This article was originally published in the Jamaica Monitor of May 23, 2021. More images have been added.
On December 10, 2020, I attended an exhibition opening, my first since our first Covid-19 lockdown started. The occasion was And I Resumed the Struggle at the Olympia Gallery, an artist-curated exhibition that featured Zorhia Allen, Greg Bailey, Kimani Beckford, John Campbell, Camille Chedda, Katrina Coombs, Daniel Harrison, Lee-Ann Haslam, Xayvier Haughton, Audrey Lynch, Oneika Russell and Phillip Thomas.
Instead of the customary reception, the launch was conceived as a day-long walk-in event, with a small number of viewers in the gallery at any point in time, and with Covid-19 prevention protocols in place. It worked well and showed that there is no reason for our galleries and museums to remain closed – banks, restaurants and supermarkets have, after all, been open on a similar basis.
It was liberating to be able to wander through the exhibition space, to observe the dialogues and juxtapositions between the works of art, and the individual and collective artistic voices in play (and to say a distant hello to friends and colleagues I had not seen in real life for nearly a year). It showed that for all the buzz about virtual exhibitions and viewing rooms, physical exhibitions are still the best way to engage with art and that merely viewing images of the art works on a screen will always be second best (unless, of course, the work was produced in a virtual medium).
The exhibition – which took its title from a passage in Samuel Beckett’s tragicomic existentialist play Waiting for Godot (1953) – explored the present moment of existential dread, distancing, and aimless waiting, but also of potentially significant social and cultural change. It was an elegantly curated exhibition and made excellent use of the large but challenging exhibition space at Olympia. There were brief video statements by the artists, which could be accessed via QR code, an eCatalogue, and a series of artist’s talks, which accommodated a limited, physically distanced audience and were also live-streamed. And I Resumed the Struggle was an exemplary, well-managed and timely instance of artists’ initiative.
The exhibition comprised mostly paintings although other media such as fibre art (Coombs and Russell) and mixed media installation (Chedda and Haslam) were also included – figurative painting, continues to play a dominant role in contemporary Jamaican art. The diptych Mushroom Clouds by Greg Bailey, in which the cool, orderly realism of the scene was infused with a subtle, muted surrealism, spoke eloquently about social distance, personal tension, confinement, and forced domesticity. Xayvier Haughton’s haunting dark canvases, Ghede Arise I and II, with its clusters of hangman ropes and barely visible black faces, powerfully evoked the present reckoning with long histories of racial oppression, violence, and resistance. Camille Chedda’s installation, which consisted of stacked concrete bricks, with performative videos and photographs of the artist inserted, metaphorically addressed the violence against black bodies, and the possibilities of self-affirmation in response to such oppression.
Similar preoccupations were evident in the two paintings by Phillip Thomas, which also alluded to stories not told or acknowledged: the title of Vladimir and Estragon Contemplating State Violence Against Rohmearo McFarlane not only referred to the existential ennui of Waiting for Godot but also to the recent incident whereby a graduating Edna Manley College student was nearly killed in a shootout with the Police, for no other apparent reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the “unforgivable crime” of being young, male, black and poor. The work also raised the question why this appalling incident has not attracted more public attention and outrage here in Jamaica.
The exhibition was, however, not without its weaknesses and some of these are typical for artist-curated exhibitions, in which participation is often based on close social connections, leaving little room for an independent, critical approach to the selection process. Not all works were to the same standard and, while the astute layout provided an illusion of cohesion, there was a strong disparity between the type and calibre of some of the works on view, to the point where they could easily have been divided into two distinctly different exhibitions. But in all, the exhibition made an important statement in the present moment, not only because of the relevance of its theme and overall quality, but also as an urgent call to action in what has otherwise been a period of troubling artistic silence here in Jamaica.
Another edition of And I Resume the Struggle has been announced for July 15. It is highly anticipated.