The original version of this post was published in four installments in what was then the Jamaica Monitor, now the Monitor Tribune, in four installments between July 2 and 23, 2022. A few minor changes have been made.
A Limited Outlook
I left the June 26 opening of the Kingston Biennial at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) with very conflicted feelings. It was good to be back for an exhibition opening at the NGJ, the first since February 2020, and to see members of the local artistic community I had not seen in person for more than two years in some instances. My conflicted response was to the exhibition itself. The Kingston Biennial is, as such, a cohesive exhibition with works of art of a generally high standard, and an enjoyable exhibition experience. There are however also significant problems, with the exhibition itself, in terms of its conceptualization and curation and its narrow scope, and with the self-defeating politics that have surrounded it.
I was, for instance, looking forward to seeing the work of Hurvin Anderson, Arthur Simms, Satch Hoyt, and Nari Ward. They are artists of Jamaican descent who work in Europe and North America and who have been producing remarkable work, to great critical acclaim, and Ward is the only one who had exhibited at the NGJ before. All, except for Simms, are however represented by very modest, almost timid works, that lack the sort of impact and presence one would expect from major artists in a biennial. Nari Ward, for instance, is known for his expansive structures and installations, many of which are site-specific. I expected a work of great impact and significance but what we get in his Windward is in essence a re-interpretation, adjusted to the Jamaican context, of an earlier work, We the People from 2011. It is an interesting work, that reflects provocatively on the tenets of Jamaican nationhood, but it hardly makes the strong statement I had expected from Nari Ward. In contrast, Simms’ four mixed media sculptures do have the sort of presence and impact I expected from him, but they all date from 1992, and are thus a remarkable thirty years old, while Hoyt’s work, Kick That, is from 2006. Both are active artists and more recent work could surely have been selected that is more relevant to the present moment.
Budgetary and logistical considerations on the part of the NGJ probably played a major role in these disappointing choices, as art shipping to Jamaica is particularly expensive and challenging. But I must also ask of these artists what exhibiting in Jamaica represents for them? Is it a mere gesture of goodwill towards the country of their birth and its cultural institutions, for which a token contribution will suffice, or something that is a major and meaningful moment in their career, that is treated with the same seriousness and urgency of other major international exhibition opportunities? It appears that the former is, regrettably, the correct answer. When a Caribbean cultural institution such as the NGJ goes through the cost and effort of bringing the work of such artists to its exhibitions, we should not be getting second best. And including such artists should not be a mere matter of legitimizing but ultimately self-defeating name-dropping on the part of the curators and the NGJ.
There are also technical and curatorial issues that frankly surprised me. Designing and laying out an effective and engaging art exhibition requires striking a balance between technical requirements, aesthetic considerations, and teasing out those instructive relationships and conversations between the works on view that will engage audiences. It appears, however, that expedience took the upper hand, with many works seemingly placed randomly, or even in ill-advised positions. I would certainly not have placed two sound-based pieces, by Matthew McCarthy and Satch Hoyt, so close together that the subtle soundtrack of the latter could barely be heard. Nor would I have placed Marlon James’ remarkable, large-scale photographs in a narrow corridor, where there is no room for them to be viewed properly. It is also concerning, and remarked upon by several viewers, that the selected paintings by Phillip Thomas, Alicia Brown, and Greg Bailey all employ strikingly similar imagery and an equally similar aesthetic. That is as such not a coincidence, as their work is part a distinctive cluster of representational painting in contemporary Jamaican art, but that works that have such a closely related look and feel were not only selected for the same exhibition but mounted closely together, without any redeeming juxtapositions, does not do these artists and the strong, individual artistic voices they do present, any favours. Likewise, it was disappointing to see Laura Facey’s viscerally powerful Guide Their Way Home, which in her solo exhibition at Orsmby Hall commanded the space so eloquently, huddled together so uncomfortably on the highly reflective floor of the NGJ’s central gallery. The work needed a space of its own for us to appreciate its expansive, epic qualities. Its juxtaposition with Nari Ward’s understated Windward, while related in subject matter, brought together two works that speak such different formal and visual languages that they practically cancelled out each other.
