Spiritual Yards – Introduction

The exhibition Spiritual Yards: Home Ground of Jamaica’s Intuitives – Selections from the Wayne and Myrene Cox Collection opens on December 11. As usual, we are posting texts that appear in the catalogue and serve as text panels in the exhibition. Here is the first installment of these posts, the catalogue introduction by Executive Director Veerle Poupeye.

The story of John Dunkley’s discovery by the emerging Jamaican cultural establishment of the late 1930s is well-known. The then Secretary of the Institute of Jamaica, Delves Molesworth, was impressed by Dunkley’s elaborately decorated barber shop on Princess Street, which included paintings and carved elements, and Dunkley was soon recognized as a major, self-taught artistic talent and included in exhibitions and collections. Dunkley’s work did not emerge from the popular tradition of the “spiritual yard,” which is the focus of this exhibition, although the mystical symbolism apparent in his work may have related to his Masonic beliefs. His barbershop however reflected a similar impulse to create a cohesive aesthetic and symbolic environment. Dunkley’s story also drives home that there must have been spiritual yards in various parts of the island at that time. However, none of the producers of the ritual and symbolic objects and images that would been part of such yards made the transition to the formal art world, even though popular culture, including Revival practices, served as iconic subject matter in the nationalist art of that era. This was clearly a function of how “art” was defined in the context of the early nationalist movement, which was premised on middle class cultural values, and what was deemed worthy of documentation and preservation or recuperation as “art,” to which Dunkley more readily conformed.

It took until the 1950s and 60s for this to change, thanks to the advances in the cultural anthropology of the Caribbean and changing public and official attitudes towards popular culture. Rastafari and Black Power were a major factor in this, as these movements challenged the old cultural hierarchies and assertively claimed space for all aspects of black culture. The young politician Edward Seaga, who had been trained in sociology and had done pioneering research on Jamaica’s Revival religions, became an influential advocate of the art of Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, who was a Zion Revival leader. Kapo also found an avid supporter in John Pringle, Jamaica’s first Director of Tourism. Aspects of the popular culture were, interestingly enough, used in the promotion of Jamaican tourism, as Jamaica was trying to assert a more distinctive voice in the lucrative but socially problematic and culturally reductive “sun, sea and sand” tourism industry which was emerging during that period. Some of the earliest photographs of Kapo and Brother Everald Brown, another self-taught artist who was associated with the religious side of Rastafari, were commissioned by the Jamaica Tourist Board, as well as being produced by, more predictably, the pioneering anthropologists and cultural researchers of that period. Kapo and Brother Brown had both established spiritual yards before they were recognized as major artists, and maintained such spaces throughout their lives, and several of these photographs document the early incarnations of their spiritual yards. Their work was also exhibited and collected by the Institute of Jamaica from the late 1960s onwards and the National Gallery inherited most of these early holdings.

Everald Brown at his church yard, the Assembly of the Living, photographed by Penny Tweedie for the Jamaica Tourist Board in 1972

Everald Brown at his church yard, the Assembly of the Living, photographed by Penny Tweedie for the Jamaica Tourist Board in 1972

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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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Barrington Watson in Context – Part II

Barrington Watson - Self Portrait (1962) Collection: NGJ

Barrington Watson – Self Portrait (1962) Collection: NGJ

The Jamaican Master Painter Barrington Watson passed away last month. Here is part 2 of the two-part post based on Veerle Poupeye’s essay for the 2012 Barrington Watson retrospective catalogue – Part 1 can be found here. This essay places Barrington Watson in the context of post-Independence art.

3. A Jamaican Master

Barrington Watson holds a special place among the Independence generation. As an academic realist, Watson’s work is more accessible than that of his CJAA contemporaries, which certainly contributes to his local popularity. His subject matter, furthermore, generally conforms to the norms set by the nationalist school and includes genre and history scenes and landscapes. Watson is also a sought-after portraitist, who has produced many official portraits, among others of Jamaica’s Prime Ministers. He is also known for his nudes and erotica, the latter of which was new and quite provocative in mainstream Jamaican art of the 1970s. The substantive difference between Watson and his nationalist predecessors was, however, that he represented his subjects in the “grand manner” of Western academism, with sweeping, theatrical compositions on large canvases, classically posed figures, and virtuoso drawing and brushwork. Watson’s popular appeal and assertions of high academic artistic status may, at first glance, seem like a contradiction but a closer look reveals otherwise.

