10 Questions for O’Neil Lawrence, Chief Curator

O'Neil Lawrence Head shot 2018 (1)

Photo Credit: Artur Curval

  1. Why is the National Gallery of Jamaica important? Most people are aware of our rich musical heritage but our visual arts are just as rich and varied. The National Gallery of Jamaica preserves that aspect of our culture and shares it through our exhibitions and programming.
  2. You travelled personally and professionally to visit other national galleries, what makes you especially proud of ours? I’m particularly proud of the fact that over the years we’ve been able to achieve an international standard with our exhibitions despite having far more limited resources.
  3. So what’s coming up at NGJ in the near future? Our Summer Exhibition opens on July 30 and will feature exciting work by a combination of our established and emerging artists. In November, the Jamaica Jamaica! exhibition, a joint project between the NGJ and the Jamaica Music Museum which has been shown in Paris and Sao Paulo, will also open. It will showcase developments in Jamaican music through art, artifacts and sound.

    Jamaica Jamaica! exhibition flyer

    Jamaica Jamaica! Promotional Flyer

  4. Give us one trick that we can use to really understand an exhibition. I don’t necessarily believe in tricks. I think that viewers should have more faith in the intrinsic feelings and emotions they experience looking at artwork. Sometimes the knowledge and experiences we bring to a space is the best guide.
  5. Which exhibition really moved you and why? The Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition staged at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art in 2018. It not only featured many Jamaican masterpieces, but it brought together the shared and sometimes hidden histories of black people in this hemisphere.

    Cover of Afro-Atlantic Histories Catalogue featuring Conversation by Barrington Watson

    Afro-Atlantic Histories Catalogue Cover (featuring Barrington Watson’s – Conversation, 1981)

  6. If a visitor only had limited time to spend at the Gallery, what are the must-sees? That’s such a difficult question. I would recommend the Belisario prints in our historical galleries as a visual representation of our history of resistance through performance. But then the Edna Manley and Kapo galleries are also must-sees.
  7. How have your experiences as a curator informed your life? I think I found my calling. My experiences at the NGJ have shown me that this is definitely what I was meant to do.
  8. What’s your first priority as Chief Curator? I am organizing a staff retreat. The staff of the gallery has done some amazing work in the time I have been here. We have been through a lot of changes in the last few years and I think we need to recalibrate so that we can move forward as creatively and productively as possible.
  9. What’s your greatest wish for the National Gallery? We have achieved a lot in recent years with regards to public engagement. I would like us to get to a stage when the majority of Jamaicans can say that they have visited at least one of our branches and had a memorable experience.
  10. How can the people of Jamaica support the gallery? Come and enjoy some entertainment at our free Last Sundays openings. Follow us on social media, come and experience our exhibitions. Our visitors are the lifeblood of our organization and we need them to thrive.  
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National Gallery of Jamaica appoints O’Neil Lawrence as Chief Curator

O'Neil Lawrence at Afro Atlantic Histories exhibition courtesy of Paulo Freitas_Glamurama.jpg

Credit: Paulo Freitas / Glamurama

The National Gallery of Jamaica is pleased to announce the appointment of O’Neil Lawrence as the institution’s new Chief Curator.

As a member of the senior management team Lawrence will oversee the active exhibition programme at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ, Kingston) and National Gallery West (NGW, Montego Bay), as well as the stewardship and development of Jamaica’s national art collection.

Chairman of the board, Senator Tom Tavares-Finson says: “In the over 10 years that our new Chief Curator O’Neil Lawrence has served the iconic National Gallery of Jamaica, he has grown into the perfect candidate for this challenge. His wide depth of knowledge of Jamaican and Caribbean art will serve him well as he begins this stage of his career.  His curatorial skills have been honed under many Jamaican and international curators including the late Chief Curator, the Hon. Dr. David Boxer O.J. The Board of the NGJ joins me in welcoming our new Chief Curator and we look forward to great new developments at the NGJ.”

Lawrence’s expertise is home-grown. He began working at the NGJ in 2008 as an Outreach Officer before joining the staff full-time in 2009 and serving as a Curatorial Assistant, Assistant Curator, and Senior Curator (a position he held since 2013). 

As Senior Curator, his over thirty-five exhibitions included the critically acclaimed Seven Women Artists (2015) and Masculinities (2015-2016). He was the co-curator of the NGJ’s largest multi-site exhibition Jamaica Biennial 2017 and led the curatorial team for Beyond Fashion at the NGJ and I Shall Return Again at NGW. Both exhibition openings broke NGJ and NGW records for attendance and have been hailed as the Gallery’s most successful exhibitions to date at their respective locations.  

 “I have been surrounded by art my entire life,” Lawrence says. “My father was an artist. My friends are artists. And I am an artist. I have worked alongside a team that has developed an exhibition and events programme at the Gallery which engages an increasingly wide audience and with the support of the Board and all stakeholders, I look forward to leading them in even more ambitious creative collaborations.” 