The Kingston Biennial’s lead curator, David Scott, reveals in his essay that the curatorial team opted for an intimate, cohesive exhibition. This search for cohesion is however a limitation as much as it is a strength, as it leads to a highly predictable, risk-averse, and ultimately rather unambitious exhibition. It is an exhibition that reaffirms a particular canon of contemporary art associated with Jamaica, and a now rather obsolete curatorial approach that is preoccupied with producing such hierarchies. We have seen this exhibition before, many times, at the NGJ and other places (and most of the featured artists are in fact regular exhibitors at the NGJ, some in practically every recent exhibition.) Major international exhibitions elsewhere, such as the recently closed edition of Documenta, are resolutely challenging such approaches, with radical, provocative rethinking and inspired collaborations. A biennial can be anything you want it to be, yes, but the question is ultimately what it needs to be in the present cultural moment. In my estimation, a good biennial must rock the boat, take risks, and change the conversation. It must be messy and disruptive, and open to new ideas and developments. No such thing is happening here, no new or provocative questions are being asked, no games are being changed, and there is certainly no room for any diversity or inclusion.
The choice of theme, too, may have contributed to the exhibition’s predictability. Pressure may have great currency in Jamaican culture, and it is certainly applicable to the present moment, but it is also a passepartout theme. It is applicable, in some way, to almost all art ever produced in Jamaica and by Jamaicans, and to a lot of art elsewhere. It takes us down an already extremely well-trodden path.
Not only is the Kingston Biennial an unusually small exhibition, for a biennial, but it lacks the sort of energy and imagination that should fuel such projects. The question certainly arises who and what this biennial is really for, and I am yet to hear any convincing answers on that count, from the curators or the NGJ. Most of all, it pains me to think about what could have been, if the intellects and curatorial imaginations of a David Scott, Wayne Modest, Nichole Smythe-Johnson and, for that matter, O’Neil Lawrence of could have been applied to a more ambitious, open, imaginative, and transformative project, implemented by a NGJ which was firing on all pistons, uninhibited by the unfortunate institutional politics that have weighed down the institution in recent years.
Presences and Absences
In this second part of my review, I turn my attention to a few works of art in the Biennial that stood out to me, as well as a few things that I could not find.
Matthew McCarthy’s Sun System Radio, which combines sculptural form and sound, is one of the most remarkable pieces in the exhibition. As the catalogue entry on his work notes, his work revolves around Jamaica’s rich musical history, its social dimensions, and the relationship between its sonic and visual expressions. The soundtrack of Sun System Radio consists of a fictional radio program in which various Kingston individuals were interviewed about what pressure means to them. The large, three-dimensional radio or speaker box wall form, however it is interpreted, comes alive as a fantastic, quasi-mythological figure, composed of undulating, interlocking, and morphing forms, claiming space for the narratives of pressure represented in a playful but uncompromising manner.
Photographic, video and digital work is strongly represented and used in several cases to present personal narratives about things that are often unsaid or unacknowledged. There are four photos by Marlon James (the photographer, not the writer), who now lives in Trinidad, that explore the taboo subject of male homosocial intimacy, through simple, common rituals of male friendship, solidarity, and bonding, such as lighting and sharing a spliff. The photograph’s dark, atmospheric quality, which evokes the interactions rather than to capture them in any detail, movingly portrays a culture that is very much part of everyday Jamaican life, even though homophobic insecurities often cause it to be denied or ignored.
Simon Benjamin’s two-channel video installation Errantry (2021) continues his ongoing exploration of the complicated and troubled relationship between Caribbean people and the sea, as it is negotiated on the coastal boundaries. Deftly mixing documentary and fiction, and sound, moving image, and object, the work is based on three months of research in Treasure Beach and his interactions with the fisherman Tommy and reflects on the precarious balancing act between survival and eking out a living, and engaging in environmentally nefarious fishing practices.
While McCarthy, James and Benjamin engage with social narratives of pressure, other artists present deeply personal but no less relatable narratives that speak about trauma and survival. Nadine Natalie Hall’s Heirlooms Unchained evokes her childhood experiences with sexual molestation and a seemingly indifferent and unresponsive mother – an all-too-common story in Jamaica – by means of carefully positioned evocative objects, such as her late mother’s handbag, an heirloom that signifies familial connection but also comes with painful baggage, as well as an empty chair and loose chains that suggest her release from that experience. The delicate white fiber globes that are suspended along with periphery of the installation add an uncanny, dreamlike quality and contradictory beauty to what could have been a cold and brutal scene, further signalling survival and transcendence.
