have been extinguished, but the flames of vanity and self-congratulation are turned high.
The NGJ ought to be a place to exhibit and engage with the most extraordinary examples of Jamaican and other art, a place where artistic excellence is recognized and vigorously debated, and where standards and practices are clear and equitable. The Summer Exhibition falls dramatically short of that mark and is depressingly parochial in its outlook. The curatorial essay in the catalogue makes reference to the “vitriolic” reviews of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions (after which this exhibition appears to be modeled, an issue which I will leave for another time), but I have to quote a review of the 2019 edition by the Guardian critic Jonathan Jones, as it could just as well have been written about the NGJ Summer Exhibition: “There is a tired, inward looking, end-of-the-road quality to this sour show. No new ideas, no vigour.”
Many questions arise, about the general direction and quality of the NGJ’s current exhibition program. The Summer Exhibition follows close on the heels of the Due West exhibition at National Gallery West (NGW) in Montego Bay, a fully juried exhibition, which was arguably even more uneven and problematically parochial in its outlook. It should have been an exhibition that energized the art scene in Western Jamaica, which is in fact quite interesting and diverse, but it achieved no such thing. What needs to be asked then, is whether such exhibitions, and the populist reasoning that seems to be behind them, really “do good” by the artists in it, by the NGJ as an institution, and by the stakeholders and audiences they are supposed to serve. I would argue that the serious artists who are in the inaugural Summer Exhibition, and those who were in Due West, did not benefit at all from the experience and that such exhibitions can do more damage than good to the artistic communities they claim to represent.
And those are not the only problematic exhibitions the NGJ has shown recently. There have been problems with poorly researched and conceptualized exhibitions, of which the Art of Jamaican Sculpture and Beyond Fashion were two particularly problematic examples (with wall and catalogue texts that were furthermore not up to museum standards), and there have also been questions about policies and best practices. Add to this what appears to be a growing reliance on externally curated exhibitions and it appears that we have a serious problem on our hand when it comes to the NGJ’s curatorial practice. From that perspective, the NGJ’s future may not be thrilling at all.
I do hope that the NGJ’s principals — its Board and its Senior Management — understand that there is no real benefit to be had from pretending that the Summer Exhibition is a success, even though it may have pleased a few interests. The manner in which it accommodates particular, one-sided art world politics is, in fact, one of the main reasons for its failings. There needs to be a serious look at the reasons for the exhibition’s failure to reach a more appropriate standard and to include a more representative cross-section of the local artistic community. I also hope that the NGJ will take a long, hard and, most of all, honest look at the general standards of its exhibitions and programs recently. And I do hope that the NGJ will consider the feedback of its critics, without any defensive (or offensive!) responses this time around. And, most of all, I hope that such reflection will result in making space and time for open conversations with the entire artistic community. Perhaps it is not too late for that public forum that should have been held before the Jamaica Biennial was abandoned, as the voices of the art world need to be heard, in a manner that is genuinely inclusive, and open and respectful to all positions, lest the Kingston Biennial be doomed to become a similar debacle.
On the other side of the equation, now is the time for members of the artistic community to hop off that cool and breezy fence that too many have been sitting on, and to take a position, while asking the probing and pointed questions that need to be asked of the NGJ. The absence of so many artists — established, emerging and new — from the Summer Exhibition makes a strong, implied statement, yes, but that will be obvious only to those in the know, and to those who are prepared to listen, and the latter is not guaranteed. A silent statement like that is too easy to ignore and gloss over, as already appears to be happening with the spin about the alleged inclusiveness of the exhibition, and it is simply not enough in a moment where so much is at stake. Artists elsewhere in the world, for instance with regards to El Museo del Barrio in NYC, are mobilizing their public voices to demand accountability and to agitate for what is in the best interest of the artistic and broader communities they represent, and they are doing so quite effectively.
If the local artistic community does not see it fit to speak up now then it will just have to accept the direction in which the NGJ appears to be moving, with the understanding that silence is consent. But these artists should also understand that the NGJ is not the sole responsibility of the current “powers that be,” who are merely its temporary stewards, but a collective, long-term responsibility of the entire art world. Perhaps it is simply a matter of understanding the many roles and importance of an institution such as the NGJ better, as those may have become taken for granted. Established artists should perhaps remember what exhibiting at the NGJ has meant and done for them, in terms of their early development and career, and consider what needs to be done to ensure that the generations that come after them, including the very exciting young artists who have graduated from the Edna Manley College recently, will enjoy the same quality of opportunities and support. As they say at weddings, speak up now or forever hold your tongue.
