The National Gallery of Jamaica in partnership with the British Council will be hosting an art exhibition from September 22-November 4, 2017. The show is entitled: We Have Met Before and features Graham Fagen, Joscelyn Gardner, Ingrid Pollard, and Leasho Johnson.
This exhibition revisits the challenging subject of trans-Atlantic slavery and its afterlives in the contemporary world, seen through the eyes of four contemporary artists. Each artist brings a distinctive perspective with work that was created in different locales, different media, and at different points in time.
The Scottish artist Graham Fagen is represented by a video and sound installation called The Slave’s Lament, which was also shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale. The work is based on a 1792 song written by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, in which an enslaved man in Virginia expresses his longing for his distant homeland of Senegal. In Fagen’s interpretation, the song is performed by the reggae singer Ghetto Priest, a Rastafarian. Fagen’s work also acknowledges Scottish involvement in slavery in the Americas, which may be well-known in the Caribbean, but is still part of the unacknowledged history of Scotland.
The Jamaican artist Leasho Johnson is the youngest artist in the group and presents a visually and conceptually explosive mix of history and contemporary popular culture, with strong references to the musical genre Dancehall and graffiti art. Like the other three artists, he often uses historical source material and features a repertoire of cartoon-like female and gender-ambivalent figures in various provocative poses. In some of his recent work, drowned bodies with provocatively placed palm tree extensions become sexualized tropical islands, reminiscent of the violent histories of the Caribbean archipelago. Johnson examines the politics of sexual objectification and the contradictions of gender and sexuality in contemporary Jamaican culture and not only points to the roots of these issues in the histories of colonization, slavery, exploitation and social inequality, but also acknowledges their revolutionary, counter-hegemonic potential in the present.
Born in Georgetown, Guyana, British artist Ingrid Pollard works mainly in analogue photographic media. The Boy Who Watches Ships Go By (2002) is the oldest body of work in this exhibition and consists of images of land, sea, boats and historical documents that subtly evoke the histories, visible and invisible, of Sunderland Point in northern England, which was once a thriving seaport in the Triangular Trade. The resulting narrative revolves around the story of Sambo, a young boy and servant, presumably enslaved, who travelled with the captain of the Globe from Kingston, Jamaica, who fell ill and died when he arrived in England. His death, it was believed, was from a disease he allegedly contracted in England to which he had no immunity; and acts as a metaphor for the fate of those who lost their lives and freedom as a result of their contact with European slave traders. Sambo was, according to local lore, buried at Sunderland Point in 1739.
The final artist is Joscelyn Gardner, who is from Barbados and presently lives and works in Canada. She is represented by two full series of lithographs – Plantation Poker (2004), Creole Portraits II (2007) and a selection of lithographs from the Creole Portraits III (2009- 2011) series, which are exhibited as installations with other elements. In these prints, which conform to the conventions of natural history illustrations, intricate African braided hairstyles morph into the instruments of torture that were used during slavery. A more specific reference to sexual abuse is added in the imagery in Plantation Poker, where the triangular shape of the hair references female pubic hair. The lovely flowers in Creole Portraits III are plants that were used by enslaved women to secretly end unwanted pregnancies. While deceptively delicate and exquisitely beautiful, the prints powerfully invoke the dehumanizing cruelty of plantation slavery. Gardner’s body of work is inspired by the infamous diaries of Thomas Thistlewood, a plantation overseer in Jamaica in the mid-18th century, who recorded with scientific precision his many forced sexual exploits and the cruel punishments he inflicted on the enslaved.
We Have Met Before revisits this complex and territory and invites the viewer into a conversation about Slavery and its legacy, where various perspectives can be expressed. The resulting conversations may be difficult but we believe that we must have them, as they are central to the histories that have shaped and continue to shape the contemporary Caribbean world, and we hope that this exhibition will contribute to this necessary process.
The exhibition will open on Friday, September 22, at 6:30 pm. All are cordially invited. Associated programming will be advertised separately.