What is a Biennial? Part I – The Matter of Origins

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We are pleased to present the first of this two-part contribution by writer and curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson, who has joined the Jamaica Biennial 2014 as project manager:

On the occasion of the NGJ’s 40th Anniversary, and the unveiling of its re-structured flagship exhibition – The Jamaica Biennial, I thought it might be worth pausing to ask: “What is a Biennial?”

Seems like a simple enough question, and at first I thought I had the equally simple answer. When people asked, and they often did, I replied confidently: “It’s a sort of mega-exhibition, mounted every two years, that focuses on art made in a particular place/region in the previous two or so years.” I would even think to myself: “Surely the name is self-explanatory?”

It became more complicated though. More questions came: Who are we mounting this show for? Who needs to keep abreast of what art is being made in Jamaica, or Sao Paolo, or Havana? What of the visiting (or “international”, as they’ve come to be known) artists or curators? They are not locals, where do they fit? Is this about showing “local art” to “internationals”, or showing “international art” to “locals”? And to what end? Where did this “Biennial” thing come from? And why is a Biennial sometimes a Biennale? I’ll try to give you the abridged version.

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At the entrance of the Giardini, Venice Biennale (photo source: Wikicommons)

Most trace the origins of the biennial exhibition back to the Venice Biennale in Italy (turns out Biennale is just Biennial in Italian, and is sometimes used to reference non-Italian Biennial art exhibitions in homage to that first “La Biennale”). Some go back further, to the mid nineteenth century when Europe was riveted by universal expositions. Most notably, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Hyde Park in London, which sought to house (and order) the world’s newly discovered cultural, industrial and geographic diversity in a grand Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace and its particular perspective on global multiplicity, as well as its confident assumption of the authority to display and classify that multiplicity is the subject of much literature, but it was in this climate of flexing imperial muscle that the first Venice Biennale opened in 1895.

It started out much like the 2014 Jamaica Biennial. What was conceived as a biennial exhibition of Italian art, quickly evolved into a largely by-invitation exhibition, with a section reserved for international artists, and a jury that selected works from submissions by local (i.e. Italian) artists. Until 1905 the Biennial was confined to the Central Pavilion, then the Pro Arte building. There, work from invited and juried Italian artists, and international (read European) artists were exhibited with no internal division.

Given the success of the first exhibition, the Biennial invited other nations to establish their own national pavilions in the Giardini- the park in which the Central Pavilion is located- to exhibit work exclusively by artists from the various nations. In 1907, the first of the 29 permanent national pavilions in the Giardini was constructed by Belgium. By 1914, Hungary (1909), Germany (1909), Great Britain (1909), France (1912), and Russia (1914) had joined.

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Last Sundays, October 26, 2014, featuring In Retrospect Exhibition and Maurice Gordon and Pimento

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The National Gallery’s Last Sundays programme for October 2014 is scheduled for Sunday, October 26, from 11 am to 4 pm, and will feature the In Retrospect: 40 Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica exhibition and a musical performance by the Pimento trio, featuring Maurice Gordon.

The In Retrospect: 40 Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica exhibition opened on August 31 and represents the first major event in the National Gallery’s 40th anniversary celebrations. In Retrospect tells the story of the National Gallery through its exhibitions and publications, through major donations, and through the debates that have surrounded the Gallery from its earliest years, with a special focus on the Gallery’s role in articulating how Jamaican art is understood. The exhibition consists mainly of key works from the Gallery’s collection and invites viewers to respond to these works in the context of the National Gallery’s own history. In Retrospect closes on November 15 and is thus in its final weeks.

The Pimento trio, which is scheduled to start at 1:30 pm, plays contemporary jazz, flavored with hints of reggae, R&B, funk, rock and fusion. The trio is headed by the noted guitarist and composer Maurice Gordon, who is acclaimed for his fluid technique, dexterity and highly personal style and cites as his influences Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, George Benson and Bob Marley. Maurice Gordon has performed at festivals in the Caribbean including Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, St. Lucia and Martinique Jazz Festivals, Ramajay Festival (Trinidad), Grenada Spice Jazz Festival.

As is now customary for Last Sundays, admission to the NGJ will be free on Sunday, October 26, and guided tours and children’s activities will also be offered free of cost. Our gift and coffee shop will be open for business and contributions to the donations box are welcomed. Revenues from our shops and donations help to fund programmes such as the In Retrospect exhibition and our Last Sundays programming.

