The NGJ’s Chief Curator Charles Campbell was the guest speaker at the April 3 opening of Be Uncaged, an exhibition of student work at the Edna Manley College’s CAG[e] gallery. Since his remarks have broader relevance, we decided to share them here. The exhibition, which was curated by the students in the Introduction to Curatorial Studies course, is well worth visiting and remains open at the College until April 17.
One of the questions I’m frequently asked is what I think of the art scene here. It’s a complicated question to answer. Are we talking about the artists that live here, the Island’s talent pool and what’s going on behind closed doors in studios and bedrooms across the island? Is it the quality of the exhibitions we get to see, the activity of the National Gallery and other spaces? Or are we talking about the health of the art market, commercial galleries and collectors? How about we talk about the nature of public support for the arts or we could consider the climate of debate, discussion and criticism, and then are we talking about what’s said on the verandas or what’s printed in the papers about Jamaican art? We can also look at the interest in Jamaican visual culture from the outside and the place Jamaican holds in the global imagination, or how well we participate in the growing and global network of Caribbean artists.
By each of these measures we come up with very different conclusions about the state and health of Jamaican art. While this month we saw Ebony G. Patterson’s star rise further as she made history as the first Jamaican artist to appear on the cover of Frieze Magazine, the global economic downturn and local conditions have been an extreme challenge for artists in the commercial sector here. And while NLS is raising the bar as a critically engaged independent artists platform, last year’s close of the Mutual Gallery was the last brick to fall in a near total collapse of the local gallery scene. Depending on who you talk to you’ll hear stories of a healthy secondary market for art or one that is all but dead. Publicly there is little presence and no critical discussion in the papers about art in Jamaica, but privately, at least by my admittedly skewed experience, people are still passionately engaged with what’s happening. And while many have hailed the National Gallery’s exhibitions over the past couple of years as indicative of an exciting new direction for Jamaican art, others lament the decline of more traditional forms.
For me this all amounts to a time of major transition. The discrepancies between what’s happening privately and what’s accessible publicly and the drastic divergence in perceptions about the health of the local scene simply can not hold. Something is going to have to give. And while I often get the feeling that the typical response is to wait and see, I’m here today to say that wait and see is in fact not what’s called for.
Anyone who’s spent much time with me over the past months knows I see huge potential for the growth of Jamaican art. Internationally there has probably never been stronger interest in the Island. Almost weekly the National Gallery is approached with exhibition proposals and plans, whether from cutting edge international contemporary art platforms such as Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, globally successful artists such as Kehinde Wiley or young independent curators looking to make their mark on the global scene though exhibitions featuring Jamaican art, music and culture. Still other opportunities exist in working with the growing number of Caribbean art institutions and artist run projects.
So this time of transition could be about going beyond the narrow confines that previously limited Jamaican art. About getting rid of the notion that a gain for one means a loss for another and understanding the potential that exists for us now, in this moment. About seeing ourselves as full participants in truly exciting regional art networks. About understanding that art can and does exist in multiple contexts and on multiple levels. There are many markets and different economies and ultimately opportunities are ours for the making.
But rising to this potential is not a given. Opportunities are there for us to make, but they are also there for us to lose. Which way we go depends on what we do. Particularly in times like these, times of uncertainty, times of change, how we manage this transition will determine what is looks like on the other side.
This is why I’m particularly excited to be speaking here at the Edna Manley student exhibition. More than any other artists you have a stake in what is to come and it’s largely through your actions that the shape of the future will be determined. As the youngest generation of artists you have both the most to lose and the most to gain from what the art world is to be in the future. Will there be a healthy market, critical discussion, independent spaces, public funding? Will the category of what can be considered art in Jamaica be changeable, open and dynamic or rigidly fixed? Will Jamaica be a space people want to come to, or run from? Do we envision ourselves as part of a much larger whole or as a small island forever on the periphery?
This may seem like a tall order and slightly odd coming from the Chief Curator of the National Gallery, the man who for many stands as gatekeeper to the art world. And perhaps it’s an unfair burden I’m putting upon you. No you are not going to remake the art word in a day and on some days it will be enough to deal with the inevitable rejection letter or the challenge of paying rent. For the duration of your art careers you will be dealing with forces beyond your control. The opportunities and obstacles that land on your doorstep on any given day may be the product of chance, malice or goodwill.
But how you deal with these opportunities and obstacles will make the difference. The relationships and support networks you build within your cohort, and the opportunities you make for yourselves will determine the shape the art world takes for you and others. And in that you are determining the future. The artists and movements that have had the courage to take on the future are the ones we remember.
I’m pleased to see so many strong works in this exhibition but even more pleased that you were able to come together to make it happen. Change is always the responsibility of those who want to see it happen. And as my boss in the environmental movement used to say, the future belongs to those who show up. So this is not a time for waiting. And in this small student exhibition you’ve achieved an important milestone in your career as an artist. You got it done.
I’d like to congratulate everyone exhibiting here today and the young curators who put the show together. But I’d also like to thank all those that acted as their teachers, mentors, supports, confidants and occasional distraction. Each of you have a talent to offer and if we all do what we can, when we can we can move ever more gracefully into the ever unfolding future.