The following is adapted from the welcome remarks by NGJ Executive Director, Dr Veerle Poupeye, at the opening of the Anything with Nothing exhibition on May 25. It is the first of several planned posts on this exhibition and its implications.
We are pleased to present Anything with Nothing: Art from the Streets of Urban Jamaica – the first exhibition curated by our new Chief Curator, Charles Campbell. He co-curated this project with Assistant Curator Monique Barnett-Davidson on this project, which benefited greatly from her previous research on street murals in Kingston and environs.
In recent times, we at the National Gallery have given significant thought to our role as a cultural institution in the social and cultural environment in which we operate and this has been reflected in our exhibition choices. We are actively engaging with questions such as our general relevance to Jamaican society; the perceptions of elitism that have surrounded the Gallery; and the various articulated and unarticulated notions about “art” and “culture” that have shaped how we go about our work as Jamaica’s national art museum. The Anything with Nothing exhibition is consistent with this self-reflexive moment and shifts our gaze to what has traditionally been external to the Gallery, by virtue of its life on the streets and its exclusion from the conventional art canons. As our catalogue essayists Charles Campbell and Honor Ford-Smith both point out, a lot happens when street art is transferred to the context of a national art museum, especially in a conflicted socio-cultural context such as Jamaica’s, and we invite you to reflect on the aesthetic and social implications of this exhibition. It is of particular note that street art is often produced by persons who are well recognized and sought after as professional artists in their respective communities a – a popular alternative, and an implied challenge, to the canons and social hierarchies of the mainstream art world.
Street art has a long, albeit poorly documented history in Jamaica. John Dunkley, now recognized as one of Jamaica’s most significant artists, was discovered in the 1930s by the talent scouts of the nationalist school because of the unusual decorations he had painted for his barber shop. While his style may have been unique, he was obviously not the first or only one to have decorated a commercial establishment with paintings and it is reasonable to assume that such interventions were already quite common at that time. Street art as we know it today in Jamaica, however, is a product of the mid-20th century and, specifically, of the ascent of Rastafari.
Although it is also found in rural areas and smaller towns, street art is most commonly seen in the inner cities, where it is an integral part of community life. It is found on many types of surfaces: urban walls; vendor’s carts and stalls; shop walls; cars, vans, and motorcycles, just to name a few. It fulfills all sorts of functions: to advertise goods and services; to announce dances and other community events; to assert individual and collective beliefs and values; to pay tribute to local and global role models; to acknowledge, or impose, political and community leadership; and to remember community members who have died. And such street art comes in different styles and techniques, which are evolving in response to new technologies and changing cultural codes.
The memorial murals are centrally featured in this exhibition and for good reason. Memorial murals have gained prominence in the urban landscape since the 1990s and often represent persons in the communities who died violently. They are presently subject to a controversial Police campaign to erase murals in Jamaica’s inner cities that are deemed to be gang-related, although this association is debatable in a number of instances. The campaign raises questions about freedom of expression and censorship, and about human rights and Police-community relations. Our role as a public institution is not to take a particular position in this controversy, or to be prescriptive about the position others should take, but we do wish to provide a platform for balanced, well-informed and hopefully productive debate on the subject – a panel discussion will be held at a date to be announced.
Any such discussion however needs to consider how the memorial murals fit into the broader context of street art, as the diverse, ever-evolving visual cultural form it is – a subject that remains inadequately studied. To understand the memorial murals fully, in terms of what they represent and how they impact on the communities in which they are found, closer scrutiny should be paid to their visual codes and conventions and the broader cultural developments of which they are a part – for instance, the politics of social visibility in the face of death that also inform the bling funerals.
I hope that this exhibition and the accompanying programming will contribute to this process and generate a better understanding of an important part of contemporary popular culture.