The Explorations IV: Masculinities exhibition, which was curated by O’Neil Lawrence, opened at the NGJ on Sunday, December 6, with Michael A. Bucknor as the guest speaker. We are pleased to present the first part of Dr Bucknor’s opening remarks – the second part will be published on Wednesday.
I must thank the National Gallery through its Executive Director, Veerle Poupeye and its Acting Senior Curator, O’Neil Lawrence, for inviting me to offer some introductory remarks on the occasion of the opening of the 4th in the series of the National Gallery’s “Explorations”exhibitions. In Jamaica, we have a saying that “Cock mouth kill cock” and I think that my scholarly mouth has gotten me into trouble. I must first declare that I am not a critic or practitioner of the visual arts. However, their choosing me to do this opening might be related to the work I have been doing quite recently on Jamaican masculinities. In 2013, for example, I co-edited a special issue of the Journal of West Indian Literature on “Masculinities in Caribbean Literature and Culture” and was grateful to O’Neil for allowing the use of one of his stunning photographs for that issue. Then last year I co-edited, another special issue on Caribbean Masculinities for Caribbean Quarterly and Veerle contributed a piece on Ebony G. Patterson’s work. So they were both familiar with my work in masculinity studies. These special editions were aimed at exposing some of the work being done by cultural critics in the fairly recent field of masculinity studies, but perhaps also to reveal what work is still left to be done.
Perhaps, I should say a little bit more about my own interest in masculinity studies. My entry into this field of research was (in part) influenced by what I discovered in Jamaica in the late 1990s when I returned from graduate school in Canada and began teaching at UWI. I noticed the increasing number of murder-suicides done by husbands, common-law male partners and boyfriends, who would sometimes murder the children, the wife or female partner and then would take their own lives. These events revealed Jamaican masculinities as bathed in blood and veined in violence. This bothered me. Here is an example of the typical newspaper report on these incidents and this one is as recent as May 16, 2015:
The Manchester police are investigating the circumstances surrounding a case of suspected murder/suicide involving a 23-year-old security guard and the mother of his child. Police believe the security guard …first used his licensed firearm to shot and kill…the mother of his infant child, then turned the gun on himself. Police said the tragedy, which flowed from an argument over alleged infidelity, occurred at about 10:30 pm Thursday night … in Melrose Mews in Mandeville. (Jamaica Observer).
As indicted in this Jamaica Observer news report, much of the outrage that ends in this kind of blood bath is linked to a Jamaican man feeling rejected, “dissed” (disrespected) and discarded by his female partner who chooses to exchange sexual favours with another man. Cuckolding the cocks-man in Jamaica seems the highest form of violation that requires the woman paying the ultimate price of losing her life. When we hear of such incidents, we have to wonder: Is violence too much a defining feature of Jamaican masculinity? Murder suicides, gang warfare killings, scammer executions, homophobic violent attacks and murders, and vicious assaults, including rape, of women and children seem to mark Jamaican masculinities as a violent rite of passage. One chilling art work in Gallery 6 of this exhibition is the work by Greg Bailey entitled “Recruits” where four young boys (who seem to resemble each other) are brandishing wooden play guns and positioning them as weapons. One of the little boys seems dubious about the activity and holds the wooden gun in the rest position and looks off to someone in front of them (camera man) or the director of this play activity. His limited participation provides a reminder that not everyone will follow wholeheartedly the script of macho masculinity that is nurtured in a culture of violence. Too often, the alternatives to this type of masculinity remain in the minority. In this exhibition, there is no image from our slave past much like the well circulated image of the African American runaway slave Gordon with the tapestry of trauma embroidered on his back. Yet, as the work of O’Neil Lawrence reminds us in his series “Broken Reliquary” (by the way, none of that work is featured in this exhibition), there is history of violent trauma for black men that continues today.
Yet, while this exhibition might not feature such graphic images of violence to the black man’s body, thereby, focusing on physical violence in a re-traumatizing ritual of the museum or art gallery visit, the exhibition raises some philosophical questions about the terms on which traditional conceptions of Jamaican masculinities are often grounded. Ideas of the naturalness, innateness and never-changing character of Jamaican masculinities are interrogated in this exhibition and, in this way, discursive violence and its philosophical underpinnings are taken to task. The way in which the curator has set up the pieces in conversation within individual galleries and across the six galleries establishes a complex of crossings for our viewership. Though there are the distinct sections: “Sexual Bodies” and “Beyond the Normative,” “Power and Status,” “The Male Body as Icon” and “Precarious Masculinities,” “The Athlete and the Worker,” “Style and Fashion” and “Fathers, Brothers and Sons,” there are some cross-connecting tropes throughout the entire exhibition. Throughout this exhibition, we can take for granted that the black male body is the surface on which masculinity’s discursive script is most often written. For example, Vermon “Howie” Grant’s “Dancehall Hall Artiste” (Use image if possible) in which the central figure of Vybz Kartel has made his skin a canvass, so that he is as “pretty as colouring book” illustrates my point. Here in a meta-artistic moment, art making art its subject—that is the “oil on plyboard” piece features Vybz Kartel whose body art is part of the subject of Grant’s art work, and so, our attention is drawn, especially in this exhibition, to the ways in which black body is written on constantly to anchor ideas about masculinity. The three main cross-codes, then, that I want to turn my attention to is (1) cross dressing or dress as cross-connecting motif, (2) cross-referencing across time and (3) the central trope of the cross-species.
I want to begin by drawing attention to the video installation in Gallery 1 by Ebony Patterson because it helps to make all the major points I want to make. I should note in passing that Ebony Patterson has had a sustained engagement with the issue of Jamaican masculinity and also has brought the world of popular music, dancehall culture especially, into visual art.[i] (This cross-current of dancehall in contemporary visual art, I will return a little later in the talk.) There have been several responses to this piece in its various incarnations. From his viewing of this installation at the National Biennial 2012, Kei Miller, for example, highlights the inconclusive nature of Patterson’s gender reflection in this piece: “I am grateful that Ebony G. Patterson has not yet concluded her fascinating exploration of not-quite-male/not-quite-female bodies. And the work does not seem anxious for conclusion.” For O’Neil Lawrence, this inconclusive stance represents ‘the fluidity of societal constructed gender roles” (14) and, in this way, “plays games with our assumptions about male/father and female/mother roles and appearances,” as Veerle Poupeye suggests in the exhibition catalogue (20). I also want to direct our attention to the setting of this gender game, which seems to be an outdoor (not fully garden of Eden), what the artist calls bush. One gets the sense that some of the flowers did not grow naturally in the environment, that they were inserted or the image photo-shopped and, thereby, this artifice raises issues about what we claim to be natural. The equation of naturalness with the normative is one idea that I think is challenged by this work—exposing both the natural and normative as constructed ideals. In this regard, she seems to recover the excess portion (rather than the minimalist fashion) of dancehall dress—the wigs, the flamboyant colours, the feathers to frame the two adult figures, what Lawrence calls “two imaginary, androgynous bird-human hybrids,” where the naturalness of femininity or masculinity or family structure is unclear and where the natural is revealed as always being cloaked in our constructions of it. We can make the natural mean what we want it to mean. Our gender meanings are imposed, not innate, are made up and agreed upon ideas, not natural and these roles are not static, they can change over time.
Dr Michael A. Bucknor is Senior Lecturer, Public Orator and Head of the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona.
[i] The claim for the revolutionary potential of dancehall culture in respect to masculinities is not to deny that dancehall lyrics are often homophobic and seem hostile to alternative expressions of masculinity. This is the paradox of dancehall in all its complexity.