Veerle Poupeye: “I Love to Make Things Happen”

Veerle Poupeye is a busy woman these days. The Executive Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica and her staff are working long hours preparing for the Jamaica Biennial 2014. “It’s our most ambitious yet,” she declares. The exhibition will open with a week of events from December 7 to 14, with key dates as follows: December 9, opening reception at Devon House; December 12: opening reception at National Gallery West; December 14: opening reception. (Jamaicans, you might like to note those dates in your calendars). I catch up with Poupeye as she takes a break in an uptown coffee shop. Her cell phone, however, regularly demands her attention.

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This year’s Biennial is “rebranded.” It has a more international profile; no longer “National” but “Jamaica.” Six overseas-based artists will undertake special projects: the New York-based Renée Cox; Blue Curry (yes, that is his real name!) from the UK/Bahamas; Bermudan photographer James Cooper; Sheena Rose from Barbados, who works in video installations; Trinidad’s Richard Mark Rawlins (“very political and satirical”); and Gilles Elie-Dit-Cosaque from France/Martinique, who works in photography, film and video. There will be a juried section; judges Diana Nawi, Associate Curator at Miami’s Pérez Art Museum and Dominican art historian and curator Sara Hermann (currently a Board Member for the Davidoff Art Initiative) spent two days in Jamaica last month judging submissions. “This is a transitional phase in the Biennial,” says Poupeye. “It will eventually move to a curated exhibition.” 

Poupeye’s enthusiasm is clear. She is looking forward to the event. After all, it has been forty years since the founding of the National Gallery at Kingston’s Devon House. Exciting Jamaican artists such as Ebony Patterson, Laura Facey, Onika Russell and Greg Bailey, among others, will participate. It will be “larger than usual,” says Poupeye, so there will be three distinct parts: at the galleries in Kingston and Montego Bay; at Devon House; and in the street. Yes, the street (but you will have to wait for more details). Right now, the team is working hard on the catalogue, funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) – the Biennial’s main supporters with the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF) in Montego Bay.

Montego Bay? Yes, in case you did not know, National Gallery West opened at the Cultural Centre in Sam Sharpe Square in July, and so far it has been doing well. “Expectations were high,” said Poupeye, noting enthusiastic support from local businessman Lloyd B. Smith and energetic hotelier Josef Forstmayr, besides the invaluable support of TEF. So far, there has been “much support from schools,” and Poupeye expects more overseas visitors as the tourism season begins next month. “I want National Gallery West to manage itself with a degree of independence from the NGJ in Kingston,” Poupeye adds. She is building and training staff so that it will become more independent.

The National Gallery is a public sector entity, a Division of the Institute of Jamaica, Ministry of Youth and Culture. In these belt-tightening times, how does it manage for funds, I ask Poupeye? “We pinch every penny,” she observes soberly. “We do a lot of things in-house.” They obtain revenue from entrance fees, the gift shop (well worth a visit) and café. It is hard to get funding for art these days (it probably always has been). The CHASE Fund and TEF are always supportive, but she hopes for more corporate sponsorship in the future.

Bush Cockerels, an installation by Ebony Patterson at National Biennial 2012 in the NGJ's Kapo Gallery. (My photo)
Bush Cockerels, an installation by Ebony Patterson at National Biennial 2012 in the NGJ’s Kapo Gallery. (My photo)

Poupeye has been so busy this year that she has hardly had time to reflect on the fact that it is thirty years since she and her husband, Marc Rammelaere, moved to Jamaica from their home town of Brugge in Belgium. Initially this was for two years; Rammelaere, a trained geologist, was a conscientious objector to Belgium’s compulsory nine to twelve months of military service. The alternative was two years of civilian service overseas. He chose Jamaica out of several potential countries where he could serve. Poupeye had just completed her Masters in Art History and had “no expectations, really.” She already loved Jamaican music (Bob Marley’s “Catch A Fire” was her first reggae acquisition), but that was about it.

The two years passed – and somehow, they were still here, in Jamaica.

Veerle Poupeye speaks with artist Everald Brown (Brother Brown) at the National Gallery, circa 1987. Brother Brown passed away in 2003. You can read much more about this mystical, spiritual artist on the NGJ blog: https://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com/2009/10/27/everald-brown-1917-2003/ (Photo supplied by Veerle Poupeye)
Veerle Poupeye speaks with artist Everald Brown (Brother Brown) at the National Gallery, circa 1987. Brother Brown passed away in 2003. You can read much more about this mystical, spiritual artist on the NGJ blog: https://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com/2009/10/27/everald-brown-1917-2003/ (Photo supplied by Veerle Poupeye)

The Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA) needed someone to teach Art History. Within weeks of arriving, Poupeye started working there (it was then called the Jamaica School of Art) and has been teaching there almost continuously ever since. She also began working at the National Gallery, and in 1987 she became Assistant Curator. In 1993 the couple bought a house – a sign that they were probably going to stay, she laughs – and Poupeye left the National Gallery to work with the newly established MultiCare Foundation, a private sector,  non-profit, youth- and community-based venture in downtown Kingston (the Foundation’s core programs are the performing arts, visual arts, art therapy and sports). 

