Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art – Introduction

While we install the Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art exhibition, which opens on July 31, we share with you the catalogue introduction by the NGJ ED, Veerle Poupeye, as one of several posts on this project:

The city of Kingston is, in many ways, the crucible in which modern Jamaican culture is forged and it does no injustice to the cultural contributions of other parts of Jamaica, or the Jamaican Diaspora, to recognize its seminal role. Kingston is after all the birthplace of reggae, which has given Jamaica its global cultural visibility. By virtue of being Jamaica’s capital and largest population centre, Kingston is home to major cultural institutions and organizations, public and private, and generally provides a social and economic environment in which the arts can thrive. Given the fraught social dynamics that have shaped Kingston, the city also created an environment in which the arts had to thrive, as a key part of the population’s survival strategies.

This exhibition is our contribution to the conversation about Kingston as a Creative City – a UNESCO designation the city received in 2015 for its role in music – but presented from the perspective of the visual arts. The initial exhibition brief was to explore the role of Kingston in the development of Jamaican art and conversely, to explore the role, actual and potential, of art in the development of Kingston. The exhibition was assigned to Assistant Curator Monique Barnett-Davidson, as her first solo-curated exhibition, and we could think of no one better, given her previous research, curatorial work, and publication on street art. We soon realized however that what we had originally planned was too big a subject for a single exhibition and we decided that the present exhibition would be the first of a two-part exhibition series, with the second part, which will presented in 2017, focusing on the built environment and the role of art in urban development and renewal.

If we are to understand the role of Kingston in the development of Jamaican art, we must first ask what it is that makes Kingston, “Kingston.” What is distinctive about the city? How did Kingston come about? Why did it become Jamaica’s capital? What factors have shaped its social and cultural life? This introduction cannot delve deeply into this subject–there are major publications that do so, such as Colin Clarke’s Kingston, Jamaica: Urban Development and Social Change 1692-2002 (2006), which has been a very useful resource for this project–but it is necessary to note a few key points.

All major cities are accidents of history, which came about because of favourable geographies and circumstance. Kingston, we all know, was established as a settlement after the destruction of Port Royal by an earthquake and tsunami in 1692, when survivors moved to safer ground on the mainland side of the harbour. The location of the original settlement was named, rather ignominiously, Colonel Barry’s Hog Crawle, referring to the previous agricultural use of the area. Cities often emerge near major waterways and the large, well-protected natural harbour of Kingston, which is furthermore strategically located in the northern Caribbean, made the city an ideal candidate to serve as a major centre for settlement, travel and trade. The fan-shaped Liguanea Plains, which are easily accessible by sea and land, provided ample space for urban expansion and although water was and is, as such, relatively scarce, rivers, agricultural lands and other critical natural resources were nearby and sufficiently reliable to support a large population. By 1716, Kingston was already the biggest settlement and trade centre in Jamaica, rivalling the nearby capital city Spanish Town, and in 1802, Kingston received its city charter. Seventy years later, in 1872, after prolonged lobbying by Kingston’s increasingly powerful business interests, Jamaica’s administrative capital was transferred to Kingston. Today, Kingston is the largest English-speaking city south of the USA (although Patwa is arguably the city’s first language), with an official population of 662,426, as per the 2011 national census.

For the purposes of this exhibition, we define Kingston as it is known today, administratively, as the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation, or the Corporate Area. This includes Port Royal, which is today a fishing village and heritage site; the old part of the city near the waterfront or Downtown Kingston; the business and hotel district of New Kingston; and the sprawling communities of St Andrew, which stretch into the hills and mountains that frame the city and into the lowland wetlands to the west.  In perhaps typical Jamaican fashion, Kingston is “larger” than its actual size and the city is also defined by its interconnectedness with other local and global sites, from the dormitory communities of the adjoining parishes of St Catherine and St Thomas and the rural areas that supply the city’s markets, to the Jamaican diaspora communities in North America and England.

A significant proportion of Kingston’s population has rural origins, directly or in the previous generation, and the rapid expansion of Kingston’s inner cities in the 1940s and 50s was mainly due to rural-to-urban migration, with a significant inflow of rural poor in search of economic opportunity. Kingston has also been a major gateway into and out of Jamaica, with its harbour and two airports, and a site of passage for arrivants and emigrants alike. As such, it is a place of settlement and belonging, but also of displacement and alienation, where national and diasporic identifications and aspirations actively collide.

