Anything With Nothing Opens at NGJ – Welcome Remarks

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The following is adapted from the welcome remarks by NGJ Executive Director, Dr Veerle Poupeye, at the opening of the Anything with Nothing exhibition on May 25. It is the first of several planned posts on this exhibition and its implications.

We are pleased to present Anything with Nothing: Art from the Streets of Urban Jamaica – the first exhibition curated by our new Chief Curator, Charles Campbell. He co-curated this project with Assistant Curator Monique Barnett-Davidson on this project, which benefited greatly from her previous research on street murals in Kingston and environs.

In recent times, we at the National Gallery have given significant thought to our role as a cultural institution in the social and cultural environment in which we operate and this has been reflected in our exhibition choices. We are actively engaging with questions such as our general relevance to Jamaican society; the perceptions of elitism that have surrounded the Gallery; and the various articulated and unarticulated notions about “art” and “culture” that have shaped how we go about our work as Jamaica’s national art museum. The Anything with Nothing exhibition is consistent with this self-reflexive moment and shifts our gaze to what has traditionally been external to the Gallery, by virtue of its life on the streets and its exclusion from the conventional art canons. As our catalogue essayists Charles Campbell and Honor Ford-Smith both point out, a lot happens when street art is transferred to the context of a national art museum, especially in a conflicted socio-cultural context such as Jamaica’s, and we invite you to reflect on the aesthetic and social implications of this exhibition. It is of particular note that street art is often produced by persons who are well recognized and sought after as professional artists in their respective communities a – a popular alternative, and an implied challenge, to the canons and social hierarchies of the mainstream art world.

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SOUND AND VISION: MUSIC AND SOUND IN THE WORK OF KAPO, EVERALD BROWN AND WOODY JOSEPH – Part III

Everald Brown - Niabinghi Hour (1969), Collection: NGJ

Everald Brown – Niabinghi Hour (1969), Collection: NGJ

Here is the third and final of a three-part blog post series based on a lecture presented by NGJ Executive Director, Dr Veerle Poupeye, at the Jamaica Music Museum’s Grounation programme of February 16, 2014.

Everald Brown, to turn to my last and main case study, was born in Mado District, deep rural St Ann in 1917 and died in New York City in 2003, where he was visiting with one of his children. In another example of rural to urban migration, Brother Brown, who was a carpenter by trade, and his young wife Jenny moved to West Kingston in 1947. They settled at 82 ½ Spanish Town Road, at a yard which also housed a Zion Revival band and a Kumina community. The 1940s and 50s were a period of Rastafarian ferment in West Kingston and Brother Brown was attracted by the teachings of Joseph Hibbert, a pioneering exponent who emphasized the mystical, religious aspects of Rastafari. Like many religious Rastafari, Brother Brown found inspiration in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, as the authentic Christian church from the African Zion and around 1960 Brother Brown established an informal mission of the EOC, which he named the Assembly of the Living. Brother Brown and his family were baptised in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church when this denomination was formally established in Jamaica in 1970 and he was initially an active member, who for instance constructed the EOC cathedral’s Ark of the Covenant, but his beliefs and practices were far from orthodox, and combined elements of Rastafari, Revival, Kumina, and Freemasonry – all of which are also evident in his artistic work. The question thus arises whether Brother Brown can be labelled as a Rastafarian artist. As I wrote in the 2004 Everald Brown retrospective catalogue:

I believe that to insist that Brother Brown was a Rastafarian artist, in any narrow sense, would be as short-sighted and incorrect as to suggest that he wasn’t. First of all, it is inappropriate to impose any narrow, rigid definitions on Rastafari itself, a religious and political belief system that is, except for a few groups, devoid of the dogmatism that characterizes organized religion and allows for significant personal interpretation. While many Rastafarians have been critical of traditional Afro-Jamaican religious and magical beliefs and practices, especially Obeah, there is in fact considerable cultural and religious continuity between Rastafari and Revival and Kumina. Furthermore, religious Rastafari does not necessarily exist in opposition to Christianity but often incorporates it, hence the attraction to elements of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Inevitably, there are tensions and contradictions in such syncretic beliefs—the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, for instance, does not recognize the divinity of Haile Selassie I and no doubt takes a dim view of Jamaican spiritualism—but these are an integral and legitimate part of cultural and ideological dynamics of these beliefs. It is therefore more productive to think of Jamaican Rastafarian culture as a broad, fluid and open-ended cultural spectrum or sphere, which overlaps and interacts with other local and transnational cultural spheres, such as those of the traditional Afro-Jamaican religions. If approached from that perspective, it becomes a lot less problematic to define Brother Brown’s work as ‘Rastafarian art.’

