Petrine Archer's blog

The First Rasta?

 

This past weekend a conference held in tribute to Leonard P. Howell took place at the University of the West Indies, Mona, hosted by the Rastafari Studies Initiative. Over two days, scholars and members of Rastafari explored the life and times of the elder whom they consider a patriarch. Howell like the other famous Jamaican pan-africanist Marcus Garvey, was a traveller and although his journeys were not as well documented as Garvey's, we know that during the 1920s as a seaman, he too visited South America and Africa and he also ended up in Harlem where he honed his activism. Garvey was deported to Jamaica in 1927 and Howell followed in 1932 initially trying to establish himself as a speaker at Garvey's Eidelweiss Park but eventually giving up the city to develop his popularity in the countryside. He is famous for the establishment of a rasta settlement in St Catherine called Pinnacle where thousands gathered to live a communal lifestyle and worship HIM Haile Selassie emperor of Ethiopia, as their God incarnate. Pinnacle was dismantled by the colonial government of that day displacing its followers who fled to the already overcrowded slum areas of Kingston and added to the creative ferment that would produce musicians such as The Wailers. A controversial figure during his lifetime, now it seems that Howell is finally being given his due as one of the founding fathers of a movement that helped to raise the consciousness of black people throughout the African Diaspora. The subject of a book, many articles and even a documentary internationally, it is heartening to finally see Howell honoured as a prophet in his own country.

Finally...

 

Despite the rain hundreds of young people showed up at the Edna Manley College's School of Visual Art's graduation exhibition recently to support their friends. There were a few parents and older well-wishers too but it was good to see generation X and Y enjoying the celebration and responding so positively to the work on show. And they were not disappointed. The exhibition this year is exciting, with numerous high points in all the departments, suggesting that the school's more inter-disciplinary approach to their curriculum is finally paying off. In fairness to the college, it has always had a history of being multidisciplinary ever since the 1970s, when students were required to work their way through its departments such as painting, sculpture, textiles, jewelry, graphics and ceramics before choosing an area of specialization. Today, departments are even more fused with new names such Visual Communication, or design courses that incorporate fashion. In this sense, the school is in step with post-modern trends to bridge the arts by not viewing them as separate forms. This can be enormously liberating for students who can develop a more holistic approach to their craft by learning and borrowing from other disciplines. The benefits of this sharing are evidenced in this year's show, where painting students are working in 3D and a textile designer's display can take the form of a theatre set with live models and funky clothing. In the old sculpture studio, a ceramics student has created an installation that mimics a butcher's shop -only with human body parts - and the fine arts student's studios have Vis.Com displays with jewelery showcases. It's a real mash-up of creative ideas suggesting that these younger artists are finally delivering on the school's original intentions. Visit the gallery to view the exhibition's highlights.

About Change

 

About Change is a series of exhibitions curated by Félix Angel that focus on contemporary art in Latin America and the Caribbean. As part of that series, Contemporary Jamaican Artists opened at the Inter-American Development Bank's Cultural Center in Washington this week. The exhibition features nine artists including Charles Campbell, Margaret Chen, Laura Facey, Gerard Hanson, Marlon James, Michael Parchment, Ebony G. Patterson, Oneika Russell and Phillip Thomas; an ecclectic group of multi-media artists, whose works speaks to that same diversity. Each is represented by recently acclaimed pieces and through this tight selection, visitors glean some of the distinctive themes occupying Jamaican artists now, such as slavery and the middle passage in Campbell's Oceans (2005) and Facey's Their Spirits Gone Before Them (2006) and Russell's video Porthole (2008) or popular culture reflected in Hanson's Gun Salute (2009), Marlon's tattooed Stefan (2010), Patterson's Entourage (2010). More subtle are Chen's Cross Section of Ark 1999 and Thomas's Carousel (2009); the first reflecting the inward journeys that have preoccupied many female artists since the 1980s while Thomas's more extrovert and beautifully rendered Carousel (2009), offers a satirical view of life in the island that is a never ending round of drama and slippage. Collectively, the About Change series of exhibitions demonstrates that art in Jamaica as elsewhere in the region, appears to be shifting in focus and style to reflect a more acute sense of social awareness and activism. 

