10 Questions for O’Neil Lawrence, Chief Curator

O'Neil Lawrence Head shot 2018 (1)

Photo Credit: Artur Curval

  1. Why is the National Gallery of Jamaica important? Most people are aware of our rich musical heritage but our visual arts are just as rich and varied. The National Gallery of Jamaica preserves that aspect of our culture and shares it through our exhibitions and programming.
  2. You travelled personally and professionally to visit other national galleries, what makes you especially proud of ours? I’m particularly proud of the fact that over the years we’ve been able to achieve an international standard with our exhibitions despite having far more limited resources.
  3. So what’s coming up at NGJ in the near future? Our Summer Exhibition opens on July 30 and will feature exciting work by a combination of our established and emerging artists. In November, the Jamaica Jamaica! exhibition, a joint project between the NGJ and the Jamaica Music Museum which has been shown in Paris and Sao Paulo, will also open. It will showcase developments in Jamaican music through art, artifacts and sound.

    Jamaica Jamaica! exhibition flyer

    Jamaica Jamaica! Promotional Flyer

  4. Give us one trick that we can use to really understand an exhibition. I don’t necessarily believe in tricks. I think that viewers should have more faith in the intrinsic feelings and emotions they experience looking at artwork. Sometimes the knowledge and experiences we bring to a space is the best guide.
  5. Which exhibition really moved you and why? The Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition staged at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art in 2018. It not only featured many Jamaican masterpieces, but it brought together the shared and sometimes hidden histories of black people in this hemisphere.

    Cover of Afro-Atlantic Histories Catalogue featuring Conversation by Barrington Watson

    Afro-Atlantic Histories Catalogue Cover (featuring Barrington Watson’s – Conversation, 1981)

  6. If a visitor only had limited time to spend at the Gallery, what are the must-sees? That’s such a difficult question. I would recommend the Belisario prints in our historical galleries as a visual representation of our history of resistance through performance. But then the Edna Manley and Kapo galleries are also must-sees.
  7. How have your experiences as a curator informed your life? I think I found my calling. My experiences at the NGJ have shown me that this is definitely what I was meant to do.
  8. What’s your first priority as Chief Curator? I am organizing a staff retreat. The staff of the gallery has done some amazing work in the time I have been here. We have been through a lot of changes in the last few years and I think we need to recalibrate so that we can move forward as creatively and productively as possible.
  9. What’s your greatest wish for the National Gallery? We have achieved a lot in recent years with regards to public engagement. I would like us to get to a stage when the majority of Jamaicans can say that they have visited at least one of our branches and had a memorable experience.
  10. How can the people of Jamaica support the gallery? Come and enjoy some entertainment at our free Last Sundays openings. Follow us on social media, come and experience our exhibitions. Our visitors are the lifeblood of our organization and we need them to thrive.  
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National Gallery of Jamaica appoints O’Neil Lawrence as Chief Curator

O'Neil Lawrence at Afro Atlantic Histories exhibition courtesy of Paulo Freitas_Glamurama.jpg

Credit: Paulo Freitas / Glamurama

The National Gallery of Jamaica is pleased to announce the appointment of O’Neil Lawrence as the institution’s new Chief Curator.

As a member of the senior management team Lawrence will oversee the active exhibition programme at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ, Kingston) and National Gallery West (NGW, Montego Bay), as well as the stewardship and development of Jamaica’s national art collection.

Chairman of the board, Senator Tom Tavares-Finson says: “In the over 10 years that our new Chief Curator O’Neil Lawrence has served the iconic National Gallery of Jamaica, he has grown into the perfect candidate for this challenge. His wide depth of knowledge of Jamaican and Caribbean art will serve him well as he begins this stage of his career.  His curatorial skills have been honed under many Jamaican and international curators including the late Chief Curator, the Hon. Dr. David Boxer O.J. The Board of the NGJ joins me in welcoming our new Chief Curator and we look forward to great new developments at the NGJ.”

Lawrence’s expertise is home-grown. He began working at the NGJ in 2008 as an Outreach Officer before joining the staff full-time in 2009 and serving as a Curatorial Assistant, Assistant Curator, and Senior Curator (a position he held since 2013). 

As Senior Curator, his over thirty-five exhibitions included the critically acclaimed Seven Women Artists (2015) and Masculinities (2015-2016). He was the co-curator of the NGJ’s largest multi-site exhibition Jamaica Biennial 2017 and led the curatorial team for Beyond Fashion at the NGJ and I Shall Return Again at NGW. Both exhibition openings broke NGJ and NGW records for attendance and have been hailed as the Gallery’s most successful exhibitions to date at their respective locations.  

