Explorations VI: Engaging Abstraction

George Rodney – Drifter (1985), Collection: NGJ

Explorations VI: Engaging Abstraction 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 Assistant Curator Monique Barnett-Davidson. The Explorations series examines big themes and issues in Jamaican art.

Engaging Abstraction examines the role of abstraction in modern and contemporary art from Jamaica and also makes reference to abstraction from the Caribbean and its Diaspora. Our collection includes several hundreds of works of art that qualify as abstract, or at least as abstracted. While abstraction has been a consistent preoccupation in the local art scene since the 1960s, the visual rhetoric of abstract art nevertheless continues to challenge many Jamaican viewers, who crave art that is more literal and presents a clear narrative, often dismissing abstraction as alien to Jamaican and Caribbean culture. This exhibition therefore, seeks to add to the conversation about abstraction in the Jamaican and Caribbean context, as well as to explore its inherent contentions.

Rex Dixon – Burning Cage (1987), Collection: NGJ

The Tate Gallery offers the following definition of abstract art: “The term can be applied to art that is based on an object, figure or landscape, where forms have been simplified or schematised. It is also applied to art that uses forms, such as geometric shapes or gestural marks, which have no source at all in an external visual reality.” This definition highlights that abstract art – or abstraction, as it is more appropriately called – involves a wide spectrum of approaches, from stylized representations to pure abstraction which is concerned with form rather than content. While it is often assumed that abstraction is exclusive to Western modernism, various other cultures have produced art that can be defined as abstract. Religious Islamic art, which is characterized by prohibitions on representation, is an example. The pioneers of Western abstraction found inspiration in the stylizations of traditional African and Oceanic art. The indigenous imagery of the pre-Columbian peoples of South and Central America and the Caribbean have also been referenced by a number of our own regional artists.

Edna Manley – Beadseller (1922, Collection: NGJ)

While modernist abstraction was well-established in the European, North American–and for that matter Latin-American art by the early twentieth century—it took much longer for it to become common practice in the Jamaican art world. The thematic content of early modern art in the Caribbean region had a strong nationalistic ethos, with anti-colonial art dominating the second quarter of twentieth century in Jamaica and in most other parts of the region. This called for a figurative modernism that conveyed its political content clearly, although there were elements of abstraction in examples such as Edna Manley’s Beadseller (1922).

Aubrey Williams (Guyana/UK) – God of Corn and Plenty (1973), Collection: NGJ)

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Last Sundays, August 28, 2016 – feat. Kingston and Jane Macgizmo

Last Sundays - August 28,2016

The National Gallery of Jamaica’s Last Sundays programme for August 28, 2016, will feature a musical performance by Jane Macgizmo and guided tours of the recently opened Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art exhibition.

Denieze Anderson, popularly known as Jane Macgizmo, is a recording artiste, songwriter, producer & designer. Jane’s artistic passion was instilled at the age of seven by her parents who encouraged her to take music and art classes. She studied film production at Northern Caribbean University and also became a designer & photographer, both of which have aided her music career. Her second release “Babylon” quickly became an anthem to her supporters, as it captures the enticing and defiant nature of Jane’s music. It was the music video for this song, set in lush green scenery high in the mountains, filmed, directed, and edited by Jane and Tricia Bent that truly brought the message of the song to life and it has been in regular rotation on BET SOUL. The record label Zincfence Records has also released a dubmix of “Babylon.” Jane’s inventive persona is what propels her works, without boundaries and across genres such as dubtronica, indie reggae, jazz and EDM. The fearless creative has a catalogue of exciting music, stimulating visuals, and confident messages in preparation for the world to experience.

Jane Macgizmo

Jane Macgizmo

Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art is the first instalment of a two-part exhibition series that explores the role of Kingston in the development of Jamaican art and, conversely, the role of art in the development of the city of Kingston. The present edition of Kingston features artists such as Isaac Mendez Belisario, Carl Abrahams, Hope Brooks, Edna Manley, Cecil Baugh, Kapo, Di-Andre Caprice Davis, Roy Reid, and Stanford Watson and the iconic Jamaican feature film The Harder They Come (1972, dir. Perry Henzell). The exhibition examines how Jamaica’s turbulent but culturally fertile capital city has generated many of the circumstances and opportunities that have propelled the development of Jamaican art over time, from the natural resources to the economic activities and institutions. It also explores how artists have been inspired in their work by the events, personalities and tales that have defined life in the city, starting with the 1692 destruction of Port Royal, which led to the establishment of the city. Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art was curated by National Gallery Assistant Curator Monique Barnett-Davidson and continues until October 30, 2016.

