New Roots: An Invitation to Dialogue

girl and magpie installation view

The Girl and the Magpie – installation view

We at the NGJ are committed to fostering critical dialogue and our exhibitions are designed to do just that. The current New Roots: 10 Emerging Artists exhibition is a perfect example and it has already elicited a variety of responses, informal and in writing – we welcome both. This morning we received the following comment from a George Blackwell to one of our posts on the exhibition:

The New Roots Exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica is interesting to take note of for several reasons. Firstly, ‘New Roots’, as the title suggests, betrays a desperate bid to get away from any serious discourse that foregrounds the black as the essential constituent in local identity matters. Therefore, the exhibition is insipidly curated to avoid this discussion.

Secondly, new routes are not really new. Videos, installations, animations and graffiti art have had enduring presence in Jamaican art. Nor are the directions and messages of the respective artists new. What is new, however, is the irrational extent to which the curators have gone to scrape the barrel to find people who have no skills or claims to the art making process regardless of the media or medium they choose to work with.

The short film by Saulter suffers from a lack of interesting camera angles and a powerful metaphor has been sacrificed to a gruffly overdone gabble posing as narrative. The other videos are for the most part jejune, the entertainment value and cultural schmaltz become part of the naked technological seduction, while artistic endeavor is absent.

Nile Saulter - Pillowman (2013), video still

Nile Saulter – Pillowman (2013), video still

Nor is the graffiti display new. What is new about it is that though most graffiti works display a competent level of intellectual finesse in their political charge and their artistic ambitions, in McCarthy’s case, one would have to dig deep into the dense layer of clichés to find any smidgen of such. This he compensated for by his PR teamwork and media savvy.

But there is some hope for the exhibition, and one would find it in the many self-portraits of Camille Chedda.  Although they suffered from curatorial ineptitude, the work manages to prevail. The many faces with active orbiting eyes seem to establish the authority of probing into the human souls as the heads traverse and deliquesce into the cycles of life, death and decay without flinching from the inevitable human condition of temporality. Chedda is not interested in the new, whatever that is, but is more apt to improvise and invent by way of reduction and deduction along the trajectories where materials and medium coalesce in a profound sense of aesthetic imperative.

Finally, if I were the Magpie I would dissociate myself from the girl, as I think by myself I could make a better showing of my love for trinkets and shiny things.

George Blackwell

To this comment, our former Senior Curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson, who was part of the curatorial team for New Roots, penned the following response (and the rest of our team could not have put it better):

Dear Mr Blackwell,

Thank you so much for your witty and thorough response to the exhibition. It is always a pleasure to encounter someone who displays such unbridled passion for art, and in writing- all the better for a good, solid debate.

As one of the curators working on that exhibition, I am not only happy to see such a strong response to the show, but I am keen to keep the conversation going. You have brought up some good points, but I think the discourse could benefit from an expansion of the terms of reference.

You have made some interesting points about the exhibition’s title, claiming that it “betrays a desperate bid to get away from any serious discourse that foregrounds the black as the essential constituent in local identity matters.” You are correct, but I would take your point further. Let us expand the terms of the discussion so that it becomes visible that the title could equally be said to:

“betray a desperate bid to get away from any serious discourse that foregrounds any single essential constituent in local identity matters.”

I want to point out that my small adjustment to your sentence, does not make your original statement untrue. It merely expands the terms of reference, so that the conversation is not about “blackness” and what its relative weight and density is in the set of “all (non-essential and essential) constituents of national identity”.  Rather, the conversation is expanded, more nuanced, and attentive to the ways in which the concept of identity itself is re-configuring itself to make way for more inclusive, multiple and flexible articulations.

Matthew McCarthy - Sorry Fi Mawga Dog (2013), mixed media on tarpaulin

Matthew McCarthy – Sorry Fi Mawga Dog (2013), mixed media on tarpaulin

I think that this is a good development. Why? Because at the moment, I am far less worried about “whitewashing” of the nation, than I am about the havoc that fixed and exclusive models of identity (and even humanity) are wreaking on our society. An exclusive model of Jamaican identity is at the root (pun intended) of the violence and lack of protection from the state that Jamaican born-and-bred LGBTQ communities face. I would go further to say that a related exclusive model of humanity is at the “root” of the grip that violence (in all its hateful, annihilating and neglectful forms) holds on Jamaican society in general. Ikem Smith’s 2063, McCarthy’s “sorry fi mawga dawg” piece, and even Varun Baker’s revelation of Joshua Brown’s humanity from under the shadow of an alienating, silencing other-ness, all index this exclusionary and divisive aspect of contemporary Jamaican-ness.

