Last month, February 2013, was observed as Black History month and this encouraged reflection on blackness and contemporary Jamaican art. The following is a perspective on how these issues play out in the 2012 National Biennial, contributed by NGJ Senior Curator, Nicole Smythe-Johnson.
There is a peculiar tension around Black History Month in Jamaica. On the one hand, there is a very active discourse around the celebration of blackness, often couched in Pan-Africanist terms à la Rastafari or articulated through an anti-colonial lens which associates blackness with broader historical and contemporary resistance narratives. On the other hand, there is a disavowal of racial identification (at least as primary) as illustrated by the National motto “Out of Many, One People”. This is often accompanied by an uncertainty as to whether “Black History Month” is even relevant in a country where the majority of the population is of African descent and therefore most of the island’s history would qualify as “Black History”, even by the most stringent standards. The question can arise, what is blackness? Who counts as black? Why does it even matter?
Then, in case the issue isn’t sufficiently complex, there are other things, concepts that haunt (and often undermine) the ideological positions listed above. These home-grown “duppies” are of another variety altogether, they have no respect for accommodation-resistance binaries, they do not fall into neat categories or even yield easily to sociological analysis. A few easy ones are “colour-ism”- that more nuanced and elusive cousin of racism, the equally un-resolved relation between race and class and its implications for the distribution of privilege in Jamaica, and of course the ever-present skin bleaching, a phenomenon which try as we might refuses easy explanation.