Carl Abrahams - The Destruction of Port Royal (1972), AD Scott Collection, NGJ

Carl Abrahams – The Destruction of Port Royal (1972), AD Scott Collection, NGJ

The National Gallery of Jamaica’s doors will be open from 11 am to 4 pm on Sunday, August 28, 2016 and the musical programme will start at 1:30 pm. As is customary, admission and guided tours will be free for the day, but contributions to the National Gallery’s donations box are always welcome. The National Gallery gift and coffee shops will also be open and proceeds from these ventures help to fund programmes such as Last Sundays and exhibitions such as Kingston.

Kingston: Stories to Tell

Here is the final of our features on the Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art exhibition:

In addition to concrete structures and infrastructures, stories from the documented and lived experiences of generations of Kingston inhabitants and visitors, contribute to this city’s character, to its celebrity and its infamy. The events, personalities and tales that have shaped this city are part of its collective imagery and have provided major inspiration for artists, some of whom are themselves among the city’s key personalities. A variety of stories have already been explored in the preceding galleries. However, this section focuses on a distinct selection of narratives that are particularly relevant to Kingston events and experiences.

Kingston and its environs have been the sites of some of the deadliest natural disasters in human history and this has been recognized and recorded by documenters and artists alike. The apocalyptic destruction of Port Royal in 1692, was re-imagined by Carl Abrahams in several works produced in the mid-1970s. The 1907 earthquake which almost obliterated Kingston is memorialized forever by several archival photographs from the period which can be found at institutions such as the National Library of Jamaica, another Downtown Kingston institution situated on East Street. Despair in the aftermath of Hurricane Charlie, the deadliest storm of 1951, is expressed in two oil paintings created in the same year by poet and playwright Roger Mais, and his seemingly broken and dejected figures are almost camouflaged within the debris left in the storm’s wake, becoming one with the devastation.

Several works in this section comment critically on the social life of Kingston. The works of Roy Reid, Edna Manley and later, Stanford Watson and Ikem Smith for instance, question ongoing issues of social inequality, economic downturn, violence and civil unrest. Michael Parchment’s No Woman Nuh Cry (2005), a visualization of the 1975 reggae ballad of the same name performed by Bob Marley and the Wailers, reiterates that critical value of endurance in the face of adversity and atrocity resulting from the wave of violence that permeated Jamaica’s inner-cities in the 1970s. Interestingly, the reggae music and the visual arts communities have benefitted greatly from the creative insights of personages like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and a number of other Jamaican musicians, many of whom originated from Kingston or migrated to the city to seek their fortune at Kingston’s active entertainment scene and recording studios. It was in Kingston at the National Stadium on Arthur Wint Drive that the historic One Love Peace Concert took place in April 1978. The concert took place during the climax of a deadly political war between gang supporters of the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). Jamaican photographer Howard Moo-Young captures on film the most memorable highlight of the show, when Bob Marley during his performance of the song Jammin invited the two political leaders to the stage—the then Prime Minister Michael Manley of the People’s National Party and the then Leader of the Opposition, Edward Seaga of the Jamaica Labour Party–and encouraged them to join hands before the audience as a symbolic gesture towards peace and unity.

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Kingston: Institutions and Collections

Phannel Toussiant - National gallery of Jamaica, Devon House (rgb)

Phannel Toussaint – National gallery Ballroom, Devon House (1980), Collection: NGJ

Here is another feature on the Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art exhibition:

As we speak of “crossroads” and opportunities, we have to recognize that Kingston is also the centre of cultural infrastructure in Jamaica. This includes the two main visual arts institutions, the Edna Manley College and the National Gallery of Jamaica, and several major corporate art collections. Jamaica’s main private art collections are also located in Kingston. This Kingston-centeredness is slowly changing as governmental and corporate authorities as well as other private interests have been employing strategies to de-centralize the infrastructural dominance of Kingston. The 2014 establishment of the Montego Bay Cultural Centre, which houses the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Montego Bay branch National Gallery West, is one such example. That being said, this section of the exhibition acknowledges a selection of those Kingston-based entities that have been key pillars for the development of visual art practice and promotion in Jamaica, and have also contributed to urban development and renewal.