Barrington Watson has not only been recognized as a Jamaican “Great Master” but has actively asserted himself as such. His illustrated book of short stories, Shades of Grey (1998) contains the story of a dream in which he encounters the 19th century European great masters Manet, Degas, Monet, Cezanne and Renoir, who assure him that they have been watching his progress and regard him as one of them.[1] This may contradict the dominant view that postcolonial art derives its legitimacy from positioning itself against the “Great Western Tradition” but Watson counterbalances this in another short story, also based on a dream, in which he encounters the king of Ancient Benin who reveals that he is of royal blood and invites him to produce a bronze lion for his throne.[2] By means of these two imaginary endorsements, Watson thus claims his dual legitimacy in the “Great Traditions” of Europe and Africa. This dual allegiance is also evident in his artistic motto: “The light of Turner; The line of Ingres; The range of Rembrandt; The techniques of Velasquez; The emotion of Goya; and, my birthright of Benin.” He therefore does not question the construct of “high art” but assertively claims his place in its hierarchies, and in doing so asserts himself as a black “Great Master.”

Style: "Neutral"

Barrington Watson – Conversation (1981), Collection: NGJ

Not surprisingly, Barrington Watson has been one of the main critics of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s promotion of Intuitive art. This came to a head while the exhibition Jamaican Art 1922-1982, which was curated by the National Gallery Director/Curator David Boxer and its former Deputy Director Vera Hyatt, toured in North America through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) from 1983 to 1985.[3] The exhibition was positively received in North America, where it attracted approximately 117,000 visitors, but several critics expressed reservations about what they saw as the Eurocentricity of the mainstream.[4] John Bentley Mays of the Globe and Mail of Toronto, for instance, wrote: “The most intriguing paintings and sculptures here, however, are not the polished Euro-Jamaican descendents of [Edna Manley’s] the Beadseller, but the home-spun, punchy pictures of the self-taught Intuitives” (11).[5] Predictably, this did not sit well with some of the mainstream artists, Barrington Watson chief among them.

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BARRINGTON WATSON IN CONTEXT – Part I

Barrington Watson - Dancer at Rest (c1962), Collection: NGJ

Barrington Watson – Dancer at Rest (c1962), Collection: NGJ

The Jamaican Master Painter Barrington Watson passed away last month. Here is part I of the two-part post based on Veerle Poupeye’s essay for the 2012 Barrington Watson retrospective catalogue. This essay places Barrington Watson in the context of post-Independence art.

Barrington Watson’s Appeal

Most persons familiar with the Jamaican art world will agree that Barrington Watson is one of Jamaica’s most popular and acclaimed artists.[1] This is supported by the high market value of his work and the enthusiastic and loyal support he has garnered from major Jamaican art patrons and collectors. Watson has also received significant official recognition and was in 2006 bestowed the Order of Jamaica, the highest national honor ever given to a Jamaican visual artist other than Edna Manley, who held the Order of Merit. Watson’s appeal reaches across Jamaica’s social boundaries, beyond the social class that typically supports fine art, and masterpieces such as Mother and Child (1958) and Conversation (1981) are among the most popular works of art in the National Gallery collection.

The question arises exactly why Barrington Watson’s work has such strong appeal. Other than its obvious artistic merit, there is his capacity to produce powerfully iconic and highly relatable images – Mother and Child (1958) and Conversation (1981) key among them. Even his less iconic work strongly appeals to Jamaican cultural sensibilities, however, and to gain fuller understanding of why this is so, it is necessary to see his work in its broader social and cultural context, particularly of the ideas about art and the artist that have emerged in postcolonial Jamaica.

Barrington Watson - Washer Women (1966), Collection: NGJ

Barrington Watson – Washer Women (1966), Collection: NGJ

Art and Independence

The years around Independence were, as the artist and critic Gloria Escoffery has argued, characterized by a combination of great ambition and sometimes naïve idealism.[2] The period was marked by the advent of a new generation of artists, most of whom had studied abroad and returned to the island eager to contribute to the development of Jamaican art and to national development, generally. Arguably the three most influential among them were Karl Parboosingh, who had studied in Paris, New York and Mexico; Eugene Hyde, who had studied in California; and Barrington Watson, who had studied in London and several continental European academies. They were also pioneers where they studied: Watson had been among the first black students at the Royal College of Art – Frank Bowling from Guyana was another. These young artists returned home with new ideas about art – high modernist in the case of Parboosingh and Hyde and academic-realist in the case of Watson – and had an ambitious, cosmopolitan outlook which challenged the more insular tenets of earlier nationalist art. Their subject matter was still recognizably Jamaican but they combined this with formal experimentation, a preference for monumental scale that transcended the modest “living room formats” used by the nationalist school, and a more critical and demanding attitude.

Karl Parboosingh - Cement Company (1966), A.D. Scott Collection, NGJ

Karl Parboosingh – Cement Company (1966), A.D. Scott Collection, NGJ

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Explorations IV: Masculinities – Catalogue Introduction

Edna Manley - The Prophet (1935), Collection: NGJ

Edna Manley – The Prophet (1935), Collection: NGJ

In what is, at least for now, our final post on the Explorations IV: Masculinities exhibition, which continues until March 5, 2016, we present an excerpt of the catalogue introduction written by Veerle Poupeye, the NGJ’s Executive Director. Masculinities was curated by Senior Curator O’Neil Lawrence.

