Explorations V: Portraits in Dialogue is on view from December 19, 2017 to February 25, 2018, and consists of a selection of portraits from our collection. The exhibition was curated by Senior Curator O’Neil Lawrence. The Explorations series examines big themes and issues in Jamaican art.
Explorations V: Portraits in Dialogue examines the significance and oftentimes conflicted politics of artistic portraiture in the development of Jamaican art from the 18th century to the present, looking at issues such as race, class, and gender, as well as the ideas about art, representation, and the artist that are reflected in the portrait.
The Cambridge English dictionary defines a portrait as “a painting, photograph, drawing, etc. of a person or, less commonly, of a group of people,” to which we should of course add sculpture, and also notes that “a film or book that is a portrait of something describes or represents that thing in a detailed way,” as in, a portrait of life in twenty-first century Jamaica. Expanding the definition in this manner is also useful in the field of art, as it allows us to consider broader, narrative or symbolic definitions of what a portrait can be.
The history of portraiture is almost as long as the history of art itself. In ancient times, and well into the last millennium, portraiture was almost exclusively connected to power and status and until modern times, very few portraits of common folk survive, in part because very few were made. This is evident in portrait art from the Plantation era in Jamaica: most extant portraits are of members of the plantocracy and these portraits have all the typical traits of conventional, commissioned Western portraiture, from the standardized academic poses and idealized features to the assumed self-importance of the sitters. These are the types of portraits that often inhabit the popular imagination and have significantly influenced the ways in which many viewers approach the genre. There are few depictions of black persons from that period that qualify as portraits. One is the unattributed portrait of a West Indian Boy (c1840), and, while the depiction is sensitive, it is of note that the boy’s (or man’s) name is not documented and that he is presented as a “type” rather than as a socially empowered individual.
Portraiture was revolutionized and, to a great extent, democratized by the introduction of photography, as having one’s portrait made thus came within the reach of the middle classes, although the commissioning a painted or sculpted portrait remains the province of the wealthy and powerful, or is done for those who have achieved significant public status because of their contributions to society and not by accident of birth – the recently unveiled Usain Bolt statue by Basil Watson and the controversial Marcus Garvey busts by his brother Raymond Watson come to mind. The controversies that frequently surround such commissions illustrate that the politics of public portraiture are particularly high-stakes and fuelled by conflicting standards and expectations.
The democratization of portraiture, in the sense of who was portrayed, was deliberately pursued by the artists of the nationalist school in mid-twentieth century Jamaica, who searched for iconic representations of Jamaicanness and who deliberately challenged the colonial hierarchies of representation with assertive portrayals of blackness and of the working class. It is during this period that we also see the first self-portraits in Jamaican art and some of these provocatively explore the artist’s identity and status within Jamaican society. There is also a widening of the definitions of portraiture during this period, as can be seen in Edna Manley’s anthropomorphic “portrait” of an iconic part of the Jamaican landscape, the Hills of Papine (1950).
Portraiture holds a special place in the popular culture. In street art, it is often commemorative and depicts community heroes – as in Vermon “Howie” Grant’s portrait of Constable Mark Haughton AKA Sleepy (2013), a popular Police officer who was shot and killed – and, more controversially, gang-related personalities. Such popular portraiture asserts alternative social hierarchies, that actively challenge and subvert the conventional social hierarchies, and this is also evident in popular religion – for instance in Kapo and Brother Everald Brown’s self-portrayals as religious patriarchs.
Portraiture has been redefined and repositioned significantly in response to recent and massive social, cultural and technological changes, and this is evident in contemporary art, where portraiture and self-portraiture have become fertile conduits for new critical interrogations, especially in photography-based art. This is evident in Berette Macaulay and Olivia McGilchrist’s explorations of race, identity, family and relationships, or Renee Cox and Marvin Bartley’s reinterpretations of the historical narratives of slavery and resistance. We live in the age of the “selfie” and the unprecedented amount portraiture and self-portraiture that circulates in the online world, which may appear to be casual but is usually heavily staged and codified, is raising entirely new questions about portraiture, representation and identity. Of course the moderation of a public persona is nothing new: the Bob Marley album covers included in this exhibition, sample the ways in which Marley’s persona of rebel and voice of the people was supported by the visuals that accompanied his music.
Although there are various themes emerging in Explorations V: Portraits in Dialogue, the exhibition is not organized along chronological or strict thematic lines. Instead, it presents the portraits selected in a way that allows them to participate in fluid but provocative conversations across time, circumstance and artistic genre – lively arguments, in some instances. We urge visitors to participate in these conversations and to consider what the art of portraiture has to tell us about the histories and contemporary realities of Jamaica.
Veerle Poupeye and O’Neil Lawrence.