Explorations V: Portraits in Dialogue

Renee Cox – The Red Coat (2004), Collection: NGJ

Explorations V: Portraits in Dialogue 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 Senior Curator O’Neil Lawrence. The Explorations series examines big themes and issues in Jamaican art.

Explorations V: Portraits in Dialogue examines the significance and oftentimes conflicted politics of artistic portraiture in the development of Jamaican art from the 18th century to the present, looking at issues such as race, class, and gender, as well as the ideas about art, representation, and the artist that are reflected in the portrait.

The Cambridge English dictionary defines a portrait as “a painting, photograph, drawing, etc. of a person or, less commonly, of a group of people,” to which we should of course add sculpture, and also notes that “a film or book that is a portrait of something describes or represents that thing in a detailed way,” as in, a portrait of life in twenty-first century Jamaica. Expanding the definition in this manner is also useful in the field of art, as it allows us to consider broader, narrative or symbolic definitions of what a portrait can be.

Pompeo Batoni – Portrait of John Blagrove (1774), Collection: NGJ

The history of portraiture is almost as long as the history of art itself. In ancient times, and well into the last millennium, portraiture was almost exclusively connected to power and status and until modern times, very few portraits of common folk survive, in part because very few were made. This is evident in portrait art from the Plantation era in Jamaica: most extant portraits are of members of the plantocracy and these portraits have all the typical traits of conventional, commissioned Western portraiture, from the standardized academic poses and idealized features to the assumed self-importance of the sitters. These are the types of portraits that often inhabit the popular imagination and have significantly influenced the ways in which many viewers approach the genre. There are few depictions of black persons from that period that qualify as portraits. One is the unattributed portrait of a West Indian Boy (c1840), and, while the depiction is sensitive, it is of note that the boy’s (or man’s) name is not documented and that he is presented as a “type” rather than as a socially empowered individual.

Unknown – Portrait of Negro Boy (c1840), Collection: NGJ

Portraiture was revolutionized and, to a great extent, democratized by the introduction of photography, as having one’s portrait made thus came within the reach of the middle classes, although the commissioning a painted or sculpted portrait remains the province of the wealthy and powerful, or is done for those who have achieved significant public status because of their contributions to society and not by accident of birth – the recently unveiled Usain Bolt statue by Basil Watson and the controversial Marcus Garvey busts by his brother Raymond Watson come to mind. The controversies that frequently surround such commissions illustrate that the politics of public portraiture are particularly high-stakes and fuelled by conflicting standards and expectations.

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More in the Explorations Series: “Portraits in Conversation” and “Engaging Abstraction”

The National Gallery of Jamaica is pleased to present two new exhibitions – Explorations V: Portraits in Conversation and Explorations VI: Engaging Abstraction – which will be on view from December 9, 2017 to February 25, 2018. The Explorations series, which was launched in 2013, examines big themes and issues in Jamaican art, inviting conversation on these issues, and features mainly works from the National Collection.

Explorations V: Portraits in Conversation examines the significance and conflicted politics of artistic portraiture in the development of Jamaican art from the 18th century to the present, looking at issues such as race, class, gender, as well as the ideas about art and the artist that are reflected in the portrait. Examples of colonial era portraiture are contrasted with portraits and self-portraits from the Nationalist era that reflect its drive towards psychological decolonization and cultural self-representation. The exhibition also includes works by contemporary artists that illustrate how portraiture has been redefined and repositioned in response to recent social changes and cultural developments. Among the artists who are represented in this exhibition are: Alvin Marriott, Renee Cox, George Robertson, Albert Huie, Samere Tansley, Milton George, Isaac Mendes Belisario, Vera Alabaster, Berette Macaulay, Richmond Barthe, Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, Olivia McGilchrist, Varun Baker, Robin Farqueharson, David Boxer, Pompeo Batoni, Barrington Watson, Mrs Lionel Lee, and Vermon “Howie” Grant. This exhibition is curated by Senior Curator, O’Neil Lawrence.

