One of the most exciting new developments in the Jamaica Biennial 2014 is the collaboration with Devon House, which is hosting Biennial projects by six artists, five from Jamaica and one from Bermuda: Greg Bailey, James Cooper (Bermuda), Laura Facey, Ebony G. Patterson, Oneika Russell, and Cosmo Whyte.
Having some of the Biennial exhibits outside of the National Gallery of Jamaica itself helps to give the Biennial greater visibility and encourages greater engagement from a variety of audiences – in addition to Devon House, part of the biennial (the Renee Cox exhibition) is also shown at National Gallery West at the Montego Bay Cultural Centre and one project, by Blue Curry, can be seen on the streets of Downtown Kingston. The collaboration with Devon House is the first of what we hope will be an ongoing programme of shared projects and comes at particularly opportune time. The National Gallery first opened its doors at Devon House on November 14, 1974, forty years ago, and operated there until mid-1982, when the institution was relocated to its present building on the Kingston Waterfront. Showing part of the Jamaica Biennial 2014 at Devon House thus amounts to a home-coming on the occasion of our 40th anniversary.
The six artists selected for the Devon House exhibition of the Jamaica Biennial 2014 were selected f because the thematic content and formal qualities of their work have relevance to the context of the House and we opted to make interventions into the space of the House that would make visitors think in new ways about its history and significance. The young painter Greg Bailey is represented with a large formal portrait painting of a black man in a tailored suit seated in an ornate chair, provocatively titled Boasy Slave. It takes the place of the portrait of the 18th century Governor Peter Beckford, in the dining room. This substitution comments ironically on the social and racial dynamics of colonial and postcolonial Jamaica and also makes reference to the history of Devon House itself, as the first plantation style Great House to be built and owned by a black Jamaican – Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel – to the distress of the 19th century white elite. Lady Musgrave Road, the story goes, was constructed because Governor Musgrave’s wife did not wish to see Mr Stiebel and family on their verandas when she drove out to go to town.
The Bermudian artist James Cooper produces photography-based work that incorporates elements of sculpture; performance and collage which bring to light explorations of relationships to the physical environment and our relationship to art itself. For the Biennial, he is showing two photographic installations consisting of multiple free standing sections, with images from a project that documents a series of fictitious performances he calls Communicating with Nature. Cooper’ project was chosen for Devon House as a surreal, contemporary intervention into the historical context of the house and because of the way his work brings the interior of the house into dialogue with the manicured but lavish garden setting of the park around the house.
Laura Facey is best known as a sculptor and the artist who produced the Redemption Song (2003) monument in Emancipation Park, but she also works in other media, including drawing, painting and printmaking. She continues to engage thematically with the legacies of slavery and Emancipation but has also turned her attention to large meditative sculptural forms that exploit the symbolic potential and spiritual significance of natural wood forms and human tools. Her two contributions to the 2014 Biennial at Devon House are: an installation on the lawn consisting of two gigantic wood-sculptures, Needle for the Planet and Walking Tree, which are shown in the formal garden, and a group of rubbings on paper from her Everything Doors series of relief sculptures, which are shown in the upstairs stairwell. The Everything Doors series was first shown in 2007, as part of an exhibition which presented an epic panorama of Jamaican social and cultural history, coming out of the transformative experience of the Middle Passage.
Ebony G. Patterson’s is a uniquely Caribbean aesthetic that melds elements of “high” and “low” art and draws from carnival costuming, Haitian sequined flags, and above all the “bling” of Jamaican Dancehall fashion. Always concerned with issues of gender, sexuality and the body, much of Patterson’s work has explored changing notions of masculinity in Dancehall culture. More recently, her work has moved in other directions and explores the politics of visibility and invisibility, with regards to the cultural and social implications of violence and death in Jamaican society. Her Devon House project consists of two floor-based tapestry installations, embellished with needlework, crochet, glitter, and various objects, including clothing, shoes and children’s toys. Both from the Dead Treez series, they are titled Lillies, Carnations and Rozebuds and Trunk Stump and Dominoes. Deceptively innocent, pretty and glamorous, these two installations elaborate the visually spectacular memorialization, or lack thereof, of the dead in Jamaica’s culture of violence. They were selected because of the manner in which they confront the historical glamour and promise of socio-economic progress represented by Devon House with the present day contradictions of Jamaica. The works also resonate with the ornate Devon House interior, particularly of the Palm Hall and Ball Room where the installations are located, and thus juxtapose 19th and 21st century “bling.”
A painter and animator, Oneika Russell’s work interrogates colonial history and its legacies, seen through the lens of the digital world, with imagery and stories drawn from historical and contemporary literature and visual culture. One of Russell’s two Biennial projects, Notes to You, is exhibited at Devon House, in the child’s bedroom – the other can be viewed at the NGJ. Notes to You consists of a series of hand-drawn notecards that use and critique colonial-era ethnographic and natural history imagery, in ways that comment poetically on complex and contentious issues of race, gender, history and identity that are also raised by the context and history of Devon House.
Cosmo Whyte states that his work explores “…the idea of memory, both individual and communal, and myths, those newly created and inherited.” Many of his photographs include his own image and speak to his personal history as well as the history and culture of Jamaica. Cosmo Whyte is represented at Devon House with two works: the colour photograph Head Boy and a diptych consisting of two large drawings titled The Ginal. In Head Boy, a young black, dreadlocksed and bearded man (the artist himself) is seated in a Jamaican classroom. Obviously too old to be a student Head Boy, he is barefooted but wears the red coat of the colonial militia during the plantation period, which gives him an ambivalent position in Jamaica’s historical and social landscape – is he a “house boy” in the Great House? – and reminds how the social hierarchies and contradictions of the colonial past live on in the present, including in the context of Devon House. The Ginal is based on the famous photograph of Ivanhoe Martin (Jimmy Cliff) in the Jamaican film The Harder They Come, in which the film’s lead character poses defiantly as a fashionable Rude Boy and gunman, a photograph which is then sent to the local press. In Cosmo Whyte’s interpretation, the character seems to morph into a spider-like creature, reminiscent of the trickster of Jamaican folklore, Anansi. This work was selected for Devon House because of the way in which “ginalship” is used in Jamaican culture to challenge and bypass authority and social hierarchies.