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).