This post is about one of the most popular and controversial art works in the NGJ’s permanent collection, Dawn Scott’s “A Cultural Object” (1985). The post is adapted from the doctoral dissertation of NGJ Executive Director Veerle Poupeye (all rights reserved by the author).
Dawn Scott (b1951) is a Jamaican textile artist and interior designer who is best known for her realist batik paintings and, since the 1990s, her innovative store and interior designs for the local and tourist markets. She participated in the NGJ’s 1985 Six Options: Gallery Spaces Transformed exhibition, an exhibition for which six artists were invited to produce installations in the NGJ’s exhibition galleries, and then produced A Cultural Object, her only installation to date. The room-sized work effectively brings the physical and cultural environment of the Kingston inner cities into the “high culture” space of the NGJ. It consists of a spiral-shaped “zinc-fence”, made from recuperated corrugated metal and lumber – the dominant building materials in the local squatter settlements. The surfaces contain the sort of street art, shop signs and graffiti that are commonly seen in Kingston’s inner cities. It starts with a large sign that reads “Culture zone, enter at your own risk,” which spoofs the “PNP (or JLP) zone, enter at your own risk” inscriptions that mark the borders of many political garrison communities. The imagery and graffiti on the walls successively deal with popular music, street food, the rum bar, the beauty culture, the attitudes towards women and sexuality, religion, politics and, at the centre, mental illness and homelessness, which takes the form of the reclining, rag-clad figure of a male street person. At first sight, the installation appears unplanned, much like a squatter settlement, but it is carefully orchestrated: the claustrophobic, trap-like spiral corridor deliberately takes the visitor from amusement to horror, when the shockingly realistic street person in the middle is suddenly seen.
A Cultural Object presents a provocative critique of the forces that, according to Scott, trap poor people into their marginalized socio-economic position, including the escapist nature of much of the popular music, poor dietary habits, self-deprecating beauty practices such as skin-bleaching, socially counterproductive attitudes towards women and sexuality, disempowering religious beliefs, partisan political violence, and, ultimately, mental illness and social alienation. Much of its effect derives from its extreme realism: the street person sculpture in the centre was made from a live cast (although of an artist’s model) and almost every detail of the work was based on something that then existed in Kingston, which Scott had documented photographically.
Already during its original exhibition, A Cultural Object was popular with visitors and elicited strong responses. Most of these were positive but there were some concerns that the work represented Jamaica in a negative light. Despite the objections, the work was acquired for the NGJ collection and reinstalled in a room of its own in the permanent exhibition Jamaican Art 1922-Present. There it remains popular to the present day and schoolchildren still come to the NGJ asking for “the Ghetto,” as it is popularly known.
While A Cultural Object obviously resonates with Jamaican audiences, the public response has always had a sensationalist, anarchic edge. Visitors almost immediately started adding their own graffiti to the walls and while the artist initially accepted this de facto interactivity, the results have been unexpected and often disturbing. Most of the graffiti are simply juvenile – of the “Kilroy was here” variety – but many others are obscene or politically partisan and illustrate exactly those cultural attitudes Scott sought to critique. Even the “street person” sculpture has been vandalized – one of its legs was broken, which sadly mimics the abuse street people sometimes encounter in Jamaica – and the at times unpleasant smell illustrates that some even urinate inside the installation.
A Cultural Object represents an instructive crack in the institutional armor of the NGJ. Elsewhere in the galleries, most visitors spontaneously behave in the disciplined and reverential manner that is the norm in museums. Somehow, the material and cultural ambiance of A Cultural Object suspends this disciplinary environment, in a way that reminds of how the presence of graffiti, broken windows, and derelict buildings contributes to social breakdown in urban environments, as has been observed in cities such as New York and, for that matter, Kingston. Tellingly, this breakdown does not spill over into the adjoining galleries, which maintain the decorum of a traditional “high art” museum environment – the graffiti literally stop at the edge of A Cultural Object’s gallery space. Powerful and popular as it is, A Cultural Object raises questions about artists’ ability to direct audience responses and, thereby, the effectiveness of social criticism in contemporary art. It is nonetheless a fascinating social and cultural experiment.
