“Jamaica, Jamaica,” or, the Problem of “Good Enough”

Philharmonie de Paris @ La Villette (28341515943).jpg
Philharmonie de Paris building, designed by Jean Nouvel

In 2017, I had the opportunity to travel to Paris for the opening of Jamaica, Jamaica, a major exhibition on Jamaican music curated by the French music journalist Sebastien Carayol for the Philharmonie de Paris/Cité de la Musique. I did so in my capacity as the then Executive Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ). I am always rather skeptical of how Jamaican music culture is represented in the global sphere, as this is often couched in rampant exoticism and reductive stereotypes, and I came to the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition opening in Paris with those concerns. While not entirely devoid of such issues, which are after all an integral part of the dynamic that has surrounded the subject since the 1970s, I was blown away by the exhibition, and the excellent and very engaging way in which it had been curated and designed, with an expansive, immersive vision which perfectly captured the conquering spirit of Jamaican popular music. Those who know me well, know that I am not easily impressed but I was delighted to be proven wrong on that occasion.

Installation view, Jamaica, Jamaica, Philharmonie de Paris, 2017

Discussions about having the exhibition at the NGJ had started from the moment the exhibition was first planned, with the understanding that not all loans to the original exhibition would be available for travel but that this would not be a major problem, as there are enough memorabilia, other artifacts and images available in Jamaica to make suitable substitutions. I am delighted that this has now come to fruition, at the NGJ and in a collaboration between the NGJ and the Jamaica Music Museum. It was already known in 2017 that the exhibition would travel to Brazil, where it was shown in 2018 (with, if the online photos are anything to go by, an equally spectacular installation, to which sections on Brazilian reggae were added), and the consensus was that it could come to Jamaica as its concluding edition, which would also coincide with the return to the island of those artworks and artifacts that had been borrowed from Jamaican sources, including the NGJ collection. It made perfect sense.

Jamaica, Jamaica is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition on Jamaican music to date. That Jamaica has itself failed to initiate and produce an exhibition at this level despite having a Jamaica Music Museum for more than ten years now, is nothing to be proud of, as it suggests a near-inexplicable lack of initiative, in contrast with the drive and ambition that have fueled the Jamaican music industry itself. And that the Jamaica Music Museum is still in small, temporary premises at the Institute of Jamaica and does not yet have the large, suitably outfitted museum building or the collections needed to mount comprehensive exhibitions is downright embarrassing, especially after countless political announcements. The now-routine excuses about the lack of resources no longer have much credibility, as resources have been found for many other, less worthwhile ventures. It is simply a matter of priorities, and of vision, or rather, of the sad lack thereof. Jamaica, Jamaica, by implication, shows up these deficiencies and, having originated in France, also raises question of cultural ownership.

So it ought to have been clear from day one that showing Jamaica, Jamaica in Jamaica would be a fraught affair, which would generate all sorts of discussions, and that the stakes would be high in terms of how the Jamaican edition would be presented. In addition, it was obvious that it would be challenging to translate the complex and ambitious exhibition design into the more regimented spaces of the NGJ’s exhibition galleries but there was no doubt in my mind that it could be done, as the NGJ team has designed and installed complex exhibitions many times before, on limited budgets and often in record time.

Installation view, Jamaica, Jamaica, National Gallery of Jamaica

The NGJ had no new exhibition after the closure of last year’s Summer Exhibition, which left the museum exhibition-less for the normally busy Holiday season. This was, in and of itself, unusual and disappointing but I assumed that this meant that the NGJ was pulling out all the stops to present Jamaica, Jamaica in grand style, and to equal or surpass the manner in which it was shown in Paris. It would have been helpful if there had been an announcement from the NGJ as to why Jamaica, Jamaica was not shown in November, as had been originally announced, and I only heard of the new February 2 opening date by happenstance, because of communications with an overseas contact. The NGJ was, once again, publicly silent on these matters and did not start promoting the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition until about two and a half weeks ago, which is very late for a major exhibition. Many people I had mentioned the exhibition to recently did not know about it at all, which illustrates the detrimental effect of such late, low-key promotions. Unfortunately, these long silences and last minute announcements have now become the norm with the NGJ’s public communications and it is hard to fathom why it has come to that after all the efforts to increase the public visibility of the NGJ.

Peter Tosh machine gun guitar, as shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica

My eyes were admittedly trained by the extraordinary Paris edition of  Jamaica, Jamaica, and I am aware that those who saw the exhibition for the first time yesterday may have reacted differently to it, with the keen excitement that inevitably comes with seeing the first general survey of Jamaica’s music history ever to be shown in Jamaica. The exhibition certainly has its moments, if only because of the inclusion of rarely seen iconic objects such as Peter Tosh’s machine-gun guitar. And there are some excellent music-themed wall-paintings that were specially commissioned for the exhibition from the downtown mural artists Bones, Gideon and Ras Lava. But that does, as such, not make for the caliber of exhibition I had anticipated, and critical unpacking is necessary. I will not comment on the music scholarship that is on display in the exhibition, as this is outside of my area of professional competence, but I will instead comment on how it is curated and designed.

Installation view, Jamaica, Jamaica, at the National Gallery of Jamaica, 2020

What I saw yesterday afternoon was, at least from my perspective, an exhibition which was curated downwards, rather than re-imagined and re-curated with the sort of inspired vision and panache I would have expected from the subject’s country of origin. There is a polite and tediously conventional “picture on wall, picture on wall, object on a stand, label to the side” approach to most of the installation which takes it down to a pedestrian level that does not do justice to the nature and significance of the exhibition subject.

