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

Greg Bailey - Recruits (2014)

Greg Bailey – Recruits (2014)

The Explorations IV: Masculinities exhibition, which was curated by O’Neil Lawrence, opened at the NGJ on Sunday, December 6, with Michael A. Bucknor as the guest speaker. We are pleased to present the first part of Dr Bucknor’s opening remarks – the second part will be published on Wednesday.

I must thank the National Gallery through its Executive Director, Veerle Poupeye and its Acting Senior Curator, O’Neil Lawrence, for inviting me to offer some introductory remarks on the occasion of the opening of the 4th in the series of the National Gallery’s “Explorations”exhibitions. In Jamaica, we have a saying that “Cock mouth kill cock” and I think that my scholarly mouth has gotten me into trouble. I must first declare that I am not a critic or practitioner of the visual arts. However, their choosing me to do this opening might be related to the work I have been doing quite recently on Jamaican masculinities. In 2013, for example, I co-edited a special issue of the Journal of West Indian Literature on “Masculinities in Caribbean Literature and Culture” and was grateful to O’Neil for allowing the use of one of his stunning photographs for that issue. Then last year I co-edited, another special issue on Caribbean Masculinities for Caribbean Quarterly and Veerle contributed a piece on Ebony G. Patterson’s work. So they were both familiar with my work in masculinity studies. These special editions were aimed at exposing some of the work being done by cultural critics in the fairly recent field of masculinity studies, but perhaps also to reveal what work is still left to be done.

O'Neil Lawrence - Untilted II (Broken Reliquary series) (2010) - this work is not included in the Masculinities exhibition

O’Neil Lawrence – Untilted II (Broken Reliquary series (2010) – this work is not included in the Masculinities exhibition

Perhaps, I should say a little bit more about my own interest in masculinity studies. My entry into this field of research was (in part) influenced by what I discovered in Jamaica in the late 1990s when I returned from graduate school in Canada and began teaching at UWI. I noticed the increasing number of murder-suicides done by husbands, common-law male partners and boyfriends, who would sometimes murder the children, the wife or female partner and then would take their own lives. These events revealed Jamaican masculinities as bathed in blood and veined in violence. This bothered me. Here is an example of the typical newspaper report on these incidents and this one is as recent as May 16, 2015:

The Manchester police are investigating the circumstances surrounding a case of suspected murder/suicide involving a 23-year-old security guard and the mother of his child. Police believe the security guard …first used his licensed firearm to shot and kill…the mother of his infant child, then turned the gun on himself. Police said the tragedy, which flowed from an argument over alleged infidelity, occurred at about 10:30 pm Thursday night … in Melrose Mews in Mandeville. (Jamaica Observer).

William D. McPherson and Oliver - Photograph of Gordon's Scourged Back (1863)

William D. McPherson and Oliver – Photograph of Gordon’s Scourged
Back (1863) – this photograph is not included in the Masculinities exhibition

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Explorations IV: Masculinities – Gallery 6: Fathers, Brothers & Sons

Rose Murray - Seated Boy(rgb)

Rose Murray – Seated Boy (1975), Collection: NGJ

The Explorations IV: Masculinities exhibition opens today, Sunday, December 6. Doors will be open from 11 am to 4 pm. The opening function starts at 1:30 pm, with Dr Michael Bucknor as guest speaker. DJ Biko is providing music today. As a continuation of our blog posts on the exhibition, please read more about the theme of Gallery 6: Fathers, Brothers and Sons:

One of the most pervasive negative stereotypes affecting (black) Jamaican masculinity pertains to fatherhood: the absent, irresponsible father who fails his children and provides a negative role model for his sons. It is no doubt for this reason that images of black fathers and children are rare in Jamaican art, while images of motherhood are quite common. Two examples are featured in this gallery: Leonard Morris’ Mountain Folk (1953), which was originally in Edna Manley’s collection, and Rose Murray’s Rasta Father and Child (1975), which documents the emphasis on positive father roles in the context of Rastafari. Murray’s Seated Boy (1975), a portrait of a young Rastafarian boy, does not include a father figure but implies his presence. Greg Bailey’s Recruits (2014) represents a troubling counterpoint, pertaining to how the absence of positive male role models draws young boys into the culture of gangs and guns.

