Art Criticism and the Jamaican Art Ecology – Part 1

The self-taught artist Everald Brown with the author in 1987, in the Kapo Gallery at the National Gallery. Part of Kapo’s head (and turban) can be seen to the right

My blog has been rather quiet for the last two months (perhaps to the relief of some). The reasons have nothing to do with the blog itself. Having been ill this summer, which involved surgery, I returned to work in early September to a significant backlog of work – being out of commission for a while poses a special challenge for the self-employed. And several new projects have now started, so I’ve had my hands full with new work too. I do realize that I am very fortunate to be so busy, professionally, under the present global economic circumstances and with exciting projects, so I am not complaining. But it has been a challenge to keep up with my usual “extracurricular” activities, as I have had to prioritize my most pressing responsibilities. I am well now. health-wise, and finally getting on top of my workload. Because of my current projects, I may not be as prolific as usual on this blog for some time to come but I am committed to one post per month, and more if circumstances call for it. Here is my first one, the first of a three-part post on art criticism in Jamaica.

Why is it that locally directed and published art criticism has all but disappeared in Jamaica? I am talking mainly about newspaper criticism, which was thriving until the 1990s, as well as electronic media engagement with the arts, beyond the hurried, superficial and personality-focused social reporting that is now the norm. And what are the consequences of this absence for the Jamaican art world, and the general health of the country’s cultural ecosystem? Is something of crucial value missing and, if so, what needs to be done about it? Or is it that other mechanisms have taken its place?

I teach Art Criticism at the Edna Manley College and two weeks ago, we had a very interesting discussion on the subject. One student pointed out that the old vehicles for criticism, and the assumption that this needs to involve formal publication in traditional media, may have become obsolete and that other mechanisms, such as social media, have taken their place. Some have called this “vernacular criticism” but that is not necessarily a well-developed field in Jamaica when it comes to art (although it thrives in areas such as politics). “Likes”, “loves” and various other praise emoji are routinely lavished on social media posts on art but it rarely goes deeper. Other than that, it is mostly silence. My students and I agreed, however, that silence and non-engagement are forms of criticism too, and may involve a refusal of an entire art world dispensation. It may also involve a still-prevailing sense in Jamaica that “ordinary”, “non-art” folks are not empowered and expected to speak about “art,” which is still predominantly defined in a very narrow and specialized sense.

In this class, we also spoke about the history of art criticism in Jamaica, with examples such as the paternalistic, evaluative art criticism of Andrew Hope in the Gleaner and, in the final years of his career, the Observer. Hope was the only professional, full-time newspaper art critic Jamaica has ever had. We also spoke about the broadcaster and photographer Archie Lindo, whose art programme on RJR and column in the Star, represented a markedly different approach, less concerned with casting judgement and asserting expertise, and more with informing and engaging non-art audiences and readers with local art in a friendly and accessible manner.

And of course we spoke about the protracted and very public “war,” in the 1980s, in speeches and in published texts, between Andrew Hope (and the artist and gallerist Barrington Watson, who was his main patron then), on one hand; and David Boxer, who was then the Director/Curator of the National Gallery, on the other. While there is enough material on this episode for a full dissertation, it is useful to have a closer look at this contention here, as it set the stage for what was to come.

Barrington Watson was the assertively black, European academy-trained “Great Master” of Jamaican art, at a time when younger, contemporary artists and critics began to challenge such constructs. Andrew Hope (a white, Polish expat whose birth-name was Ignacy Eker) had been the country’s chief art-critical gatekeeper for several decades and obviously felt empowered by his “Old European” credentials, and was frequently challenged for that very reason. David Boxer was a younger, light-skinned Jamaican art historian with a PhD from a prestigious American university (Johns Hopkins). He was also a rising star as a contemporary artist and collector, and a growing influence in the Jamaican art world. And he was a protégé of Edna Manley and a friend of Michael Manley.

