Kei Miller: Languages beyond Meaning

Laura Facey - Radiant Red, stained wood, National Biennial 2012

Kei Miller

As the National Biennial 2012 draws to a close, we are pleased to provide you with yet another perspective, contributed by Kei Miller, Jamaican poet, novelist and essayist.

It has not been my habit to write about art – to transcribe the awe I sometimes feel standing in front of a piece, or to jot down the fleeting thoughts that might cross my mind while viewing a work. Part of this is self-doubt, of course. I have never studied the visual arts, and I suspect it has a language which I don’t know how to speak.

And then again, there is another feeling I have that the best art actually speaks its own language – something beyond words – and that this business of translating paint or ceramic or film into syllables and punctuation marks, a semiotic medium which it resisted in the first place, is always a kind of reduction. Perhaps I have taken Susan Sontag’s warning to heart – that to talk about art is too often an act of trying to interpret it – to give it a meaning.

Of course at this year’s biennial, much of the work is full of rigorous intellectual content, but nothing that I would call ‘meaning’. This word ‘meaning’ suggests a neat and sometimes too-tidy conclusion, while I suspect our best Jamaican artists are more interested and drawn to the many and messy layers of exploration that precede such flat finalities.

Ebony G. Patterson - The Observation (Bush Cockerel) — A fictitious History, video installation (detail), National Biennial 2012

Ebony G. Patterson – The Observation (Bush Cockerel) — A fictitious History, video installation (detail), National Biennial 2012

I am grateful that Ebony G. Patterson has not yet concluded her fascinating exploration of not-quite-male/not-quite-female bodies. And the work does not seem anxious for conclusion. The bodies she represents seem to move both robotically and gracefully across a much wider spectrum of gender than we tend to imagine let alone acknowledge. What might start out as masculine in Ebony’s work can easily end up feminine; what might start out effeminate can end up butch. But more interesting than these binaries are the many other points along the spectrum; Ebony’s bodies pause at and perform many other genders – genders that have not yet been named by language. ‘Masculinity’ for instance, seems to be a plural thing in Ebony’s work and so embraces the effeminate man, not as someone whose behaviour is antithetical to manliness, but rather as a possible and authentic version of it. The dainty flowers that hang in her video installation this year end up not only contrasting but also perfectly complimenting the soft beauty of her men.

When I step out from the tropical, slightly magical cave she has created, back into the bright lights of the gallery – I am not conscious of anything so simple or smug as a conclusions, only of a fascinating journey. Continue reading

National Biennial 2012: Artists Talk, Monday March 11

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The National Gallery of Jamaica is pleased to present a talk featuring artists in the 2012 National Biennial on Monday March 11, which will also be the ultimate opportunity to see this critically acclaimed exhibition before it is dismounted.

The talk will talk the form of a walk through the exhibition, during which participating artists will give insights into their work and the work of other artists, and take questions, The artists giving this tour are: Storm Saulter, Duane Allen, Hope Brooks and Jasmine Thomas-Girvan – who was the winner of the Aaron Matalon Award for the most outstanding submission to the exhibition. This special programme will start at 11:00 a.m. Students are especially encouraged to attend.

To facilitate this programme and to accommodate more casual visitors, the Gallery, which is normally closed to the public on Mondays, will exceptionally be open from 10 am – 2:30 pm Monday’s programme will be the absolute last opportunity to see the National Biennial, which was scheduled to close on March 9but has been held over on March 10 and 11 by popular demand.

Please join us for this special Monday opening and an engaging and lively last viewing of the 2012 National Biennial.

National Gallery joins forces with Kingston Book Festival for a Special Sunday Opening – March 10th

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The National Gallery of Jamaica is pleased to present a special Sunday opening on March 10th and one more opportunity to see the National Biennial before it closes. As has become customary for our Sunday programmes, opening hours will be from 11am to 4pm, with free admission, tours, and children’s activities.

On March 10th, we are collaborating with the Kingston Book Festival to present a programme that includes a panel discussion on art book publishing and the launch of Claudia Hucke’s much-anticipated book Picturing the Postcolonial Nation: (Inter)Nationalism in the Art of Jamaica, 1962-1975.

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Perspectives on Blackness in the 2012 National Biennial

K. Khalfani Ra - Death Sentence, , National Biennial 2012

K. Khalfani Ra – Death Sentence,the creolecentric/multicultural gaze, mixed media on fabric, National Biennial 2012

Last month, February 2013, was observed as Black History month and this encouraged reflection on blackness and contemporary Jamaican art. The following is a perspective on how these issues play out in the 2012 National Biennial, contributed by NGJ Senior Curator, Nicole Smythe-Johnson.

There is a peculiar tension around Black History Month in Jamaica. On the one hand, there is a very active discourse around the celebration of blackness, often couched in Pan-Africanist terms à la Rastafari or articulated through an anti-colonial lens which associates blackness with broader historical and contemporary resistance narratives. On the other hand, there is a disavowal of racial identification (at least as primary) as illustrated by the National motto “Out of Many, One People”.  This is often accompanied by an uncertainty as to whether “Black History Month” is even relevant in a country where the majority of the population is of African descent and therefore most of the island’s history would qualify as “Black History”, even by the most stringent standards. The question can arise, what is blackness? Who counts as black? Why does it even matter?

Then, in case the issue isn’t sufficiently complex, there are other things, concepts that haunt (and often undermine) the ideological positions listed above. These home-grown “duppies” are of another variety altogether, they have no respect for accommodation-resistance binaries, they do not fall into neat categories or even yield easily to sociological analysis. A few easy ones are “colour-ism”- that more nuanced and elusive cousin of racism, the equally un-resolved relation between race and class and its implications for the distribution of privilege in Jamaica, and of course the ever-present skin bleaching, a phenomenon which try as we might refuses easy explanation.

Olivia McGilchrist - detail from Ernestine and Me, video installation, National Biennial 2012

Olivia McGilchrist – detail from Ernestine and Me, video installation, National Biennial 2012

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Last Sundays: February 24, 2013 – Black History Month

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The National Gallery of Jamaica is pleased to present its Last Sundays programme for February 24 in celebration of Black History Month. We are collaborating with the Jamaica Association of Dramatic Artists, to present a programme of movement, music and dramatics that pays tribute to the National Gallery’s visual art space, Reggae month and Theatre.

This special programme will start at 1:30 p.m. and will be presented in various parts of the Gallery, featuring performances by Ruth HoShing, Oliver Mair, Jerry Benzwick, Tribe Sankofa, the Quilt Performing Arts Company, Hilary Nicholson and others.

Visitors will also be able to see the critically acclaimed 2012 National Biennial exhibition and a special performance art piece by Ebony G. Patterson, which is featured for the last time before the Biennial closes on March 9. The permanent exhibitions will also be open for viewing.

As is now customary, the National Gallery is open every last Sunday of the month, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., with free admissions and tours as well as special programming in the afternoon.