Coda: The Aaron Matalon Award
In addition to the NGJ’s curious, unprecedented and quite inappropriate silence on who entered the Summer Exhibition as an invited artist and who entered through the jury, another matter seemed to be subject to a sudden lack of information, the Aaron Matalon Award. The Aaron Matalon Award, which was introduced for the first National Biennial in 2002 and named after the Hon. Aaron Matalon, OJ, who had been the NGJ’s chairman and one of its most generous benefactors. Funded by the NGJ, it has involved a specially designed and crafted medal based on a famous work from the NGJ collection, uniquely commissioned for each edition, and a cash prize. It is the most prestigious award granted by the NGJ.
Just two days before the Summer Exhibition opening, a NGJ press release clearly stated:
The Dawn Scott Memorial Award is one of two awards attached to the 2019 Summer Exhibition, along with the Aaron Matalon Award, which is awarded to an artist who, in the view of the National Gallery’s Exhibitions and Acquisitions Committees, has contributed the strongest entry to the exhibition. This award will also be announced at the exhibition’s opening ceremony on Sunday, July 28.
I had already left the July 28 opening function when the awards were supposed to be announced but there was no announcement about the Aaron Matalon Award. While my attempts to get clarification from the NGJ initially bore no fruit, I have now finally, on August 27, received a response from the Senior Director, Dr Jonathan Greenland, to a formal August 7 email query which I had sent to him and the Chief Curator. Dr Greenland had been on leave, why the Chief Curator did not respond is unknown. In his email, Dr Greenland stated that the Aaron Matalon Award has now been moved to the Kingston Biennial, which appears to have been an eleventh hour decision. How this will tally with the fact that the Kingston Biennial will be a curated exhibition is not clear, but perhaps that too is an implied acknowledgement that the Summer Exhibition is not up to standard.
The Dawn Scott Memorial Award was granted jointly to Judith Salmon and Shoshanna Weinberger and wast the subject of two press releases, including earlier-cited one and, on July 30, one about the 2019 awardees. Mr Gomez also gave a public lecture on July 30.
[Correction on the interpretation of Nadine Hall’s work and Coda added on August 23, 2019; update on the Aaron Matalon Award added on August 27]
I’m a bit disturbed by the idea of those potato heads being in the same exhibition as Nadine Hall’s installation.
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Yes it is disturbing
On the Olympics. (From part one of your article.)
It is true that we have done some interesting things with our athletic training regiments in sports and those regiments are now being copied around the world, but as it stands now our art community has a completely different matriculation system. As I have said many times before on your blog, Jamaican art is not the place you go to seek meritocracy. Many Artists here are groomed and tolerated without the requisite abilities or understanding of some key aspects of their own work, much less the historical contexts that the work may be functioning in.
I think we can all agree that there are a flurry of new exhibitions in Kingston over the past few months. It has been a dizzying amount of shows, and some of our Artists are presenting a multiple installments of their exhibitions not long after the first has closed. One major thing I have learned about our artists, during this new deluge of exhibitions, is that many have been spoilt, protected, padded and sanctioned by the academics, enthusiasts or the powers that be or was. Sadly, the glaring lack of professionalism and lack of information have always been tempered because many of our artists were surrounded by folks that wanted to champion their cause. Now, I am all for supporting artists, of course I am, but when it is little more than “blind support” we are in fact harming the artist’s own development and self reflection.
