In Retrospect: 40 Years of the NGJ – Introduction

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As has become customary for all our exhibitions, we are publishing the text panels in the In Retrospect: 40 Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica exhibition. Here is the introduction:

When the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) opened its doors on November 14, 1974 it was the English-speaking Caribbean’s first national gallery, and forty years later it is the region’s oldest and largest national art museum. The recent addition of National Gallery West at the Montego Bay Cultural Centre, has further added to its reach and size. Since 1974, the NGJ has held over one hundred and thirty exhibitions and established an encyclopaedic collection of Jamaican art. Through the process of amassing and exhibiting the art of Jamaica it has done more than preserve and display Jamaica’s artistic heritage. What the NGJ has truly excelled at is telling a story (‘the’ story, the NGJ has at times claimed) of Jamaican art, crafting the raw material of artists, artworks and anecdotes into a coherent narrative that resonates with how Jamaicans see and understand themselves in the world.

When the original two-hundred and sixty-two paintings and sculptures from the Institute collection arrived in 1974, the NGJ inherited a set of artworks but not a cohesive art history and its new Director/Curator, David Boxer, who joined the staff in 1975, embarked on articulating such an art history. What we now know about Jamaican art has been the product of dedicated research and, at times, fortuitous discovery, but still the process of compiling facts and perspectives into history is a storyteller’s art. This story has been told through our exhibitions and publications, through major donations, and even through the controversies that have swirled around the NGJ from its earliest years. It is a story about personalities, about nation building and competing interests and perspectives, and about articulating who Jamaicans are as a people.

The task we have set ourselves with In Retrospect: Forty Years of the National Gallery of Jamaica is to tell the story of that story, examining with a critical eye the role the NGJ has played in establishing how Jamaican art is understood. Since our acquisitions are an integral part of that story, the exhibition consists mainly of works from our collection, supplemented with a few loans and works that are presently in acquisition. For our examination of the NGJ’s history to be manageable, decisions had to be made about what to include and what to leave out. We do not claim that this exhibition provides an exhaustive overview of the NGJ’s history—this story, too, could have been told in a number of different ways—but we have sought to represent what we consider to be key events and developments.

We start the exhibition with highlights from the collection we inherited from the Institute in 1974 and our original mandate to collect and exhibit the art that had come out of the 1938 uprising. The second section explores three seminal exhibitions in which the key points in the NGJ’s history of Jamaican art were articulated, namely: Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1976), the first historical survey; The Formative Years: Art in Jamaica 1922-1940 (1978), the first exhibition in which 1922, the arrival date of Edna Manley in Jamaica, was used as the beginning date of modern or ‘true’ Jamaican art; and The Intuitive Eye (1979), the exhibition which launched the Intuitive label and gave these self-taught artists a central place in the emerging national art canon. The third section looks into how this articulation process culminated in Jamaican Art 1922-1982, a major survey exhibition of Jamaican art which was toured by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service to various venues in the USA, Canada and Haiti between 1983 and 1985, and also in the like-named permanent exhibition which was installed at the NGJ’s new home in the Roy West building around that same time. We also pay attention the contentions that surrounded Jamaican Art 1922-1982, particularly the controversy about its prominent inclusion of the Intuitives.

Section four examines how the NGJ’s narrative has changed over time along with new developments in Jamaican art, whether these course corrections were internally generated or in response to external challenges to the definitions, hierarchies and narratives proffered by the NGJ. We particularly consider those alternative views that were already present when the NGJ was established and the new ones that emerged in the 1980s and 90s. This section also explores how the NGJ added ceramics and photography to the very narrow range of ‘fine art’ media it originally exhibited and collected, but initially treated these media as separate, more technical art forms. Section five looks at how the NGJ has supported the development of Jamaican art by providing exhibition opportunities for young and emerging artists and exposing new trends. Our focus in this section is on artists who represent the current directions in contemporary art from Jamaica and its diaspora. Section six, finally, features the three largest donations the NGJ has received to date, namely the A.D. Scott Collection, the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection and the Guy McIntosh Donation, and also makes reference to other major donations that are featured in the permanent exhibitions.

The present exhibition also documents the NGJ’s institutional history—the main exhibitions, acquisitions and donations, educational initiatives and curatorial leadership are outlined in an abridged version of the chronology document that was prepared by our Education Department and which is reproduced in full in this catalogue. This documentary section also considers the development of our physical facilities, actual and planned, and pays tribute to the persons who have contributed crucially to the development of the institution. We pay special tribute to David Boxer who steered the curatorial vision for thirty-seven of the NGJ’s forty years.

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One thought on “In Retrospect: 40 Years of the NGJ – Introduction

  1. Pingback: The National Gallery of Jamaica Celebrates 40 Years of Home-Grown Art · Global Voices

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