National Biennial 2012: Conversations in the Gallery (or a Few Curatorial Notes)

This perspective on the curatorial aspects of the 2012 National Biennial was contributed by Nicole Smythe-Johnson, Senior Curator at the NGJ. It is the first of several perspectives from staff members and viewers we intend to publish.

Shoshanna Weinberger - Collection of Strangefruit, gouache & mixed media on paper, 18 panels, ea. 51 x 42 cm

Shoshanna Weinberger – Collection of Strangefruit, gouache & mixed media on paper, 18 panels, ea. 51 x 42 cm

Contrary to popular opinion, the business of placing works of art within a gallery space is by no means a simple, straightforward or even purely aesthetic matter. In fact, it is a very deliberate affair, often preceded by months of debate and planning. Though the role of curator has gone through almost as many changes as the definition of art, this is one thing that remains constant; the necessity for the creation of a conversation (between the works themselves and/or between the art and the public) and provision of a context that will best facilitate a work’s articulation of its truth.

Stefan Clarke, Life; Faith/Love/Death, digital print, right panel of triptych, ea. 76 x 243.6

Stefan Clarke, Life; Faith/Love/Death, digital print, right panel of triptych, ea. 76 x 243.6

A Biennial, particularly of the kind we currently have mounted at the National Gallery, presents an additional challenge to curators. The whole point of the exhibition is to have a range, to give a snapshot of the artistic landscape in Jamaica and across her diaspora. We want as many artists, forms, ideas as possible to be represented while maintaining a high standard of quality. However, it also means that the creation of conversations and the establishing of relationships between works is even more difficult. How to tease out connections and resonances from such a variety? Far less, a variety that was not selected by the curatorial team but by a largely external jury (in the case of the juried entries) and by the artists’ themselves (in the case of the 50 invited artists). A curator can feel a bit uneasy, waiting to see what comes in, hoping that the works will be amenable to being moulded into an exhibition that is varied but also cohesive.

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