Kingston is known, perhaps unfairly, as a city plagued by crime and violence, a potentially dangerous place to be avoided by those who do not possess the savvy to navigate the terrain. As Charles V. Carnegie reminds us in his contribution to this catalogue, Kingston’s contemporary layout reflects deep social fissures, which is of course the main source of crime and violence, and the lived experience of the city is vastly different for those of different socio-economic backgrounds and, closely related, for those who walk and those who drive. Michel de Certeau, in his famous essay Walking the City (1984), argues that “the city” is shaped by the tensions between the strategies of governments and others in positions of power to impose structures, rules and controls, and the subversive tactics of the populace who appropriate, use, challenge and undo these systems on a daily basis. The experience of life in Kingston begs for further analysis along the lines of this theoretical framework and the city’s traffic situation alone would make an excellent case study.

Although the city started out as safe haven for those who survived the Port Royal disaster, Kingston has its own natural vulnerabilities: the old city was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake and fire in 1907 and Kingston has been affected by other highly destructive natural disasters, such as hurricane Charlie in 1951 and hurricane Gilbert in 1988. For a city its age, Kingston has only few historical buildings. Unlike other major Caribbean cities, such as Havana and Santo Domingo, it is a place where history is felt and alluded to rather than actually seen. The awareness that nature is capable of unleashing destruction on the city with little or no warning adds to the sense of precariousness that pervades Kingston life and recent reports that Kingston may be among the first major cities to be affected by global warming and sea level rise only add to this.

These factors—the tensions between order and chaos, between the pull of the local and cosmopolitanism, between rich and poor, between empowered and disempowered, between security and vulnerability, and between stability and precariousness—can make life in Kingston deeply unsettling but also account for the city’s rich cultural energy. This exhibition explores how this dynamic is reflected in the visual arts. It is not meant to be a structured visual history of Kingston; instead, it explores how Kingston has generated many of the circumstances and opportunities that have propelled the development of art in Jamaica and, secondly, how visual artists have been inspired by Kingston life.

The exhibition is organized around five broad themes, with the understanding that there is significant overlap, and these themes are elaborated on in the curatorial introductions to each section elsewhere in this catalogue. These themes are: 1. Nature’s Bounty, which examines how the natural resources of Kingston and its environs have been used in the visual arts; 2. Crossroads, which is named after one of Kingston’s most famous areas and explores the relationship between art and tourism, trade and commerce; 3. Institutions and Collections, which looks at the city’s cultural institutions and corporate and private art patronage;  4. Art on the Streets, which juxtaposes street art and public monuments; and finally, 5. Stories to Tell, which explores the artistic representation of some of the events, people and tales that characterize life in the city.

Many of the works of art in this exhibition were selected from the National Art Collection but we also borrowed from several artists, as well as corporate and private collections. I wish to thank these lenders for their generosity and support. I also wish to thank all who have worked on this exhibition—detailed credits can be found at the back of the catalogue— but I should single out the exhibition curator Monique Barnett-Davidson for her perseverance and dedication to what has been an inevitably challenging but rewarding project. It is exciting to see young curators finding their own voice and I trust that our viewers will enjoy and engage with what this exhibition has to offer.

Veerle Poupeye, Executive Director



Austin, Diane. Urban Life in Kingston, Jamaica: The Culture and Class Ideology of Two Neighborhoods. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1984.

Campbell, Charles, Honor Ford-Smith and Veerle Poupeye. Anything with Nothing: Art from the Streets of Urban Jamaica. Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica.

Barnett, Monique. “Pon di Cawna.” De Mi Barrio a Tu Barrio: Street Art in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Munich: Goethe Institut and Gudberg, 2012.

Clarke, Colin G. Kingston, Jamaica: Urban Development and Social Change 1692-2002. Kingston: Ian Randle, 2006.

De Certeau, Michel. “Walking the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, 91-110.

Wardle, Huan. An Ethnography of Cosmopolitanism in Kingston, Jamaica. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 2000


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