All three men had formidable social and political connections and, while Hope lived more modestly, Boxer and Watson had acquired a significant amount of social capital, access and visibility, and regularly entertained politicians, major art collectors, overseas curators, prominent academics, bankers, captains of industry, and fellow artists at their well-appointed homes. Boxer and Watson both had charismatic personalities that inspired deep (and sometimes very uncritical) loyalty in their followers. They represented the nexus of power in the Jamaican art world, and its intersection with the worlds of postcolonial socioeconomic and political power.

Detail of Fifteen Intuitives catalogue cover

The main issue ostensibly at hand was the National Gallery’s framing and promotion of the Intuitives – a selective canon of self-taught, popular artists who were highlighted in exhibitions such as The Intuitive Eye (1979) and Fifteen Intuitives (1987) and which were granted a prominent position in the survey exhibition Jamaican Art 1922-1982, which was organized and toured with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service from 1983 to 1986, when it was finally shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica (you can read more about the Intuitives canon and the debate that has surrounded it here). Other things were however also at stake.

One was that all of this happened in the aftermath of the 1980s general elections, and the divisive political climate and partisan affiliations of the personalities in question, and the institutions that supported them, obviously played a role. Boxer’s position at the National Gallery had been shaky in the immediate aftermath and he was under pressure for most of the 1980s. It did not help that the Gleaner had been one of the most consistent critics of the Michael Manley government in the 1970s, and was firmly behind Edward Seaga’s neo-liberal government in the 1980s.

But most of all, the “Hope-Watson-Boxer war” was a struggle for control over Jamaica’s art narratives and hierarchies, waged between three of the “big men” of the Jamaican art world, who were trying to negotiate their own positions of supremacy. It was about who was the ultimate authority on Jamaican art, and its chief gatekeeper, and about which artists warranted the top positions in the national art canon. This struggle was negotiated with the currencies of professional expertise, educational qualifications, social status and access, national origin and personal identity, political affiliation, and institutional power, mixed with significant doses of personal arrogance. To put it plainly, and at its worst, it was about turf, status and power.

The Intuitives question was not the only bone of contention between Hope and Boxer and there were other public skirmishes that substantiate that asserting expertise was a critical part of the ongoing “kas-kas.” One such was a fight about the correct form of a Pietà, a formalized representation of the Virgin Mary and the body of the dead Christ frequently seen in late Medieval and Renaissance tradition art in Europe. Hope claimed that a Pietà was only a Pietà when the body was lying in the Virgin’s lap, while Boxer rightly retorted that there were quite a few noted exceptions, in which the body of Christ was otherwise positioned. Hope was no match to Boxer when it came to art-historical connoisseurship.

What was also at stake, however, was the status of Boxer’s own work as a contemporary artist, who was gathering significant market support. Hope relished in pointing out that Boxer was, as such, self-taught as an artist and thus, from Hope’s perspective, as deficient in academic skills as the Intuitives. And he routinely derided the work of other contemporary artists who were supported by Boxer, such as Milton George and Omari Ra (who was then known as Robert Cookhorne or African).

Leonard Daley at his home in Fiddler Hill, St Catherine, with three of his paintings, 1996 (photograph Walter Rammelaere – all rights reserved)

The relentless, increasingly personally targeted sparring between the two camps had a deeply polarizing effect on the Jamaican art world and it alienated many others who failed to see the point of the endless contention. But it also had an energizing effect, as it provided those who actively participated in it with a sense of shared purpose, with a “cause” to defend. This was my own experience when I moved to Jamaica in September 1984, as a twenty-five year old, starry-eyed, and freshly minted art historian — white, female, and European, with all the baggage that entailed. I started working in the National Gallery’s education department a few months later, landing right in the middle of the “kas-kas.” I was captivated by the work of the emerging contemporary artists and the Intuitives (and, admittedly, far less impressed with Barrington Watson’s grand academic paintings or Hope’s often rather dubious pontifications). It seemed only natural for me to join the National Gallery’s “camp” at that time.