Masculinities is the fourth in the National Gallery’s Explorations series of exhibitions, which has thus far featured Natural Histories (2013), Religion and Spirituality (2013-14) and, most recently, Seven Women Artists (2015). Smaller versions of the latter two exhibitions have also been shown at National Gallery West in Montego Bay, where Seven Women Artists is presently on view.

The Explorations series, which is open-ended by design, interrogates the history of art and culture of Jamaica, by examining what we consider to be its big themes and issues. The series invites our audiences to be part of that process, by asking questions and by encouraging debate rather than to prescribe answers. For each Explorations exhibition the curatorial approach is tailored to the subject, as this allows our team to experiment with various curatorial models and strategies for audience engagement and to develop our curatorial capacity and vision in the process. The lessons learned in the process help us with rethinking how we develop and exhibit our permanent collections and also inform our approach to other exhibitions. The general curatorial model used for the Explorations series is conversational and whether curated by a single curator or by a team, the conceptualization, selection and design of each exhibition involves a significant amount of brainstorming with our curatorial department and other stakeholders. In doing so, we aim to provide and invite multiple perspectives and we do hope that the conversational spirit of this curatorial process carries over into the reception of the exhibitions.

Varun Baker - Journey 6 (2013), Collection: NGJ

Varun Baker – Journey 6 (2013), Collection: NGJ

Seven Women Artists was the first Explorations exhibition to focus on gender (although gender was a consideration in the Religion and Spirituality exhibition) and looked at the debates and social dynamics that surround women’s art in the Jamaican context. Masculinities takes a different approach and explores how masculinities – and the use of the plural is deliberate – have been represented in Jamaican art and visual culture, from the Plantation era to the present. In doing so, the exhibition also explores how masculine roles and identities, and the perceptions that surround them, have evolved in the Jamaican context, on their own terms and in relation to female roles and identities.

Masculinity is a big and important subject in Jamaica, in light of the debates about the “crisis of masculinity” with regards to father roles; domestic and sexual abuse; crime and violence; feminism and female empowerment; and sexual and gender diversity. Sociologists have argued that masculinity has always been in crisis, since “manhood is widely viewed as a status that is elusive (it must be earned) and tenuous (it must be demonstrated repeatedly through actions)” (Bosson and Vandello 2011) – hence the concept of “precarious masculinity.” The biological facts of maleness may seem comparatively straightforward and secure (although these, too, are in fact quite complicated) but it is now widely understood conceptions of masculinity are socially negotiated and performative, as are gender roles and definitions generally. About the performative nature of gender, the feminist philosopher Judith Butler has argued: “gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself.” (1990, 127)

Colin Garland - End of and Empire (1971), Collection: NGJ

Colin Garland – End of and Empire (1971), Collection: NGJ

Conceptions of masculinity vary significantly over time, place and socio-cultural context, in ways that defy fixed definitions and simplistic male-female binaries. Even what is considered as normative masculinity in a particular context has far more complexity than is usually acknowledged. Masculinity is thus not a precarious but clearly defined status, as the first quote in the previous paragraph may suggest, but is subject to variable and competing interpretations – and in the postcolonial Caribbean these contrary dynamics are amplified by the histories of race and class.

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Anything With Nothing Opens at NGJ – Welcome Remarks

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The following is adapted from the welcome remarks by NGJ Executive Director, Dr Veerle Poupeye, at the opening of the Anything with Nothing exhibition on May 25. It is the first of several planned posts on this exhibition and its implications.

We are pleased to present Anything with Nothing: Art from the Streets of Urban Jamaica – the first exhibition curated by our new Chief Curator, Charles Campbell. He co-curated this project with Assistant Curator Monique Barnett-Davidson on this project, which benefited greatly from her previous research on street murals in Kingston and environs.

In recent times, we at the National Gallery have given significant thought to our role as a cultural institution in the social and cultural environment in which we operate and this has been reflected in our exhibition choices. We are actively engaging with questions such as our general relevance to Jamaican society; the perceptions of elitism that have surrounded the Gallery; and the various articulated and unarticulated notions about “art” and “culture” that have shaped how we go about our work as Jamaica’s national art museum. The Anything with Nothing exhibition is consistent with this self-reflexive moment and shifts our gaze to what has traditionally been external to the Gallery, by virtue of its life on the streets and its exclusion from the conventional art canons. As our catalogue essayists Charles Campbell and Honor Ford-Smith both point out, a lot happens when street art is transferred to the context of a national art museum, especially in a conflicted socio-cultural context such as Jamaica’s, and we invite you to reflect on the aesthetic and social implications of this exhibition. It is of particular note that street art is often produced by persons who are well recognized and sought after as professional artists in their respective communities a – a popular alternative, and an implied challenge, to the canons and social hierarchies of the mainstream art world.

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