Katrina Coombs’ Apocalypse, Lifting the Veil, a room-sized, immersive video and textile and fibre installation, also speaks about motherhood and trauma, and about the particular pain arising from the loss of an unborn or new-born child. Yet during the opening of the biennial, the public response to the immersive, performative space was excited and even joyful. While probably also motivated by the prospect of a selfie photo-op, it was evident that visitors could not wait to take off their shoes to enter and engage with the space, and I saw several actually installing themselves quite comfortably in and around the womb-like fibre sculpture form in the middle of the installation. This tells us that Apocalypse, Lifting the Veil is a work for our times, that reveals and acknowledges deep trauma but also offers that soft, protective cocoon, that retreat into the womb and that sense of a healing community and communion that we all seem to need right now to become one with our pain and our loss and to find ways to move on.
There are other works of great merit in the inaugural Kingston Biennial but, as I argued in the previous section, the exhibition is best understood as a conversation among the like-minded. What troubles me is the lack of any discordant voices in an exhibition which is, after all, about “pressure”. Adding an element of dissent, some dissonance and contrariness, could have been very revealing of all the different things that “pressure” can mean.
It is of note, from that perspective, that most of the artists included have advanced art training, most of them at master’s degree level, and that only one (Ricardo Williams) is self-taught, although he explores themes and a visual language that are familiar in mainstream contemporary black image-making. Co-curator Wayne Modest’s essay talks at some length about the “popular aesthetic of pressure” as a concern that is indeed central to exhibition theme and its currency in Jamaican life. The popular culture itself is however strikingly absent from the exhibition and represented only through the interpretative, theorizing and often aestheticizing lens of mainstream contemporary art. That is an unfortunate omission, as popular culture needed to be more actively present, and on its own terms, for the intended conversation about “pressure” as a Jamaican idiom to be complete.
Likewise, there is no evidence of those more conventional art practices that continue to hold their own in the Jamaican art ecology, and actually outperform contemporary art in terms of local art support. Such art, which retains its validity, used to be abundantly represented in past biennials, and the National Gallery’s 2019 Summer Exhibition. A more adventurous curatorial team might have selected some such work too, to add greater depth and nuance, and a greater element of tension and risk, to the curatorial conversations that an exhibition of this nature is supposed to instigate. That this was not done could also be seen as needlessly inflammatory in an art world which has been racked by divisions and exclusions in recent years. It is possible to be inclusive in exciting and innovative ways that do not compromise artistic and curatorial standards.
I heard through the art world grapevine that some of the invited artists declined, or dropped out, which may have skewed the ultimate list of artists away from what was originally planned. It appears, however, that the curators’ choices were largely informed by what was already within their field of vision, and that they selected artists with whom they were already well-familiar, and perhaps too familiar in some instances. I wish that more effort had been made to consider other possibilities. It is unfortunate that there was no call for submissions, as this would have expanded the pool from which the curators could select significantly. That there were always exciting surprises from new and unknown artists, who had never exhibited in Jamaica before, was one thing I really liked about the previous incarnations of the biennial, and there could have been a mechanism in its new dispensation to retain that possibility.
A few things are, however, more literally missing from the Kingston Biennial. Nicole Smythe-Johnson’s catalogue essay, for instance, speaks at some length about work produced for the biennial by Afifa Aza and Ramon Knight, and invites us to see it in dialogue with Nari Ward’s, yet it is nowhere to be found in the exhibition. Their names were not actually included when the exhibition list was finally published on April 8, 2022, so their absence was known some time ago. It would be good to know what happened there and I suspect that there is an interesting back story.
It appears that the curatorial team was under “pressure” too.