82-005LW - Father Abraham, c. 1955

Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds – Father Abraham (c1955), Larry Wirth Collection, NGJ

While images of fatherhood are as such rare, there is no shortage of artistic depictions of patriarchal figures, family, and homosocial interaction (and homosocial here refers to non-romantic and non-sexual interactions among men, although the term is also used to describe similar interactions between women). Such works shed revealing light on Jamaican cultural practices and value systems and, specifically, the life world of Jamaican men. Kapo’s Father Abraham (c1955), for instance, speaks about the relevance of biblical notions about patriarchy with which the artist, who was a Revivalist leader, surely identified. Similar conceptions of patriarchy can be seen in the work of Everald Brown, who was an elder in the local Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the patriarch of a small, but artistically very active family-based church group. Family, in its extended sense, is a significant theme in the work of both artists and often focuses on male family relationships. Brown’s mystical Ethiopian Apple (1970) features his sons drumming around a hybrid figure – half human and half Otaheite Apple – which may be a self-portrait of Brown and an evocation of His Imperial Majesty. Kapo’s Trouble Not (1964) is a powerful image of brotherhood and male solidarity, which provides shelter against the outside world. Roy Lawrence’s Game (1974) has a similar quality and represents a closely-knit group of men (or boys) who are involved in a game of dice, obviously gambling for money, and the game represents an intense moment of homosocial interaction.

Everald Brown - Ethiopian Apple (1970), Collection: NGJ

Everald Brown – Ethiopian Apple (1970), Collection: NGJ

Alvin Marriott’s Boysie (1962), finally, was created in the year of Jamaica’s independence and represents a handsome young man. His nickname alludes to his position in a family context, as somebody’s son.

Alvin_Marriott_Boysie_1962_ADScott_coll_NGJ - small

Alvin Marriott – Boysie (1962), A.D. Scott Collection, NGJ

Explorations IV: Masculinities – Gallery 5: Style & Fashion

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

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

Explorations IV: Masculinities opens on Sunday, December  6. Read more about Gallery 5 in this six-gallery exhibition:

Once upon a time black male ‘cool’ was defined by the ways in which black men confronted hardships of life without allowing their spirits to be ravaged. They took the pain of it and used it alchemically to turn the pain into gold … It was defined by individual black males daring to self-define rather than be defined by others.

― bell hooks, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2003)

At first glance, style and fashion may seem like the most superficial of the themes that structure this exhibition, but this is deceptive, since it is also one of the most politicized sections. Style and fashion provide major channels for the definition and performance of masculinities but are also particularly prone to change, variable interpretations, and contestation. In the portrait of Benjamin and Mary Pusey (c1775) in gallery 2, for instance, the high status of the protagonists is reinforced by their mode of dress, but Benjamin Pusey’s powdered wig and stockings, while once markers of high male status, would today be regarded as effeminate. Cosmo Whyte’s interpretation of the iconic photographs of the archetypal “badman” Ivanhoe Martin from The Harder They Come, which is on view in gallery 3, derives from an image that epitomizes “rude boy” swagger and poignantly illustrates the oppositional, subversive potential of style.

Osmond Watson - Johnny Cool (1967), Collection: NGJ

Osmond Watson – Johnny Cool (1967), Collection: NGJ

Two early photographs in this gallery – a 1901 view of Castleton Gardens by A. Duperly and Sons and the portrait A Jamaican Negro (c1908-1909) by Sir Harry Johnston – shed light on the sartorial politics of black Jamaican men in the early 20th century. The nattily dressed, suited black figure in the centre of the lush tropical foliage in the Duperly photograph disrupts anthropological conceptions of “the native” by introducing the figure of “the dandy” – it speaks to a changing social environment and the emergence of a black middle class. A Jamaican Negro, on the other hand, appears to represent a male servant, who in a strong marker of low status is barefooted, although the man’s confident air powerfully challenges that status. The incongruous “feminine” element of the printed fan in his hand also reminds of the subversive drag of Belisario’s Koo-Koo, Actor Boy in gallery 1. The spirit of cool, confident defiance is also evident in Osmond Watson’s iconic Johnny Cool (1967), a youthful portrait of one who may well be a “rude boy” in the making. Johnny Cool has a contemporary counterpart in Marlon James Jabari (2007), although this portrait also captures major changes in Jamaican youth culture that move away from prescribed Jamaican identies: an adept of anime, Jabari wears a Japanese school uniform jacket.