From the perspective of the curatorial team and at least some of the artists, “New Roots” – the title and the exhibition – is not about “new-ness”. Instead, the title operates through it’s oxymoronic potential. As you point out, “new routes are not really new”. We know. That’s the point.  “New” always comes from somewhere, always references some history. There is no newness, without a “root” from which it departs. The works themselves and their curatorial context invite you to think about the ways that these two “constituents” of identity – newness and rootedness – are always simultaneously active and in dialectical relation to each other. They are equally essential constituents – to use your language – of contemporary Jamaican art, culture and identity.

Hence, what you refer to as McCarthy’s “dense layer of clichés”, and “PR teamwork and media savvy” are precisely the point. McCarthy’s work is about symbolism, clichés, visual lineages and mining the contradictions and potential implicit in all of these trusted forms of knowledge (and self-knowledge). He is also interested in the fate of Jamaican graffiti and signage, as they compete with more recent developments in printing technology and society’s more cosmopolitan tastes that look disdainfully on local and traditional forms. His work is about demonstrating the continued relevance of Jamaican sign-painting, graffiti and lyrical traditions. And, if the enthusiastic reception of visitors of all ages and backgrounds is any indication, the work is finding resonance with many.

Matthew McCarthy - installation shot

Matthew McCarthy – installation shot

It is not that McCarthy’s work is above reproach. In fact, giving these artists the opportunity to test a long-seeding idea – noting its limitations, strengths and potential for development- and providing opportunities for critical and constructive engagement with a community was one of the curatorial team’s aims in planning the project. A number of participating artists, have also told me that they found this aspect of the project to be the most rewarding.

So… constructive criticism is welcome. I instead take issue with the extent to which your assertions about his work, and others, suffers from a narrowness of focus, and unwillingness to acknowledge nuance or multiplicity. Thereby, limiting the discourse to a realm that McCarthy’s work (and much of the work in the show) does not give credence to or take seriously, but instead tease- as people tease dogs when they know that a sturdy fence protects them from coming to any real harm. 

As for your comments on Nile Saulter’s work, they suffer from the same narrowness of focus. Your assertion that: “powerful metaphor has been sacrificed to a gruffly overdone gabble posing as narrative,” fails to grasp the fact that Saulter did not aspire to the creation of a “narrative” (in the traditional sense), and overlooks the potential for the “powerful metaphor” to be articulated in a non-narrative format. Incidentally, non-normative approaches to narrative is one of Nile Saulter’s fascinations as a filmmaker. Additionally, your clear identification of the “powerful metaphor” within the work, suggests that you got more out of the “gabble” than you let on.

Camille Chedda - Built-In Obsolescence (2010-2011), Acrylic on Sandwich Bags (detail)

Camille Chedda – Built-In Obsolescence (2010-2011), Acrylic on Sandwich Bags (detail)

I will not dignify your extremely subjective (and more than a little nasty) comments on Girl and the Magpie’s work with a reply. As I’m sure you are aware, those comments lack the density to facilitate worthwhile engagement. Furthermore, your better articulated comments on Saulter and McCarthy’s work, and your apt reading of Camille Chedda’s work over-shadow it. It strikes me as churlish and mean-spirited, when the conversation really calls for sophisticated and rigorous analysis.

Nonetheless thank you for your contribution and the invitation to spirited debate. I hope to hear from you again,

Nicole Smythe-Johnson 

We hope that this exchange will jump-start further debate, on the comments made by both and on the exhibition, and we invite you wholeheartedly to participate, by commenting on the present post or by contacting us via Facebook or email (please use

And we do want to see robust debate but we also want to stay on the proverbial high road. So, in case there is temptation for things to get too spirited, please check our community standards before you submit a post.

