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‘Barbed Wire & Picket Fences’ History as told by Art

Published:Sunday | December 13, 2015 | 12:00 AMKeisha Hill

The history of Jamaica is crucial to understanding the country's current situation. So at his first solo exhibition in Jamaica, artist Phillip Thomas, in his oil paintings and media works, looks at the relics of art history, offering a statement on colonialism and its aftermath, especially in his native Caribbean. Using oil paintings on stretched canvas and imagery, including silhouetted portraits and elaborately staged arrangements of figures, he brought to life the traditions of the old masters.

The exhibition dubbed 'Barbed Wire & Picket Fences' was driven by Jamaica's cultural segregation in an apparently integrated society. According to Thomas, this segregation has produced a kind of catastrophe that has resulted in violence and social unrest, but more subtly, the kind of violence that presents itself within the norms and forms of civility.

On show at the University of the West Indies Regional Headquarters lobby, Thomas has exhibited 10 pieces with a mix of paintings and installations. All the pieces are new except the largest piece - a six-panel painting from the work IMF (...F***d) which was first seen on display at the National Gallery Biennial.

BLACK MATADOR

Thomas has been using the motif of a black matador for several years now in many of his paintings. In this his largest work with the matador, Thomas uses the motif to help the viewer contemplate the predicament of the modern Negro who, dressed as he is in European matador garb, believes he is somehow part of the system.

Thomas argues that this membership has no privilege and, in fact, is a delusion, as the poor black matador gets trampled by the bull, and his currency and his economy are completely shattered. Thomas uses real $1,000 Jamaican bills (with permission from the Bank of Jamaica) adding up to a million dollars as the backdrop to the painting. According to him, under the interventions of the IMF, the black matador currency is not even worth the paper it is printed on.

"Jamaica has been marketed to the world as an idyllic paradise; a place of bliss and sheer exotic splendour. This bliss is, no doubt, an exotic gaze, the cast of the non-Jamaican looking in and having very strict expectations of the culture. These expectations are so much a part of the traditions of orientalism, the means of not necessarily looking and learning about a people, but more so an imposition garnished from an expectation," Thomas said.

PROBLEMS OF THE GAZE

Confusion, he said, then occurs when the Jamaican populace adopts the external gaze and thus engages in a kind of national fetishism masquerading as patriotism.

"These images present the problems of the gaze by both internally and externally deny the expectation of such exotic gazes. This, I believe, forces the viewer to see the subtlety of the problem, stripped from its predictable national 'catch-phrase' and cultural branding, thereby presents the civility intertwined with sheer sociopolitical violence," Thomas said.

As both the English and Spanish cultures have influenced the Caribbean, Thomas' work references these cultures through a kind of reversal, as the psychoanalysts would put it. "It's like looking through a keyhole only to find someone looking directly back. That 'double gaze' only serves as an opportunity to present the viewer with the notion of being viewed as well," he said.

Thomas explored the themes of rebellion and revolution and the influence of the powerbrokers in the system to keep their positions. Thomas used the original symbols of the 'Revolution', including the Malcolm X bow tie, the Afro pick, and the machete, which he considers now to be either fashion statements or tools of enslavement.

THE MACHETE

"The machete, which began as a tool of enslavement, then became the weapon used to help overthrow the slave masters, and then has now returned to a new tool of enslavement today where low-waged hard-working people use it to survive in jobs that endure the hot sun," Thomas said.

Held under the auspices of Red Easel, a collaborative effort to enhance the public's awareness of fine art while exploring a visual collaboration between lifestyle and culture, the exhibition is expected to last for just about two weeks.

With his studio based in Sag Harbour, Long Island, Thomas is a graduate of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and the New York Academy of Art.

keisha.hill@gleanerjm.com