Brother Brown’s small, self-built church on Spanish Town Road was decorated with paintings and Brown also produced various ritual objects and musical instruments which were used by his church community, which consisted mainly of his own extended family. He was discovered as an artist in the late 1960s, by Janet Grant-Woodham, who was Folklore Research Officer at the Institute of Jamaica, and some of the radical young intellectuals at the University of the West Indies, such as Timothy Callender, Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Eleanor Wint, who brokered his first exhibition at the Creative Arts Centre in 1969. Brother Brown started exhibiting regularly since then, in the 1970s often jointly with his young son Clinton Brown, who also painted and produced musical instruments.

Everald Brown surrounded by his work at the Assembly of the Living, c1971

Everald Brown surrounded by his work at the Assembly of the Living, c1971

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SOUND AND VISION: MUSIC AND SOUND IN THE WORK OF KAPO, EVERALD BROWN AND WOODY JOSEPH – Part II

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We now present the second of a three-part blog post series based on a lecture presented by NGJ Executive Director, Dr Veerle Poupeye, at the Jamaica Music Museum’s Grounation programme of February 16, 2014.

But let me now turn to the more specific instance of music and art in Jamaica. Music plays a pivotal role in Jamaican culture and this is predictably and prominently reflected in the country’s visual art. Much of this has to do with the performative character of popular, African-derived religions in Jamaica, which make very active ritual use of music and dance. The three artists who are the focus of this presentation – Kapo, Everald Brown, and Woody – all came from such context. Pioneering research was done by Olive Lewin, Janet Grant-Woodham and others on the music produced by the church communities of Kapo and Everald Brown. Not being a music specialist myself, I have little to add to the research on their music and my focus is instead on the represented and implied music in their work. Everald Brown was also an instrument-maker and his instruments qualify as works of art in their own right, so I am also discussing these in this presentation.

Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds was born in 1911 in Byndloss, St Catherine and died in 1989. He received his first vision at age 16 and started preaching in the country side. Like many young rural men and women of his generation, Kapo soon moved to Kingston in search of opportunity and settled in Trench Town, where he established his Zion Revival Church, the St Michael Tabernacle. Kapo started painting and sculpting in the 1940s and 50s and rose to local and international prominence as a major artist and cultural icon in the 1960s, aided by the support he received from Edward Seaga and also from others, such as the first Tourism Director John Pringle and the American art impresario Selden Rodman.

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SOUND AND VISION: MUSIC AND SOUND IN THE WORK OF KAPO, EVERALD BROWN AND WOODY JOSEPH – Part I

Everald Brown - Bush Have Ears (1976), Collection: NGJ

Everald Brown – Bush Have Ears (1976), Collection: NGJ

This is the first of a three-part blog post series based on a lecture presented by NGJ Executive Director, Dr Veerle Poupeye, at the Jamaica Music Museum’s Grounation programme of February 16, 2014. The lecture’s topic is relevant to the current Explorations II: Religion and Spirituality Exhibition, which continues until April 27, 2014.

The theme of this year’s Grounation series is “seeing sounds and hearing images” and my presentation invites you to do just that. I will not use sound in my presentation, but I will appeal to your imagination, to “see the sounds” and “hear the images” in the work of three major Jamaican artists: the painter and sculptor Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, who was a Revival leader; the painter, sculptor and musical instrument-maker Everald Brown, who was a religious Rastafari leader and a pioneer of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church; and the sculptor William “Woody” Joseph, who had no specific religious affiliation but was part of the cultural sphere of Revival. Everald Brown is an artist I have focused on in my original research, writing, and curatorial work since the mid-1980s and I curated his retrospective for the National Gallery in 2004, so he will be my main case study in this presentation.