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Varun Baker - Journey (2012), digital photograph

Varun Baker – Journey (2012), digital photograph



10 thoughts on “New Roots: An Invitation to Dialogue

  1. As I read this article I found myself agreeing with Ms. Smythe-Johnson’s position much more than Mr. Blackwell. It has of course dawned on me that as a former intern I may have more of a biased opinion of the show considering my perspective as an insider. I will however try and augment my comment if it seems as if I am taking the matter too personally. After much consideration, Ms. Smythe-Johnson’s comments continue to resonate with me more.

    As we all know art is a highly complicated field of study and practice. Often we will find ourselves being compelled to tell the naysayers that they “just don’t get it”, resulting in those words becoming a kind of catch-phrase or cliche, diminishing its value. This time however, I do think it’s appropriate. We provide our own interpretation of the work but within ourselves we can also alter what perspective we are willing to approach the work from. I am unsure as to what Blackwell was looking for from this event but evidently he was unable to have that avenue satisfied. It is unfortunate that his comments seemed to become so malicious in the end, as that aided in de-legitimizing what he had said previously. This was my experience at least, I can only speak for myself.

    In terms of the show specifically, I was unable to go to the opening which is a crying shame, however I did get to enjoy the exhibition in it’s entirety at a later date. It was interesting getting a chance to see the show from the other side of the curatorial wall so-to-speak. It was great to see such a variety of artworks on display, creating an atmosphere that I believe is healthy for the young Jamaican artist. To me it seemed like the exhibition was there to celebrate the contemporary Jamaican artist – informed by today’s technology and media, fighting against the smothering hold of traditional Euro-styled artwork that continues persists as the standard in Jamaica today.

    I felt welcome in the gallery space as a young artist myself trying to find my way in a world and industry that like most things is much older and grander than I am. Especially for Jamaicans, it does not seem like we have much of a niche available for us to express ourselves with these new and unconventional media, telling the stories that are relevant to us. Finally I feel like it succeeded in making the gallery itself a lot more relatable and a lot less imposing on the gallery goer. To me I feel like an event like this made the gallery lose some of its intimidating might, a deterring factor for a lot of potential Jamaican artists. This way the art-world looks like something that is not so out of their league.

  2. I’m going to recommend this exchange to all our BFA students at the Barbados Community College – a great read for all ’emerging’ artists and critics. Thank you NGJ!

  3. We received the following comment from Annie Paul:

    “The mysterious Mr. Blackwell has unwittingly just vindicated the raison d’etre and validity of the New Roots show with his tirade against the new, the fresh and the untried. He wants it seems more of the same stale paradigms of art Jamaica has always been mired in, and with malicious ignorance attempts to take apart the work of these young newcomers. Intent on lobbing his brittle insults he misses the fact that above all what makes New Roots new is the fact that these are new, recently hatched, artists. They should be proud that their work has elicited such venom because the approval of stick-in-the-muds they can do without. What a pity Blackwell didn’t have the guts to present these noxious views under his or her own name! And if he’s not cowering behind a pseudonym would s/he agree to participate in a civil public debate on the matter?”

  4. Perhaps at some point we should begin to think about what “Mr Blackwell” has achieved. Certainly, we should begin to understand that a shift away from academic nepotism, be it from the left or right is more than welcome in any setting, and certainly under these circumstances. We ought not to simply consider Mr Blackwell’s comments as just a tirade, even if they began that way. Wasn’t it Adolf Hitler’s exhibition of degenerate art and artists that tossed to the forefront much of the art that we all worshiped in the 20th century? I think we would be gravely mistaken if the “academic left” believed that “Mr Blackwell” spoke only for him/her self… We must, at some point acknowledge differing opinions and allow those opinions to secure and strengthen our own. Being as brash and tyrannical as “Mr Blackwell” only says to neutral onlookers and students just how vitriolic and venomous we can be at times, when we strip away the intellectual civility. How can we justify responding negatively, simply because of a differing opinion? How do we not seize the opportunity to let a very disheartened art community realize that there is some kind of civility still left in our art establishment? How can the “academic pot-knockers” and intellectual “war-hawks” not say to themselves, “our students are watching?”, folks that want to undermine our art community are watching? How do we chooses to let our emotions run free, abandoning all professional responsibility? Our academics propose to be the authority on our creative expressions and they are placed in trust on behalf of the Jamaican people. This is not a private institution as it relates to our profession, ladies and gentlemen, you are conducting yourselves in the “highest office in the land”

    This is quite unbecoming behaviour from “the future” of our art industry, be careful citizens, our innocents are watching.


