Kingston – Nature’s Bounty

Hilton Nembhard - Rasta Head (rgb)

Hilton Nembhard – Rasta Head (c1970), Collection: NGJ

Here is the first of five sectional introductions to the main themes in the Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art exhibition, which opened on July 31. The sectional introductions were written by the exhibition curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson, Assistant Curator at the NGJ:

Natural resources have been used for the creation of artworks in Jamaica for all of the island’s known history. The Jamaican Taino and their ancestors, who had begun settling in the island from as early as circa 650 AD, utilized wood, charcoal, plant fibres, animal bone, stone and clays. Later arrivals to the island, mainly Europeans and Africans, also imported and syncretised art-making traditions and techniques and in doing so made great use of the natural bounty this land of wood and water had to offer. The objects featured in this section explore the use by local artists of four materials that are available in Kingston and its environs: tortoise shell, wood, alabaster gypsum, and clay.

Turtle Shell Casket 3 (rgb)

Rectangular Tortoise Shell Casket with Two Combs (1679), Collection: NGJ

The 17th century tortoise shell objects in this exhibition exemplify a creative industry that thrived in Port Royal Jamaica from circa 1672 to 1692, until the earthquake disaster. The name “tortoise” is a misnomer, since these objects are made from sea turtle shells while tortoises are their land-dwelling relatives. Four species of sea turtle that appear in Jamaica’s coastal waters but the shell most suitable for the creation of these objects is the Hawksbill Turtle shell. The tradition of using these shells to create decorative objects no longer continues, as the animals are now legally protected. However, one cannot deny the mastery and elegance of the examples featured in this exhibition. The Port Royal tortoise shell objects, most of them coomb cases and trinket boxes, appear to have been produced as mementoes and have their place of origin and production year inscribed on them. Some also feature early versions of Jamaica’s Coat of Arms. It has been argued that they qualify as Jamaica’s first examples of “tourist art.”

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Brief Reflections on Kingston as a Visual and Cultural Space – Charles V. Carnegie

Sidney McLaren - King and Barry Street (1971), Collection: NGJ

Sidney McLaren – King and Barry Street (1971), Collection: NGJ

The Jamaican anthropologist Charles V. Carnegie, former head of the African-Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Memory Bank, has contributed to the following essay to the catalogue of Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art exhibition, which opens on July 31:

For its first two-hundred-plus years as the island’s principal city—up until around the 1920s—much of Kingston’s population lived in close proximity to each other within or on the fringes of the city centre: an area just 1,080 acres in extent in 1890.  Rich and poor rode together on horse-drawn and, later, electric tramcars beginning in the 1870s.  Despite sharp legal distinctions between slave and free and marked divisions of class, color, and religion, people of different rank routinely crossed paths for work, worship, commerce, recreation, healthcare, and to bury their dead.  Beginning around the 1930s and gaining momentum in the following decades, the city’s elites dispersed themselves to increasingly distant suburbs.  A pattern of urban sprawl, similar to that in North America, took hold. What does it mean and why does it matter that for the most recent period of its history Kingston’s poor and the more well off come into direct contact so much more infrequently than they once did?  What’s been the impact, and can we now begin to assess the consequences, of residents of the city no longer trodding the same piece of ground day by day: not routinely encountering each other in the same space?

Parade, Downtown Kingston, on a Sunday

King Street, near Parade, Downtown Kingston, on a Sunday

In making my way about Kingston these days on foot and by bus, I am struck both by the cultural expressiveness, energy and imagination so evident in the streets, and the realization of how much of this is new and news to friends Uptown.  My accounts of the commonplace wonders of street life—those elegantly outfitted mannequins posed dramatically atop booming, four-foot high speaker boxes along the sidewalks on Orange Street, the cleverly improvised performances of male vendors of women’s lingerie, the welcome arrival of this or that fruit in season at Coronation Market—are received Uptown as reports from distant foreign shores.  Many Uptowners, I’ve discovered, have rarely if ever taken a bus in Kingston, almost never go downtown; don’t know the number or routes of buses that serve their own neighbourhoods; and see nothing amiss with their ignorance.  Sadly, automotivity and the physical retreat to the suburbs have reinforced a certain social disengagement: places close at hand have become as places far away, former neighbors now seen as people who scarcely matter. Continue reading

Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art – Introduction

While we install the Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art exhibition, which opens on July 31, we share with you the catalogue introduction by the NGJ ED, Veerle Poupeye, as one of several posts on this project:

The city of Kingston is, in many ways, the crucible in which modern Jamaican culture is forged and it does no injustice to the cultural contributions of other parts of Jamaica, or the Jamaican Diaspora, to recognize its seminal role. Kingston is after all the birthplace of reggae, which has given Jamaica its global cultural visibility. By virtue of being Jamaica’s capital and largest population centre, Kingston is home to major cultural institutions and organizations, public and private, and generally provides a social and economic environment in which the arts can thrive. Given the fraught social dynamics that have shaped Kingston, the city also created an environment in which the arts had to thrive, as a key part of the population’s survival strategies.

This exhibition is our contribution to the conversation about Kingston as a Creative City – a UNESCO designation the city received in 2015 for its role in music – but presented from the perspective of the visual arts. The initial exhibition brief was to explore the role of Kingston in the development of Jamaican art and conversely, to explore the role, actual and potential, of art in the development of Kingston. The exhibition was assigned to Assistant Curator Monique Barnett-Davidson, as her first solo-curated exhibition, and we could think of no one better, given her previous research, curatorial work, and publication on street art. We soon realized however that what we had originally planned was too big a subject for a single exhibition and we decided that the present exhibition would be the first of a two-part exhibition series, with the second part, which will presented in 2017, focusing on the built environment and the role of art in urban development and renewal.

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Anything with Nothing – Curatorial Introduction, Monique Barnett-Davidson

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The following is the curatorial introduction presented by NGJ Assistant Curator Monique Barnett-Davidson at the opening of the Anything with Nothing exhibition on May 25. Monique co-curated the exhibition.

I am here primarily to say a few words about my introduction, interest and love for Jamaican street art but in order for you to get a sense of how I view and admire these works, I must give a quick back story.

My home community is Whitehall Avenue. As a child I was taught to love the visual arts and soon discovered I had a talent for it. My first artists were not the ones of national repute but were the anonymous authors who decorated walls and shop fronts of Whitehall or ‘Gun Mouth’ as it was sometimes called. Whether I was going to school or going to buy banana chips or ‘suck-suck’, these would stand out to me. The one I admired the most was a large painted family portrait of a mother, father and child dressed and blinged in eighties hip-hop fashion. The words above it read “100% Black”

As a young adult attending art school, my fascination continued and though I had never tagged a wall, I greatly admired those that did, almost living vicariously through their exploits and supporting them where I could. Street art wasn’t a great part of my education as a Jamaican art student and in the environment that was School of Art, it didn’t seem to fit anyway. I theorized that it was another side of my artistic development and appreciation that seemed to function with more sincerity outside of an academic sphere.

In 2010, I finally got the opportunity to test that theory. I asked myself these questions: Why is the interrogation of Jamaican street art no more than a few sentences in the national canon when there are so many examples of its process and evolution evident? Can a museum or a gallery help to bring this to the fore in a realistic and meaningful way? Was that even a necessary action? By researching it, I challenged myself beyond my admiration of it, probing it as an established cultural phenomenon. Today, I am happy to see that ten of these artists and their supporters here today. As a member of NGJ’s curatorial team, I want to thank them for their contribution to Jamaican cultural identity and encourage on their various missions towards self-awareness and development as Jamaican artists.