 “I have been surrounded by art my entire life,” Lawrence says. “My father was an artist. My friends are artists. And I am an artist. I have worked alongside a team that has developed an exhibition and events programme at the Gallery which engages an increasingly wide audience and with the support of the Board and all stakeholders, I look forward to leading them in even more ambitious creative collaborations.” 

Lawrence’s new role as Chief Curator is pivotal to the continued development of the NGJ’s programming and scholarship to its historical standard. Says Dr Jonathan Greenland, Senior Director of the National Gallery: “I have watched O’Neil’s careful and systematic development of his skills as a gallery professional for years and I know that with his leadership and strong curatorial abilities, he will continue the momentum at the National Gallery and help us to reach new heights.”

Lawrence acknowledges the persistent myth that a space like the gallery is only for the wealthy and that the work is too abstract for people to find relatable but, he says, “There is something for everyone at the National Gallery no matter who you are and we want you to come and discover it. Our art matters because our stories matter – the National Collection illustrates our experiences as a culture and I will continue to pursue mutually beneficial partnerships in and outside of our borders—particularly in the Global South— in keeping with our stated mission “to promote our artistic heritage for the benefit of present and future.”

OLawrence-4667

Credit: Shawna-Lee Tai

About O’Neil Lawrence

O’Neil Lawrence holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Sociology and Master of Philosophy in Cultural Studies from the University of the West Indies. He is trained in visual communication (Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts) and cultural heritage preservation as part of the US State Department’s IVLP programme and he was the 2014 recipient of the prestigious Bridget Jones Award of the Society of Caribbean Studies.

Lawrence’s publications include essays for the 2012 Pictures from Paradise: A Survey of Contemporary Caribbean Photography and Histórias Afro-Atlânticas Vol 2 Antologia (MASP 2018).  In 2009 he chaired the Education and Outreach Committee of the Institute of Jamaica and in 2016 he was Chair of that institution’s Researchers and Curators Committee. In 2018 he served on the Board of the Davidoff Art Initiative and he is currently on the Advisory Council of the Caribbean Art Initiative

Lawrence’s research interests include race, gender and sexuality in Caribbean and African diasporal art and visual culture; memory, identity and hidden archives; photography as a medium and a social vehicle; Caribbean and general art history and museums and other public cultural institutions. 

As an artist, his photography and video work has been included in several local and international exhibitions including Rockstone and Bootheel at Connecticut’s Real Art Ways in 2009, his 2012 solo exhibition Son of a Champion at the Mutual Gallery, the Jamaica Biennial in 2014, Visions Achipéliques at Martinique’s Fondation Clemént in 2016 and The Expanded Caribbean: Contemporary Photography at the Crossroads at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery Philadelphia in 2017.

Video – Portraits and Abstraction: A Conversation

Portraits and Abstraction: A Conversation from National Gallery of Jamaica on Vimeo.

 

On March 29, 2018 the National Gallery of Jamaica held a panel discussion Portraits and Abstraction: A Conversation with the curators of Explorations V: Portraits in Dialogue and Explorations VI: Engaging Abstraction. It was moderated by independent curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson and the speakers were O’Neil Lawrence (Senior Curator) and Monique Barnett-Davidson (Assistant Curator) respectively.

Panel Discussion “Portraits and Abstraction: A Conversation” On Thursday March 29 @ 1:30 pm

On Thursday, March 29, 2018, the National Gallery of Jamaica will be hosting a panel discussion entitled Portraits and Abstraction: A Conversation at 1:30 pm. This event will function as a reflection on our most recent exhibitions Explorations V: Portraits in Dialogue and Explorations VI: Engaging Abstraction, which ran from December 19, 2017 to March 25, 2018. The discussion will be moderated by independent writer and curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson and will feature Senior Curator O’Neil Lawrence and Assistant Curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson, curators of the latest installments in the National Gallery’s Explorations exhibition series which was initiated in 2013.

Portraits in Dialogue examined 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. Engaging Abstraction examined abstraction as a modern image making approach that deviates from the more literal and popularized representational choices practiced by artists from Jamaica, the Caribbean and its Diaspora. The significant impact of abstraction on Jamaican and Caribbean art can seen in our collection which features numerous works of art that qualify as abstract, or at least as abstracted.

The exhibitions presented the foundations of two distinct yet dominant groups of representational choices practiced by artists, choices that can still be observed in contemporary artwork. Whether treated as separate disciplines or hybridized through a plethora of media, contemporary artists essentially make one of the two choices to explore an immense diversity of subject matter which include the social, the corporeal or the philosophical. The curators of the National Gallery of Jamaica have reflected upon these concepts and ideas throughout some of its most recent and successful exhibitions and felt that the next edition of the Explorations series should explore these trends as historical continuities that are evidenced in our national collection.

The public forum Portraits and Abstraction: A Conversation is free and open to the public. Brochures for the exhibitions will be on sale in the National Gallery Gift Shop.

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.