The following is the curatorial introduction by NGJ Chief Curator Charles Campbell, which was presented at the opening of the Anything with Nothing exhibition on May 25:
I hope that the exhibition largely speaks for itself but I will share a few thoughts about the process of putting the show together and the issues it raises.
My interest in Jamaican street art began when I was here in the 90’s and volunteered as a photographer for Sharon Chako on one of the first efforts to research and document the phenomenon. But it is really the independent research of our assistant curator Monique Barnett-Davidson that the current exhibition is built on. Monique has spent time in the last three years documenting murals and meeting many of the artists and without her work it certainly would not have been possible to put this exhibition together in so short a space of time.
Monique and I both shared the vision of mounting an exhibition of street art that combined newly commissioned work and photographic documentation as a way to bring both the vitality of the work and a sense of its original context into the Gallery. I think it would also be fair to say that we shared a similar curiosity as to what would happen when the two very different notions of art as embodied by street artists in Jamaica and the National Gallery were brought together.
It has been said many times that work of this kind hasn’t come into the National Gallery before, and although we can and should talk about this as a type of exclusion we also should acknowledge the different assumptions about what art is and should be in these two very different contexts, the National Gallery and impoverished communities of the corporate area. Our initial focus was on the memorial murals that graced the walls of places like Hannah Town, Matthews Lane, Waterhouse and De La Vega City and have been the subject of much controversy. Our desire was to recognize these as an important artistic and social phenomenon and also to open a space for discussion about the difficult issues the murals and their eradication by the police bring up.
This is a necessary conversation and still very much present in the exhibition however the works in the show have taken on much more varied forms. Many of the artists have chosen to represent not those who have recently passed in their communities but people with broader collective interest. We have Ananda Dean, who’s disappearance and murder captured the national imagination and whose photograph is well known. Also many of the celebrities depicted, such as Nelson Mandela and Miss Lou, passed away fairly recently, and have broader significance in Jamaica and, in the case of Mandela, globally.
Working with the artists to mount the exhibition we have had to face questions about how the Gallery functions and the invisible assumptions we make about the supposedly neutral context of this space. The simplest illustration of this is perhaps the memorial murals. Created in a specific place and time for the function of publicly commemorating the life of someone lost to the community the memorials have a living relationship to memory, loss and power. How then do they then function in the Gallery? What happens when it is the Gallery that commissions the work and provides its context and how should the artists treat our vague directions to make a new work as opposed to the specific request for a particular likeness for a definite purpose?
It was these types of questions that challenged us as curators but also kept us engaged as preparations for the exhibition progressed.
So what you see is not purely “art from the streets of Urban Jamaica”. It’s the artists’ varied response to working in a new context that exists just up the road but a world away from their communities. And it’s the Gallery coming to terms with a different notion of art and artists that work in ways distinct from those who have previously exhibited here. Here we have public figures and portraits of lost friends, musical celebrities and assertive statements about Rastafarian beliefs. All exist within a conversation between the Gallery and the street. Ultimately much of the value in this exhibition is in fleshing out and sustaining that conversation.
When Monique and I would venture into Cockburn Gardens or Lauriston, Denham Town or Tivoli we were struck by how the artists had a unique ability to cross the political and gang boundaries that delineate Kingston. As one artist put it their work comes like a visa allowing them to pass thought PNP and JLP areas alike.
These divides however are not the only divides in Jamaica and I would like to invite you to see this exhibition as way to cross other boundaries. To allow yourselves to momentarily breach the city’s social boundaries, uptown and downtown, the boundaries reinforced by differences in race, class or education. In crossing these boundaries we hope to open up a space for communication and understanding and become that place for difficult discussions.
Inherent in the portraits of our celebrities and cultural heroes is a story about the talent and human potential that resides in our poorest communities. Many of those represented have done the hard work of making Jamaican culture into a global significant force and the artists in this exhibition embody this spirit. Coming from the most humble of circumstances they have created something truly spectacular.
In these hard times we would all do well to learn, as they have shown us, how to make anything with nothing.