Please understand me, I am not simply criticizing the artists for developing these bad practices per se, as much as I am criticizing their champions for not telling them that these are bad practices. Many far better trained, studied and I dare say committed artists have been shunned and constantly passed over in favor of people that are less prepared. One case in point was my experience with Richard Nattoo’s recent solo exhibitions. I was shocked to see how “unfinished” both of his recent exhibitions were. To the point that one show was not even opened to the public at the hour of the show. To see his audience locked out of the gallery space, as folks ran back and forth setting up the exhibition was a strange experience. Yet! His exhibitions are always very well attended by the “upper-crust” of Jamaican art influencers, academics and the movers of Jamaican art. Not so long ago the Edna Manley College’s “Cage Gallery” had a very philosophically challenging exhibition titled “Dark Matter”, presented by two recent graduates of the college and one of our more established artists. I was equally shocked at the abysmal turnout for the show, and many of our art practitioners and participants work at the college but failed to attend….to see Xavier Houghton (one of the artist in “Dark Matter”) rejected from the summer show was especially confusing for me…I have sat on those panels and I know how difficult it is to judge art, so I won’t suggest that I know something the judges don’t….but still, it was very confusing… The next exhibition at the “Olympia” gallery will be “BE!, THE AKOBEN AESTHETIC, AGAINST THE ODDS” an exhibition by K. Khalfani Ra and Omari Ra…..and I am interested in seeing what sort of support that exhibition will get. It will be an interesting gage of how we go about selecting what shows to attend and which artists to support.
This to me can only be evidence of the mismanaging of the “egos” and rights of passage of many of our artists. Again I am using this opportunity, not to critique Richard’s or any other artist or art contributor…..I DONT HAVE ANY PROBLEMS WITH ANY PERSON I WILL MENTION IN THIS POST…..(it is sad that this has to be said but yes, this is the climate) however, I am criticizing some people’s sense of support and tolerance of things they would not have tolerated from other artists. To be honest, I was struggling to write this particular post because of how we deal with criticism of our “sacred cows” in Jamaica.
Another thing that was amazing to me about your text is your reference to Rachael Barrett’s text some years ago. How is it even possible that a person can carry such a consistent body of failures and still be cited as an example to be studied and modeled?, that’s just beyond me I guess. I have, like anyone else, the interest in supporting any person in our art ecology, in order to help develop what we have at home….it is important…but It is disheartening to know that our space is not leveled in a way that allows for the most capable people to function and receive the help they need. Instead, we have settled for a culture of sycophants. I remember a “Mr. Blackwell” who criticized the “New Roots” exhibition and interrogated the art of some of our “sacred cows”. I remember the arguments that followed the publishing of that text. There was also the queries of “the true identity of the writer”, as many people believed the name was a pseudonym. I have even heard theories that it was supposedly I who wrote it…lol. As you can clearly see from my posts, I have no problems standing behind what I say. However, the general sense of the argument was that the text was some kind of “hit job” and the writer was merely “not with the program”.
Folks will now suggest that what you are now discussing is a kind of “hit job” and dare I say that both yourself and Mr. Blackwell may have real concerns. But the politics is as such that it has become a challenge in it self to make statements about art without being seen as “batting for or against this or that team”. We have created an impossible situation. When an art community can no longer be honest with itself we have done a great disservice to our selves and subsequent generations. Now that you may be considered in the way Mr. Blackwell was seen, I am curious to see how you navigate this issue. I am mentioning this because I myself decided to become more vocal in our community and I would like to know how do we go about managing the feelings, egos, demigods, power dynamics, favoritisms etc. if I were to say that every time a work of mine is placed in some public or private collection some place in the world it saddens me a little bit more that my own country’s national space cannot say the same. Is that “sour grapes?” Am I bitter and need the support of the gallery and because I was denied it I am “throwing shade” at the people you have supported, like Marvin Bartley or any of the other folks you have furnished the gallery with?? Or am I saying that Jamaican meritocracy is a scam?
In closing, I am worried about how we have moved ourselves beyond any sensible criticism in such a tiny space. And I am waiting to see some kind of common sense be restored….ladies and gentlemen, this is not sustainable! Yes, there are problems with the summer show, but are the problems unique to this show? Or are these problems the very nature of this kind of exhibition and henceforth, they existed when you were at the helm and when David was at the helm?
Thanks, Phillip. A couple of responses, though.
Let me start with your comment about Rachael Barrett, because it bothers me. Yes her project in Jamaica failed and there are all sorts of concerns that surround that, but I am afraid that you are doing exactly what I am arguing against and allowing your sentiments about her persona to interfere with your assessment of her review of the 2014 Biennial, which is the issue at hand here. And there is no doubt in my mind that it was a review worth reading, as it presented a clear, well-informed and independent analysis. I think that you are doing yourself and her a disservice when you fail to comment on whether or not that review had merit, and instead dismiss her altogether. She also wrote a review about the Beyond Fashion exhibition for Pree magazine, btw, that is also well worth reading.