No matter how long this installation is in existence it is still relevant to the Jamaican landscape.
This is certainly true, the date of the installation seems almost irrelevant, though very important considering when it was done…it is such an important piece in the gallery I think. Such a great contrast to the other exhibits.
I remember I saw it when it was first opened….could have been with you Sue.
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A phenomenal exhibit
Visited the Gallery adjecent to Red Bones Resto last night and happened upon a small exhibit of her work – her batiks as well as her “blonde” series in black and white. As a relatively new JA resident, I had never heard of Ms. Scott, but I was so pleased to be introduced to her artistry and activism by her equally artistic daughter who welcomed us into the gallery.
Dawn, you are forever in my heart. Tomorrow, September 21, 2012 we observe the second anniversary of your joining the ancestors. I celebrate you. Thank you again and again for your great gifts to the world, my sister.
Tomorrow, September 21, 2012 will be the second anniversary of the transition to the ancestral realm, of my friend Dawn Scott, one of Jamaica’s greatest artists. Her spirit beckons me strongly at this moment of deepening implosive violence within our Caribbean societies, in particular, Guyana and Jamaica. On the top floor of the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) in downtown Kingston is Dawn’s permanent installation, “A Cultural Object.” For those of you not in Jamaica at this time, I invite you to click on the link below and take a tour of the exhibit. Then read the rest of the blog. For those of you in Jamaica who have not seen it, please take the opportunity of a real visit:
I met Dawn for the first time when she was already an accomplished international artist. We travelled to Cable Hut Beach together that first day with a friend, Eugene Williams, a Guyanese and long time director of the Edna Manley School of Drama. Two other friends, Jeanette and Theresa, were also with us. Eugene certainly did not introduce her as ‘Dawn my artist friend of international repute’. No, this was a woman he just loved being with — a woman so in touch with her own truth, she could only evoke the desire for truth in others. I watched her swim fully clothe in the sea. I was a recovering accident victim, badly scarred on the right side of my body, and I remember Dawn looking at my scars with no repulsion and saying, ‘In ten years that will all be gone.’ It was many moons later when another Guyanese friend, another artist, Keith Agard, took me to see ‘A Cultural Object.’ Because I already had the lived experience of Jamaica, the power of the work was heart-rending: Dawn’s creation is a journey down a cultural ‘truth corridor’ to come face to face with ourselves in a dead end from which the only escape is to turn again, the mind screaming, retracing the distance and ‘inscaping’ to effect inner and outer transformation, or die.
‘A Cultural Object’ was created in 1985. Today, almost two generations later, it still remains our present, not a sad memory of our cultural history, but a clear and present truth– humanity out of touch with itself.
To know Dawn Scott, even in the last decade and a half of her life, as I knew her, was to know the quiet spirit-power of Jamaica– A mother who loved to bake and cook; a friend who loved to read and talk until sunrise; an artist who loved and wept for humanity–creating against the odds. My last joyful memory of Dawn Scott was the weekend I spent with her at Chris Blackwell’s home in Trelawny in the summer of 2007. I made her listen to my ‘novel in progress’–the whole ninety something pages! She gently asked questions and made comments. She, in turn, made me listen to her poetry, and then she drew a house plan for me to return to Guyana with, which I still have carefully secured. We stayed up until almost sunrise.
To be Guyanese living in today’s Jamaica and to remember the promise of our liberation struggles is to be repulsed by the rigid class barriers of Jamaica, saddened by the blindness and unconsciousness of the strength of a social force that Guyanese understand so clearly from their cultural distance. To live in today’s Guyana and remember Dawn’s quiet power is to feel her grief at our self-created doom and willful inaction. Would that both our countries could retrace the truth of that cold metal corridor of neglect and selfishness, and, turning a dead end into a safe refuge of human comfort, lift, with loving and contrite arms, that brother out of our depravity.
Charlene V. Wilkinson
The Rufaro Centre
178 Sugar Cane Street
South Ruimveldt Gardens
The Department of Language & Cultural Studies
Faculty of the Humanities & Education
University of Guyana
‘Neither the pure land nor hell exists outside oneself; both lie only within one’s own heart.’
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