My heart wept when I saw how the iconic long-sleeved “star” shirt worn by Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come was mounted. It does not get more unimaginative and pedestrian than that – just compare how it is shown in Jamaica with the manner in which it was shown in Paris, where something as simple and achievable as the effective use of accent lighting and background colour made all the difference. The same held true for Peter Tosh’s machine gun guitar, an object that has tremendous charisma and resonance, but which was practically stripped of these evocative qualities because of the unimaginative manner in which it was mounted. Exactly how such objects are mounted, contextualized, and lit is of paramount importance in exhibitions of this nature – that is Exhibition Design 101.

There were also parts of the exhibition that appeared not be be fully ready and most of the interactive electronic elements appeared not to work properly and furthermore came without user instructions (and for one such station, the language was actually still set to Portuguese). The ratio of art to music-related artifact had also increased significantly and it appeared that the NGJ had taken every work of art that was in any way related to music out of its storeroom and stuffed the exhibition with it (and this includes several works that have been shown in practically every exhibition the NGJ has mounted recently). Perhaps this was to make up for the absence of exhibition items that were still detained in Customs, if what Carolyn Cooper reported in yesterday’s Sunday Gleaner is correct, but it significantly altered the focus and nature of the exhibition.

Installation view, Jamaica, Jamaica, National Gallery of Jamaica

The net result of all of this is that the Jamaican version of Jamaica, Jamaica lacks the visual and narrative cohesion and immersive quality of the original. The feeble attempts at creating a unifying “vibe,” such as throwing in some bold, flag-inspired, diagonally separated colours on a few accent walls, using exhibition graphics inspired by vintage Sassafras Dancehall posters, and, at the opening, turning up the background music to deafening party level, did not help to cover these deficiencies.

I had a brief conversation with the original exhibition’s curator, Sebastien Carayol, who blamed budgetary restrictions for the dramatic differences between the Paris and Kingston editions. It is true that for the Paris edition a professional exhibition design company was used, but I am of the view, given previous experience, that the NGJ has, or should have, the capacity to produce an exhibition design at the same level and furthermore to do so in-house. The only exception I would make to that is the technology part, but that is hardly what makes the Jamaican edition so disappointing.

I have been amused, and somewhat troubled, at the manner in which the local curators of the exhibition, as it is shown in Jamaica, appear to have been pushed forward in the recent communications and press coverage on the exhibition, seemingly at the expense of Carayol, which goes to the discomfort that surrounds the “ownership” of this exhibition and its subject. And the manner in which this exhibition has been handled once again raises troubling questions about the NGJ’s board governance and the involvement of the Board and its subcommittees in management matters which should rightly be directed and handled by the NGJ’s professional staff: Susan Fredricks, the chair of the board’s exhibitions committee and an art dealer by profession, is effusively credited in the catalogue for “negotiating the exhibition to fruition and leading on production management throughout” – functions that ought to have been carried out by the NGJ Director and Chief Curator. But when it comes to claiming ownership of the exhibition’s present incarnation, the local curators and exhibition committee chair should perhaps be more careful about what they ask for, as they are the ones who must be blamed for its deficiencies.

It appears that the NGJ and the Jamaica Music Museum bit off significantly more than they could chew with the organization and re-curation of the exhibition, despite the significant amount of run-up time. What is at work here, however, is not a lack of money, for a major grant could certainly have been obtained for a project of this nature, but a troubling lack of curatorial imagination. Instead of being engaging, and inviting conversation and diverse perspectives, the exhibition provides a rather pedantic from-to-top-down “lesson” about its subject, which is not how such exhibitions ought to be curated at a supposedly progressive, 21st century museum. And that is not how the original exhibition in Paris was curated.

This is worrisome for the NGJ, and adds to concerns about recent developments that have been ventilated elsewhere, but it is even more worrisome for the future of Jamaica’s Music Museum, if and when the long-held plans to have a substantial specialized museum ever take form. Because surely, this cannot be the way in which Jamaica presents its music culture and history to the world. It can also not be that the Jamaican edition of Jamaica, Jamaica is deemed “good enough” for Jamaican audiences or that Jamaica is not capable to represent its own culture with the same acumen and imagination that others have brought to the subject.

The problem with the Jamaica Music Museum — and I have to be frank about this, with no disrespect meant — is that it is guided by strong scholarship but as yet lacks the sort of curatorial skills and imagination that are necessary to translate this knowledge pool into a compelling exhibitionary form. Unfortunately, those skills do not necessarily come in one convenient package. If it is to be successful and sustainable, the museum needs to acquire such skills and develop a curatorial language to exhibit Jamaican music which is appropriate and effective in the local context and which will speak to international audiences as well. In fact, it should seek to position itself as the institution to provide the international curatorial and critical leadership that is so needed in this specialist field.

Representing Jamaican music in a museum or exhibition context cannot be guided by a didactic academic vision. It takes specialist curatorial and technical skills, and a good measure of imagination, to exhibit any kind of music in a way which is academically sound but also compelling and engaging. Jamaican music cannot be represented in the same way as, say, French Baroque music; it needs to be represented in a way that is driven by the energy, subversiveness, and theatricality of Jamaican culture, which is and has always been “broader than Broadway” and defiant of the conventions and dictates of “Babylon.” It is very disappointing, given the unique opportunity the exhibition represents, that the curators of the Jamaican edition of Jamaica, Jamaica edition did not rise to that occasion.

[Updated with minor changes on February 8, 2020  and with new information from the catalogue on February 29, but the general argument remains the same,]

2 thoughts on ““Jamaica, Jamaica,” or, the Problem of “Good Enough”

Add yours

  1. Imagination!! It’s everything! We have a French friend visiting in a couple of weeks (I wonder if she has seen this) and were planning to take her to the exhibit during her short stay.


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