Second is your preoccupation with artists such as Marvin Bartley. I continue to stand by the work he produced during his short artistic career. That he is no longer active is not an artistic failure but the result of a life decision on his part. And by the way, the works in the NGJ collection were donated by him (they were exhibition prints for an overseas exhibition) and that is the reason why he is in the collection.
Same holds true for New Roots, which I believe was a strong and influential exhibition, not in the same way as Young Talent V (in which you and Marvin were included) but important in its own way. The NGJ has been showing young artists’ work in dedicated Young Talent exhibitions since 1985 (which included Omari Ra and Khalfani Ra) and for each edition there was some attrition but it also helped to put on the map key artists. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the NGJ supporting young artists in this way. In fact, I wish that instead of this pathetic Summer Exhibition, there would have been another Young Talent exhibition, perhaps featuring young artists such as Kelley-Ann Lindo, Kimani Beckford, Kevin McIntyre, Keisha Walters, and, yes, Xavier Haughton, as there have been none since 2015. Doing this hardly amounts to pampering. It merely provides what is in the local context a very necessary stepping stone for young artists. And New Roots certainly challenged the status quo in a very healthy way – we would not still be talking about it if it did not.
I think Richard Nattoo is a brilliant artist. He can be careless with planning and execution, yes, but there is no doubt that his work is in many ways exceptional and when you see him work, you immediately realize how talented he really is. But I am also concerned at how you construe attendance at an exhibition opening entirely in terms of support of the artist(s) involved. There are many reasons why people attend or do not attend exhibition openings that have nothing to do with support for the artist per se, such as timing, place, and the amount of publicity and promotion given. Black Matter certainly failed on the latter, while Nattoo is very good at it. I try to go to every exhibition opening I can reasonably attend but this one slipped me by, I do not even remember why. And I think Nattoo’s exhibition at the Gene Pearson Gallery was also well attended because people in the art world are excited that there is finally a new gallery in Kingston. I am not fond of the low ceilings but I will support it in any way I can and Abi Smith is working very hard to make things happen. And I am sure that the Omari/Khalfani exhibition opening at Olympia will be well attended.
And yes, there are issues with professional standards in the Jamaican art world, but these apply to the “established” artists as much as to the newcomers. And we must be able to say that too. My perceptions of who are the holy cows in the Jamaican art world do not line up with the artists you are alluding to – I am not even clear on who exactly you are alluding too. I am also not yours are holy cows at all, as they do not have the social capital of the established holy cows. It is funny that you should mention Xavier Haughton, because I am not clear on why he is so heavily promoted and indeed cuddled by a certain cohort in the art world. He has serious challenges with his drawing and painting skills and makes no effort (that I can) see to deal with them. Instead, he relies very heavily on the politics of his work to carry the response to it and furthermore slaps on some Vodun references, which all to often happens to justify otherwise weak work in the Caribbean. He needs to be challenged more if he is to grow as an artist, technically and in terms of the sophistication of his politics.
A lot of people have compared the Summer Exhibition with the JCDC exhibitions. While justified, in terms of the look, feel and level of the exhibition, I decided not to make that comparison in my blog post because I believe that the JCDC exhibitions represent a necessary alternative in the Jamaican art world, where too much hinges on the NGJ as the sole source of public artistic validation. JCDC and I have very different ideas about standards, about exhibitions and about art, in general, but I see them as part of a healthy art ecology. But my point is that this is not the level at which the NGJ should operate, which is why having the JCDC exhibitions at the NGJ, as was done for a few years, was not continued – there was no common ground. And now the NGJ exhibits at that level, which is a tremendous loss to the Jamaican art world and a quite redundant move.
As for Mr Blackwell, if he would have published a review, under his own name, I would have respected that. But posting sneering comments like that to the NGJ blog, under the cover of anonymity, was just low. It was deliberately disparaging, which what I write never is. What you may not realize is that I am the one who approved Mr Blackwell’s comment, as I always sought to make room for contrary views, but it did offend a lot of people. I post on my own blog and under my own name, What you see is what you get. And yes, some people have responded to me as if I killed a litter of puppies, and turned them into a fancy fur coat, because of my comments about Mr Lecky’s string art, but I said what I felt I had to say – I spoke from my conscience. I am not convinced that Mr Blackwell did the same.