Jamaica’s Art Pioneers: Milton Harley and the Right to Abstraction

Milton Harley - Mayan 1, (c1976), Collection: NGJ

Milton Harley – Mayan 1, (c1976), Collection: NGJ

In March 1963, almost a year after Jamaican Independence, the late Rex Nettleford gave the main address at an art exhibition held at the now defunct Hills Gallery in Kingston. This public exhibition was considered to be the first of its kind in Jamaica to feature paintings and drawings that were solely abstract in nature. The works were created by a young Jamaican artist named Milton Harley and it was his first solo exhibition in the island, since graduating from the Pratt Institute in New York the previous year. In response to an expressed concern that the work of Jamaican artists must be relevant to the redefinition of Jamaican cultural identity at that time,, Nettleford was quoted as saying that, “The most we can demand of him is that he works to the pulse of Jamaica and that he allows Jamaican life to act as a catalyst for thought and expression in the arts.” Heavily influenced by the later exploits of the Abstract Expressionist movement, as an art student in New York during the 1960s, Harley remembers: “When I returned to Jamaica from New York I brought back all these ideas of painting from the New York School in particular, where I saw shows of the giants like Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.”

Milton Harley - Nocture (1962), Collection: NGJ

Milton Harley – Nocture (1962), Collection: NGJ

Milton Harley was born in Kingston 1935, and at a young age migrated with his family to the USA. One of the earliest pioneers of modern abstraction in Jamaican art, Harley’s visual rhetoric seemed to contrast with the cultural aspirations of other prominent Jamaican artists, social theorists and the general populace of the early Independence period. His aesthetic approach introduced the act of painting as directly engaged with its own material and elemental possibilities, without the illusion of objective imagery. As an abstractionist, he identifies and utilizes the elemental essences of the ‘real’ (such as form, texture, colour, etc.) to create an alternative but equally fascinating visual perspective to subject matter. In fact, according to the artist, though his work is abstract, the subject matters he deals with are all based on observations of actual people, places and environments. This may have been the case for one of his earliest paintings Nocturne (1962) which is an abstraction of “three women carrying containers of water on their heads as they are crossing a river at moonlight”.

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“Reflection on Parallels and Continuity at the National Gallery of Jamaica” by Monique Barnett-Davidson

Camille Chedda - Built-In bsolescence (2010-2011), Acrylic on Sandwich Bags, 28 parts, each 20 x 16 cm

Camille Chedda – Built-In Obsolescence (2010-2011), Acrylic on Sandwich Bags, 28 parts, each 20 x 16 cm

Here is another in the series of reviews that were produced as part of the NGJ’s recent art writing workshop for its curatorial staff. This comparison between the self-portraits of Henry Daley from our permanent collection and Camille Chedda’s self-portraits in New Roots was written by Monique Barnett-Davidson. Monique is a Painting graduate of the Edna Manley College and is one of our two Curatorial Assistants.

As an art enthusiast, I always enjoy tracking how artists over time have extended long-referenced concepts and subject matters to discuss and explore aspects of culture and social life. As I explored the recently installed contemporary exhibition, New Roots: 10 Emerging Artists, at the NGJ, I was excited to identify parallels between that and works from the NGJ’s permanent display of older modern pieces.

Take self-portraiture for example. In Jamaican art, approaches to self-portraiture have been largely conventional. There are, however, some Jamaican artists who are exceptional and whose approaches to self-portraiture may be more aligned to figures like Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. These artists – by consistently referencing themselves in their artistic output – set new standards of openness that move beyond the older heroic depiction of the artist, to the artist as a vulnerable, fallible and questionable human being.

Henry Daley - The Artist (c1943), Oil on Hardboard, 60 x 44 cm, Collection: NGJ

Henry Daley – The Artist (c1943), Oil on Hardboard, 60 x 44 cm, Collection: NGJ

Recently, two Jamaican examples of this approach to self-portraiture have stood out for me. One work is entitled (and aptly named) The Artist (c. 1943), done by early twentieth century painter Henry Daley. The other, entitled Built-In Obsolescence (2010-2011) is executed by young contemporary artist, Camille Chedda. These two works illustrated not only a common interest in subject matter shared by these artists, but offered me a fascinating parallel between two different time periods and generations within Jamaican art and cultural history.

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