Lawrence’s new role as Chief Curator is pivotal to the continued development of the NGJ’s programming and scholarship to its historical standard. Says Dr Jonathan Greenland, Senior Director of the National Gallery: “I have watched O’Neil’s careful and systematic development of his skills as a gallery professional for years and I know that with his leadership and strong curatorial abilities, he will continue the momentum at the National Gallery and help us to reach new heights.”

Lawrence acknowledges the persistent myth that a space like the gallery is only for the wealthy and that the work is too abstract for people to find relatable but, he says, “There is something for everyone at the National Gallery no matter who you are and we want you to come and discover it. Our art matters because our stories matter – the National Collection illustrates our experiences as a culture and I will continue to pursue mutually beneficial partnerships in and outside of our borders—particularly in the Global South— in keeping with our stated mission “to promote our artistic heritage for the benefit of present and future.”

OLawrence-4667

Credit: Shawna-Lee Tai

About O’Neil Lawrence

O’Neil Lawrence holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Sociology and Master of Philosophy in Cultural Studies from the University of the West Indies. He is trained in visual communication (Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts) and cultural heritage preservation as part of the US State Department’s IVLP programme and he was the 2014 recipient of the prestigious Bridget Jones Award of the Society of Caribbean Studies.

Lawrence’s publications include essays for the 2012 Pictures from Paradise: A Survey of Contemporary Caribbean Photography and Histórias Afro-Atlânticas Vol 2 Antologia (MASP 2018).  In 2009 he chaired the Education and Outreach Committee of the Institute of Jamaica and in 2016 he was Chair of that institution’s Researchers and Curators Committee. In 2018 he served on the Board of the Davidoff Art Initiative and he is currently on the Advisory Council of the Caribbean Art Initiative

Lawrence’s research interests include race, gender and sexuality in Caribbean and African diasporal art and visual culture; memory, identity and hidden archives; photography as a medium and a social vehicle; Caribbean and general art history and museums and other public cultural institutions. 

As an artist, his photography and video work has been included in several local and international exhibitions including Rockstone and Bootheel at Connecticut’s Real Art Ways in 2009, his 2012 solo exhibition Son of a Champion at the Mutual Gallery, the Jamaica Biennial in 2014, Visions Achipéliques at Martinique’s Fondation Clemént in 2016 and The Expanded Caribbean: Contemporary Photography at the Crossroads at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery Philadelphia in 2017.

The National Gallery at Forty

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The National Gallery of Jamaica is the oldest and largest public art museum in the English-speaking Caribbean and opened its doors, originally at historic Devon House, on November 14, 1974 and the Gallery will thus be celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. Much has happened since the Gallery first opened and the fortieth anniversary provides us with an opportunity to remember and celebrate; to reflect on what has been achieved, and what is left to be done; and in doing all of this, to plot the most productive future trajectories.

Devon House was a beautiful and popular location but the National Gallery quickly outgrew these premises, because of its expanding collections and exhibition programme. The Gallery thus moved to its present, much larger and modern premises on the Kingston Waterfront in 1982 and while there have been plans for a new National Gallery building, our present location has become our de facto long term home. We are about to start a programme to develop our present building to current museum standards and recently, we have also added an extension in Montego Bay: National Gallery West, which opened on July 11 at the Montego Bay Cultural Centre on Sam Sharpe Square.

The National Gallery’s early exhibitions focused mainly on mapping out the story of Jamaican art, as was done in the first major survey of Jamaican art, Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1976), and the even more influential Jamaican Art 1922-1982 exhibition, a more definitive survey of Jamaican art history which was organized with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and which toured the USA, Canada and Haiti from 1983 to 1985. The process of articulating the stories of Jamaican art continues today, for instance by organizing retrospective exhibitions to honour major artists, such as Barrington Watson in 2012, although the curatorial emphasis has shifted to include exhibitions that provide exposure to young and emerging artists, for instance in the Young Talent exhibition series, the most recent of which was Young Talent V (2010) and last year’s New Roots exhibition. Initially focused on the traditional “fine arts” – painting and sculpture – the Gallery has also widened its interests to include a variety of other media and art forms, including installation art, video, performance, graphic design, popular visual culture, and, most recently, street art in the Anything with Nothing: Art from the Streets of Urban Jamaica exhibition.

This widening scope has also been evident in the development of the National Gallery’s collections, which started with two hundred paintings and thirty sculptures that were transferred from the Institute of Jamaica Collection. Today, the collection comprises just over two thousand works of art in a wide variety of media and genres. Most of it is arguably Jamaican, in the sense that it is made by artists who have been active in Jamaica or who have lived elsewhere but are of immediate Jamaican descent, and a significant part of it addresses themes that are directly relevant to Jamaican history and culture. Over the years, the National Gallery has depended heavily on donations to develop its collections and these have come from artists, collectors and corporations. Some of the most significant donations have been: the A.D. Scott Collection, the Edna Manley Memorial Collection (to which several individual and corporate donors contributed), the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection, and, most recently, the Guy McIntosh Donation.

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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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