JAMAICA BIENNIAL 2014 – bulletin # 1

Shoshanna Weinberger - Collection of Strangefruit - on view in the 2012 Biennial

Shoshanna Weinberger – Collection of Strangefruit – on view in the 2012 Biennial

Work on the re-branded and re-conceptualized Jamaica Biennial, formerly the National Biennial, is progressing well and the exhibition is scheduled to open with a week of events from December 6 to 14, 2014.

As before, the exhibition comprises a juried section, which is open to all artists living in Jamaica and Jamaican artists and artists of immediate descent living elsewhere, and an invited section, which includes artists with a well-established record of exhibitions and critical response. In a departure from its previous, national focus and a first major step towards internationalizing the Biennial, a select number of international artists have also been invited to contribute special projects, namely Simon Fujiwara (UK/Japan), Renee Cox (Jamaica/USA), Richard Mark Rawlins (Trinidad), Sheena Rose (Barbados), Blue Curry (Bahamas/UK) and James Cooper (Bermuda). For the first time, also the Biennial is operating from more than one venue. In addition to the National Gallery of Jamaica in downtown Kingston, this will include National Gallery West in Montego Bay and Devon House in Kingston. The 2014 Biennial also involves a collaboration with the Edna Manley College on Simon Fujiwara’s project, which will be created at the College and transferred from there, in the context of a performance, to the National Gallery in downtown Kingston.

Devon House

Devon House

More information on the special projects, the opening week events, and what will be shown at each of the exhibition venue will be shared in future bulletins but in this first bulletin we are focusing on the juried section, for which entries are closing later today, October 17. Thus far, we have logged some 150 entries and we are expecting more by the close of day. The judging will be conducted this weekend and, as part of the reorganization of the Biennial, the entries to the juried section will from now on be adjudged by two international judges, who will bring a fresh perspective to the work submitted and who will also help to raise the international profile of the exhibition. For the 2014 edition, these judges are Diana Nawi and Sara Hermann, both well-respected curators and art historians with extensive regional and international experience.

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In Retrospect – Section 6: MAJOR DONATIONS

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Here is the final sectional panel from the ‘In Retrospect: 40 Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica‘ exhibition. The exhibition continues until November 15, 2014.

The National Gallery has received many donations to its collection over the years, and this is perhaps the main reason the collection has grown to its present size and quality, despite very limited resources. The present exhibition cannot feature all donations the National Gallery has received over the last forty years but highlights of three major ones can be viewed on the mezzanine, circulating area and adjoining galleries, namely:

A.D. Scott Collection: in 1990, the National Gallery received 38 major works from the most important private collection of the 1960s and 70s, namely the collection of A.D. Scott, a well-known civil engineer and art patron and the founder and operator of the Olympia International Art Centre, which opened in 1974. The collection reflects Scott’s close association with the key figures in post-Independence art in Jamaica, namely the principals of the Contemporary Jamaican Artists Association Barrington Watson, Eugene Hyde and Karl Parboosingh, but also other major figures such as Carl Abrahams, Edna Manley, Albert Huie, Osmond Watson and Christopher Gonzalez, who are all represented in this section with major examples of their work.

Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection: Aaron Matalon, a leading entrepreneur of the post-Independence period, was a major patron of the arts and the National Gallery’s Chairman from 1993 to 2002. In 1999, Mr Matalon and his spouse donated a collection of 218 works of art, the largest and arguable most important donation to be received by the Gallery. The Matalon Collection includes prints and other works of art from the colonial period, starting with the earliest published map of Jamaica, and modern Jamaican art. A significant portion of the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon collection is on permanent view in the historical galleries but this section features a selection of the modern works.

Guy McIntosh Donation: The most recent major donation received by the National Gallery came from art dealer and collector Guy McIntosh and consisted of 80 works of art, mainly by artists who had come to prominence in the 1980s and 90s, such as Milton George and Omari Ra.