Untitled II (Khani and Krew) From the Disciplez Series 2009

Ebony G. Patterson – Untitled II (Khani and Krew) From the Disciplez Series (2009), Private Collection

Ebony G. Patterson’s blinged-out collages from the Khani + di Krew (2009) series and Peter Dean Rickards’s Proverbs 24:10 (2008) take us to the contemporary and decidedly oppositional world of Dancehall, and its male dancers. Rickards’ mesmerizing, slow motion video captures the graceful poetry of the dance movements and frames the dancers’ individual performances as moving rituals of self-actualization, seemingly suspended in time. Patterson is the artist who has most consistently interrogated the gender contradictions in contemporary Jamaican culture and her “gangstas” reflect the feminised, flamboyant male aesthetic in Dancehall, which stands in contrast with its hyper-masculine and often homophobic rhetoric. Most of her subjects have bleached faces, a practice which is both aspirational, as it amounts to a generally futile attempt to ascend into the race-colour hierarchies, and oppositional, as it flouts middle class values about black self-affirmation. The visual codes of masculinity, race and class, as expressed through fashion and style, are also a major theme in the paintings of Phillip Thomas. His two canvases – Mr Chin, Yuh Fish Sell Di Right Ting and Nuh Mix Di Original, both from 2015 – reduce these codes to their bare essentials, with a few carefully placed disruptions such as the shocking pink Afropik, and he subtly and ironically connects this essentialized imagery to prevailing (and arguably failing) concepts about nationhood.

Wade Rhoden - The Calling (2015)

Wade Rhoden – The Calling (2015)

This section of the exhibition would not be complete without reference to fashion photography, represented by two photographs by Wade Rhoden, a young Jamaican photographer whose edgy style crosses the boundaries between fine art and fashion photography. The Calling (2013) and the related image Untitled (2013) represent prevailing male body ideals in the fashion industry, which are often as unattainable as the body ideals in female fashion photography. The imagery in these photographs also exists in an unexpected and provocative dialogue with the heroic, idealized body-focused depictions of black masculinity of the nationalist school, such as the work of Edna Manley, Alvin Marriott and Archie Lindo in galleries 2 and 3.

Explorations IV: Masculinities – Gallery 4: The Athlete and the Worker

Barrington Watson - Athlete's Nightmare II (1966), Collection: NGJ

Barrington Watson – Athlete’s Nightmare II (1966), Collection: NGJ

The Explorations IV: Masculinities exhibition runs from December 6, 2015 to March 5, 2016. Here is another text panel from the exhibition:

This gallery focuses on the artistic representation of two archetypal figures with particular resonance in postcolonial Jamaica: the athlete and the worker. In both instances, it is generally assumed that these figures are male and black, which further illustrates the extent to which the black male figure tends be represented in terms of its physicality.

While sports, and track and field athletics specifically, hold significant importance in Jamaican life, artistic representations of this theme are relatively rare and are limited mainly to official commissions, particularly in the form of monuments to Jamaican athletes and sports. The first such monument – Alvin Marriott’s The Jamaican Athlete (1962) at the National Stadium – represents a male runner, which confirms that the default assumed gender of the athlete is indeed male and it is only recently that there have been monument commissions to honour Jamaica’s female athletes.

Alvin Marriott - Banana Man (1955), Collection: NGJ

Alvin Marriott – Banana Man (1955), Collection: NGJ

This exhibition features several works of art that provide alternative perspectives on the subject. Barrington Watson’s Athlete’s Nightmare II (1966), for instance, offers a haunting image of athletic failure – the inability to finish the race –that has broader implications as a representation of the precarious nature of masculinity. Omari Ra’s Race for Ben (n.d.) refers to the Jamaican-born sprinter Ben Johnson, who was publicly disgraced and stripped of his world records after it was discovered that he took performance-enhancing drugs – a sad tale of the enormous pressures that occur in the hyper-masculine world of top athleticism.

