This post was first published in the Monitor Tribune (then the Jamaica Monitor) in two parts, on August 21 and August 28, 2022. It is reproduced here with minor changes and more images.
Every year in June, the School of Visual Arts (SVA) of the Edna Manley College stages a final year exhibition, which features the exam work by the graduating students in the Bachelor of Fine Arts programme. While the last few such exhibitions have been low key, because of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the SVA final year show is always a significant event on Jamaica’s art calendar, as what is on display points towards the future of art and design in Jamaica.
For the sake of disclosure, I have lectured part time at the College and served as a final year examiner for many years, so I know the final year students and their work quite well. This column is therefore not presented as an independent review but as the perspective of an insider to the final year process, meant to give greater public exposure to the work of the students. Because of its large size, it is not possible for me to comment on all work in the exhibition, but I have selected a few examples that seemed particularly compelling and representative.
The recently completed academic year was a particularly challenging one at the Edna Manley College, not only because of the pandemic but of a last September’s fire in the painting studios, where several of the final year students had their assigned studio spaces. This resulted in significant losses for the College and the students alike. Despite the inevitable disruptions, and the trauma, the work on display in the recent final year exhibition was once again of a high general standard and furthermore reflected noteworthy developments in contemporary art in Jamaica. One work directly responded to the impact of the fire.
The commonalities in the projects on view in this year’s exhibition were fascinating and perhaps more pronounced than usual. For one, there was a marked shift towards a more conceptual, interdisciplinary approach, rooted in critical thought about art, identity, history and society, rather than conventional ideas about the art object and artistic media. The exhibition’s title, Fons et Origo (Latin for “source and origin”), was chosen by the students and reflects this reflective, philosophical turn. A number of projects furthermore engaged with issues of space and place, and in several instances transformed the indoor or outdoor spaces of the College campus into large scale installations. Related to this, there was also an immersive, interactive and often performative quality in many of the projects.
Jahmani Council produced two large installations. One was an outdoor intervention around the concrete staircase that is all that remains of the “White House” (a campus building that was destroyed in a fire in the late 1990s). Council turned the staircase into an impromptu memorial for this earlier and the more recent fire, by arranging objects such as broken glass and wood in geometric patterns around it – a simple but powerfully evocative intervention that also acknowledged the staircase as a sculptural and symbolic form (symbolic, as a surreal staircase to nowhere).
Council’s main project transformed the space of one of the sculpture studios as a reflection on “Being and Nothingness” – the French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s “L’être et le neant” – which speaks to broad questions about human consciousness and self-identity which takes on additional dimensions, beyond what Sartre may have envisioned, in the context of the postcolonial African diaspora where identity is a particularly contested and politicized issue. Here too, he worked with the givens of the space and found objects and the studio space was turned into a reflecting pool, which resulted in a visually stunning meditative space with surrealist overtones, whereby the objects that had been placed in the water seemed to become weightless and immaterial.
Demar Brackenridge took as his subject the politics of urban space and architecture. His room-size installation included a painstakingly fabricated, recreation in wood of the sort of masonry wall with decorative grillwork that is seen around many older upper-class houses in Jamaica, as well as actual metal grillwork. The wall separated the viewer from what is best described as a topographical diorama of a hill, with small model houses scattered on it. The work spoke eloquently about the mechanisms of social inclusion and exclusion that are at work in Jamaican architecture and urbanism, of who lives in the upscale hilly areas and who in the sweltering plains below, and how the boundaries between the two are marked. The extension of the wall, through the actual wall of the studio, into the adjoining courtyard space added a surreal element to the installation, and extended the work into the “reality” of the outside environment. Here too, the aesthetics of the space were important, and the near-monochrome colour scheme added to the installation’s abstracted, dream-like quality.
Michaella Garrick’s project reflected on generational black female trauma and depression. As one who grew up in the cane-growing part of St Catherine, Garrick has personal experience with the baggage attached to that landscape and its history, and as a dark-skinned Jamaican woman, with the colourism and sexism that are still part of the plantation’s legacies today. Her installation consisted of a quasi-architectural structure made from cane trash that was woven into intricate patterns, which brought to mind certain traditional African compounds, and which was installed under a tree on the lawn in front of the College library. The structure created (and shielded) a performative space in which Garrick and various models enacted expressed various forms of personal and historical trauma, such as the objectification of the black female body, sexual assault and a lack of personal safety, and the loss of a child, and found a symbolic space of release, healing and self-empowerment.
For the sculptor Sheldon Green, the inspiration was the tradition of kite-making in Jamaica, which is part of the culture of the community he comes from. Initially, he produced kite-inspired sculptures on a small, indoor scale, which were of heart-braking frailty and delicate beauty. The large outdoor sculptures he produced for the second semester, made from PVC pipes, had a more robust material presence and interacted with the physical environment of the College campus. In both instances, there was an interesting tension between the abstracted, formalist quality of the structures – “pure art” in a sense – and the references to kite building and flying, which promotes elusive social and cultural cohesion and collaboration in what are often troubled communities.
Joel Higgins tackled the difficult subjects of mental health, depression and suicide. Mental health as an issue that younger people in Jamaica are increasingly prepared to discuss openly, challenging the stigmas that surrounded such issues in the past. Higgins courageously and powerfully spoke about his personal history as well as the broader social and historical issues at hand, referring to the social and personal pressures that contribute to depression and suicide. He installed several hanging papier maché figures in a tree which he had painted in blood red, and which was covered with graffiti and surrounded by small paper flags with brief suicide notes that were planted in the soil around the tree. The installation not only made reference to suicide by hanging but inevitably also evoked the haunted histories of lynching and the Strange Fruits of the Lewis Adam/Billie Holiday song. The barren poinciana tree he used for his project started blooming during the installation, unexpectedly and poignantly adding visual beauty and allusions to resilience, survival and hope to the otherwise bleak symbolism of the work.
