Panel Discussion “We Have Met Before, Revisited” On Friday, October 13 @1:45pm

The National Gallery of Jamaica is pleased to present the panel discussion We Have Met Before, Revisited, which will take place at the National Gallery on Friday, October 13, 2017, starting at 1:45 pm. The discussion is presented as part of the Edna Manley College’s Rex Nettleford Arts Conference 2017, for which the National Gallery serves as a partner institution. The panel discussion will be chaired by Nicole Smythe-Johnson, Independent Curator. The panellists are: Moji Anderson, Lecturer, Sociology, Psychology and Social Work, Faculty of Social Sciences, UWI-Mona; Olayinka Jacobs-Bonnick, British Council Country Director, Jamaica; Leasho Johnson, Jamaican artist in We Have Met Before; and Herbie Miller, Director, Jamaica Music Museum, Institute of Jamaica.

The panel discussion is part of the programming for We Have Met Before, which on view at the National Gallery until November 4, 2017 and which is presented in collaboration with the British Council. The exhibition explores a group of contemporary and artistic interpretations of legacies of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and chattel slavery in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. Each of the four featured artists – Graham Fagen (Scotland), Joscelyn Gardner (Barbados), Leasho Johnson (Jamaica) and Ingrid Pollard (Guyana/England) – delves into archival material, popular culture and personal perspective to develop and substantiate visual iconographies that present actual and imagined narratives about the African enslaved and their descendants. Combined, their work invites new perspectives and dialogues on what is well-established subject in Caribbean art. We Have Met Before is presented in collaboration with the British Council.

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When Images Come Home to Roost: Notes on Blue Curry’s PARADISE.jpg

Blue Curry - PARADISE.jpg, at the corner of Orange Street and Port Royal Street

Blue Curry – PARADISE.jpg, at the corner of Orange Street and Port Royal Street

Although the Jamaica Biennial 2014 has now closed, we intend to continue the dialogue. Here is a guest-post by freelance curator and art writer Nicole Smythe-Johnson, who served as project manager for the Biennial and had special responsibility for coordinating projects such as Blue Curry’s.

Bahamian artist Blue Curry flew from London, checking his contribution to the 2014 Jamaica Biennial as luggage. Almost 300 feet of wall poster, divided into sections of 8 by 10 feet were packaged in two large rolls and encased in cardboard. Even though the National Gallery had provided the artist with a letter explaining the nature of the work, and the fact that the piece would not to be returned to London after the exhibition (only because it would be destroyed by then), the customs officer was unconvinced.

Blue Curry - PARADISE.jpg

Blue Curry – PARADISE.jpg

As the person meeting Blue on behalf of the gallery, I was called into the customs hall to explain how exactly these were artworks and not advertisements, and why the giant rolls of poster were of “no commercial value”. I did my best, but after 15 or 20 minutes of trying to satisfy her philosophical and functional queries, I began to worry that we would have to leave the posters at customs that night, while the officials figured out what code should apply to this as yet unheard of class of object; artwork of “no commercial value”.

As a last ditch effort, Blue offered to show the officials a mock-up of the poster that he’d printed on a letter-size sheet. He handed the print over, a simple rectangle of gradated blue. The customs officer looked at us as if she wanted to say “yu tink mi born yesterday?”, but instead she said “all of that is just this?”

Blue Curry - PARADISE.jpg, mock-up of installation on Port Royal Street

Blue Curry – PARADISE.jpg, mock-up of installation on Port Royal Street

We left the airport shortly after, with the posters in our possession. Seeing that innocuous blue rectangle seemed to drain the fight out of the official. Surely something that simple wasn’t worth arguing over, it certainly didn’t look like it was worth much.

This has been a recurring theme with PARADISE.jpg. People ask the same question over and over: “But what is it?” As Blue and his motley crew of volunteer assistants (themselves young artists and art students) went from site to site, slathering wallpaper glue on abandoned buildings and painstakingly moulding the poster to crumbling facades, people came from everywhere to ponder the strange image. Some thought it was preparation for something else, “are you going to paint it?” Others approved of the intervention, “yeh man, pretty up di place.” Even if they weren’t sure what it was, “likkle colour.” Several offered advice: “Yu nu si se dat nu do good?” or “Wha kinna glue dat? Dem foreign glue naa go work pon dem dutty wall.” The public installation sessions became a little game, what input will be offered next?

Blue Curry and crew at work on PARADISE.jpg

Blue Curry and crew at work on PARADISE.jpg

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What is a Biennial? Part II – Where do we go?

National Biennial 2012 installation view - small

Installation view at the National Biennial 2012, NGJ – central galleries

Here is part two of project manager Nicole Smythe-Johnson‘s reflection on the background to the Jamaica Biennial 2014:

The story I have given you so far is largely a European one. That same old story in which history was being made in the Euro-American West all along, while we (the rest of the world) only surfaced from the darkness somewhere in the mid twentieth century, after the West had finally taught us enough to permit our emergence as newly minted modern subjects. Not quite developed, but nonetheless “developing”. This, in addition to the spectre of the Crystal Palace, could have been the intellectual death knell of the Biennial as the preeminent exhibition format. Yet, the biennial has thrived on precisely this contention, and the resistance to it. In fact, the genre is in many ways defined by a grappling with the well-founded charge of Eurocentrism levelled against the global art establishment.

