Explorations IV: Masculinities – Curator’s Notes

The following notes were contributed to the Explorations IV: Masculinities exhibition catalogue by its curator, O’Neil Lawrence. Masculinities opened on December 6, 2015 and continues at the National Gallery of Jamaica until March 5, 2016.

While I feel privileged to have been part of all the exhibitions in the National Gallery’s Explorations series, co-curating the first, Natural Histories, with Nicole Smythe-Johnson, the second Religion and Spirituality with Veerle Poupeye and curating the third Seven Women Artists, the current edition, Masculinities, is somewhat different to me. It is different not because its thematic concerns are particularly unique amongst the concepts explored in previous Explorations exhibitions, but because the theme is related to my own academic work, on subjects in which I have a strong personal investment.

My recently concluded Master’s thesis looked at the convergence of constructions of masculinity, eroticism, exoticism and the black male body in the photography of Archie Lindo – whose work is included in this exhibition. Explorations IV: Masculinities however, goes significantly beyond the necessarily narrow focus of my thesis, as the concepts and realities of Jamaican masculinities are quite complex. Because of this, the exhibition is organized around eight thematic concerns that we hope will take into consideration the breadth of the topic: “Sexual Bodies”; “Beyond the Normative”; “Power & Status”; “The Male Body as Icon”; “Precarious Masculinities”; “The Athlete & the Worker”; “Style & Fashion”; and “Fathers, Brothers & Sons.”

There is, naturally, significant overlap between these themes, as none of them exist in isolation. Many of the works in this exhibition could have been shown under more than one of the exhibition’s thematic headers and many other artists and art works could have been included, although this would have resulted in an exhibition of an impractical size. The themes and selections are meant to act as provocations for further thought, research and debate on what is a topic of enormous complexity and social significance, rather than as any definitive or exhaustive statements. I am in this essay presenting my own notes on these themes and the key selections I have used to represent them but this catalogue publication also features introductions to each thematic section, contributed by Veerle Poupeye, that provide slightly different and more detailed perspectives on the works on view.

“Sexual Bodies” – “Beyond the Normative”

Jamaican perceptions and attitudes towards masculinity have been informed by social anxieties about the expected roles of men and the most acute anxieties pertain to the male body and male sexuality. Jamaican concepts of masculinity seem particularly challenged by the varied ways in which the typical male gaze can be reversed and the works in what is therefore arguably the exhibitions’ most provocative gallery are grouped under the dual themes “Sexual Bodies” and “Beyond the Normative.” Though part of the accepted canon of nostalgic Christmas images, Isaac Mendes Belisario’s Koo, Koo or Actor-Boy (1837) is as transgressive as it is familiar. The cross-dressing figure challenges both the prevailing socio-racial norms of the plantation era as well as the hyper-masculine imagery that had been associated with the black male body, in depictions of the enslaved and newly emancipated. The Actor Boy finds its contemporary counterpart in Vogue (2012) by Marlon James, whose more sexually provocative, counter-normative gender performance poses a direct challenge to contemporary Jamaica’s seemingly unassailable sexual and religious mores.

Leasho Johnson’s work parodies, questions, and critiques contemporary popular culture’s generally accepted expressions of gender-normative behaviour. The cartoon characters in his provocatively titled Boney Boney Ripe Banana, Me and the Monkey Man (Hugging up) and Brace, all from 2013, straddle decidedly phallic images of bananas in a critique of the hyper-sexuality and homophobia within Dancehall. Milton George’s Pages from my Diary (1983) provides a seemingly celebratory depiction of the sexual relationship between a man and woman but also reverses the expected dynamic, giving the woman a more assertive and at times threatening and aggressive role. The fluidity of societally constructed gender roles is also explored in Ebony G. Patterson’s video installation The Observation (Bush Cockerel) A Fictitious History (2012). The choreographed interactions of the two imaginary, androgynous bird-human hybrids, in relation to each other and their offspring, problematize the preconceptions surrounding parental gender roles.