Explorations VI: Engaging Abstraction, on the other hand, examines the role of abstraction in modern and contemporary art from Jamaica and the Caribbean. Early modern art in the Caribbean region had a strong focus on thematic content, often with nationalist overtones, and this called for figurative modernism rather than abstraction. There was a reaction against this in the middle of the 20th century, when a number of artists began to experiment with abstraction, often challenging the nationalist premises of earlier artistic developments. More recently, abstraction has also found new life in the age of time-based, digital media. It also has a place in the popular culture, often related to belief systems such as Revival and Rastafari, which employ abstract symbols. The visual rhetoric of abstract art however continues to be challenging to many Jamaican viewers, who crave art that is more literal and presents a clear narrative, and abstraction is often dismissed as alien to Caribbean culture. This exhibition therefore also addresses the debates and contentions that have surrounded abstraction in the Jamaican and Caribbean context. It features work by artists such as Eugene Hyde, Hope Brooks, Milton Harley, Osmond Watson, Margaret Chen, Petrona Morrison, Karl Parboosingh, David Boxer, Gloria Escoffery, Seya Parboosingh, David Pinto, Fitz Harrack, Di-Andre Caprice Davis, Edna Manley, Stanford Watson, Leonard Daley, Vernon Tong, Everald Brown, and Winston Patrick. This exhibition is curated by Assistant Curator Monique Barnett-Davidson.

A special feature in the Explorations VI exhibition will be the Kingston staging of David Gumbs’ Xing Wang interactive video installation, which was originally shown as part of the 2017 Jamaica Biennial at National Gallery West in Montego Bay. David Gumbs is an artist from St Martin who lives and works in Martinique.

Several events will be held to accompany these exhibitions, including the Last Sundays programmes of December 31, 2017, January 28, 2018, and February 25, 2018. Details will be announced separately.

Last Sundays on December 27, Featuring Nexus and Masculinities

December 27 Last Sundays rgb

The National Gallery of Jamaica’s Last Sundays programme for December 2015 is scheduled for Sunday, December 27, from 11 am to 4 pm.

Visitors will have the opportunity to view the recently opened Explorations IV: Masculinities exhibition, which explores how concepts of masculinity have been represented and articulated in Jamaican art. The exhibition, which was curated by Senior Curator O’Neil Lawrence, features works of art from the colonial era up to the present and in a variety of media, by Isaac Mendes Belisario, A. Duperley and Sons, Edna Manley, Albert Huie, Archie Lindo, Osmond Watson, Ebony G. Patterson, Phillip Thomas, Marlon James and many others. Also on view is a selection of Recent Acquisitions and most sections of the permanent exhibitions will also be open, and provide a wide-ranging overview of Jamaica’s artistic and cultural history.

In what is now an established Holiday Season tradition, the featured performance on Sunday, December 27 will be by the award-winning Nexus Performing Arts Company and will start at 1:30 pm. The Nexus Performing Arts Company was formed in 2001 by Hugh Douse, Artistic Director, voice tutor, singer, actor, conductor, songwriter, and a former Director of Culture in Education. The group has a broad musical repertoire that draws on Gospel, Negro Spirituals, Semi-classical, Popular music including Reggae and show tunes, African and Classical music of the European and African traditions. The performance by Nexus will take place in the exhibition galleries, presented as a musical tour, with selections inspired by specific works in the Masculinities exhibition.

Admission on Sunday, December 27 will be free and free guided tours will be offered. The gift and coffee shop will be open for business and contributions to the donations box are welcomed. Revenues from our shops and donations help to fund programmes such as the Explorations IV: Masculinities exhibition and our Last Sundays programming.

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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Explorations IV: Masculinities – Curator’s Notes

The following notes were contributed to the Explorations IV: Masculinities exhibition catalogue by its curator, O’Neil Lawrence. Masculinities opened on December 6, 2015 and continues at the National Gallery of Jamaica until March 5, 2016.

While I feel privileged to have been part of all the exhibitions in the National Gallery’s Explorations series, co-curating the first, Natural Histories, with Nicole Smythe-Johnson, the second Religion and Spirituality with Veerle Poupeye and curating the third Seven Women Artists, the current edition, Masculinities, is somewhat different to me. It is different not because its thematic concerns are particularly unique amongst the concepts explored in previous Explorations exhibitions, but because the theme is related to my own academic work, on subjects in which I have a strong personal investment.