Several other major donations remain in their usual place in the permanent galleries and we invite you to view them there. One is the Edna Manley Memorial Collection, which the result of a major campaign for donations after Edna Manley’s passing in 1989, with major donations coming from of Michael Manley, Burnett Webster, A.D. Scott, Aaron and Marjorie Matalon, David Boxer, Wallace Campbell, the Pan-Jamaican Investment Fund and the ICD Group – these works can be seen in the Edna Manley Galleries. Another major donation was the John Pringle Collection, a group of 23 paintings by Mallica ‘Kapo’ Reynolds from the estate of the John Pringle, Jamaica’s first Director of Tourism and the founder of Round Hill Hotel and Villas. This collection was received in 2011 and a selection can be seen in the Kapo Galleries.

In Retrospect – Section 5: NEW ROUTES

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Here is the fifth major text panel in the In Retrospect: 40 Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica exhibition, which continues until November 15:

This section explores how the National Gallery has responded—and in many ways contributed—to the new directions that are currently emerging in Jamaican art, which is characterized by a bold contemporary outlook, a strong affinity with popular and online culture, a new, open-ended and more critical engagement with issues of Jamaicanness, and the use of various new media, including digital media.

The Gallery first positioned itself as a platform for the artistic development and emerging artists in the mid-1980s, with exhibitions such as the first Young Talent and Six Options: Gallery Spaces Transformed, both in 1985. There have been five Young Talent exhibitions since then, the most recent of which was staged in 2010, and in 2013 we staged New Roots, another major exhibition of young artists that built on the Young Talent concept. The Annual National exhibitions, which in 2002 became the National Biennial, while inclusive of all major trends in Jamaican art, have also been instrumental in encouraging experimentation and exposing new and emerging artists.

Six Options was the first exhibition of installation art in Jamaica and actively encouraged local artists to experiment more with media and formats. Dawn Scott’s popular installation A Cultural Object was acquired from this exhibition and is presently undergoing restoration. It will soon be available again for public viewing. However, Ebony G. Patterson’s Cultural Soliloquy (A Cultural Object Revisited) (2010), which was part of the Young Talent V exhibition in 2010, pays active tribute to this ground-breaking work and repositions Dawn Scott’s cultural critique in the contemporary Jamaican context. Continue reading

Last Sundays: September 28, 2014, featuring in Retrospect and Barre None

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The National Gallery’s Last Sundays programme for September 2014 is scheduled for Sunday, September 28, from 11 am to 4 pm, and will feature the In Retrospect: 40 Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica exhibition and a dance performance, titled Soulscaping, by the Barre None Dance Collective.

The In Retrospect: 40 Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica exhibition opened on August 31 and represents the first major event in the National Gallery’s 40th anniversary celebrations. In Retrospect tells the National Gallery’s story through its exhibitions and publications, through major donations, and through the debates that have surrounded the Gallery from its earliest years, with a special focus on the Gallery’s role in articulating how Jamaican art is understood. The exhibition consists mainly of key works from the Gallery’s collection and features a diverse range of artists from the 18th to the 21st century, including John Dunkley, Edna Manley, Ebony G. Patterson, Isaac Mendez Belisario, Mallica ‘Kapo’ Reynolds, Albert Huie, Barrington Watson, Eugene Hyde, Vermon ‘Howie’ Grant, Karl Parboosingh, Leasho Johnson, Carl Abrahams, Robin Farqueharson, George Robertson, David Boxer, Laura Facey, Maria LaYacona, Petrona Morrison, Omari Ra, Cecil Baugh, Matthew McCarthy, Everald Brown, Norma Rodney Harrack, A. Duperly and Sons, Osmond Watson, Renee Cox, Marlon James, and Colin Garland.

The dance performance Soulscaping by the acclaimed and innovative Barre None Dance Collective, which will start at 1:30 pm, was choreographed by Oniel Pryce and the dancers will be Neila Ebanks, Sophia Mckain and Kayon Wray. Barre None has described the performance concept as follows: ‘The soul is the self, the “I” that inhabits the body and acts through it. Without the soul, the body is like a light bulb without electricity, a computer without the software, a space suit with no astronaut inside. With the introduction of the soul, the body acquires life, sight and hearing, thought and speech, intelligence and emotions, will and desire, personality and identity.’ The performance was choreographed for the National Gallery space and will interact with parts of the In Retrospect exhibition.

As is now customary for Last Sundays, admission to the NGJ will be free on Sunday, September 28, and guided tours and children’s activities will also be offered free of cost. Our gift and coffee shop will be open for business and contributions to the donations box are welcomed. Revenues from our shops and donations help to fund programmes such as the In Retrospect exhibition and our Last Sundays programming.