Reinventing the Wheel
Let me add some history, as this provides a necessary context to my concerns about the current exhibition. I should acknowledge here that I am an interested party, as I was the lead curator of the 2012, 2014 and 2017 biennials, and conceptualized the Biennial’s new trajectory with the curatorial team in my capacity as the National Gallery’s Executive Director at that time. The team also included O’Neil Lawrence, Monique Barnett-Davidson and, intermittently, Nicole Smythe-Johnson. Before that, the Biennial and most of its predecessors at the National Gallery had been directed by David Boxer (with Rosalie Smith-McCrea as the curator of the 1985 edition and myself as the curator of the 1998 edition of the Annual National exhibition).
What has now again and quite unnecessarily been rebranded, for the third time since 2004, as the Kingston Biennial, has much earlier origins. It started with the All-Island Exhibitions, of which the first edition was held as a private initiative in 1938 and which were held by the Institute of Jamaica from the 1940s onward. These annual exhibitions were designed to unearth new talent and to encourage the development of a dynamic and diverse Jamaican art world. Such concerns are not irrelevant today.
The National Gallery of Jamaica, which was itself established in 1974, took over the baton in 1977 with the first Annual National Exhibition, which was conceived along similar lines. The curatorial method initially varied – the 1983 edition was, for instance, curated by the members of National Gallery’s curatorial department who spent months visiting artists’ studios. By the mid-1980s, the approach was settled, and involved an ever-growing list of invited artists, deemed to be of exceptional accomplishment, along with an open call for other Jamaican and Jamaica-based artists to submit work to the juried section. The exhibition invariably attracted some controversy, because of the politics of who was, and who was not invited, or selected through the jury process. Many also felt, with good reason, that the jury, while changing annually, typically consisted of persons who were too closely allied with the National Gallery, and reinforced rather than challenged its curatorial biases.
In 2002, it was decided that the Annual National would become a National Biennial, of which the first edition would be held in 2004. It was felt that the quality of entries was dropping, and that giving the artists more time would yield a stronger exhibition. While artists who lived outside of the island had been included in Annual Nationals, it is for the 2004 National Biennial that the first major effort was made to include high-profile Jamaican Diaspora artists. Renee Cox and Peter Wayne Lewis were among the new invitees, so there was also an effort at internationalization. The introduction of the Aaron Matalon Award added a prestigious competitive element, which it was hoped would also encourage higher standards.
Yet, in the end, the National Biennial was the same, routine Annual National in a new, slightly modified package that no longer suited the rapidly changing circumstances. The 2012 edition reflected a new energy in the Jamaican art world, and raised generative curatorial questions and critical responses, driving home that more was possible and needed. This new energy had also been evident in the breakthrough Young Talent V exhibition in 2010, which had put a new generation of artists on the map, including Ebony G. Patterson, Leasho Johnson and Phillip Thomas, and which reverberated well beyond Jamaica. There were indeed dramatic changes in the local, regional and global artistic landscape that the National Gallery could not afford to ignore. We recognized that the invited-for-life system was obsolete, and fundamentally elitist, but also knew that abolishing it would be resisted, as being invited for life served to assert positions in the local artistic pecking orders, especially at a time when those were being vigorously challenged by the younger generation.
The 2014 Jamaica Biennial was conceived as a first step towards what, it was envisioned, would eventually become a (guest-)curated and possibly thematic exhibition. The four initial changes were: the use of international judges, as it was felt that a more independent judging process was needed; the change of title from National Biennial to Jamaica Biennial; the use of multiple locations, initially in Kingston and Montego Bay (where the National Gallery West branch had just opened that summer); and opening up to the Caribbean and its Diaspora, by means of special invitations selected by the National Gallery’s curatorial team. The invited and juried system was maintained but with the understanding that this structure would be abandoned for the next edition.
The title Kingston Biennial was considered but rejected because we wanted to challenge the entrenched but deeply reductive Kingston-centred approach to Jamaican art and culture. The idea was that the biennial would eventually become an island-wide event, with other locations being added. The name Jamaica Biennial was agreed upon, as it signaled what we wanted the exhibition to be, which was both inward- and outward-looking, inclusive and of a high standard, and positioned for local as well as international engagement. I believe that it is unfortunate that this name was not maintained.
There was a broad consensus that the 2014 Jamaica Biennial was a success. The provocative interventions into derelict buildings in Downtown Kingston by the Bahamian artist Blue Curry and the exhibition at Devon House, which was installed in a provocative dialogue with the history and context of that iconic mansion, were particularly memorable. We had succeeded in moving the needle and were all set to start planning for the next edition.
