What’s up at the National Gallery?

Last Sunday, the main exhibition of the Jamaica Biennial opened at the National Gallery downtown Kingston. It was a grand affair, attracting an unusually large crowd of enthusiastic patrons. There are also exhibitions at Devon House and the National Gallery West.

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Devon House, First Home of the National Gallery of Jamaica

The Biennial has four levels of exhibits, as outlined in the beautifully produced catalogue: six special projects by invited international artists; two tribute exhibitions honouring Alexander Cooper and Peter Dean Rickards; elite invited artists; the juried section.

Why are some artists automatically given a free pass into the Biennial? And so many of them! Thirty-four invited artists entered 61 pieces. One hundred and ten artists submitted entries to be judged. Forty-nine were accepted with a total of 66 entries. If both the invited and juried artists had been restricted to one entry each, at least 44 additional juried entries might have been included.

Dr Veerle Poupeye, executive director of the National Gallery, addresses this contentious issue in her insightful ‘Introduction’ to the catalogue: “By far, the most vexing question has been whether the invited artists system should be retained, or whether the Biennial should become a fully juried or curated exhibition instead. As is to be expected, many invited artists would not like to lose their status, but others in the artistic community feel that this perpetuates undesirable hierarchies and also makes it difficult to give curatorial cohesion to the exhibition.”

‘PRACTICAL FEASIBILITY’?

In email correspondence with me, Dr Poupeye confirmed that one of the criteria used to select entries in the juried section is “practical feasibility, for instance with regards to size”. Why is this criterion selectively applied to the juried section and not to invited artists?

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Fosuwa Andoh, Visual Griot

Which brings me to that hell of a drum made by invited artist Laura Facey, in collaboration with the unacknowledged international African artist Fosuwa Andoh, visual griot. Fosuwa is a textile artist and ceramic/glass crafter who came to Jamaica to direct a Prince’s School of Traditional Arts project. She established a successful pottery workshop in Rose Town. Fosuwa provided technical advice for curing the cowskin and she attached it to the body of the drum. Without her input, the artwork would be nothing but dead wood. And you know how unfulfilling that can be!

Decorated in the red, white and blue of imperial flags, Facey’s drum seems to embody colonialist fantasies: “I made the drum so that we may talk to our ancestors and bring more peace and reconciliation into our lives.” But the scale of the drum is far beyond human proportions. Our African ancestors would not recognise it as an instrument of communication. This monstrous drum has shock value, and that’s about it.

And it was quite a production to get the drum into the Gallery. According to a Gleaner article published two Sundays ago, “The two sections of the entrance door were completely removed”. In addition, “a glass partition, mounted on a concrete wall, and which separates the lobby from the drum’s temporary resting spot, also had to be taken out”. How practical and feasible was that?

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Then, “with the effort of 37 Jamaica Defence Force soldiers, the drum was slowly brought into the space. The lifting and pushing of the drum itself brought some entertainment to onlookers as the instructor raised and lowered his voice, army-style, in giving directions to the able-bodied men”. Was this regular JDF work? Or was it a roast?

The 30-foot drum sounds much smaller in metres: only 9.144. But, however you measure it, that’s a lot of space in a relatively small gallery. The drum dominates the main exhibition hall, leaving little room to view the exhibits on the adjacent walls. How many more juried entries might have been able to fit in that space, I wonder?  And Ms Facey has two more pieces in the exhibition at Devon House!

DIGITAL JAMAICA EXHIBITION

As soon as I stepped into the main gallery, a well-known artist said I looked like a work of art and I should just stand there and let people walk around me. I had a good laugh. This was my cue. I gleefully told her I was making a subversive fashion statement.

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Images of the work of one of my favourite artists were printed on my dress – thanks to graphic designer Rodane Gordon at Hot Off The Press who did an excellent job! The artist had submitted two entries to the Biennial and both had been rejected. But I made sure the beautiful work was at the exhibition, if not in it. The artist I was chatting with completely understood my visual statement. Her work had also been rejected.

I’ve decided to curate a Digital Jamaica Exhibition. I’m inviting the 61 artists whose work was rejected by the Biennial jury. I also welcome those artists who were not included in the invited category. Well, I’m not actually curating. It’s an open-entry exhibition. Whosoever will may come. I’ll let the viewers decide on the value of the work.

I’ve secured the services of an internationally recognised art blogger who will design the website. I know some of the rejected artists may not want to appear in the ‘Fringe Biennial’ for fear of never ever being accepted in the ‘real’ one. A pity! Those artists who do want to participate can contact me for details at the email below. When one door is closed, many more are open.