“Power & Status”

The portrait of Benjamin and Mary Pusey (c1775) by Phillip Wickstead represents the epitome of power and status in the Plantation period. The signifiers of wealth and worldliness – expensive fashionable clothing and furnishings, art, and a globe representing travel and experience – populate the painting. The gender and racial hierarchy of the period is also represented by the dominant, central positioning of Benjamin Pusey, whose wife is in his orbit, with the reticent, enslaved black servant, the farthest away from the centre of power, in the background. Marvin Bartley’s Tragedies of Zong (2007) offers a stunning counterpoint to the body politics inherent in the Wickstead portrait. The infamous maritime tragedy is recontextualized by stripping away the signifiers of wealth and status, representing the slave ship’s captain Luke Collingwood who, though the central figure in the work, becomes simply another nude body amongst the slaves he threw overboard to their deaths. Edna Manley’s Prophet (1935), in contrast, references the social and political empowerment of the black Jamaican populace – with the default depiction of such empowerment being male – demonstrated by leadership figures such as Marcus Garvey; and yet this is, paradoxically, envisioned totally in terms of his physicality.

As with the Wickstead painting, the attire and posture of Paul Bogle (?), in a circa 1865 tintype photograph which has become his de facto official portrait, denotes the status and respectability of the photograph’s middle class subject. This image quickly gained purchase in the public imaginary and superseded not only the controversies of origin but all other representations of Bogle and the Morant Bay uprising, as it embodied the aspirations of the poor and disenfranchised. The style and fashion represented in Vermon “Howie” Grant’s Dance Hall Artiste [sic] (2014) are also a mechanism by which masculine hierarchies are maintained: the jewellery of Bounty Killer and the tattooed and bleached face of Vybz Kartel, in particular, speak to the various ways in which Dancehall represents aspirational tendencies but also defiance of middle class norms.

“The Male Body as Icon” “Precarious Masculinities”

Potentially the most iconic representation of the Nationalist era, Edna Manley’s Negro Aroused (1935), like Prophet in the preceding gallery, mobilises the nude black male body as a repository for the aspirations of a movement. While this conforms to the traditional European concept of the “heroic nude,” the black male body is also objectified and exposed to the gaze of the outsider in a potentially problematic way, as it re-inscribes some of the racial perceptions it ostensibly seeks to challenge. Albert Huie’s The Island (1972) provides a more critical perspective on this contradictory objectification and poignantly represents the touristic exoticisation and exploitation of the island, represented by a reclining black male figure who is assaulted by camera-wielding tourists. Archie Lindo’s Irish Moss Gatherers (c1950), though a lesser known work, also represents the Nationalist movement’s thrust to articulate a Jamaican identity based on the image of the black, working class man, but reflects even more pronounced contradictions. The photograph monumentalises the male body in a way that emphasizes and objectifies its masculine traits but the manner in which the men are subjected to the “gaze” also suggest a homoerotic subtext. The photograph also appears to subvert normative gender roles, since the composition references the art historical precedent of the Three Graces, an archetypal female image in the Western tradition.

Several examples in this section more actively challenge normative masculinities. The hyper-masculine image of Ivanhoe Martin from the 1972 Jamaican “bad man” epic The Harder They Come is combined with Anancy the trickster in Cosmo Whyte’s diptych Ginal (2014), which thus explores two of the more popular archetypes of male Jamaican behaviour – the bad man, or rude boy, and the trickster – that challenge normative constructs about respectable male leadership. Varun Baker’s Journey 6 (2013) poignantly challenges the connection between physicality and masculinity. The photographs subject, Joshua, a quadruple amputee, demonstrates quite dramatically just how precarious the concept of masculinity could be if it is solely tied to physicality but also that attitude is even more important.

Masculinity and heteronormative sexuality are often seen as being one and the same – especially in Jamaica – and men who do not conform face denigration and possible violence. The dead fish (which are a reference to the Jamaican slang describing homosexuals), which are juxtaposed with drowned men floating on the surface of the surreal, seemingly toxic neon orange sea in Leasho Johnson’s Lost at Sea II (2015), are demanding that the viewer take stock of the destructive outcomes of homophobia.

“The Athlete & the Worker”

The “athlete” and the “worker” are important figures in Jamaican life, and are usually assumed to be male, and also appear as iconic subjects in Jamaican art, in ways that invite further discussion on the complexities and contradictions of these constructs. There is, for instance, a curious ambivalence towards the male body, specifically the nude male body, in Mallica Kapo Reynolds’ oddly emasculated Copeland Boxer (Dillinger) (1970). While the boxer figure is robust and looms large over the painting’s viewers, his proportionately small penis goes counter to how masculinity is normally construed in the popular imaginary. The diminutive penis may represent an attempt at modesty on the part of the artist, but Kapo has been quite uninhibited in his depictions of male and female sexuality in other art works, and the question arises why the figure is represented in the nude, since this is not a conventional mode of representation for boxers. The vision of the athlete is also hardly celebratory in Barrington Watson’s Athlete’s Nightmare which depicts an uncertain, unresolved result to a particularly contested run.