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Explorations IV: Masculinities – Gallery 3: The Male Body as Icon – Precarious Masculinities

Edna Manley - Negro Aroused (1935), Collection: NGJ

Edna Manley – Negro Aroused (1935), Collection: NGJ

There are many examples in this exhibition of art works in which the male body serves as an icon that represents a particular ideal or cause. Such representations are common in nationalist Jamaican art, which preoccupied itself with the representation of nationhood and selfhood in the form of deliberately iconic images.The literary scholar Belinda Edmondson has argued that the Caribbean nationalist imaginary had been primarily concerned with “making men,” in a way that uncritically associated masculinity with maturity, autonomy and personhood and, by implication, femininity with dependence and passivity – or alternatively, that juxtaposed the “manhood” of national independence with the “boyhood” of colonial dependence.

Archie Lindo - Irish Moss Gatherers(rgb)

Archie Lindo – Irish Moss Gatherers (c1950)

There is indeed a strong masculine bias in nationalist Jamaican art, which privileges an assertive black masculinity as its default iconic identity. In this gallery, this is exemplified by Edna Manley’s Negro Aroused (1935) but it is also evident in related, less famous works such as Archie Lindo’s Irish Moss Gatherers (c1950). Closer scrutiny however reveals that these nationalist icons replicate some of the same colonial racial stereotypes they seem to challenge, such as the tendency to represent the black male in terms of his physicality, as an anonymous, objectified and, it is implied, mindless body. Several of these iconic images are also subject to alternative readings: for instance, the possibility of an erotic subtext in Lindo’s Irish Moss Gatherers.

Albert Huie - The Island (1972), illustration, Collection: NGJ

Albert Huie – The Island (1972), illustration, Collection: NGJ

Other related works present a more overtly troubled and troubling picture. Albert Huie’s illustration The Island (1972) critiques the exploitative aspects of tourism and alludes to the commodification of black (male) bodies in that context. The most oppositional response arguably appears in Cosmo Whyte’s Ginal (2014), which interprets the classic photographs of the archetypal ”bad man” Ivanhoe Martin from the film The Harder They Come (1972). In the film, the photographs represented a highly subversive act of visual provocation of the establishment and its values and Whyte adds to this by associating this imagery to the iconic trickster figure in Jamaican popular culture, Anancy.

Cosmo Whyte - Ginal (2014)

Cosmo Whyte – Ginal (2014)

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Explorations IV: Masculinities – Gallery 2: Power and Status

kapo_Paul_Bogle_R&S_catalogue - small

Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds – Paul Bogle (1952), Larry Wirth Collection, NGJ

Here is another in our series of posts based on the exhibition text panels for the Masculinities exhibition, which opens on Sunday, December 6, 2015 and continues until March 4, 2016

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

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

Men have traditionally dominated in the areas of political and economic leadership and the Caribbean, this is complicated by the colonial and postcolonial racial and social hierarchies. This gallery features works of art that reflect conventional masculine power and status and contestations that involve oppositional assertions of such power and status.

medallion3

Josiah Wedgewood – Am I Not a Man and A Brother (1787)

The portrait of Benjamin and Mary Pusey (c1775) by Philip Wickstead is populated with signifiers of wealth and worldliness – expensive fashionable clothing and furnishings, art, and a globe representing travel and experience – that reflect the power and status of the Caribbean planter class. The gender and racial hierarchy of the period is represented by the central positioning of Benjamin Pusey, whose wife is in his orbit, with the enslaved black servant in the background. Abolitionist art, in contrast, focused its attention on the enslaved and while there are abolitionist images that represent the female enslaved, the default gender of the figure of “the slave” is male. This is epitomized by Josiah Wedgwood’s iconic Am I Not a Man and A Brother medallion (1787), which represents a poignant plea for masculine recognition, in which manhood equals personhood, although its achievement is, contradictorily, construed as an act of white benevolence rather than as self-empowerment. Continue reading