Everald Brown - Everlasting King (1987), Collection: NGJ

Everald Brown – Everlasting King (198), Collection: NGJ

At first sight – and the pun is intentional – visual art may seem to speak an exclusively visual language. Yet we all know that to be untrue. Art arguably appeals to all the senses, most obviously also to touch but potentially also to taste, smell and, for that matter, hearing. Those who work in art museums and galleries know how difficult it is prevent visitors from touching the art on view, because it powerfully appeals to the sense of touch, and anybody who has spent some time in an artist’s studio must be familiar with the distinctive smells of various art materials. Most works of art are as such mute but there is a powerful connection between sound and vision which has played a major role in the development of art and music alike and from time immemorial. A 2008 Science Daily article asserted that music played an important role in the ritual production and use of ancient cave art and that early musical instruments, such as bone flutes, are therefore often found in close proximity to ancient cave paintings. The relationship between art and music and the capacity of one to support the other has also been a major preoccupation in modern art, for instance in the work of the Swiss artist Paul Klee, whose abstract paintings were often based on musical interpretation. Music and the visual are also closely intertwined in the popular music industry, in the production of record covers, posters, concert backdrops, fashions and other visual materials, and the association between reggae and graphic design has played an important role in the development of Jamaican visual culture, with several major local designers such as Neville Garrick emerging. More recently, with the development of video and digital art, actual sound has become part of many works of art and sound and music have thereby entered the conventionally hushed environment of the art museum and gallery. It is now a trend for galleries and museums to have a resident deejay to create soundscapes for the museum environment, as was recently done at the Tate Modern and, even, the venerable Metropolitan Museum. Continue reading

Natural Histories: A Note on Cotton Trees and Jamaican Art

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TOM CRINGLE’S COTTON TREE: This Ceiba, or Silk Cotton, tree is of a type common to many parts of Jamaica. Its majestic spread of branches provides shade and shelter, and you will notice, a host of many types of parasitic plans. This particular tree was mentioned in ‘Tom Cringle’s Log” a 19th century novel by Michael Scott. Cotton trees are believed by the superstitious to be the haunt of “duppies” (ghosts)

Jamaica Tourist Board, Kingston, Jamaica

The Silk Cotton tree or Ceiba Pentandra is indigenous to the tropical Americas, Jamaica included, and a variety is also found in West Africa. One of the largest and most visually spectacular indigenous trees, the Silk Cotton tree takes more than a century to reach its typical size – up to 40 metres high and with the diameter of its trunk up to 3 metres – and to develop its dramatic buttress roots. The tree blooms annually and produces fruits that burst open to reveal a ball of silky white fibres inside.

Silk Cotton trees can survive for centuries and, as Olive Senior points out, often harbour “on its branches a great variety of wild life – orchids, wild pines, parasites, birds’ nests, creepers – which contribute to its almost supernatural appearance.” (134) The Silk Cotton tree also has a number of practical applications: its light wood and large size made it the material of choice for the Taíno dugout canoes; it is a source of kapok and was used to make cloth by the Taíno; and various parts of the tree are used for medicinal purposes.

Not surprisingly, the Silk Cotton Tree has considerable cultural significance, as is evident throughout the Caribbean. The trees were considered sacred by the Taíno, as the dwelling place of spirits and hold similar significance in African-derived popular religion, which may have incorporated some Taíno beliefs. In Jamaican culture, the Silk Cotton tree is associated with duppies and serves as a site for gatherings, rituals and revelations in Revival and Kumina. Because of their size and longevity, Silk Cotton trees stand as silent, giant witnesses to centuries of history and serve as landmarks that provide shelter and shade.

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Natural Histories: Some Notes on Maps

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Power comes from the map and it traverses the way maps are made. The key to this internal power is thus cartographic process. By this I mean the way maps are compiled and the categories of information selected; the way they are generalized, a set of rules for the abstraction of the landscape; the way the elements in the landscape are formed into hierarchies; and the way various rhetorical styles that also reproduce power are employed to represent the landscape. To catalogue the world is to appropriate it, so that all these technical processes represent acts of control over its image which extend beyond the professed uses of cartography.

J.B. Harley (1989)

The NGJ holds a fine collection of fourteen historical maps of Jamaica and the Caribbean region, which are part of the Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection. One of these maps the 1786 Carte de l’Ile de la Jamaïque, which was based on an English survey and published by the Dépôt de la Marine in France, a publisher of nautical maps, is currently featured in the Natural Histories exhibition. Several others, including the earliest known, 1528 map of Jamaica by the Venetian Benedetto Bordone, can be viewed in our permanent galleries, where they invite interesting ideological and aesthetic comparisons with the topographical art of the colonial period, the estate and city views. While not usually intended as “art” and more obviously significant as historical documents, the historical maps in our collection possess a peculiar visual poetry, as diagrammatic representations of a changing vision of the world, and in this case, of the island of Jamaica.

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