Albert Huie’s Crop Time (1955) is an archetypical image of the worker, male and female in this instance, but given Jamaica’s history of slavery and present day realities of labour exploitation, it is a surprisingly uncritical celebration of physical labour as a nation-building activity from the Nationalist era. Banana Man (1955) by Alvin Marriott parallels the vision of Huie’s Crop Time, but there also seems to be strong sexual innuendo in the sculpture, with the suggestive way in which the figure he holds the phallic stem of the bunch of bananas. One is left to wonder if the sexual connotations are accidental or deliberate. Eugene Hyde’s Jelly Man (1959) may seem to represent another archetype of the physically powerful, industrious Jamaican worker but his supplicant posture and the hollowness of his smiling, mask-like face also allude to the poverty that continues to exist amongst the working classes. John Wood’s Fisherman (1943), presents another image of poverty, signified by the man’s ragged clothing, but the directness of his gaze provides a challenge to the viewer and his dignity seems self-contained and unassailable.

“Style & Fashion”

Style and fashion are important considerations in the construction and expression of gender identities, even though these are often stereotyped as female preoccupations. Amongst the lush vegetation of A. Duperly and Sons Castleton Gardens (1901), a particularly well dressed black man stands in the centre. Self-possessed and assured, he represents the emergence of a black middle class, and challenges the demeaning anthropological representations of black masculinity that predated and still persisted during the period. The same self-assured defiance is found in Osmond Watson’s Johnny Cool (1976), who presents a cool, collected and well-dressed posture of “rude boy” confidence. The protagonists in Ebony G Patterson’s Untitled II, III and IV (Khani + di Krew from the Disciplez Series) (2009) address similar issues but also allude to Dancehall’s homophobic, hyper-masculine and contradictorily feminized aesthetic. Their bleached faces (a trend formerly exclusive to women and poor gay men) and “blinged out” style act as challenges to the standards of good taste and black self-affirmation of the Jamaican middle classes. Peter Dean Rickards’ Proverbs 24:10 (2008) acts as a poetic tribute to the male dancers in the Dancehall and the use of slow motion in the video poignantly depicts the self-affirmative ceremony that is the dance. The changing nature of gender dynamics in fashion is also embodied in Wade Rhoden’s The Calling (2013). The photograph is a stunning display of the athleticism of his models but also reminds that the unattainable standards of beauty and bodily perfection that are the norm in female fashion photography also obtain in male fashion photography.

“Fathers, Brothers & Sons”

This final section of the exhibition focuses on the representation of male family relationships, in the literal and more extended sense, the latter referring to the homosocial (or platonic) relationships and interactions among men that are widely accepted in Jamaican society, despite the anxieties about homosexuality, for instance in the field of play and recreation. The rarity of imagery depicting men with their children makes Leonard Morris’ Mountain Folk (1953) a significant portrayal of Jamaican fatherhood. Prevailing notions about absentee fatherhood are also challenged in Rose Murray’s depictions of Rastafarian fathers and children, reminding that Rastafari has provided an alternative of strong father roles in the popular culture. Her Seated Boy (1975) depicts a young Rastafarian boy who is leaning against a painting that literally predicts a positive future for him as a “young lion.” The type of guidance being offered to the young boys in Greg Bailey’s Recruits (2014), on the other hand, is questionable as their play-acting, using pieces of wood to represent rifles, in our current social context immediately makes one ponder which side of the law they will end up on. The more convivial environment of Roy Lawrence’s The Game (1974), in the final example I am citing here, represents one of the traditional arena’s in which men try their luck and test their skill against each other, namely the game of dice, with dominoes being another.

In closing, it is my hope that this exhibition will lead to productive debate on how notions about masculinity operate in Jamaican society, and how this is in turn represented in art and other cultural expressions. Quite naturally, there is a lot more to be said but what is presented already offers a very rich array of possibilities for debate and further exploration.

O’Neil Lawrence is Senior Curator (acting) at the National Gallery of Jamaica.

One thought on “Explorations IV: Masculinities – Curator’s Notes

  1. To O Neil / Veerley I only went today as we were out of town . We were blown away. The creativity & the excitement being generated at the Gallery just keeps growing & growing. The community is indebted to you. I must mention that the guiding notes are particularly stimulating ,instructive & helpful. Congratulations Warm regards Patrick

    Sent from my iPad


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