Devon House

Sidney McLaren – Devon House (1979), Collection: NGJ

The Institute of Jamaica, which was established in 1879, is the oldest cultural institution in Jamaica and has been pivotal in the development of national art exhibition programming and art educational opportunities, especially from the 1930s to the present. The National Gallery of Jamaica has its origins in the pioneering art collecting and exhibition programmes of the Institute and presently operates as one of its divisions. Established in 1974 at Devon House on Hope Road and then relocated to the Roy West Building on the Kingston Waterfront in 1982, the National Gallery of Jamaica functions as the custodian of carefully developed collections of Jamaican art, representing more than ten centuries of artistic history in our country. Other Institute of Jamaica divisions that have been involved in the visual arts are the Junior Centre and the National Library of Jamaica, before the latter attained autonomy. The Junior Centre hosted Edna Manley’s seminal free adult art classes that started in 1939 and served as a meeting place for the members of the emerging nationalist school, and it continues to offer children’s art programmes today.

Whitney Miller - Little North Street (rgb)

Whitney Miller – Little North Street (1963), Collection: Edna Manley College

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Kingston: Art on the Streets

Here is another feature on the themes that structure the Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art exhibition, written by the exhibition curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson:

A simple bus commute or walking tour of the city can bring one into an even more direct engagement with Kingston’s artistic heritage. Street and public art proliferate in the city, whether as officially commissioned statues, monuments and murals, or more informal expressions on community walls, vehicles or vending stalls. These works are experienced on a daily basis by the people who use, traverse, relax or congregate around these spaces and often command their surroundings as iconic landmarks.

As Jamaica’s capital, Kingston is home to a number of public monuments. Their narratives reflect memories of historic triumph, expressions of hope in the face of adversity, or simply reflection in the wake of tragedy; exemplified by Edna Manley’s Negro Aroused sculpture, the monuments of the National Heroes Park, and the Secret Gardens monument, which are all located in Downtown Kingston. Secret Gardens was commissioned by the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation, the local government authority, to commemorate children who die under tragic or violent circumstances and the local media recently reported that no more space was left to add further names—a very sad reflection of the vulnerability of children in Jamaican society.

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Kingston: Crossroads

Isaac Mendez Belisario, Sketches of Character: French Set Girls (1837-38)

Isaac Mendez Belisario, Sketches of Character: French Set Girls (1837-38)

Here is another feature on our current exhibition, Kingston – Part 1: The City and Art, which opened on July 31. It was written by the exhibition curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson:

Like any major capital city, Kingston is a proverbial land of opportunity and a microcosm of social development in Jamaica. And like its predecessor Port Royal, it is a point of intersection, the juncture of a myriad of commercial and cultural pathways. One needs to look no further than the intensely trade- and business-oriented areas of Downtown, the Waterfront, our natural harbour (the seventh largest in the world), or the Crossroads and Half Way Tree areas. Artists have always been active participants and beneficiaries in these intersections, by participating in these exchanges and commercial opportunities, and by representing them in their work.

This section features pre-twentieth century itinerant artists such as Frenchman Adolphe Duperly, who operated his commercial photography and lithography studio, Adolphe Duperly and Son, at 85 King Street in Kingston. Duperly published a number of images of early Jamaican places, people and events such as the Daguerian Excursions (c1844), a series of lithographs of island scenes that were originally produced as daguerrotypes. Duperly is generally credited as the one who introduced photographic technology to Jamaica in the 1840s.

Duperly also collaborated with the Kingston-born lithographer and painter, Isaac Mendes Belisario who is famous for his 1837-1838 lithograph publications Sketches of Character in Illustration of the Habits, Occupation and Costume of the Negro Population in the Island of Jamaica. Despite the problematic ideological questions raised by Belisario’s images, the Christmas Amusements and Cries of Kingston have become icons of heritage that inform the memory of our enslaved, apprenticed, and later emancipated Jamaican fore-parents, as they worked and celebrated the gift of life and culture during times of great colonial oppression. Continue reading