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.