Unstylish Ejection From VIP Seat

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It all started with an email from our MP to the citizens’ association offering tickets to a StyleWeek event last Sunday. Gifts from politicians usually come with lots of strings attached. The exchange often goes like this: I’ll give you $5,000 wrapped up in a designer T-shirt and you’d better vote for me. Or else! But this wasn’t election season. So I took the MP’s email at face value:

“Complimentary tickets are available for FashionBlock. When: Sunday, May 28th 2017, starting at 8pm. Where: Knutsford Blvd. Please email me to let me know how many tickets you need. Thanks.” I didn’t have anything planned for that evening, so I decided to take up the offer. I was rather surprised to see on the ticket that admission was free.

A complimentary ticket is not quite the same as a free ticket. Usually, a complimentary ticket is given as a courtesy to attend a paid event. Not a free show. Getting a complimentary ticket for a free event from an MP was a lot like feeling obliged to be grateful that politicians are actually doing the job for which they are elected. And for which they are paid!

Anyhow, I put aside my reservations and headed to New Kingston. I parked at the lot at the corner of Barbados and St Lucia avenues, where some young men had a good hustle charging $200 for entry. I firmly pointed out the fact that this was a government parking lot, which should be free on a Sunday evening. They apologised, waved me in, and kept right on charging other patrons.

 

THE MORAL OF THE STORY

 

I went to the closest entrance to the Fashionblock event, at the corner of Knutsford Boulevard and Barbados Avenue. Unfortunately, I hadn’t read my complimentary ticket carefully enough. That entrance was only for VIPs. My free ticket said: “out barrier, restaurant side.” And it was standing room only.

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Now I am not one of those people whose navel string is buried under a VIP tree. But there was no other seating. And I had no intention of standing up to watch “Jamaica’s Biggest Fashion Event Ever”. By the way, that tag line reminds me of Sean Spicer’s ‘covfefe’ declaration that Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest ever. Period.

I asked if I could get a VIP ticket, and a nice young man went off to find out. He returned with a young woman who let me in and ushered me to a seat. But she didn’t give me a ticket. About half an hour later, before the show had even started, she came back and told me she was at risk of losing her job. He had broken the rules by putting me in the VIP section. So I had to go “out barrier”.

I asked if there was no one who could allow me to stay. She said no. The lady she would have to ask was not around. Earlier, Dewight Peters, who was putting on the show, had greeted me in passing. I don’t suppose the young woman thought she could ask him to give me a VIP ticket. She escorted me to the exit and I headed straight home.

This story has several morals: 1) beware of ‘freeness’ from politicians; 2) always read the fine print; 3) do not ask for and accept favours from powerless people; 4) know when to retreat; 5) always remember that where bones are not provided, dogs are not invited. In this instance: Where VIP tickets are not provided, certain people are not invited.

 

‘ARTS IN THE PARK’

 

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Earlier that day, I’d gone to Arts in the Park at Devon House. That was an excellent event for which neither a free nor a complimentary ticket was needed. It’s a pity it didn’t seem to have been well advertised. Lots of young artists were exhibiting their work and there was live music. A small exhibition from the JCDC art competition is at one of the shops. The main show is located at the Jamaica Conference Centre.

The National Gallery hosted a panel discussion on the Jamaica Biennial 2017, which closed that day in Kingston. The exhibition at Gallery West in MoBay goes on for another month. A very contentious issue came up. VIP artists are invited to exhibit. Less-important artists have to submit their work for evaluation. If they’re lucky, they get picked. Hopefully, this unfair system will soon be phased out. All artists should have an equal chance to be accepted or rejected.

From Devon House, I went to The Pantry on Dumfries Road, where the artists Philip and Marcia Henry were hosting ‘The Gathering’, an exhibition featuring masters like Alexander Cooper, George Rodney and Ireko Baker, as well as many younger artists. Philip’s Ambokele Vibration drummers and guest artists were in full flight. It was a beautiful marriage of art and music.

There is so much creative energy in Kingston: music, art, literature, fashion and a whole lot more! Last Monday, Jamaica’s first Centre of Gastronomy was launched at Devon House. This Friday, Caribbean Fashionweek starts at Villa Ronai in Stony Hill. With its lush sculpture gardens, the venue was a premier destination for cruise ship passengers coming into Kingston Harbour in the 1960s. In spite of our social and economic challenges, Kingston is a capital city. And not just for VIPs!

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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.