Same vein

The National Gallery of Jamaica has been busy this past month mounting two exhibitions of works donated to its permanent collection. On display in Kingston is the Guy McIntosh Donation while at the Civic Centre in Montego Bay in a space that many are already calling 'National Gallery West', visitors can view The John Pringle Collection a donation of paintings by the self-taught artist Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds. Both are stunning shows that demonstrate the broad spectrum of art in Jamaica ranging from its abstract expressionism that peaked in the 1980s and 90s with artists such as Milton George, Kofi Kayiga, and Milton Harley and Omari Ra to the grassroots expressions of “Kapo” the revival preacher whose art also enjoyed acclaim in the same era. Yet, despite their different schooling and social status and attempts in the past to label these artists as 'mainstream' versus 'intuitive', the works of these artists are not so far apart; they share an ability to channel emotion directly and potently. Works in these two important collections demonstrate the inherent links between naif art and modernism; the fluid relationship that also fired the imagination of Europe's avant garde nearly a century ago. Jamaica is lucky to have two such deep and rich veins of artistic expression running through its art history and the National Gallery of Jamaica is fortunate to have acquired work that can demonstrate those cultural currents so vividly.

Making sense of it all...

 

Word, Shout, Song is an exhibition currently on extended show at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Commmunity Museum until July 2011. It documents the life and work of linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner (1890-1972) who devoted his research to tracing the patterns of African cultural retentions within the black diaspora, initially beginning with the Gullah/Geechee people living in islands of the coast of Georgia and South Carolina but later expanding his ideas to consider New World communities such as Bahia, Brazil. As a pioneer, Turner faced scorn when he suggested that the language of the Gullah/Geechee communities was more than just 'baby talk' and that it actually followed the structure and content of languages he had studied in West and Central Africa. By creating a multi-media display that faithfully demonstrates much of Turner's experimental work, the exhibition's curator Alcione Amos has done a fine job of bringing to life a subject that might have been dismissed as boring anthropology. With the aid of Turner's recordings, photographs, gullah artifacts, video and even contemporary art forms, she weaves a narrative that moves us seamlessly between the past to present, allowing her audience to experience just how ground breaking Turner's work was back in the 1930s. As a Caribbean person listening to his crackly phonograph recordings, it is fascinating to recognize similar words and speech patterns, and heartening to know that today we can take Turner's ideas for granted as part of our common African diaspora heritage.

Easter Prayer

 

The Body and Blood of Christ is a sculpture that Laura Facey created more than six years ago for the first Curator's Eye exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica in 2004. On display in the gallery's lobby surrounded by other art works, it did not resonate the sense of serenity it might, had it been viewed alone. Now Laura Facey is giving it the attention it deserves by placing it on show in the pristine gallery space that she has carved out for herself at the Pan-Jamaican building in New Kingston. This exhibition area though small, is sided by double-height sheets of glass that allow viewers (and even those passing by outside) to see the work from multiple vantage points.

The work itself is impressive. It's an exquisite over size torso of Christ that brings to mind the artist's earlier handling of the male form in her controversial monument Redemption Song (2003). But, delicately covered with gold leaf, it resonates on a higher frequency. The small blood red gash on the body's left side and the red roses surrounding the installation are the only additions; grounding this giant form in a quiet humility typical of Laura Facey's work. In the explanatory text Laura tells how she came to make this piece and her preoccupations with the holy sacrament "...emptying one's soul of all negative beliefs." Her ideas, so poetically expressed through Mother Mary Clare's poem, need no further interpretation. Alongside Body and Blood of Christ (2004) they form the perfect prayer for Easter, and for peace.

Paradigm Shift

 

Last week saw the launch of TEDxIrie in Jamaica with its programme of talks around the theme Small Island: Big Ideas. TED.com is an online community that promotes ideas worth spreading. Since 2007 it has become an internet phenomenon mainly because it has a formula that works. One of its basic principles is that no matter how awesome, its talks are never more than 18 minutes in length. This means that invited speakers are challenged to give the talk of a lifetime within that limited time. Over the years TED.com has shared ideas from notables such as Bill Gates, Chimamanda Adichie, Hillary Clinton and the list is growing as TED becomes viral through its international TEDx license.

Our Jamaican event was inspiring with speakers including cultural icon Carolyn Cooper, artist Ebony G. Patterson, IT wizard Kaiton Williams, ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall and telecommunications specialists Mark A. Jones and Jacqueline Sutherland. Each brought a fresh perspective to Jamaican culture and its role within a global context. Perhaps, the biggest idea to come out of the day's discussion was that Jamaicans are at their best when they shift their attention from outside inwards, to honour their own creative abilities. Whether in the advancement of culture or economic development our TEDxIrie speakers showed that Jamaica has been historically blessed. We share a unique perspective that is 'already global' and 'already modern', and our best ideas originate at home.