And that takes me to my final comment, in response to what you say about earlier histories. What is happening with the NGJ right now is indeed the institution being smothered under the weight of 45 years of problematic, indeed toxic art world politics, in which the NGJ itself has indeed played an active role but far from the only one. In fact, those politics are much older than that and they were already weighing on what would become the NGJ before it was even being planned. So it is an end-game of sorts, the chickens coming home to roost in a most unfortunate and destructive way, doing a lot of damage to the many positive things the NGJ has, for all its flaws, achieved, its support for young and contemporary artists included. It is indeed not sustainable, and the choice is ours whether we let it happen or take steps to turn the situation around. Otherwise, it will be the end of the road, the end-game, for a lot of things everybody in the art world now takes for granted.
And one last thing, Phillip: who are these unnamed, accomplished artists who you claim are overlooked time and again. What is it that is being denied to them and how and why should this be remedied?
Thanks for your response….Let’s talk about killing puppies.
“.I DONT HAVE ANY PROBLEMS WITH ANY PERSON I WILL MENTION IN THIS POST…..(it is sad that this has to be said but yes, this is the climate)…..”
Everyone understands the reason for such a statement and how these kinds of unnecessary disclaimers become very necessary under the conditions of Jamaican art. This is where the rubber meets the road. We all saw a very strange video of a driver stunt driving in the intersection of one of our busy streets some time ago. Without exhausting the point, some of the citizens of this country felt slighted by the decisions of our law enforcement officers. The sentiment was clear, justice is not leveled in our society and many of us get this very strange feeling that there are those that can “breach” at will, because the sense of consequences doesn’t seem to exist…
The reason I mentioned Miss Barrett has nothing to do with wether or not she has written. I am all for more text. In fact, I have always been displeased with the number of PhDs in our art community and the abysmal number of texts that are published on art in this country. So Yes, a lot More writing is needed. But my broader point is that Miss Barrett is ONE example of some people that has managed to secure uncritical support irrespective of where she may be lacking in furthering her own, and ultimately much of our artistic and cultural endeavors. And that can be a disservice in itself. If we simply pretend that there is no issue then how can anybody develop? and for those who seek to follow in those footsteps, as you have urged them, will soon realize that this “capital” that you mention is not evenly distributed. If those issues are not to be critiqued then why are we even pretending there is such a thing as merit based advancement? Am I saying what she has written is in itself without merit? Of course not…I would assume that that was clear….matters not if she wrote in the observer or The Times. The point I am making is simple, so many people would love an equal opportunity to write and to be given the platform to do so, But feel that they aren’t given the same patience. This idea that you can’t criticize your friends is one of the worse things we could have bestowed on our community and I am simply saying it benefits us all if we have an even matriculation system. Does this mean others won’t make mistakes? it would be silly to assume not, but again, patience and understanding can run in short supply for many others.
As I have said before, my issue isn’t with any artist or art practitioner. This idea that some folks are given more patience than others under the same set of circumstances just wont do. We cannot pretend that being able to donate a work of art to the national museum isn’t a privilege in itself. If it wasn’t a privilege then the gallery would be filled with all and sundry, for mere CV padding purposes. You certainly have every right to stand by your feelings and decisions about Marvin’s work, And I would certainly respect your contributions less if you where to SIMPLY change those feelings. My point here is access. How it works, who is granted and why… It’s just that simple. To give the impression that a donation is somehow less meaningful than the work being monetarily purchased does not help me understand all the other things I am talking about.
As for “New Roots”, I never suggested that I disliked the show at all. Like all exhibitions there are works that are stronger than others. However, that’s not how anyone should go about deciding wether an entire show is strong or not. I, like many artist here have benefitted tremendously from showing our works in these kinds of exhibitions. My point was, the ways in which an antithetical point is seen as simply mean spirited. It is easy to feel as if ones refusal to “hold the line” is somehow not desirable and it simply means you are not on the right side of history, and therefore your comments are invalid. There must be a way to make a point without being in some kind of “cohort”.
