The National Biennial: A Catalyst in the Development of Jamaican Art

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On December 12, the National Gallery of Jamaica will open the 2010 National Biennial, the fifth edition since the biennial was established in 2002. The National Biennial is the successor of a long tradition of national exhibitions in Jamaica, which dates from 1938, when the first All Island Exhibition of Art and Craft was held at St George’s Hall in Kingston. This exhibition was a private initiative by members of the nationalist intelligentsia. The Institute of Jamaica took over the baton in 1940, when it began to stage its annual All-Island Exhibitions. In 1968 the Institute of Jamaica also established the annual Self-Taught Artists exhibition, which ran concurrent with the older exhibition for several years, but featured work by amateur and self-taught artists, while the All Island Exhibition became the domain of the professional artists. The two exhibitions were merged into a single exhibition, the Annual National Exhibition when the National Gallery, which started operations in 1974, took over responsibility for the major annual art exhibitions that had previously been staged by its parent organization, the Institute of Jamaica. The Annual National Exhibition was held annually from 1977 to 2001 and is thus the immediate precursor of the National Biennial.

The decision to move from annual to biennial in 2002 was motivated by a number of factors but two stand out: we wished to give participating artists more time in between these national exhibitions to produce significant work suitable for an exhibition of this caliber and we also needed to make space in our programmes for exhibitions that provide much-needed alternate perspectives on Jamaican art and a greater diversity of curatorial perspectives, such as the guest-curated Curator’s Eye series and the Young Talent series, which features the work of some of Jamaica’s most promising young artists.

In its current form, the National Biennial consists of an invited section, to which artists who have already achieved significant acclaim are invited to submit work, and a juried section, which is open to all Jamaican artists and all artists living in Jamaica and selected by a panel of judges representative of major stakeholders in the local artistic community. To qualify for inclusion, works in the biennial must have been created in the last two years.

The 2010 National Biennial features eighty artists, of which thirty-nine were invited while the other forty-one entered through the jury system. This year’s panel of judges consisted of Petrine Archer-Straw, Milton Harley, Khalfani Ra, Kay Sullivan, Petrona Morrison, David Boxer and Veerle Poupeye. Many of the participants are well known while others are newcomers and most are based in Jamaica, although several overseas-based Jamaican artists are also represented – a development we welcome, since we need to be responsive to the cultural needs of the Jamaican Diaspora. The 2010 edition includes work in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, collage, assemblage, installation, ceramics, photography, video and textiles and reflects a healthy diversity of themes, styles and approaches, from the conventional to the experimental. It also includes works of art some of our viewers may find controversial but that is part and parcel of contemporary art practice and actually helps to generate the sort of debates about Jamaican art and culture the National Biennial should stimulate. The Biennial also incorporates small tribute exhibitions to artists who have been awarded the Institute of Jamaica’s Musgrave Medal in the past two years, namely the Intuitive painter Gaston Tabois and the ceramicist and sculptor Gene Pearson, who both received Silver Musgrave Medals in 2010.

The general purpose of the National Biennial remains the same as for the Annual National Exhibition and its precursors: namely to provide national and, increasingly, international exposure to the latest developments in Jamaican art, to encourage artistic production and innovation, and to reward excellence. Artists participating in the National Biennial qualify for the prestigious Aaron Matalon Award for the best entry by a single artist and may also be considered for acquisition awards. The National Biennial and, before 2002, the Annual National have historically been among the main sources for acquisitions for the National Gallery’s permanent collection.

The National Gallery is however also using this fifth edition of the National Biennial to give further consideration to its function in Jamaica’s rapidly changing environment. We need to examine, for instance, whether the selection mechanisms currently used to allow us to produce an exhibition of the scope and standard required if the National Biennial is to serve as a catalyst in the development and promotion of Jamaican art. We are at present considering establishing an international Kingston Biennial, which would probably be an exhibition of contemporary art from the Caribbean and the African Diaspora, to be held at different Kingston venues, the National Gallery included, and which would help to position Kingston internationally as a major art centre in the Caribbean region. The question arises whether this proposed exhibition should alternate with the current National Biennial or supersede or incorporate it.

The 2010 National Biennial will be on until March 5, 2011 and we will organize several accompanying educational events in which members of the public will have the opportunity to interact with participating artists. We are also keen to receive feedback on the Biennial from our visitors, which can be done in the comments book at our front desk, on this blog, or via e-mail to:

Veerle Poupeye
Executive Director

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2 thoughts on “The National Biennial: A Catalyst in the Development of Jamaican Art

  1. Pingback: MUST SEE MONDAY: National Biennial Art Exhibition: REPRESENT!! | New Caribbean Cinema

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention The National Biennial: A Catalyst in the Development of Jamaican Art « National Gallery of Jamaica Blog --

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