On the last Sunday in January, we took another trip downtown to the National Gallery of Jamaica to take a look at the National Biennial 2012 exhibit – the sixth since it replaced the Annual National Exhibition in 2002. These are all works in a whole range of media – painting, sculpture, collage, illustration, assemblage, installation, ceramics, photography, video, animation and textile. The exhibition includes 126 works by 87 artists, of which 50 were invited while another 37 entered through a juried system. Three of the artists (Ebony C. Patterson, Bryan McFarlane and Omari S. Ra) were recipients of Jamaica‘s Musgrave Medals.
It was a veritable burst of adrenalin.
The growing diversity of Jamaican art, and the increasingly confident, urban voice of it, immediately struck me. The works on the ground floor are the most challenging (and in one particular area there was a kind of “parental advisory” because of some disturbing images). The envelope was pushed, with varying but always interesting results.
Here are a few artists and works that particularly attracted me, for very different reasons:
Omari Sediki Ra (known as “Afrikan”), born in Kingston in 1960, lectures and heads the Painting Department at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. As the recipient of a Silver Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica in 2011, he had a small tribute exhibition at the Biennial. But the paintings I liked the most were two large canvases of soldiers. Rows of razor blades hung from the bottom of the unframed canvases, each of which showed a soldier’s face in close-up, raw and red-eyed. One was screaming, the other appeared stricken with emotion. I can’t seem to find these in the catalog, but here is an example of Mr. Ra’s art. I gather he is “very political”…
While we are talking about the Musgrave medallists, I was entranced by the work of 32-year-old Kingston-born Ebony Patterson, who also got her own space in the exhibit. She teaches painting at the University of Kentucky. I have come across Ebony’s work several times before – including her decorative, bleached-ghetto-youth paintings. The Bronze Medal-winning Ebony produced for the Biennial a multi-media video installation called “The Observation (Bush Cockerel) – a Fictitious History.” And it is a domestic story – a male and female, moving in slo-mo, in thick tropical vegetation with a baby in their arms. There are continuous, jungly sound effects; insects hum, birds hoot, and bright artificial flowers hang from the dimly lit ceiling. The effect is hypnotic, mysterious. When the real-life figures walked past us silently a few minutes later, arranging themselves on a small dais in the Kapo Gallery as living statues, I found myself drawn to them.
OK, two people in feathers and lace, standing/sitting on a flower-covered box and occasionally changing their position, may seem an odd definition of art. But believe me, it’s beguiling.
Beguiling in quite a different way was the work of Jasmine Thomas-Girvan, a Trinidad and Tobago resident now, and a recipient of the Commonwealth Foundation Arts Award. She also won the 2012 Aaron Matalon Award for her two delicate mixed media works in the Biennial. The wistful “Dreaming Backwards,” which is ten feet long altogether, floats on the wall, suspended at one end by a flock of birds, while an open-mouthed woman in a canoe tries to paddle in the opposite direction. This piece was inspired by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz‘ long and vivid poem “The Broken Water Jar.” At the show, a friend showed us a deliciously encrusted ring she was wearing, made by Jasmine. I coveted it. You can see more of her jewelry at her link below. Laura Facey’s “Plumb Line” won the 2010 National Biennial.
There were many more delights. I realized afterwards that I was more drawn to the female artists in the exhibition – not intentionally so, it just happened that way. St. Ann-born Alicia Brown is currently pursuing her MFA at the New York Academy of Art. I enjoyed her fresh and direct portraits of downtown women (especially those engaged in streetside beauty parlors, with plastic gloves on their hands) in strong colors. I loved Irish-born Jamaican resident Sharanne Long’s photography, full of character and warmth. By contrast, the painting of Samere Tansley, a well-established artist in Jamaica with English roots, is cool, calm, almost austere; a still life by moonlight. A female photographer I have always admired is Ms. Donnette Zacca. “On the Sixth Day – Man” is a 20-panel series of black and white prints; what appears to be a small family group sits or stands in a windswept, rocky landscape. Are there any other humans? One senses that those wild spaces are empty of life.
Here are three more (male) artists whose works I noted: Marlon James’ photographs – largely portraits – exude a rude energy that pulls you in. Mr. James is an established commercial and fine arts photographer who lives and works in Kingston; he draws something powerful from each of his subjects. His ”Gisele” (a dignified, graceful young woman with sadly scarred limbs) and the transgendered “Vogue” (in multi-colored stripes) are two people showing you just a sharp little corner of their inner, raw selves. It is deliciously painful. I also enjoyed the film maker Storm Saulter’s ten-minute video installation, “Tied,” an intriguing walk by the sea. I could smell the salt. (Storm’s feature film “Better Mus’ Come” was shown recently at the National Gallery on one of its Sunday openings). Michael Thompson‘s work – posters of reggae pioneers Duke Reid and Prince Buster – combine nostalgia with color and vitality (Michael, another Kingstonian who now lives in Pennsylvania, was one of the collaborators on the highly successful first International Reggae Poster Competition which was shown at the National Gallery last year).
These were just my personal choices. There is so much at the Biennial that I am not going to tell you what you should, or should not “look out for.“ You can revel in it all. Allow yourself enough time to wander, and re-wander, and return to pieces that you would like to explore some more.
It is rich, it is Kingston, it is energy. And remember, you don’t have much more time to go and visit (or revisit, perhaps!)
One question: What about Jamaican art outside Kingston? Most of the exhibitors are Kingston-born and/or living in the capital city and many of the themes are edgy, urban. Where is the creativity of the Jamaican towns and countryside? I felt this was, perhaps, missing…
P.S. Of course, I had to love a haunting work called “Emma” by New York-based photographer and UNESCO Fulbright Scholar Jacqueline Bishop, a Kingstonian by birth. A woman’s face hovers over a hilly Jamaican landscape. My namesake…
The National Biennial 2012 opened in December and will close on March 9, 2013. Not much time left to catch it! Why don’t you pay a visit on the last Sunday in February, when the National Gallery will be open? That is, this coming Sunday, February 24, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Regular opening hours are: Tuesdays to Thursdays: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m; Fridays: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m; Saturdays: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Related articles and websites:
http://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com National Gallery of Jamaica blog
http://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com/2010/01/24/omari-s-ra-afrikan-b-1960/#more-715 Omari S. Ra: National Gallery of Jamaica
http://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com/2012/12/30/national-biennial-2012-jasmine-thomas-girvan-wins-the-2012-aaron-matalon-award/ Jasmine Thomas-Girvan wins the 2012 Aaron Matalon Award: National Gallery of Jamaica blog
http://www.marlonjamesphotography.com Marlon James Photography website
http://www.jasminethomasgirvan.com/index.html Jasmine Thomas-Girvan homepage
http://ebonygpatterson.com Ebony Patterson homepage
http://mutualgallery.com/abrown.html Alicia Brown: Mutual Gallery Jamaica
http://sameresgallery.com Samere Tansley homepage
http://www.marlonjamesphotography.com Marlon James Studio
http://freestylee.net Freestylee – Artist Without Borders (Michael Thompson)
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/the-global-spirit-of-reggae-music/ The global spirit of reggae music: petchary.wordpress.com
http://globalvoicesonline.org/2012/09/27/jamaica-storm-saulter-on-film-new-media-in-the-caribbean/ Storm Saulter on film and new media in the Caribbean: globalvoicesonline.org