The situation culminated three years later, in 1987, when the National Gallery staged the Fifteen Intuitives exhibition. This exhibition was a more radical challenge to the artistic status quo than the Intuitive Eye had been in 1979. The latter had focused on artists who had already received public recognition, such as Kapo and John Dunkley, and whose work was more readily validated as “fine art.” Fifteen Intuitives, in contrast, foregrounded newer artists such as Leonard Daley and Errol McKenzie, whose work was more idiosyncratic, uncomfortable and opaque, and much harder to recuperate into the conventional artistic frameworks. Leonard Daley’s raw, visually and emotionally haunting, double-sided tarpaulin paintings, which were suspended to great effect in the National Gallery’s central hall, set the tone for that the exhibition (a post on Daley’s work, and my visits to him, can be found here).

Quite predictably, Andrew Hope’s reviews were scathing, and Barrington Watson, in an obvious effort to add more intellectual weight to his position, invited Rudolph Murray, a Jamaican-born Aesthetics professor at Ryerson University in Toronto. Murray’s review was first presented as a series of lectures at Watson’s Contemporary Art Centre gallery and subsequently published as three lengthy articles in the Gleaner. Murray had devised ascending “one to ten” scales for artistic and aesthetic value, which he applied to various artists. While he declined to rate any Intuitive work for its artistic value, which he claimed was very low, he rated a handful as “fives” and “fours” on his aesthetic value scale. With other words, he conceded that some of the works had aesthetic, or cultural, value but refused to acknowledge them as “art,” relegating them to the status of ethnographic curiosities. Leonard Daley, pointedly, got zeroes on both counts; Barrington Watson, who was safely positioned at the opposite side of the spectrum, of course got perfect tens.

Leonard Daley – Untitled painting on drum cover (c1993), private collection

I was promoted to Assistant Curator around that time, which put me in charge of the National Gallery’s education programme, and I organized the Crisis in Criticism symposium, which was held on February 2, 1988. The symposium had speakers such as Rex Nettleford, Gloria Escoffery, Pamella O’Gorman, and Sonia Jones — some of the other heavyweights in the Jamaican cultural community and all close associates of Boxer at that time — as well as Boxer himself. It was the National Gallery’s only structured response to the debate but much of the discussion was, predictably targeted at Andrew Hope himself (who was present for the afternoon session but did not speak up). The gist of the presentations was to question Hope’s legitimacy to speak about, and on behalf of Jamaican culture, while the presenters left no doubt about their own credentials. I vividly remember Nettleford quipping, at the end of his presentation, that he had “used a hammer to kill a flea.”

Naturally, the war of words did not end there. Several of the papers presented at the symposium were submitted to and published in the Gleaner and Andrew Hope promptly retaliated with a lengthy, two-part column titled “The Crisis in Leadership,” in which he questioned the leadership of Jamaica’s cultural sector as a whole, but particularly focused on Boxer’s stewardship of the National Gallery. And he again dismissed the Intuitives, deriding them as “a group of elderly rustics” who needed proper training — an unfortunate reminder of the class and artistic hierarchy biases that helped to fuel the Intuitives controversy.

Looking back, I recognize that there was a lot of blame to go around in this battle of the titans of the Jamaican art world, and I regret my own, rather naive role in the fracas and my inability, at that time, to take a step back to see the bigger picture. Had it been possible to transcend the personality issues, grandstanding, and power wrangling, and to deal with the issues at hand more dispassionately, with more respect for the work and persons of all involved (the Intuitives included), some interesting and productive discussions might have been had. Both camps took what were, as such, worthwhile positions on the status of self-taught popular art and on in the postcolonial Jamaican art world — simply put, that it should be de-marginalized and validated as an important, defining part of the postcolonial cultural dynamic, from Boxer’s perspective; but that its canonization, especially in the international context, often involves problematic and limiting perceptions about black, postcolonial art and artists, on the side of Watson. Not recognizing this was an opportunity lost.

Sources

Andrew Hope. “It Was Not a Jibe.” Gleaner, November 5, 1987, VI.

———. “The Crisis in Leadership – Part I and II” Gleaner, February 21 and 28, 1988.

Rudolp Murray. Review of Fifteen Intuitives – part I, II and III, Gleaner, August 3 and 16, and September 11, 1987

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