    • Philip, your comments are quite opaque. What exactly are you touting as Mr Blackwell’s achievements? And a tirade is a tirade. Let’s call it what it is. How does the ‘academic left’ whatever that is, come into this? It’s quite obvious that Mr. B isn’t speaking only for him or herself but for all those who somehow feel threatened by what they dismiss as the ‘new’. Just as Hitler and co did when confronted with art that appeared ‘degenerate’ to them.

      An acknowledgement of differing opinions or methods of making art should have guided Mr B’s comments to begin with, because that is exactly what this exhibition represents.

      I find it curious that you jump to Mr. B’s defence as you have. Does he perhaps speak for you? If so why not just speak in your own voice? What are you afraid of? If you have a serious critique of New Roots then articulate it openly no?

  5. Hello Annie,

    I don’t think that anything I said was in the least opaque. The only reason we are even having this discussion is because Mr, Blackwell said what he said, if he had not spoken his mind then much of what would have happened would have been what I said earlier – “intellectual nepotism”. If anything, one must acknowledge that as a contribution, whether it was intentional or not.

    I am certain I made it clear that my intentions were not to “pick a side,” as we are often forced to do in a dualistic country such as Jamaica, I simply wanted to reinforce to students and onlookers that there are much better ways to conduct oneself when met with a “left field” commentator. Criticism of art is not the same thing as criticism of character and we should not automatically get out our “battle axes” when confronted with a dissenting view.

    As for “jumping” to Mr “B”s defence, throughout my comment I acknowledged that what was said in his comment was aggressive. In fact, the position I took was one of assessing the whole situation and finding a point of view that had little to do with “finding my corner of the ring,” as others like yourself seem to have done. My response was a call for democracy and professional responsibility. I hope that such requests are well within our reach and we should certainly seek to come to resolutions that do not contain accusations.


  6. We thank all those who have contributed their thoughts to this comments thread thus far. “Mr Blackwell”s original comment was undeniably (and deliberately) provocative, as was his/her choice to make these comments under a pseudonym, and this has inevitably resulted in some pointed responses. However, his/her comments also raised some important questions, about the exhibition and the broader implications for Jamaican art, and these were eloquently teased out in Nicole Smythe-Johnson’s response. We will publish all comments that contribute meaningfully to the debate, as we want to give voice to the widest range of perspectives, but we invite you to focus on the substantive issues rather than on the provocations. While everything in New Roots has a lineage, as “Mr Blackwell” rightly points out, the exhibition undeniably captures a new spirit in local art practice, in terms of how artists define what they do and intervene in the social and cultural sphere. This is a significant development, which we at the National Gallery must recognize and examine, but it is not our intention to suggest that this is somehow superior to other artistic approaches or, for that matter, clearly defined. Far from it, such binary juxtaposition would go against the premises of New Roots, which seeks to challenge and complicate one-dimensional definitions in favor of multiplicity and self-reflection, and the exhibition is certainly not a call for new factionalism in the Jamaican art world. It is our role as the National Gallery of Jamaica to embrace the variety of perspectives artists and audiences bring to the equation and to encourage productive engagement and dialogue on these issues, in our exhibitions and in the debates that surround them. This is exactly what we have sought to do in our recent exhibitions and the 2012 National Biennial and Natural Histories exhibitions brought a wide variety of artistic approaches in dialogue with each other, which significantly contributed to the strength and positive reception of both exhibitions. We invite you to view New Roots in the same light and look forward to further debate on the issues arising.

    Veerle Poupeye

  7. I only can make comment on what I have seen here,which expect that all the artists capability to create is from an inner and outer self. Creating a art is not so much base on the aesthetic one,but to see how most artists take just a minimal materials to create such powerful work,however,the process is one that intrigue me and where the first take you.

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