The plan for 2016 was to retain the innovations from 2014 but to shift to invitations that were specific for a particular edition of the biennial only, drawn by the curatorial team from the pool of local, other Caribbean and Diaspora artists, and to retain the juried system alongside, but with a cap on the number of works to be accepted, as we wanted a more manageable exhibition size. We also planned two special tributes, for Alexander Cooper and Peter Dean Rickards — a traditionalist, figurative older painter and a younger provocateur whose photographic and video work captured the spirit of contemporary Jamaica. The contrast was deliberate, as we wanted to signal that abandoning the invited-for-life system did not mean that the artists who had been on that list would no longer be considered.
The 2016 general elections intervened, and it took until July of that year for a new board to be appointed. While curatorial decisions are not, as such, board matters, expenditure had to be approved and possible changes in policy considered, so the second edition of the Jamaica Biennial was postponed to February 2017. The new board did not support our plan to abolish the lifetime invitations or to cap the jury selections. We were also instructed to include two board members along with the international judges, so the move towards a more independent selection process was not supported (while board micromanagement increased exponentially).
The result was an unwieldy behemoth of an exhibition, consisting of a record number of works, many of them large-scale. While the exhibitions at Devon House and National Gallery West were arguably stronger than in the 2014 edition, the National Gallery building on the waterfront was bursting at its seams, forced to accommodate more exhibits than its capacity allowed. The 2017 edition was an uncomfortable compromise, but at least it was not a step back.
Much of what happened then, and has happened since then, has to do with this ridiculous and counterproductive part of the local political culture, whereby an incoming administration, and its politically appointed boards, feel that they must absolutely devalue, erase, discard, and reinvent anything that happened before them. This usually amounts to a politically motivated, and often also ego- and agenda-driven, reinvention of the wheel which reduces national institutions to political and personal turf, and distracts from the broader public interests they should serve. Such disruptions set institutions back, rather than to move them forward. And the retrograde effects of such politics are, despite the exhibition’s merits, painfully evident in the inaugural Kingston Biennial.
In a Holding Pattern?
As inevitably happens, when an exhibition such as the Kingston Biennial opens, there is a lot of talk in the local art world, and some are questioning whether David Scott is qualified to curate the biennial, as he is not a professional curator. I do not share that concern, as Scott does in fact have curatorial experience, as do the other two guest curators. It is however obvious that we need to have a serious conversation about what qualifies persons to label themselves and, more so, to act as curators, art historians, museologists and museum directors in the context of a public cultural institution. When it comes to that, David Scott and his team are the least of the National Gallery’s problems.
My own concern is that the three guest-curators are too closely associated, in terms of their personal history, with certain members of the National Gallery board. The idea behind using guest curators is that they should be able to present an independent curatorial vision. I see no evidence that the decisions of the Kingston Biennial curators were unduly influenced but appearances matter in such situations, but it would have been wiser for the National Gallery to start its Kingston Biennial series with guest curators who were not so closely connected.
One of my main regrets is that the exhibition has returned to being strictly Jamaican one, after the Biennial was opened to the Caribbean and its Diaspora for the 2014 and 2017 editions. That all artists, curators and catalogue contributors for the present edition are Jamaican (although not all define themselves as such) and that the theme of “pressure” is presented as an exclusive Jamaican idiom one panders to a myopic kind of Jamaican exceptionalism that is not productive in today’s globalized and interconnected world. It also limits our understanding of the chosen theme of “pressure,” which has much wider implications in the Global Caribbean. How can we have a credible discussion on the theme without reflecting on the Trinidadian Horace Ové’s ground-breaking feature film Pressure (1976), which portrayed the racial and cultural tensions faced by the Caribbean Diaspora in the UK in the seventies, or without considering the Haitian artists of the Atis Resistanz, whose work embodies the very idea of urban pressure in the Caribbean context? I could go on.