My recently concluded Master’s thesis looked at the convergence of constructions of masculinity, eroticism, exoticism and the black male body in the photography of Archie Lindo – whose work is included in this exhibition. Explorations IV: Masculinities however, goes significantly beyond the necessarily narrow focus of my thesis, as the concepts and realities of Jamaican masculinities are quite complex. Because of this, the exhibition is organized around eight thematic concerns that we hope will take into consideration the breadth of the topic: “Sexual Bodies”; “Beyond the Normative”; “Power & Status”; “The Male Body as Icon”; “Precarious Masculinities”; “The Athlete & the Worker”; “Style & Fashion”; and “Fathers, Brothers & Sons.”

There is, naturally, significant overlap between these themes, as none of them exist in isolation. Many of the works in this exhibition could have been shown under more than one of the exhibition’s thematic headers and many other artists and art works could have been included, although this would have resulted in an exhibition of an impractical size. The themes and selections are meant to act as provocations for further thought, research and debate on what is a topic of enormous complexity and social significance, rather than as any definitive or exhaustive statements. I am in this essay presenting my own notes on these themes and the key selections I have used to represent them but this catalogue publication also features introductions to each thematic section, contributed by Veerle Poupeye, that provide slightly different and more detailed perspectives on the works on view. Continue reading

Michael A. Bucknor – Refashioning Futures for Jamaican Masculinities (Part II)


Marlon James – Vogue (2012)


We now present part II of the December 6, 2015 opening speech by Dr Michael A. Bucknor for the Explorations IV: Masculinites exhibition. For part one, please click here.

Anchoring the idea that gender, as Judith Butler and others have pointed out, is a matter of performance, costuming the body is part of the performance paraphernalia that we use in our attempt to consolidate gender norms. (ASIDE: You know, I should have worn the pink shirt today with the flamboyant cuff on the sleeves, rather than this conservative blue one to make that point. Or perhaps wearing the conservative blue, but expressing less than traditional views about masculinity might also make the point. Let me now adjust this traditional costume by putting on this red scarf.)

Isaac Mendes Belisario - Koo, Koo, or Actor-Boy (Sketches of Character) (1837), Aaron & Marjorie Matalon Collection, NGJ

Isaac Mendes Belisario – Koo, Koo, or Actor-Boy (Sketches of Character) (1837), Aaron & Marjorie Matalon Collection, NGJ

It seems that dancehall culture is well aware of the role of the costume to changing identities and appropriating images of the self that one wants to project in this postcolonial world where, for some, the one thing they have agency over is their own bodies. The attendant values of competition and innovation that seem to dominate dancehall music also feed upon this ability to transform identity and provide a ready language for [Ebony] Patterson’s gender interrogation; yet, these two values also help to expose the “fabricatedness” of identities and the unnaturalness of the normative. Dress as connecting motif inspires us to consider the costuming of the body in Patterson’s work in relationship to Marlon James’s photography in “Vogue” (2012) where the gender is created through costuming—flamboyant cross-dressing as is also seen in Belisario’s “Koo, Koo or Actor-Boy (1837), where the masquerade of Jonkonnu crosses not only gendered identity, but race as well as class. From Jonkonnu to Dancehall, these artistic portrayals suggest how costuming the body is a performance that enacts and troubles gendered identities.[i] In Gallery 2 we see how clothing (and positioning of) the body determines class, status and economic privilege or lack thereof in Phillip Wickstead’s “Portrait of Benjamin and Mary Pusey” (c1775) which can be viewed in relationship to the 1908-1909 Sir Harry Johnston’s photograph, “Jamaican Negroes” or the 1901 A. Duperly and Sons’ “Castleton Gardens,” both in Gallery 5.

Philip Wickstead - Benjamin and Mary Pusey (c1775), Collection: NGJ

Philip Wickstead – Benjamin and Mary Pusey (c1775), Collection: NGJ

A. Duperly and Sons - Castleton Gardens (1901), Collection: NGJ

A. Duperly and Sons – Castleton Gardens (1901), Collection: NGJ

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