We are pleased to present the opening remarks delivered by Petrona at the opening of New Roots: 10 Emerging Artists on July 28, 2013.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to share some observations on what is an exciting and challenging exhibition. This exhibition is significant in a number of ways. The National Gallery has had a long history of providing opportunities for artists to show work which challenge prevailing ideas and reflect new thinking, as seen in the Young Talent exhibitions. This exhibition, however, is groundbreaking in that it presents bodies of work which do not have the curatorial framing based on chronology, and presents the body of work on its own terms. This is the realisation of the concept of the “project space” which allows artists to present proposals for recent work, and allows us to focus on their ideas in a given space.
The exhibition reveals some interesting developments taking place in contemporary Jamaican Art. Taken as a whole, there is a prevailing denial of traditional notions of the “art object”. The space in which we are now located cannot be bought, collected or sold. The site-specific work of Matthew McCarthy and the New Jamaica collective is defiant in its emphasis on collective engagement, and forces the audience to re-evaluate their ideas about “art” in the museum space. What we see in this exhibition are investigations with a diverse range of media which challenge the hierarchies of the singular precious “object”, and do not privilege one form or media over another. The site-specific installations, video installation, photo-based work and animation sit beside painting and collage, each presented on its own terms.
We also see new collaborative and interactive directions, where “the work” is not a complete entity but an evolving process in which the audience participates. This participatory aspect is a significant shift in the Jamaican art context, though it locates itself in major redefinitions of “authorship” and the role of the audience which have informed contemporary art practice. The work by Matthew was produced by a team , and the collective effort is the product. This is presented as an open-ended process in which the audience is invited to participate. The performative aspects of Olivia McGilchrist’s work are realised in the bodies which are interacting with us in the space, and Deborah Anzinger invites us to respond to and interact with the work directly.
The anonymity of “The Girl and the Magpie” presents a challenge to the idea of the artist in Jamaica, and the social hierarchies which are deeply embedded in the Jamaican art-world, dependent on validation and status, in which both artists and audience are complicit. Her large-scale transformations of material invite us to meditate on the fragility of our ecosystems, and also serve to re-evaluate our concept of “jewellery”.
There is also an interest in social activism which is overtly manifested in the work of Matthew McCarthy, and the New Jamaica project, as well as the work of Ikem Smith. But this work is not seen through the idealised lens of specific political ideology which informed the activism of my generation. This activism is informed by a context in which the contradictions of the society and the uncertainties of our time have shaped their perspective – these artists are a product of our time. These artists are “knowing” and are not bound by fixed ideological positions. The work is reflexive and also hopeful and optimistic. This activism is also seen in subtle but no less potent ways in documentary portraits of Nile Saulter and Varun Baker, who through their choice of subject make political statements, and take positions in terms of their own location.
The work of Deborah Anzinger introduces new considerations. Her seemingly disparate and random juxtapositions co-opt the audience in the deconstruction of the structures which exist in our realities and force the viewer to interrogate their own perceptions, an internal journey. Throughout this complex installation there is evidence of fragility, of issues of place, location and identity. The work engages in a conceptual language that may be new to this audience, but is very much grounded in and connected to the current times.
The works of Camille Chedda, Gisele Gardner, and Astro Saulter are linked by the exploration of interior landscapes, despite diverse approaches and media. Astro Saulter uses digital imagery to produce dynamic, joyous and whimsical works to communicate his reality. Equally powerful are the disturbing paintings of Gisele Gardner and introspective self-portraits of Camille Chedda, which draw us inwards. Olivia McGilchrist’s multi-layered video installation is an impressive investigation of race, gender and identity, which also reflects the fragility and displacement evident elsewhere in this exhibition.
So how do we support these artists, in this new paradigm, where the majority of the works are not “collectable”? I believe that we need to first and foremost participate in the discussions around the work, engage the artists in critical dialogue, and be open to the ideas and concepts of art reflected in this exhibition. I would like to congratulate the National Gallery on this bold initiative of the “project space”, and the work that they have been doing to foster this dialogue and broaden audiences, and hope that they will continue in this direction. There is also need for financial support of non-commercial alternative studio and exhibition spaces, which will provide opportunities for artists to develop their practice and realise ambitious projects. Support can also come from the provision of project and travel grants, as well as artist-in-residence programmes sponsored by private entities and individuals.
I am very optimistic about the state of Jamaican art as reflected in this exhibition, and urge you to continue to support the artists, in a time of transition and change.