Second time around...

A second edition of Jamaican Art has just been released by LMH Publishing here in Kingston. Being a contributor has given me insight into the history of its production as well as its usefulness and flaws. First published in 1990, it was initially intended as an instructive coffee-table publication. It was heavily illustrated, offering up to three images per artist, and it boasted a text that surveyed Jamaican art's development over a span of sixty years. Because it was the first book of its type ever published on the subject of Jamaican Art it quickly became a research staple for students as well as collectors. Unfortunately, the initial print run was small and it very quickly disappeared from book shops.

This revised version has been a long time coming. With the new title Jamaican Art: Then and Now it documents art from an era of nationalism to the new millennium and adds three new chapters that feature contemporary artforms including, textiles, ceramics, photography, video, performance art and installations. Additionally, this edition has tried to accommodate those artists who did not make the cut twenty years ago but who have continued to exhibit successfully over the past two decades. It is still generously illustrated, although many of the pioneer artists have been reduced to one or two images to allow for the work of younger talent. With a bolder more modern typeface, a striking cover and updated biographies, this is a useful text for anyone interested in the subject. Although those who have the first edition may not consider its revisions substantive enough, it is certainly a must-buy for those who missed it the first time around.

Round in circles.....

 

Since Peter Minshall's departure from Trinidad's annual masquerade competition, Brian MacFarlane has led the way in innovative costume design by improving and refining his mas every year. View the Gallery for MacFarlane's Mas.

Humanity: The Circle of Life is MacFarlane's production for Carnival 2011, and many, including the artist himself, believe that it is his best ever. The concept of life with all its joys and tribulations has inspired MacFarlane to execute multiple designs using a diverse range of materials on portable wired frames that exude an Alice in Wonderland type fantasy. His overarching design principle is the use of black and white, consistently employed with shades of silver to unite the eleven band sections that include themes such as Birth, Baptism, Prayer, Male & Female, Love, Workers, Knowledge and TimeOne might have expected this duo-chrome approach to become monotonous, especially with such a large band. But MacFarlane's lucid interpretations, ingenious use of shape and form, and imaginative accessories, keep the band's sense of movement and vibrancy alive from section to section. Perhaps his most elaborate accessory is hats inspired by such forms as clocks, workman's helmets, papal crowns and ethnic wraps, that lavishly distinguish one group from another.

Winning for the fifth time in a row this week, MacFarlane admitted that the beads and tinsel of most of the other bands presented little competition. Those who enjoy carnival as art, however, appreciated  the dignity with which masqueraders of all ages and races wore Humanity's universal theme. Crossing the Queen's Park Savannah stage late at night, the band was a mass of shimmering forms that inspired revelers and spectators alike and sealed MacFarlane's claim to the Minshall legacy. View the Gallery

Differing criteria

 

Is there a disparity between what art students are producing at art school and what is likely to sell in the Jamaican market place? This is one of the central questions considered when the Edna Manley College's School of Visual Arts holds its public art forum Notions of Contemporary Art: Location Jamaica next week. Artists, critics and art historians will form two panels to discuss how we understand contemporary art and how these ideas might differ between artists, galleries and collectors. The forum comes after the success of the National Gallery's Young Talent Exhibition in 2010 and the current Art Fresh 2011 now showing at the Mutual Gallery that showcases work from artists with less than 10 years experience such as Monique Lofters whose work Observation Study is shown here.

A visit to the college's end of year exhibition versus the criteria for participating in Art Fresh 2011 suggests the widening gap between the expectations of such institutions. In college, students are encouraged to experiment, pushing the boundaries of ideas, techniques, media and scale. The result is that many move towards installations that echo a shift away from 2D surfaces to 'off the wall' assemblages and performances popular in galleries internationally. For exhibition in a local gallery where space is a premium however, experimentation is encouraged but the size of work especially for installations is prescribed. The criteria here is a practical one that serves the collector as end-user who more often than not only has a domestic space for display. And scale is not the only issue. Content sometimes, political, sexualized or just ephemeral can also be problematic. A recent collector committed to supporting one of the region's most talented artists lamented that despite spending extraordinary amounts of money to own a piece, the highly conceptual and temporal nature of the work would limit its future viewing. No wonder then that other collectors settle for conventionally packaged art with subjects that presents fewer issues for storage, display or documentation. And no wonder also, that graduates quickly shed their more thoughtful and technically ambitious ideas in favour of art forms that stand a better chance being purchased.