Here is another in the series of reviews that were produced as part of the NGJ’s recent art writing workshop for its curatorial staff. This comparison between the self-portraits of Henry Daley from our permanent collection and Camille Chedda’s self-portraits in New Roots was written by Monique Barnett-Davidson. Monique is a Painting graduate of the Edna Manley College and is one of our two Curatorial Assistants.
As an art enthusiast, I always enjoy tracking how artists over time have extended long-referenced concepts and subject matters to discuss and explore aspects of culture and social life. As I explored the recently installed contemporary exhibition, New Roots: 10 Emerging Artists, at the NGJ, I was excited to identify parallels between that and works from the NGJ’s permanent display of older modern pieces.
Take self-portraiture for example. In Jamaican art, approaches to self-portraiture have been largely conventional. There are, however, some Jamaican artists who are exceptional and whose approaches to self-portraiture may be more aligned to figures like Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. These artists – by consistently referencing themselves in their artistic output – set new standards of openness that move beyond the older heroic depiction of the artist, to the artist as a vulnerable, fallible and questionable human being.
Recently, two Jamaican examples of this approach to self-portraiture have stood out for me. One work is entitled (and aptly named) The Artist (c. 1943), done by early twentieth century painter Henry Daley. The other, entitled Built-In Obsolescence (2010-2011) is executed by young contemporary artist, Camille Chedda. These two works illustrated not only a common interest in subject matter shared by these artists, but offered me a fascinating parallel between two different time periods and generations within Jamaican art and cultural history.
Henry Daley was born in Portland, 1919 and died at age 32 in 1951. Documentation on the artist reveals that there were periods of his life that were characterized by agonizing hardship and tragedy. These events may well have coincided with the painting of The Artist. The oil-on-hardboard painting portrays him as a frustrated creator, sitting glumly in a dimly lit space, with face and paintbrush in hand. The tight cropping of the figure within the space, along with muted tones of dark and light encrusted oil paint, communicates the oppression he appeared to feel.
I realise that the characterization could easily be misunderstood without some insight into the artist’s biography. For instance, the wearing of the hat coincides with accounts of his dedicated maintenance of his ‘Indian hair’. How ironic it is that he maintains certain considerations about his image in the painting, despite the morose exaggeration.
Unabashed too is Chedda’s Built-In Obsolescence, in which twenty-eight tiny self-portraits are each painted on plastic, transparent sandwich bags. Arranged in a long row, they act with the power of one. Each grey-toned face reveals subtle differences in appearance, in painterly expression, and states of erosion. Like Daley, she too exposes herself to your gaze. But her gaze is not introspective. Instead, twenty-eight pairs of her eyes engage you directly.
These paintings were obviously made to be adversely affected by time, as pieces of her dried acrylic image flake away and collect silently inside the equally thin and fragile plastic bag, leaving some portraits only partial in appearance. As I moved my gaze from one version of Chedda to the next and the next, the work seems to subtly animate itself, changing and fluctuating. Akin to the idea of an open book, the bags invite a scrutinizing view into her sense of individuality.
Henry Daley and Camille Chedda have created works that imitate a human desire to invest meaning and purpose into one’s countenance. Just consider the fact that we now live in an age where facial and physical identity can be easily altered, shifted, borrowed or even stolen. Consider too, that both artists were operating in instances where what they produced as artwork contrasted with other artistic output of the time and in so doing, challenged notions of what ‘respectable artwork’ should look like and how it should function. Daley’s dark painting, I am sure, was a standout amongst more marketable idyllic portrayals of black Jamaicans of the 1930’s and 40’s. Chedda’s choice of medium does not offer any pretention of the ideal of the enduring artwork in the twenty-first century.
There are many other examples and parallels a curious mind will find between modern and post-modern explorations in Jamaican art. At the end of the day, the continuities become important for the purpose of strengthening the bridges between generations of artists to form a rhetoric that adds to the story of the Jamaican people. At one time, it was paint-on-canvas. This time it is paint-on-sandwich-bags. One can only anticipate how future voices will speak.