Perspectives on Blackness in the 2012 National Biennial

K. Khalfani Ra - Death Sentence, , National Biennial 2012

K. Khalfani Ra – Death Sentence,the creolecentric/multicultural gaze, mixed media on fabric, National Biennial 2012

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.

Olivia McGilchrist - detail from Ernestine and Me, video installation, National Biennial 2012

Olivia McGilchrist – detail from Ernestine and Me, video installation, National Biennial 2012

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Last Sundays: February 24, 2013 – Black History Month


The National Gallery of Jamaica is pleased to present its Last Sundays programme for February 24 in celebration of Black History Month. We are collaborating with the Jamaica Association of Dramatic Artists, to present a programme of movement, music and dramatics that pays tribute to the National Gallery’s visual art space, Reggae month and Theatre.

This special programme will start at 1:30 p.m. and will be presented in various parts of the Gallery, featuring performances by Ruth HoShing, Oliver Mair, Jerry Benzwick, Tribe Sankofa, the Quilt Performing Arts Company, Hilary Nicholson and others.

Visitors will also be able to see the critically acclaimed 2012 National Biennial exhibition and a special performance art piece by Ebony G. Patterson, which is featured for the last time before the Biennial closes on March 9. The permanent exhibitions will also be open for viewing.

As is now customary, the National Gallery is open every last Sunday of the month, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., with free admissions and tours as well as special programming in the afternoon.