This article was originally published in the Jamaica Monitor, in two parts, on May 30 and June 6, 2021, respectively. More images have been added. All photographs are by Joni Gordon, courtesy of the Edna Manley College.
The year 2020 was a challenging year for Edna Manley College students but especially for those in their final year. Less than half-way through the final semester of the 2019-2020, Jamaica had its first covid lock-down and the College closed for several weeks, and with that, access to studio space, equipment and, even, work in progress was suspended at what is normally a critical time for final year students to complete their exam projects – my column is focused on the School of Visual Arts but students in the other programmes faced similar constraints.
When the classes resumed, most teaching moved online, which caused its own problems as not all students have equal access to the Internet, and studio access was available only on a limited, staggered basis. Many students experienced unanticipated financial challenges because of the economic downturn that has accompanied the pandemic. It was also not possible to have the conventional, usually very well-attended Final Year Show, although the exam work was placed on view in a series of low-key studio displays. For disclosure: I serve as a final year studio examiner in the Fine Arts department and teach several art history and general studies courses on a part-time basis. I cannot, therefore, offer an independent review of the final year projects, but I can add some public visibility to what was achieved.
It is often said that art thrives in moments of crisis, but the current crisis has negatively affected the means of artistic production itself, such as access to studios, materials and equipment, and opportunities for public engagement as well. The Visual Arts graduating class of 2020 was nonetheless an exceptionally strong one and a great credit to the students, faculty, and College administrators, who adjusted with determination and resourcefulness to the challenges of the pandemic. Much of what the students produced was, not surprising, about the complexities of present moment—the effects of the pandemic and the broader, epochal social and cultural changes that are occurring—and the way these are experienced at the individual and collective level. This resonance with a “now” many of us can identify with made viewing and, even more so, hearing the students talk about their final year projects a powerful and indeed moving experience.
The current circumstances, and the forced social isolation that came with the lockdown, have confronted many of us with ourselves in ways we had not necessarily anticipated. A lot of the work produced by the 2020 graduates was, not surprising, autobiographic, or at least took personal experience as its point of departure.
Rohmearo McFarlane, for instance, presented a mixed-media installation in which he pondered the subjects of belonging, displacement, homemaking, and domesticity, drawing from his experience of parental absence and moving to a new house very frequently as a youngster. There were references to his earlier training in technical drawing, and the conventionally male act of building, but also the softer, presumably feminine strategies used to make a new home one’s own, such as hanging pretty curtains and planting flowers. McFarlane thus also challenged the associated gender roles and perceptions, subtly claiming personal space and legitimacy in domestic roles not conventionally associated with black masculinity.
A similar preoccupation with personal experience was also evident in the work of Reeishma Young Sang and Kesi Mortley. Young Sang’s plaster and silicone casts of various body parts, which were stacked in geometric structures, asked questions about body image, gender, sexuality, social norms and self-perception in a culture which strongly dictates what the female body is supposed to look like and how it is supposed to be presented, socially. Mortley also worked with body casts, using her own body to create seemingly broken, tortured and subjected female forms that were scattered across the room in which they were presented—a powerful, indeed visceral reminder of the epidemic of violence and sexual abuse against girls and women in Jamaica, which is part of the lived experience of too many.
This week, I present the second and final part of my reflections on the final year projects produced by the 2020 graduates at the School of Visual Arts, Edna Manley College, who graduated during what must have been among the most challenging circumstances in the history of the institution. As I outlined last week, a lot of the work produced responded thoughtfully to the present moment, with the autobiographic often serving as the point of departure.
Shasha Porter, a painting graduate, followed the opposite trajectory. She set out to produce a series of portraits of young Jamaican men—most of them fellow students—that explored the often remarkably fluid constructions of masculinity in contemporary Jamaican popular culture and the moral judgements that surround this. Her initial focus was on how these issues are mediated by religion and religious culture, in ways which are often quite ambivalent (as in the “badman with his Bible”), but the project evolved into an exploration of self-identity, in that same general socio-cultural context, with a probing, personally cathartic series of self-portraits.
In Daniel Harrison’s large, multi-part mixed media prints, the body is practically devoid of any of the conventional markers of gender and sexuality, seemingly reduced to its spiritual essence, and placed in in juxtaposition with patterns that allude to African Diasporic spirituality. In a vivid illustration that contemporary art is not necessarily dismissive of traditional culture, Harrison’s work draws from the spiritual worlds that were explored by Jamaican popular artists and visionaries such as Everald Brown and Albert Artwell but also relates to the provocative and politicized imaginings of black futures of Afrofuturism (of which Black Panther is perhaps the best known pop culture exponent).
As the feminist movement has taught us, the personal is political, and the human body is a site where many ideological and cultural battles unfold. The work of Textile and Fibre Arts graduate Kadeen Williams addressed the cultural significance of black hair, which is a subject of acute interest in Jamaica. Her work, which consisted of 3D weaving constructions that looked like human hair combined with piece of fabric embroidered text, explored the mother-daughter relationship and the life lessons exchanged, represented in patois in the embroidery, during the nurturing but sometimes necessarily painful domestic ritual of combing hair.
The work of Derrian Barrant, who is in the army and serves as a photographer there, provided a radically different angle. His visual essay, in photography and video, started as an exploration of the socio-economic challenges faced by veterans but shifted to documenting life at Up Park Camp, from the pomp and pageantry of official presentations to the more mundane formalities of daily life. His visually stunning black and white photographs were as interesting for what they ostensibly documented as what they quietly alluded to, namely the rootedness of military life in colonial era norms, hierarchies and symbols, and its complicated relationship with the black body, masculinity, social class, and contemporary Jamaican culture. The recent controversy about the racist imagery in the Queen’s honour medal traditionally worn by the Governor General inevitably came to mind.
What the few examples this short overview could highlight also illustrate is that there is a healthy diversity and interdisciplinary fluidity in the College’s visual arts programme. Students are actively encouraged to engage with new media and technologies but also well supported if they opt for more traditional media, styles, and artistic disciplines, or wish to work on the crossovers between the two. The positive effects of these freedoms were certainly evident in the 2020 final year projects and illustrate that healthy diversity is possible in Jamaica’s contemporary art world, without the rancour and rivalry that has often surrounded that subject.
From what I have seen thus far, it appears that the work of the 2021 graduating class will be no less compelling. It is very encouraging that our young artists continue to push the artistic boundaries, with innovative, diverse, well-conceived, and well-crafted work that bodes well for the future of art in Jamaica, despite the challenges of the moment.