The small size of the Kingston Biennial, with a mere 24 artists and 56 works of art, is also regrettable. The 2017 Jamaica Biennial may have been too large, and not selective enough, but its successor, the 2022 Kingston Biennial is needless small, limited in outlook and exclusionary. By being confined to the National Gallery’s exhibition galleries, and no longer held at multiple locations, the exhibition has furthermore retreated back into the privileged “white cube” space of an institution which is still viewed as elitist by many, and this further constrains public engagement.
At an online presentation which preceded the Kingston Biennial some months ago, I asked David Scott if there would be fringe events. His response was rather curt and dismissive, and he reiterated that the Biennial would be at the National Gallery itself only. Perhaps Scott misunderstood me, but what I meant with fringe events were concurrent exhibitions and programs that are independently organized by third parties and, if they meet certain criteria, recognized on the main event calendar as associated events. Such fringe programs are common practice at cultural festivals and biennials across the world, and add to their substance and diversity. Some are so successful that they become recognized in their own right, such as the popular Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which is framed as a celebration of creative freedom.
Having a city-wide itinerary of associated events, if the program absolutely had to be limited to Kingston, would have helped to animate Jamaica’s capital city as a creative city in a much more meaningful and dynamic manner than any small, institutionally confined exhibition such as the Kingston Biennial could possibly do. Having recognized fringe events would also have removed some of the representational pressures from the Biennial itself, as artists who were not selected would have had the opportunity to exhibit elsewhere but in a related context. It would have opened up and diversified the conversation significantly, without costing the National Gallery a penny. There is much the National Gallery could learn from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
I also have to question the unusually long duration of the Kingston Biennial, which will be on view for more than six months. The organizers may have taken the duration of the Venice Biennale as their model, but there the schedule coincides with the tourism season for that city, which is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Such a synergistic alignment is not evident in the timing of the Kingston Biennial, which unwisely spans the Atlantic Hurricane Season, and the obviously expedient decision of now pinning it to Jamaica 60, after multiple postponements, comes at various other costs.
As an art museum curator with more some thirty-five years of experience, I know well that exhibitions have a limited shelf live, as the target audience for each is finite. Unless the exhibition is exceptionally popular, which would in our case have to be well beyond Jamaica, and supported by intensive programming, public interest usually tapers off after the first two months or so. If an exhibition is left to languish past its prime, it dilutes its impact and reflects a lack of vitality and initiative on the part of the organizing institution. There has been only one associated program thus far: a rather ad hoc set of two panel discussions with some of the artists in the Kingston Biennial on the day after the opening. A month has gone by since then and no other events have as yet been held or announced, so it does not appear that there will be the sort of well-strategized public engagement program that is needed to keep the Kingston Biennial alive and relevant until December 31. [Note: a film program, -guest-curated by Storm Saulter, has been added since this column was initially published but the screenings were held at the AC Hotel and appeared to be only nominally linked to the Biennial.]
Since the National Gallery does not have the space to mount concurrent exhibitions, the current trend of having much longer exhibitions also means that that the diversity of its exhibition program is significantly curtailed. The National Gallery used to have an average of four to five exhibitions per year, each typically two to three months long. National Gallery West in Montego Bay, which opened in 2014, initially maintained a similar schedule. It now appears that the number of exhibitions at each venue has been reduced to lethargic one, or perhaps two per year, with a typical duration of six months.
This means that recurrent exhibitions such as the Kingston Biennial and the Summer Exhibition now take up most of the schedule, leaving no time for the other, research-based types of exhibitions – retrospectives, historical and thematic exhibitions, young artist exhibitions etcetera – that the National Gallery must also have in order to stay relevant and representative. To make matters worse, there has been an excessive dependence on externally curated, touring exhibitions in recent years. We have not seen any exhibitions that reflect the current scholarship and curatorial vision of the National Gallery’s curatorial team, and its recently appointed Chief Curator.
So where does the Kingston Biennial take the National Gallery? Does it mean that the National Gallery has finally emerged from its deep rut, which it may blame on the pandemic but which actually precedes it? It is the first exhibition of any substance that was specifically curated for the National Gallery for a while now, and that is as such a good thing. But unless the National Gallery’s exhibition and program activities are restored to the previous levels of quality, scope and frequency, the insufficiently ambitious, underwhelming Kingston Biennial is merely a token gesture which inadvertently underscores that the National Gallery is still in a holding pattern, and may soon run out of fuel altogether.