"Caribbean Art" is published by Thames and Hudson in its magnificent World of Art series.
“Caribbean Art” is published by Thames and Hudson in its magnificent World of Art series.

“I think fondly of that time,” says Poupeye. Multicare’s founder, businessman Aaron Matalon was “very supportive” of her work and that of the artists involved. Meanwhile, she was trekking around the Caribbean, working on her book “Caribbean Art.” Published by Thames and Hudson in 1998 the book was described as “the first book – part historical, part thematic – to present and discuss the diverse, fascinating and highly accomplished work of Caribbean artists, whether indigenous or from the diaspora, whether in popular or ‘high’ culture, rural or urban, politically radical or religious…” 

In 2000, Poupeye went abroad – commuting regularly between the United States and Jamaica. She pursued her doctorate at Emory University’s Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts in Atlanta, under an eminent scholar whose work she much admired, Ivan Karp – an expert in museum studies, who had worked at the Smithsonian Institution. Poupeye’s studies in Belgium had been “very traditional,” she observes. But with her interdisciplinary studies at Emory,“I wanted a challenge. Although I am seen as a contemporary art curator, with my Art History training, I like to…” she smiles, “…mix it up.”  She also enjoyed a half-year stint as visiting faculty at New York University.

Poupeye returned to Jamaica in 2005, rejoined the EMCVPA as a research fellow and helped develop its Cage Gallery. When an opening for Executive Director of the National Gallery came up in 2009, she applied. And the rest is history, as they say.

Veerle Poupeye with colleague (Senior Curator) O'Neil Lawrence at the NGJ during the 2013 Rex Nettleford Conference. (Photo supplied by Veerle Poupeye)
Veerle Poupeye with colleague (Senior Curator) O’Neil Lawrence at the NGJ during the 2013 Rex Nettleford Conference. (Photo supplied by Veerle Poupeye)

I asked for her thoughts on the current state of Jamaican art…and its future. She is optimistic. “Jamaica will always have its ups and downs…The mid-80s was a vibrant period. Things have been moving up again in the last ten years.” Nowadays “artists are not waiting to be discovered,” she added. “They are doing it for themselves. They are very resourceful. They take their opportunities – there are many overseas too.” She believes the EMCVPA, with Nicholeen DeGrasse Johnson at the helm, has “repositioned itself” and is moving ahead. Petrona Morrison, who recently retired as the School of Visual Arts Director, was instrumental in repositioning the visual arts programs.

And what of her future plans? Poupeye tells me she is a strong believer in succession planning. She is working with younger members of her team:“They know the challenges.” Certainly running a high-profile national gallery is not a job for the faint-hearted. They are a very good team, she stresses: “They form a strong core.” 

Has the team taken on too much with this bigger-than-ever Biennial? Poupeye smiles, “I love to make things happen. I love to overreach. And then I am surprised – happy – when it works!” Meanwhile, she asserts, “You always have to leave an organization better than you found it…But if you think you are indispensable, then you’ve failed.”

On September 22 this year, Poupeye reminisced on her arrival in Jamaica thirty years ago, on Facebook: “One of my strongest first memories driving in from the airport is to see lignum vitae trees surrounded by clouds of white butterflies all over Kingston. Saw the butterflies again while driving to work today.” 

After thirty years, her love for Jamaica is still strong. And the future looks bright.

 

Read the NGJ blog at https://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com. You can also find the National Gallery of Jamaica, National Gallery West and Jamaica Biennial 2014 on Facebook (separate pages) and follow the NGJ on Twitter @natgalleryja

Sheena Rose from Barbados is one of the specially invited international artists in the exhibition. You can read more about her project at: http://wp.me/pCc0A-1Az (From Jamaica Biennial 2014 Facebook page)
Sheena Rose from Barbados is one of the specially invited international artists in the exhibition. You can read more about her project at: http://wp.me/pCc0A-1Az (From Jamaica Biennial 2014 Facebook page)

 

 


3 thoughts on “Veerle Poupeye: “I Love to Make Things Happen”

  1. Good Day,
    We are looking for someone to help us evaluate some Jamaican art. We have two Kapo pieces (one carving called
    a self portrait, and one painting by Kapo of his house. Also we have a Bernard Hoyes painting and a Marriot sculpture (unfinished and still in clay). Are you able to help us?

    Thanks and regards,

    Jay

    Like

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