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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