The National Biennial 2012, which closed in March, was, as Charles Campbell put it in his excellent review, a powerful and demanding exhibition that reflected the expansive growth of contemporary art in Jamaica and its Diaspora. It captured a cultural moment that is energetic, expansive and enthusiastic and viewers and commentators responded accordingly, with unprecedented enthusiasm that left us very encouraged about current directions in Jamaican art and the development of the NGJ itself.
Charles Campbell rightly cautioned, however, that the present cultural moment is also very self-congratulatory and lacks the supporting critical discourse that is needed to make the current growth spurt fully meaningful and sustainable, culturally and intellectually. The NGJ team recognizes this problem and it is in actuality part of our responsibilities to facilitate and promote critical discourse within and about the Jamaican art world, in its broadest sense. We also recognize the need to extend this thrust internally, to a more critical and self-aware engagement with what we do, and should or could be doing, as Jamaica’s national art museum.
Our present approach to curating, programming and publishing reflects this new commitment towards critical engagement and our latest exhibition, Natural Histories, which opens tomorrow April 28, is a product of this process. In presenting this exhibition, and this editorial, we want to give you greater insight into how our curatorial practice and internal critical discourses are evolving, with new approaches that will also inform the upcoming redesign of our permanent exhibitions
I do not want to preempt what Natural Histories brings to the table and invite you to read, and respond to, a series of short critical interventions on the exhibition and the works therein which we will publish over the next weeks. I do, however, want to give you some insights into how the exhibition originated:
The exhibition, which was proposed by our Senior Curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson and co-curated with Assistant Curator O’Neil Lawrence, was not only inspired by several works in the Biennial that engaged with Natural History issues but also builds on the shifts in our curatorial practice we experimented with for that exhibition. The Biennial was team-curated and curatorial decisions were based on dialogue within a team that consisted of all members of our curatorial staff. We extended this conversational approach to the exhibition design itself, in which we made various juxtapositions that invited, and sometimes provocatively forced, intense conversations between the works on view and, as a result, between the exhibition and its viewers. The viewers’ experience of the exhibition was foremost on our mind while we made those decisions and the feedback we received, to what was surely the most talked- and written-about exhibition in the NGJ’s history, suggested that our new, experiential approach to curating was indeed successful in promoting greater engagement on the part of our viewers – Deanne Bell’s spontaneously contributed response, which was published on our blog, stands out as an excellent example of the feedback we received.
Natural Histories uses a similar approach but also builds on it by relying on a strategy of re-contextualization – of works that were shown in the Biennial, well-known and not so well-known works from our collections, loans from the Institute of Jamaica’s Natural History Museum, and new works contributed by a few artists – to produce and invite new interpretations and responses. Visitors have asked us to provide more context to our exhibits, especially the sometimes opaque and challenging works we show, and Natural Histories includes text panels and extended labels that provide such contextual information. The exhibition is part of a new series of such interventions called Explorations.
We hope you will find the exhibition and the series stimulating and that you will be provoked to respond with your insights. While we are aiming to make our new discursive strategies relevant to the Jamaican context, the shifts in the NGJ’s curatorial and critical practice are not happening in isolation: there is a general trend in art museums internationally towards what is now called “experiential curating” and more and more attention is being paid in how exhibition labels and other supporting devices moderate and empower active visitor responses. We have added some links that will allow you to explore these developments further.
As Kei Miller rightly put it in his response to the Biennial: “the best art actually speaks its own language – something beyond words – and […] this business of translating paint or ceramic or film into syllables and punctuation marks, a semiotic medium which it resisted in the first place, is always a kind of reduction.” Natural Histories aims for a productive interplay between the visual, the material and the verbal that respects, and in effect capitalizes on, these language boundaries but we also recognize that these boundaries still limit us when we seek to empower our viewers to respond freely and openly to our exhibitions. Social media and other online resources have generated new economies of knowledge and opinion that make our audiences less dependent on the traditional, high-handed didacticism of (art) museums but there is still a pervasive sense, certainly in Jamaica, that commenting on art and art exhibitions is something that is best left to the “experts”, to persons who have privileged knowledge of the specific languages of art and who are uniquely authorized to serve as its interpreters. Acknowledging that art speaks its own languages should however not inhibit the critical response to it and it certainly does not justify any view that only experts can legitimately respond to it.
We at the NGJ believe that the critical discourse that is so sorely needed in the Jamaican art world is best served by broad-based participation, from a variety of perspectives, including self-asserted “experts” and “non-experts”, and we actively invite you to respond freely and critically to Natural Histories and the general representational work we do at the NGJ, from whatever perspective you bring to the table, hoping that you will be as inspired as we are at the present time.