Earlier this year the National Gallery launched a new exhibition series, Explorations, with the Natural Histories exhibition. The series explores major themes in Jamaican art, and in the National Gallery collection, and aims to allow our curators and our visitors to engage in new and more thoughtful ways with the artistic and cultural history of Jamaica. The series also serves as a platform for our curators to rethink how we exhibit our permanent collections, as we will soon be reinstalling our permanent modern Jamaican art exhibition and intend to do so along thematic lines. We are now presenting the second in the series, Explorations II: Religion and Spirituality, which will open on December 22, and several other editions are in planning for future showings.
Explorations II: Religion and Spirituality examines the themes of religion and spirituality in Jamaican art and will consist entirely of works from our collection. That we can mount such an exhibition without resorting to loans is in itself testimony to the pervasive role of religion and spirituality in almost all aspects of Jamaican history and life and, consequently, in Jamaican art. While predominantly Christian, Jamaica is also the birthplace of Rastafari and earlier African-derived forms – Revival and Kumina being two of the most well-known. Other world religions are also represented in Jamaica, namely Judaism, Hinduism and the Islam, albeit in small but at times influential minorities, who further add to the complex landscape of beliefs and religious practices found in the island. In these various incarnations, religious and spiritual practices and beliefs have played multiple social and cultural roles, as instruments of control and oppression in some instances and as tools for liberation and self-assertion in many others. Visual artistic forms have been an integral component of almost all religious practices on the island and many artists have been drawn to the subjects of religion and spirituality in their search for iconic Jamaica subject matter or, sometimes, as a target for critical or satirical commentary.
As was done in the Natural Histories exhibition, the thematic explorations offered in Religion and Spirituality will be organized around several broad themes, including: “In Our Own Image”, “Spiritual Warriors”, “A Chapter a Day” and “Praise Songs”. “In Our Own Image” will explore how the colonial representation of Christian (and to some extent Judaic) religion as white religions has been implicitly and expressly challenged in local religious and artistic practice and we will pay special attention to the representation of the Black Christ. “Spiritual Warriors” will examine the role of militancy in religion, for instance in public preaching, as well as the role of religion in resistance and liberation movements, especially during the colonial period. “A Chapter a Day” will explore the central role of the Bible in Jamaican life and will include various works that illustrate biblical scenes. “Praise Songs” consists of works of art that illustrate the role of religion and spirituality in local song and dance practice and the performative elements in religious and spiritual practices. The exhibition will also include work that uses traditional religious iconography to address other issues, whether personal or social, which has been fairly common in modern and contemporary Jamaican art.
The artists to be represented in Religion and Spirituality include Carl Abrahams, Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, Osmond Watson, Renee Cox, Edna Manley, Ebony G. Patterson, Gloria Escoffery, Eugene Hyde and Everald and Clinton Brown. While the exhibition will consist entirely of work from the 20th and 21st century, it will also make reference to our pre-twentieth century galleries, which include several historical works relevant to religion and spirituality, ranging from Taino sculpture, which was predominantly religious in nature, to works of art related to the Abolitionist campaigns.
The Natural Histories exhibition included various natural history artefacts, publications and illustrations that are not normally regarded as “art” and thereby also explored that the art/artefact dynamic in the context of art galleries and museums. The Religions and Spirituality exhibition is less actively concerned with this issue, because doing so in a manner comparable to Natural Histories would require us to include active sacred objects, constructions and images, which poses various practical and ethical problems. Several of the works in the exhibition – for instance, Everald Brown’s musical instruments or ritual staff – however represent transitional area between sacred object and “museumized” work of art and in a number of other works – such as Kapo’s Rising Table, which represents a Revival table – sacred objects, constructions and images appear as part of the subject matter.
Explorations II: Religion and Spirituality will run until April 27 and will be accompanied by several special events and educational programmes, some of them attached to our Last Sundays programme. Look out for further news on this exciting exhibition.