Explorations VI: Engaging Abstraction 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 Assistant Curator Monique Barnett-Davidson. The Explorations series examines big themes and issues in Jamaican art.
Engaging Abstraction examines the role of abstraction in modern and contemporary art from Jamaica and also makes reference to abstraction from the Caribbean and its Diaspora. Our collection includes several hundreds of works of art that qualify as abstract, or at least as abstracted. While abstraction has been a consistent preoccupation in the local art scene since the 1960s, the visual rhetoric of abstract art nevertheless continues to challenge many Jamaican viewers, who crave art that is more literal and presents a clear narrative, often dismissing abstraction as alien to Jamaican and Caribbean culture. This exhibition therefore, seeks to add to the conversation about abstraction in the Jamaican and Caribbean context, as well as to explore its inherent contentions.
The Tate Gallery offers the following definition of abstract art: “The term can be applied to art that is based on an object, figure or landscape, where forms have been simplified or schematised. It is also applied to art that uses forms, such as geometric shapes or gestural marks, which have no source at all in an external visual reality.” This definition highlights that abstract art – or abstraction, as it is more appropriately called – involves a wide spectrum of approaches, from stylized representations to pure abstraction which is concerned with form rather than content. While it is often assumed that abstraction is exclusive to Western modernism, various other cultures have produced art that can be defined as abstract. Religious Islamic art, which is characterized by prohibitions on representation, is an example. The pioneers of Western abstraction found inspiration in the stylizations of traditional African and Oceanic art. The indigenous imagery of the pre-Columbian peoples of South and Central America and the Caribbean have also been referenced by a number of our own regional artists.
While modernist abstraction was well-established in the European, North American–and for that matter Latin-American art by the early twentieth century—it took much longer for it to become common practice in the Jamaican art world. The thematic content of early modern art in the Caribbean region had a strong nationalistic ethos, with anti-colonial art dominating the second quarter of twentieth century in Jamaica and in most other parts of the region. This called for a figurative modernism that conveyed its political content clearly, although there were elements of abstraction in examples such as Edna Manley’s Beadseller (1922).
The introduction of more radical abstraction in the 1960s was part of a fraught dialogue between local cultural imperatives and the influence of high modernism in Europe and North America brought back by pioneering local artists such as Milton Harley, Eugene Hyde and Karl Parboosingh who studied in these regions, and sought to challenge the perceived hierarchies of the dominant nationalist school. While most of these artists continued to engage with Jamaican subject matter, they insisted on defining themselves as artists first, and as Jamaican artists second. Fueled by post-War II migration, cities such as London and New York became a meeting place for the Caribbean Diaspora, where new ideas about art from the postcolonial Caribbean (and Black art) were forged and this also influenced developments within the Caribbean. The Guyanese-born artists Aubrey Williams, who was a regular visitor to Jamaica, and Frank Bowling represent this dynamic in this exhibition.
There was a masculinist bias in the in post-Independence abstraction but there were some noteworthy exceptions. One was Ofelia “Fay” Cruchley, a Columbian beautician who had married a Jamaican. Self-taught as an artist, she started painting abstracted images that were inspired by Roman Catholic mysticism and caused a sensation when she had a solo exhibition at the Women’s Club in Kingston in 1952 – or about a decade before Harley and Hyde had their first abstract exhibitions. While Cruchley was quickly forgotten, several other female abstractionists became established, such as Gloria Escoffery and Hope Brooks, who took inspiration from the pattern and decoration movement in feminist art and, in the case of Brooks, also experimented with textural abstraction. Norma Rodney-Harrack has been a key figure in Jamaican ceramics and has become renowned for her formal yet inventive pottery forms.
Cruchley’s work as a self-taught artist reminds us that abstraction in Jamaican art is not restricted to academic expression. Popular abstraction is often related to belief systems such as Revival and Rastafari, which employ various abstract symbols and encourage mystical self-expression, as could be seen in the work of artists such as Everald Brown and Leonard Daley.
By the late 1970s, abstraction had become less politically contentious in Jamaica and had become a largely uncontested part, at least within the art world itself, of the spectrum of post-modern artistic vocabularies. This included the tactile, near-abstract woodcarvings and constructions of sculptors such as Winston Patrick, Fitz Harrack and Margaret Chen, and the abstracted, gestural neo-expressionist paintings of artists such as Milton George, Eric Cadien and Stanford Watson.
Contemporary art in and from Jamaica again has a strong figurative basis but abstraction has found new life in digital media–still and time-based–as can be seen in the work of Di-Andre Caprice Davis. Contemporary art is even more resistant to restrictive national definitions and open to regional and international dialogues, and it is in this spirit that we have included David Gumbs, with his interactive video installation Xing Wang (Blossoms) (2016-2018). This work was first developed when Gumbs participated in a Davidoff Initiative residency in Beijing, China, and was first shown in Jamaica as part of the Jamaica Biennial 2017 at National Gallery West in Montego Bay. The installation on view here is modified for the Kingston gallery space.
Veerle Poupeye and Monique Barnett-Davidson