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.
True to form, the 2012 National Biennial represents the range of perspectives on blackness in Jamaica. All of the tensions listed above and their uncomfortable intersections play out in the work of many of the artists. Khalfani Ra’s Death Sentence, the Creolecentric/Multicultural Gaze minces no words. A large portrait of a black man is almost completely obscured by the national motto writ large in white, block letters. In typically irreverent style, Ra has made the work from Bible leaves. The message is hard to miss, blackness is being written out of the national narrative, Jamaica is being white-washed via the narrative of “creolization” and Christianity is the original sin at the foundation of this apparent self-hate. His perspective is neither baseless nor unpopular, yet the placement of this work between Laura Facey’s The Hanging of Phibbah an her Private Parts an de Bone Yard, Olivia McGilchrist’s Ernestine and Me and Phillip Thomas’ An Upper St. Andrew Concubine suggests that there may be more to say.
All three of these works, perceive blackness in its relation to class and gender, reflecting more recent trends in studies of race that consider the “intersectional” nature of people’s experience of identity. Laura Facey’s Phibbah certainly speaks poignantly to the weight of history (and slavery in particular) with its visibly heavy, scarred wooden sculptures that reference but refuse to fully render past atrocities. The forms are reminiscent of Taino artifacts, hanging, dismemberment, flesh and bones. In keeping with much of Facey’s work over the last decade, Phibbah considers the traumatic origins of modern Jamaica (the violence of Taino genocide, slavery etc) and places it within the context of spiritual redemption, most clearly indexed by the Paul Ferrini poem on one wall of the installation. It is worth noting that Phibbah articulates these traumatic origins as gendered – the exploitation of African productive labour and reproductive labour, i.e. you own a woman, you own her children and the right to anything else you can wring from her gendered body. Though there is more to say about Facey’s work if we take into consideration her relatively unique position as a public artist and the meta-textual implications of her persona, these comments are meant to be brief and introductory, inviting consideration and debate rather than prescribing meaning.
It may be enough to say that across the room hangs Phillip Thomas’ Upper St. Andrew Concubine. The massive painting is another kind of “elephant in the living room”, its weight is expressed differently but the feeling is remarkably similar. Red and heavy, body parts, layers of flesh, perfume, decay, excess and vacant silhouettes crowd the canvas. Though the racial character (and sex) of the subject of the triptych is unclear, with a historical “concubine” hanging by her ribs over your shoulder, the intersection of race, class and gender that this word- “concubine”, carries in a place like Jamaica presses in on you. The strangely exaggerated black silhouette that is the subject’s head references black face and other racist caricature, even as it teeters ghoulishly on a shiny, primped, pale-skinned, pin-up body, Hollywood is here too. The carcasses hanging on either side establish a parallel with Facey’s Phibba, but also Shoshanna Weinberger’s Collection of Strange Fruit and Stefan Clarke’s Life; Faith/Love/Death.
The question is raised: how does “Black History” engage the dancehall queen? Ms. Jamaica? What is the narrative around women in our “Black History Month” celebrations? Around beauty? Jamaica’s sexual economy? How has global media changed the landscape of Jamaican culture? Should Khalfani have incorporated film-strips and Brand Jamaica posters alongside Bible sheets? How ready are we to accept the complications that figures like “the concubine” illustrate, especially those that continue to have implications for the contemporary moment.
Olivia McGilchrist’s installation takes yet another perspective, as yet absent from the clamor around race in the adjacent rooms. McGilchrist’s work is overtly grounded in her autobiography. As the daughter of a Jamaican father and French mother, born in Jamaica but brought up in France and England, her interest is in the experience of racial hierarchy in Jamaica through the eyes of someone understood as “white”. The video installation features McGilchrist’s masked alter-ego “Whitey” being manipulated to various extents by a range of people representing contemporary Jamaican archetypes; the Rastas, the hot girls, the couple, Ms. Chin, the foreigner etc. All of these interactions take place- sometimes humorous, sometimes mildly menacing – while in the background is a photo of McGilchrist’s racially mixed paternal grandparents and their children, including her father in a Jamaica of long ago. This reference to legacy is reinforced by the presence of heirlooms and furniture taken from her family home, which she now occupies having returned to Jamaica. Legacy proves a double-edged sword, it is a luxury, a privilege, and a curse, a sort of weight that threatens to limit self-actualization even as it offers opportunities. There is the air of “privilege”, but there is as much diasporic longing and exile, a less fashionable loss that may be more than a “First World Problem”.
McGilchrist’s contribution is the challenging of essentialist narratives that would reduce “Jamaican” to a limited set of arbitrary identity markers that are merely socially-constructed (in the broadest sense) to mean “black”. How black is black? Are there Jamaican “minorities”? What is the “Jamaican way” of handling difference? This is the Pandora’s box that Ernestine and Me releases.
Together, these works raise the following issues for debate in my mind. If we are to continue to articulate blackness within a narrative of resistance and a commitment to equality and justice, what would it mean to pay more than lip service to those ideals? And, if that is not what we want to articulate about blackness, if that is not what we celebrate every year in the month of February in Jamaica, what is it exactly?