The book A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica with the Natural History of the Herbs, and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles &c. of the Last of Those Islands (Volume I: 1707, volume II: 1725) provides a remarkable account of the travels and observations made by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) while he was in Jamaica for fifteen months between 1687 and 1689. Sloane was the founder of the British Museum, which is the model on which our own Institute of Jamaica is based. Sloane’s life and work provide a rich opportunity to see the overlaps between the slave trade, emergent plantation systems and new scientific knowledge. The son of a colonial official, Sloane was born and raised in Ireland, and trained in London and France as a physician and botanist. He eventually established himself as a leading member of British society and academy. In 1719, he became President of the Royal College of Physicians; in 1727, succeeding Isaac Newton, he was elected President of the Royal Society. He also became the preeminent collector of his time, amassing many thousands of books, manuscripts, specimens and objects, gathered by numerous hands from around the world.
Shoshanna Weinberger – Collection of Strangefruit, gouache & mixed media on paper, 18 panels, ea. 51 x 42 cm
Shoshanna Weinberger’s work takes beauty and sex appeal and turns them on their head. Her swollen, awkward humanoid creatures have all the trappings of beauty- gold chains, stilletos, and curves aplenty- but for all their glamour and glitter they are decidedly ugly, a potent and pungent distillation of stereotypes and female and racial objectification. Her use of grids, and titles like A Collection of Strange Fruit illustrate her interest in scientific discourse, and her own mixed race background fuels a fascination with hybridity.
Hope Brooks’ Slavery Trilogy is a combination of three series: (from left to right) Kings and Princes, Backra Pickney and Trilogy. The work explores the history and development of racial identities, imposed and self-chosen, in the context of the African Diaspora. Originally the artist presented the work with extended text labels that provided extensive reference material about the slave trade and the experience of the enslaved as well as the verbal vocabulary that evolved from this context. Of particular interest is a list of ethnic slurs taken from Wikipedia, one for each letter of the alphabet.
The grid installation and repetition of the work with its subtle variations in facial expression and colour spectrum also recall the Casta paintings of colonial Latin America. Casta is the origin of the English word “caste”, the paintings were common in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in Mexico, where they were used to depict and classify the various racial categories and mixtures. Casta paintings were not merely artistic exploration, they shaped people’s social experience significantly. The racial groupings they depicted had an accompanying set of privileges and restrictions, both legal and customary.
Anonymous – Las castas (18th century), oil on canvas, 148×104 cm, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.
Esther Chin is a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts, Edna Manley College. Her work “Yisitie” was part of her final year show and was subsequently shown in the 2012 National Biennial. It is one of the works that inspired the Natural Histories exhibition, in which it was reinstalled in a new, more fluid configuration.
Esther Chin’s Yisitie though apparently simple, has a number of possible readings. In her artist statement, she describes her use of petals in the work as “part of a post modern language which helps to develop different visual claims.” Such claims may reference the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1960’s which sought to challenge Western art history’s masculinist and culturally prejudiced distinction between craft and fine art (among other things).
The work also seems to be an exploration of the artist’s Chinese-Jamaican heritage. This is most strongly indexed in the work’s title which is the Pinyin translation of her name, Esther. The fact that the petals are from the bougainvillea flower is also significant. The plant is endemic to Jamaica and known for its beauty and hardiness, particularly in times of drought. It is also significant in China where it is the official flower of a number of cities in the Guangdong Province (the part of China where many Chinese Jamaican families originate).
Eugene Hyde – From the Croton Series (1974), mixed media on canvas, Collection: NGJ
Croton Series (1964) is a part of Eugene Hyde‘s flower series. For most of his career, Hyde’s stylistic approach was adventurous and foreign to Jamaican audiences who were unfamiliar with abstraction and more inclined towards classical realist art. He is considered a major force in the development of abstract art in Jamaica and saw himself as something of an outsider to the local art scene. In the mid-1960’s, Hyde’s work began to reflect a strong Abstract Expressionist influence, the Croton Series exemplifies this moment.
Abstract Expressionism is an art movement that gained prominence in post-World War II America (mid to late 1940s). The movement is characterised by a combination of the emotional intensity and self-denial of the German Expressionists with the anti-figurative aesthetic of earlier abstract movements such as Futurism and the Bauhaus. Elements of abstract expressionism such as dynamism and movement in form, shape and space characterize Croton Series and other such works by Hyde. The works use of sweeping movements of gradating colours to imply form is also typically Abstract Expressionist. Though Hyde was interested in abstraction, his work never became strictly formalist as was the tendency with European and American abstract movements. He re-interpreted abstraction to suit the Jamaican context, always maintaining a representational element in his compositions.
Eugene Hyde – Untitled (1978) mixed media on canvas, Collection: NGJ, gift of National Hotels and Properties
A closer look at Charles Campbell’s Transporter 6:
Charles Campbell – Transporter 6 (2012), screen print on card and metal clips, diameter 101.6 cm
Transporter 6 is a part of an ongoing project that Charles Campbell started in 2011. According to Campbell’s website: ”The Transporter Project inhabits the interstices of a number of artistic, and political concerns. Begun initially as a visual investigation of the phenomenon of forced migration, the work also combines the desire to find a more material form for the motifs inhabiting my paintings with an emerging interest in the play between various aspirational futures and the present.”
Like much of the Transporter series, this work utilises Richard Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome concept. Fuller (1895– 1983) was an American architect, systems theorist, designer and futurist. Though he is not the inventor of the geodesic dome, he is credited with popularising the structure. Fuller envisioned the dome as a part of a rational utopian future built on his environmental sustainability concerns and exploration of nature’s constructing principles to find design solutions that facilitated doing more with less.
Detail of Transporter 6
Hand-printed on the pieces that come together to create the Transporter 6 dome is an image of lung bronchioles. The colour of the prints makes a link between the human body and nature. On first glance, this human form appears to be some kind of vine. The significance of lungs, and especially bronchioles, for this work can be read in many ways. One possibility is to consider bronchioles as sites of transmutation within the human body. There, inhaled gases (oxygen etc) are absorbed into the blood stream and made a part of the body. When combined with the aspirational futures indexed by the geodesic dome and Campbell’s longstanding fascination with the Caribbean’s violent colonial history it is possible to view the work as a delicate but ultimately hopeful statement, expressing the desire for the transformation of fraught pasts into politically viable, brighter futures.