In what is, at least for now, our final post on the Explorations IV: Masculinities exhibition, which continues until March 5, 2016, we present an excerpt of the catalogue introduction written by Veerle Poupeye, the NGJ’s Executive Director. Masculinities was curated by Senior Curator O’Neil Lawrence.
Masculinities is the fourth in the National Gallery’s Explorations series of exhibitions, which has thus far featured Natural Histories (2013), Religion and Spirituality (2013-14) and, most recently, Seven Women Artists (2015). Smaller versions of the latter two exhibitions have also been shown at National Gallery West in Montego Bay, where Seven Women Artists is presently on view.
The Explorations series, which is open-ended by design, interrogates the history of art and culture of Jamaica, by examining what we consider to be its big themes and issues. The series invites our audiences to be part of that process, by asking questions and by encouraging debate rather than to prescribe answers. For each Explorations exhibition the curatorial approach is tailored to the subject, as this allows our team to experiment with various curatorial models and strategies for audience engagement and to develop our curatorial capacity and vision in the process. The lessons learned in the process help us with rethinking how we develop and exhibit our permanent collections and also inform our approach to other exhibitions. The general curatorial model used for the Explorations series is conversational and whether curated by a single curator or by a team, the conceptualization, selection and design of each exhibition involves a significant amount of brainstorming with our curatorial department and other stakeholders. In doing so, we aim to provide and invite multiple perspectives and we do hope that the conversational spirit of this curatorial process carries over into the reception of the exhibitions.
Seven Women Artists was the first Explorations exhibition to focus on gender (although gender was a consideration in the Religion and Spirituality exhibition) and looked at the debates and social dynamics that surround women’s art in the Jamaican context. Masculinities takes a different approach and explores how masculinities – and the use of the plural is deliberate – have been represented in Jamaican art and visual culture, from the Plantation era to the present. In doing so, the exhibition also explores how masculine roles and identities, and the perceptions that surround them, have evolved in the Jamaican context, on their own terms and in relation to female roles and identities.
Masculinity is a big and important subject in Jamaica, in light of the debates about the “crisis of masculinity” with regards to father roles; domestic and sexual abuse; crime and violence; feminism and female empowerment; and sexual and gender diversity. Sociologists have argued that masculinity has always been in crisis, since “manhood is widely viewed as a status that is elusive (it must be earned) and tenuous (it must be demonstrated repeatedly through actions)” (Bosson and Vandello 2011) – hence the concept of “precarious masculinity.” The biological facts of maleness may seem comparatively straightforward and secure (although these, too, are in fact quite complicated) but it is now widely understood conceptions of masculinity are socially negotiated and performative, as are gender roles and definitions generally. About the performative nature of gender, the feminist philosopher Judith Butler has argued: “gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself.” (1990, 127)
Conceptions of masculinity vary significantly over time, place and socio-cultural context, in ways that defy fixed definitions and simplistic male-female binaries. Even what is considered as normative masculinity in a particular context has far more complexity than is usually acknowledged. Masculinity is thus not a precarious but clearly defined status, as the first quote in the previous paragraph may suggest, but is subject to variable and competing interpretations – and in the postcolonial Caribbean these contrary dynamics are amplified by the histories of race and class.
The Masculinities exhibition explores how these issues are (at times inadvertently) expressed and represented in Jamaican art, in works of art that have iconic status but also in others that are less known. The exhibition is organized over six galleries and into eight overlapping themes: “Sexual Bodies”; “Beyond the Normative”; “Power and Status”; “The Male Body as Icon”; “Precarious Masculinities”; “The Athlete and the Worker”; “Style and Fashion”; and “Fathers, Brothers and Sons.” The curatorial essay by O’Neil Lawrence, which can be found elsewhere in this catalogue, elaborates on these themes, and on the artists and works selected, but I need to emphasize one major commonality: the majority of works in the exhibition focus on the male body. This is not a coincidence, since the male body serves as a potent symbolic vehicle to perform, affirm and contest conceptions of masculinity, not only in its artistic representations but also in daily life and visual culture. Since the exhibition explores how masculinities are represented in Jamaican art, its main focus is on black masculinities and, therefore, the contentions that surround the black male body, whether it is as a site of resistance, empowerment, victimization or exploitation, or a combination thereof. The exhibition is thus as much about race as it is about gender.
While Masculinities is, at least to our knowledge, the first exhibition of its kind in Jamaica, there have been exhibitions on similar themes elsewhere. Chief among these was the ground-breaking and controversial 1994 exhibition Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition’s curator, Thelma Golden, argued that “[o]ne of the greatest inventions of the 20th Century is the African American male, ‘invented’ because black masculinity represents an amalgam of fears and projections in the American psyche which rarely conveys or contains the trope of truth about the black male’s existence.” (19) We invite you to consider how this statement may apply to black masculinities in the context of Jamaica and Jamaican art, which has a history that is related but also substantially different from African American history.
Bosson, Jennifer & Joseph Vandello. “Precarious Manhood and Its Links to Action and Aggression” Current Directions in Psychological Science, April 2011, 20: 2, 82-86.
Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in The Judith Butler Reader, edited by Sara Salih and Judith Butler. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004)
Golden, Thelma. Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994.