Provocations: Friends and Combolo?

The National Gallery of Jamaica used to be criticized severely for catering primarily to an inner circle of favored artists, collectors and other associates. Annie Paul was once one of the National Gallery’s fiercest critics on that count and she took on the Chief Curator David Boxer on many occasions. Since 2016, Paul sits on the National Gallery board, where she is a particularly influential and publicly vocal member, in ways that often raise questions of good governance. Now that Paul appears to be at the controls, we need to ask whether things have changed, or whether there has just been a change in the cast of characters, and hold her to account on that subject. If you want to present yourself as a change agent you do, in actuality, have to foster change.

The Biennial would have been a good opportunity to send a strong signal about new directions, for instance by inviting curators who have no personal history with any of the current “Powers That Be” at the National Gallery – new voices, who could bring a fresh, independent and unrehearsed perspective to the table. And to approach the whole exercise in the spirit of shedding the baggage of the institutional past by presenting a courageous, innovative, and original vision. I was intrigued by the recent announcement about the 2022 Biennale of Sydney, titled Rīvus, which is focused on indigenous knowledge and the ancestral custody of salt and freshwater ecosystems, based on a collaborative ethos and an artist list which is, with few exceptions, refreshingly devoid from the “usual suspects” on the international biennial circuit (and includes several artists from the Caribbean region, while the curator, Jose Roca, is from Colombia). I could not help but dream about how such a concept could be applied to Jamaica and the Caribbean, and how appropriate this would be to the present cultural moment.

The signals about the upcoming Kingston Biennial are not reassuring, however, as it appears that it is, once again, an affair of “friends and combolo”. I have nothing but the greatest professional respect for Kingston Biennial’s curatorial team but I have to say it like it is: the team consists entirely of associates of the current “Powers That Be” at the National Gallery. That is not healthy and sends all the wrong signals. We have not yet seen an artist list, which is in itself very problematic and, while I still hope to be pleasantly surprised, I am not holding my breath for any substantive departure from what has already become a well-established pattern.

About two weeks ago, the National Gallery announced a new series of four online events, entitled Global Conversations. Initially, I was excited, as it at least appeared that the Gallery was stirring back to life, after a long period of intellectual and curatorial slumber. And as such, the program is an interesting one, with speakers who have a lot to say on the subjects at hand. But, on closer scrutiny, similar concerns arise. The composition of the panels, too, consists almost entirely of persons who are close to the present dispensation at the National Gallery – more of the “friends and combolo,” along with a few “friends of friends” – and who furthermore represent convergent positions and opinions. Productive critical conversations rarely arise from engaging one’s inner circle only and I have to wonder what happened to the imperatives of diversity and inclusion, especially since the Caribbean itself is so inadequately represented.

Caribbean voices such as, say, Gerardo Mosquera, Erica M. James, Marcel Pinas, Michy Marxuach, Holly Bynoe, Tessa Mars, Krista Thompson, Christopher Cozier, Edouard Duval-Carrie, Ada M Patterson, Claire Tancons, Elvis Fuentes, or Tania Bruguera, just to mention a few, would have been very well positioned to speak on the subjects covered in the program and, importantly, to connect the local to the global. It would have been great, for instance, to see an Ibrahim Mahama in conversation with Marcel Pinas, or Gerardo Mosquera with Claire Tancons. And it would have been good to have a few voices from Latin America too – Jose Roca, the Sydney Biennale curator, would have been an excellent choice – and, generally speaking, to include some more divergent positions and contrary opinions. It may not have occurred to the organizers, but there is more than one global context and there are multiple perspectives to contend with. As conceived, the ambitiously titled Global Conversations offers a surprisingly myopic and limited perspective.

I watched the first event, on Friday, April 16, which comprised presentations by Ibrahim Mahama, Olu Oguibe and Deborah Anzinger who spoke about their artistic practice. The moderation was giddy and unfocused, and there was very little opportunity for discussion and audience participation (the YouTube channel does not lend itself well to that) but overall it was time well spent because of the quality of the presentations. There was however a minor but instructive incident. While we were waiting for the event to start on the National Gallery’s YouTube channel (it started about 10 minutes late), a member of the audience asked “any abstract artists here?” Annie Paul who appeared to serve as the National Gallery spokesperson on the YouTube chat section, responded condescendingly “well it’s only in Jamaica we seem to use such terms, R.”

This response was as such nonsensical but it reflects a troubling unwillingness or inability to engage this stakeholder in a non-judgemental, inclusive and professional manner, as museum professionals are expected to do. I wonder if National Gallery staff would have gotten away with such a comment. It also suggests a deep contempt for the Jamaican art scene, which Paul has consistently dismissed in her writings as “not as good as”, “not with it” and misdirected, with the implication that she is the one who holds the keys, and the address book, to its redemption – a largely irrelevant, knee-jerk argument that has been at the core of her career as an art writer. If the Global Conversations program was conceived in such a pontificating, missionary spirit, I can only hope that this tiresome mindset will not extend to the biennial itself.

As for the governance issues involved, it is one thing for members of the board to be helpful and supportive, and to make their networks available to the organization, but quite another for the board to take control of the curatorial management of the museum. What are the consequences of this unchecked board micromanagement for the organization, the quality and independence of the programs and, for that matter, for staff relations and morale? Why has the National Gallery staff, with the exception of Chief Curator O’Neil Lawrence, been so invisible and silent in this program? Where is the Director, Jonathan Greenland, or Associate Curator Monique Barnett-Davidson (who is a very capable and engaging moderator with excellent, poised screen presence)?

My position on all of this is quite simple: if museum board members want to execute the functions of a museum director, curator or educator, they should just resign from the board and apply for such a staff position, with the understanding that the qualification, performance and accountability requirements would then be the same as for any other staff – they may quickly find out that being on staff is not as easy and comfortable as being on the board. If not, just let the professionals do their jobs and provide them with a supportive professional environment in which they and the organization they serve can thrive and shine. Museum board membership, especially on a politically appointed board like the National Gallery’s, should not be an opportunity to co-opt the organization to compensate for unrealized career ambitions. Museum boards, and staff members, do not “own” their museums but merely serve as their custodians on behalf of the broader community, a task which is to be undertaken in a spirit of selfless public service.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

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