From Stony Gut To Big Gut

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Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson poster

August 12 was the 150th anniversary of Paul Bogle’s long march from Stony Gut to Spanish Town. Forty-five miles! Bogle led a delegation to King’s House, located then in the Old Capital. He wanted to meet with Governor Eyre to make his case on behalf of the suffering people of St Thomas. It was a mere 31 years after the declaration of Emancipation. And the legacy of enslavement was bitter.

Black people were free in theory. But, in fact, we were still imprisoned in the old, exploitative colonial system. Whites firmly held on to power, manipulating politics to suit themselves. Blacks could vote; but only if we could afford to pay the criminally high poll tax. In the 1864 elections, not even 2,000 of the 436,000 black people could afford to vote!

Nature also conspired against poor people. Cholera and smallpox ravaged Jamaica. In 1865, the effects of a two-year drought made matters worse. Work became scarce as several plantations went bankrupt. Economic prospects for black people were grim. There were rumours that we were going to be enslaved again.

I suppose Paul Bogle wished to discuss all of this with the governor. But Eyre refused to see him. He was a man with a very hard heart and too much power. Eyre’s father was a clergyman, which just goes to show that a religious upbringing is no guarantee of basic decency.

Eyre became governor of Jamaica in 1862 and seems to have had nothing but contempt for the ‘natives’. George William Gordon, a brown Jamaican who defended the rights of the black majority, enraged Eyre with his outspoken condemnation of the governor’s racist policies.

‘ADDING PRUDENCE TO INDUSTRY’

Before Bogle tried to meet with Eyre, a group of concerned citizens from St Ann had sent a letter to Queen Victoria, routed through the governor. They wanted to rent Crown lands at an affordable cost. Missis Queen sent a malicious response. Eyre gleefully made 50,000 copies, which he distributed far and wide. It was even read in church.

evil_smiley_face_round_stickers-ra5e82c3af3944768995f28c88eb804a7_v9waf_8byvr_324Here’s an excerpt: “… The prosperity of the Labouring Classes, as well as of all other classes, depends, in Jamaica, and in other Countries, upon their working for Wages, not uncertainly, or capriciously, but steadily and continuously, at the times when their labour is wanted, and for so long as it is wanted; and if they would use this industry, and thereby render the Plantations productive, they would enable the Planters to pay them higher Wages for the same hours of work than are received by the best Field Labourers in this country; and as the cost of the necessaries of life is much less in Jamaica than it is here, they would be enabled, by adding prudence to industry to lay by an ample provision for seasons of drought and dearth; and they may be assured, that it is from their own industry and prudence, in availing themselves of the means of prospering that are before them, and not from any such schemes as have been suggested to them, that they must look for an improvement in their condition; and that her Majesty will regard with interest and satisfaction their advancement through their own merits and efforts.”

In other words: Unu fi work out unu soul case fi next to nutten; an gwaan tek di lickle monkey money weh di planter dem a pay; so di planter dem can mek plenty money an gi unu back lickle bit. An unu fi band unu belly an save some a di lickle money fi when trouble tek unu; because tings inna Jamaica no cost so much like inna England; an stop bodder-bodder mi bout gi unu Crown land fi rent. An mi wi well glad fi see how unu a go mek it pon unu own.

GUT GUIDELINES

Fast-forward to the 21st century and this sounds a lot like what Mme Christine Lagarde might say to Minister Peter Phillips if im was to lost im pass go aks her fi gi wi a ease up wid di whole heap a money wi owe IMF. Austerity is the name of the game.

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Sir Patrick greets St. Thomas delegation. From left are Professor Neville Ying, Dorette Abrahams, Norma Brown-Bell, Loriann Peart-Roberts, and Mayor of Morant Bay Ludlow Mathison.

Paul Bogle died for the cause of black empowerment. So did George William Gordon. How many of our politicians today, whether PNP or JLP, would put their lives on the line for their constituency? How many would walk 45 miles to make a case on our behalf? How many of them could walk 45 miles? Or even 4.5 miles?

Quite a few of our politicians are so fat they just couldn’t make it. They are living high on the hog. Throw mi corn, mi no call no fowl. I think we should establish gut guidelines for politicians. Beyond a certain size, they would just lose the work. By the way, the gut in Stony Gut is not the same as big gut. The first is a narrow passage; the second is a huge channel.

On the anniversary of Bogle’s march, our present governor general, Sir Patrick Allen, met with a delegation from St Thomas. He couldn’t make up for Eyre’s wickedness in both failing to listen to Bogle’s appeal and brutally suppressing the Morant Bay Rebellion. But Sir Patrick did admit that the parish has long been neglected. Even now! And that took guts.