It is one of the mantras of feminism that “the personal is the political,” and this is something the current crop of graduating students at the Edna Manley College understands well. Issues of identity and gender were important thematic concerns in the recent Fons et Origo final year exhibition, and were pursued in ways which are, in various combinations, provocative, critical, and cathartic.
Tuesday Stewart, a photography student, explored the representation of the self in photography, not by concentrating on the face, as is traditionally done, but by shifting the focus to the body, exploring how personal identity is expressed in things such as posture and dress style, and how this is in turn moderated by the physical context. In a series of stark black-and-white self-portraits, Stewart photographed herself, with her face covered in various types of patterned fabrics. While the first photographs in the series were done in the studio, the later ones, which were shown in Fons et Origo, were staged in a derelict building in downtown Kingston. The frontal poses used in the photographs added to the still, enigmatic monumental quality of the series and helped to generate multiple interpretative possibilities, some of which may have gone beyond the artist’s original intent. Representing the body, especially the black female body, is never an ideologically neutral act, but the covering of the face and the derelict setting added menacing allusions to violence and violation.
Much of the exhibition illustrated that traditional disciplinary boundaries and definitions matter less and less in contemporary art and while I have thus far focused on the fine arts department, which is the part of the College’s programme I am most familiar with, there were also contributions from the applied arts department that reflected similar pursuits.
The illustrator Akeem Johnson’s Mandora project consisted of an outstanding series of posters and toy figurines, in which he reimagined figures from Jamaican performance and storytelling traditions, from Jonkonnu to Anancy, for the twenty-first century. Johnson’s fantastic and colourful characters, which draw from anime and other aspects of contemporary youth culture as well as his research on Jamaican folklore, provocatively challenge fixed gender identities and norms. Gender-fluidity, while this is only rarely acknowledged, has always had its place in Jamaica’s traditional culture, and the politics of gender and its definitions have become an issue of significant discussion, positive and negative, in contemporary culture, which allows for an interesting and revealing dialogue between past and present, and the fictional and reality in this project. Johnson’s work is smart, engaging, relevant to the present moment, and beautifully executed. He happens to be the younger brother of Leasho Johnson, who is already an acclaimed contemporary artist, and who also came out of the SVA visual communication programme. I really look forward to what next Akeem Johnson will do.
The fashion designs by Stephen Burke took their inspiration from military and personal protection gear. two functional modes of dress that blur gender and identity lines. The uniform is usually associated with conformity and with asserting collective over individual identity but Burke rethinks and reimagines them into inventive sculptural, at times surrealist forms that allow for conformity to be challenged and individuality to take the upper hand, without however imposing gender norms. Avant-garde as they are, his designs are also quite wearable and, given the sort of adjustments that are in any case typically made between the conceptual imaginings of the haute couture runway and what is actually worn in daily life, and of his designs could easily be adapted into ready-to-wear fashion items. Given the right opportunities, Burke has the capacity to become one of the most original and innovative voices in Caribbean fashion design.
Those who visited this year’s SVA final year exhibition with the hope of discovering the latest art market darling may have been disappointed, although Akeem Johnson’s figurines were quickly scooped up by enthusiastic buyers, and Stephen Burke’s designs have obvious commercial potential. But generally speaking, certainly in the fine arts department, we saw an implied rejection and pointed criticism of the hyper-capitalist, entrepreneurial orthodoxy that has overtaken much of the Jamaican art world, certainly when it comes to policy priorities and access funding opportunities. Even those young artists who produced work that could readily enter and thrive in the market, foregrounded the function of art as an independent critical practice, which engages with important social and cultural issues, rather than with the production of marketable commodities, “content,” or urban beautification.
They do not stand alone in this: it is part of a broader stream in contemporary art globally which is pushing back against an increasingly out-of-control, hierarchical and materialistic art market and instead embraces an ethos of egalitarian collaboration and exchange, critical dialogue, and a commitment to social change. This new thrust is exemplified by the current Documenta in Kassel, which was curated by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa [sic], and while the event has had its own problems, it has provided major validation for the work of the non-profit art collectives that have popped up all over the globe, the Caribbean notably included. Two of the students in the Fons et Origo exhibition, Demar Brackenridge and Sheldon Green, have in fact been able to participate as artists-in-residence in Documenta as part of the Trinidadian art space Alice Yard’s presence there. They were accompanied by Camille Chedda, who lectures in the fine arts department at the Edna Manley College and manages the Inpulse Art Programme here in Jamaica, of which Brackenridge and Green are both alumni. Inpulse has been funded by the Rubis Mécénat which illustrates that such approaches to art can, in fact, coexist with enlightened corporate funding.
But there is indeed a schism in the Jamaican art world that we need to acknowledge and understand. There are some in Jamaica who feel that it is the young artists who are on the wrong track, and that they and the programmes at the Edna Manley College need to be brought in line with the current entrepreneurial dictates and a more limited vision of what constitutes “Jamaican art” and “brand Jamaica”. My position is that we need to listen to what these young artists are telling us, as this is important for the viability and balance of Jamaica’s art ecology, and Jamaican culture generally, and that there needs to be space and support for what they bring to the table. If not, we stand to lose an entire generation of artists who have unprecedented opportunities elsewhere or, alternatively, will turn away from art for other pursuits. The brain drain, which is such concern and topic for debate in Jamaica right now, indeed also exists in the arts.