As for Richard’s work, I never said anything about that. The point I was making here again was tolerance, the sort of patience that eludes others. I am sure you can see that we would not be doing the artist any favors by allowing these issues to slip by. In the world, we in the Caribbean are seen in particular ways and it is my only desire to tell the people who have the artist’s ear that these practices are not things that will work elsewhere. The same thing goes for our artists going off to study in other spaces. We cannot allow for our artists to find out that they were darlings here, because their new audiences would have not gotten the memo. I think we could all agree that this would be an important lesson for all. I, my self, have never seen Richard at work to really know how talented he is, I just look at what’s in front of me. You were not at his presentation, but I had much to say about what he made, and we did have some fruitful discussions on what was on display. I also gave him several references that spanned Matthias Grunewald’s “Crucifixion” to the movie “The Cell” which was responding to much of what Damien Hirst was doing with glass and biological forms. It was a very meaningful discussion not a criticism in any way.
Here is an example that is even more personal for me. It will also be apart of my response to your interview, the section on painting. I have read many of your criticisms of my own work over the years, and I do keep them as notes to reference in my own development as an artist. One constant cohort that you cite from time to time is the “squad of painters” that we have seen in my generation. Now, in my response to your interview question I have written a section roughly titled “not all painters are equal”. Of course, it is easy to assume I am talking about ability, however, that is the least of our issues. What I am talking about has to do with what I have said before, about patience and privileges. The fact that you consistently mention Michael Elliott as well as Khary Darby reminds me of a time of “invisibility”. I realized very early in my career that I was never going to get the same time and patience if I “held the line” with my fellow painters because of the…differences between us. The reason those artists made the decisions they made, about the kind of works to make, is the very same thing I was talking about earlier….security, comfort, patients and privileges. Now, it is hard to say it but it is clear that those privileges strangled the work instead of helped it…I knew that I would have never survived had I made works of the same ilk and I learned that because I was never showering with adoration….thank heavens… My point again is, there are those of us that quietly know that “you must work a little harder than others” and it is a sad truth about what we have done here and to each other. The very same can be said of a Christopher Irons. Everyone knows how talented he is, but folks were not careful in managing his development and many played a sad part in that.
Again, I don’t want to labour the point, but I don’t think I am saying anything new here. All of the concerns and criticism have been apart of our art world “chat space”. I on the other hand have no interest in that….the only thing anyone would react to here is the simple fact that, all of what folks have said is merely in written from….and that seems to make all the difference in the world. Why? that beats me. In the end if we stick to our silos and read every comment as malicious we will loose the ability to decipher real concerns from just noise and I think I speak for all if I say that I want our art community to grow and develop and become demanding for those of us who have gotten comfortable. We should stop rewarding ourselves for doing “donuts” in the intersection simply because we know prosecution is few and far in between.
Well, we do not disagree on much you have written in this response. But two things,
I have not in fact written a lot about your work or about that of the other painters – the main exception is an essay for Small Axe in which Michael Elliott (and Christopher Irons) are discussed, but we have spoken about the issues that surround contemporary painting in Jamaica. And I do understand and appreciate your position in that.
The reason why I mentioned Marvin Bartley’s donation is that many people assume that all acquisitions are paid for by the NGJ,, and that the NGJ spends its money on some and not on others. Historically, most acquisitions have in fact been donations, by artists and collectors. The NGJ has only rarely in its existence received a capital grant for acquisitions and has had to fund-raise and “hustle” for most of its occasional paid acquisitions. Until there is an endowment for acquisitions, that will not change. Donations go through the same process as other acquisitions and are accepted only if they are deemed relevant and beneficial additions to the collection. But it means that the NGJ has not been able to be as strategic in its acquisitions as it should have been,as a national art museum, and there are some serious gaps in the collection as a result. One strategy has been to get into the market early and to invest in the work of young and emerging artists, while it could still be afforded. It is for this reason that the NGJ has some good works by Ebony G. Patterson – one work was actually a donation and another was offered at well below its market value, and there was also an earlier acquisition. Today, acquiring one of her works other than by donation by the artist or via another donor would be out of the question but she is reasonably well represented, with strong works, at least for now. The absence of your work from the collection is an issue that needs to be corrected but one of the reasons is that you moved up in the international market so quickly that your work was well above the NGJ’s capacity for paid acquisitions, and most of the work you have exhibited in Jamaica was already spoken for. It is something that The conversation about that should have been opened earlier but I would certainly like to see corrected. And there are many other gaps including, amazingly, the Intuitives, since the NGJ’s own collection is very inconsistent. There are other reasons for that which I will not go into right now.
Overall, a lovely exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica, Kudos to the Curatorial team!