In considering a “Biennialogy” Filipovic, Van Hal and Øvstebø also consider the Crystal Palace/counter-museum narrative of Biennial genealogy but then ask: “…how much of what biennials have become, in the aspirations of many of them to represent cultures other than those of the West and to reflect a truly international art world, is the result of an entirely different kind of genealogy?”[1] They recall the problematic, but ground-breaking in its time, Les Magiciens de la Terre (1989.) That exhibition sought to address what curator Jean-Hubert Martin reportedly referenced as “one hundred percent of exhibitions ignoring 80 percent of the earth.”[2] The exhibition sought to revise the traditional Paris Biennial format by exhibiting 50 Euro-American (i.e. Western) artists shoulder to shoulder with 50 non-Western artists. Whatever we might think of the exhibition now, it changed the face of the biennial form, sparked many debates and broadened the horizon of what an international art world might mean.

At the 11th Havana Biennial - Colombian artist Rafael Gomez Barros mounted giant ants onto art deco Theatro Fausto

At the 11th Havana Biennial – Colombian artist Rafael Gomez Barros mounted giant ants onto art deco Theatro Fausto

The Bienal de la Habana in Cuba, launched in 1984, is also an oft-cited interruption of the centre to margin tale of Biennial origin. Unlike its predecessors, the Havana Bienal positioned itself primarily as a node for South-South (from one “developing” country to another) engagement. The first exhibition was reserved for Latin American and Caribbean artists, but since the second edition in 1986 artists from Africa, Asia and the Middle East have also participated. Havana’s shift in focus has meant that the tone of the Bienal tends toward issues of:

the existing tensions between tradition and contemporariness, the challenge to the historical colonization processes, relations between art and society, the individual and his/her memory, human communication in the face of technological development and the dynamics of urban culture … without distinction among the multiple forms of visuality that operate in culture as a system.[3]

Now that looks familiar. It turns out the history of the Biennial is also made in our image. This is saying nothing of the São Paulo Bienal (second only to Venice, with its first staging in 1951) or the Gwangju Biennale (1995) both of which had significant impact and did much to shift the contemporary art establishment away from its Eurocentric beginnings.

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What is a Biennial? Part I – The Matter of Origins

Jamaica_Biennial_2014_Facebook_Profile_Pic_2

We are pleased to present the first of this two-part contribution by writer and curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson, who has joined the Jamaica Biennial 2014 as project manager:

On the occasion of the NGJ’s 40th Anniversary, and the unveiling of its re-structured flagship exhibition – The Jamaica Biennial, I thought it might be worth pausing to ask: “What is a Biennial?”

Seems like a simple enough question, and at first I thought I had the equally simple answer. When people asked, and they often did, I replied confidently: “It’s a sort of mega-exhibition, mounted every two years, that focuses on art made in a particular place/region in the previous two or so years.” I would even think to myself: “Surely the name is self-explanatory?”

It became more complicated though. More questions came: Who are we mounting this show for? Who needs to keep abreast of what art is being made in Jamaica, or Sao Paolo, or Havana? What of the visiting (or “international”, as they’ve come to be known) artists or curators? They are not locals, where do they fit? Is this about showing “local art” to “internationals”, or showing “international art” to “locals”? And to what end? Where did this “Biennial” thing come from? And why is a Biennial sometimes a Biennale? I’ll try to give you the abridged version.

Venice_biennale

At the entrance of the Giardini, Venice Biennale (photo source: Wikicommons)

Most trace the origins of the biennial exhibition back to the Venice Biennale in Italy (turns out Biennale is just Biennial in Italian, and is sometimes used to reference non-Italian Biennial art exhibitions in homage to that first “La Biennale”). Some go back further, to the mid nineteenth century when Europe was riveted by universal expositions. Most notably, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Hyde Park in London, which sought to house (and order) the world’s newly discovered cultural, industrial and geographic diversity in a grand Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace and its particular perspective on global multiplicity, as well as its confident assumption of the authority to display and classify that multiplicity is the subject of much literature, but it was in this climate of flexing imperial muscle that the first Venice Biennale opened in 1895.

It started out much like the 2014 Jamaica Biennial. What was conceived as a biennial exhibition of Italian art, quickly evolved into a largely by-invitation exhibition, with a section reserved for international artists, and a jury that selected works from submissions by local (i.e. Italian) artists. Until 1905 the Biennial was confined to the Central Pavilion, then the Pro Arte building. There, work from invited and juried Italian artists, and international (read European) artists were exhibited with no internal division.

Given the success of the first exhibition, the Biennial invited other nations to establish their own national pavilions in the Giardini– the park in which the Central Pavilion is located- to exhibit work exclusively by artists from the various nations. In 1907, the first of the 29 permanent national pavilions in the Giardini was constructed by Belgium. By 1914, Hungary (1909), Germany (1909), Great Britain (1909), France (1912), and Russia (1914) had joined.

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