Annie Paul, Contributor
THE IDEA of a show such as the Curator's Eye series at the National Gallery of Jamaica is a welcome and long overdue one.
It was only to be expected that applying an external curatorial eye to the local art scene would produce a different configuration of art and artists than the one that had prevailed all these years.
Eddie Chambers, who curated the current show, the second in this series, has been an active member of the Black British art scene where he has played artist, critic and curator at various times in his career. In recent years, he has been teaching in the U.S.
The artists pulled together by Chambers in Curator's Eye II are a refreshing change from the usual line-up one invariably sees in exhibitions of so-called avant garde work put on by the National Gallery.
In fact, only one member of that in-group makes it into this show Omari Ra, the artist formerly known as African.
Except for him and two or three others, the remaining artists all represent a younger generation, whose work we have glimpsed in exhibitions at the Mutual Life Gallery or other group shows, usually in insufficient quantity to get a true feel for their art.
Curator's Eye II allows a better, more sustained introduction to the work of this group, focusing on personal and social narratives allowed for a broad enough frame to contain diverse approaches.
Khalfani Ra's fabric, nail and horn construction Long Live the Maroon Killers magnetically draws one's attention to it, impaling our gaze on entry, to borrow a phrase from Leon Wainwright, who in his review of last year's National Biennial, discussed the sensation of being "on the optical receiving end of hundreds of nails" in another work by Khalfani Ra (Jamaica Journal, Vol. 29, Nos 1-2. p. 21).
One may puzzle endlessly over the title of this work wondering if the artist is a Maroon hater himself and who De Serras the Unsung was but ultimately this is one of those artworks that has a presence of its own regardless of the artist's intention. Its horned and clawed surface somehow suggests a wild boar, with its coat of nails evoking the coarse, bristly hide of the animal.
Still downstairs, Ebony Patterson's large female nudes form a provocative backdrop. I had seen these works at the Mutual Life Gallery which is too tiny a space to take in such monumental pieces.
Here, one has the space to step back and really look at these unromanticised female bodies a la Jenny Saville, the British contemporary artist who is a clear influence on Patterson.
Again, I puzzled over the title in the catalogue, Sallivan Gaze, which made little or no sense, only
to realize from reading the interview with her published in the Gleaner, that the title is actually Savillian Gaze.
Moving on up to the part of the exhibit hung on the balconies overlooking the large hall below one is caught between two completely different forms of artmaking at opposite ends of this space. On the wall leading to the permanent collection at one end and the Larry Wirth Collection at the other are an entire suite of paintings by Carol Crichton. Directly opposite in the space in front of the Gallery's Offices is Shoshana Fagan's untitled installation that looks like soiled sheets or sails hanging on lines. Covered with illegible scribbling and marking evoking handwriting that has run in the wash these stained and indecipherable sheets impede easy access, both to the work itself and to the areas beyond it.
Carol Crichton's work on the other hand is more easily accessible. The bright colours evoke stained glass and the images are immediately recognizable though their arrangements and juxtapositions defy a straightforward reading. Historical figures and settings commingle with contemporary ones while Spanish galleons sail in and out of dream-like settings. The map of Jamaica has an iconic feel to it with its play on popular song titles and phrases. For reasons unknown Crichton's work has not had as much exposure as it should have even though it lends itself easily to narratives about the hybrid history of countries such as Jamaica. Crichton's work more directly addressed the show's theme of identity and history than any other. In close proximity to her paintings is Andrae Green's diptych The Passion, a grim reminder of the post-colonial terrain of brutality confronting the dispossessed young black male.
HAUNTED BY SLAVE SHIPS
Also on this landing is the work of Charles Campbell, an artist who lived and worked in Jamaica during the 90s. Whereas during that period Campbell went through a phase of "bad" painting, deliberately producing inept and clumsy looking works he is clearly now in a completely different space though still haunted by the diagrams of slave ships and their cargoes that cropped up in his earlier work. Now Campbell turns these images through symmetrical repetition and rotation into patterned designs or mandalas--Hindu and Buddhist visual aids to meditation. As he explained in a recent issue of the journal Small Axe, through these sophisticated, conceptually powerful visual constructs Campbell is playing with the tensions between the cognitive and optical meanings of his work.
"Ultimately I am looking for a way to use historical, personal and cultural icons without being determined by them; a way of exploring the rifts between meaning and image without creating an ambiguous space that will inevitably be filled with some cultural mythology."
Finally a quartet of young female artists are worth mentioning. Keisha Castello's Hybrid Realities, a collection of boxed curiosities assembled from fragments of fishbone, shell, leaves, carapaces, screws and assorted odds and ends pieced together in minute assemblages suggest new and intriguing organisms too delicate for the crude plexiglass-lidded black boxes they're placed in. On the other hand perhaps they're an accurate representation of the underdeveloped worlds we find ourselves occupying in these hybrid societies of the Caribbean.
Oneika Russell's collages and videoworks are indicative of a playful, incisive wit. She toys with her viewers in the Olympia series in which Manet's Olympia is successively marginalized by the background, ceding the foreground to the figure of the black maid in a humourous series of displacements. Oya Tyehimba, on the contrary appears humourless, her stark black and white imagery searing itself into the viewer's eyes, with powerful force. An agitated meditation on black dispossession, the use of the image of Truganini, the Tasmanian Aboriginal woman, who became a symbol of European invasion and disruption of native lifestyles, is noteworthy.
Tricia Gordon-Johnston's womb-like red environment should have been the final space in this series of chambers instead of acting as a passageway to Omari Ra's towering, masculinist self-portraits. Then one could have lingered in it at greater length and to better effect; perhaps Khephera Hapsheptwa's Architecture of Being could have fruitfully occupied the floor space here as well.
Christopher Iron's Two Dogs was also lost in the vestibular space it occupied on the ground floor and one could have easily imagined Fagan's dirty laundry hanging in the open space over the large gallery area below instead of occupying the landing that it did.
Other than these considerations of how the show could have been better mounted and framed, Curator's Eye II was successful in showcasing the debut of a new, more conceptually canny group of young artists in dialogue with the international than Jamaica has seen in a long time. Chambers has also usefully raised once again the question of how to think of art in Jamaica, not as Jamaican art, a predetermined entity, but as something much more fluid and elastic. As he puts it "whatever might be Jamaican about Jamaican art is, ultimately, undefinable." This may be anathema to cultural nationalists but by focusing on personal and social narratives Chambers has cleared the way for a more viable and vibrant art scene in Jamaica.
Annie Paul is head of the Publications section at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, UWI, Mona and Managing Editor of Social and Economic Studies. She is also associate editor of the journal Small Axe, and is recipient of a grant from the Prince Claus Fund in support of the book she is working on titled Suitable Subjects: The Problem of Art in the Post-colonial Caribbean.