KINGSTON, JAMAICA — The 2017 Jamaica Biennial, which is organized and presented by the National Gallery of Jamaica, recently kicked off here in Jamaica’s capital, on the island’s south coast, where it will remain on view through May 28. It arrived a bit tardy, a little more than two years after the opening of its last iteration, in late 2014. If the timing of this much-anticipated event on this small island country’s cultural calendar suggests that it’s actually heading into triennial territory, never mind.
“Jamaica, no problem!” a local adage advises, serving as a reminder that, here, life unfolds, and big events like biennial art exhibitions materialize according to their own rhythms and in their own good time.
Much about Jamaica is, well, distinctive. Several decades ago, its official tourism slogan was “Jamaica: We’re more than a beach, we’re a country,” a proud, provocative sales pitch that sought to attract vacationers by offering more than the usual fare of sun, sea and sand — and rightly so. Jamaica and its society are dynamic and complex, as is its vibrant cultural scene. Its multi-layered cultural history has been informed by the enduring legacies of its now-vanished, indigenous Taino people; successive waves of Spanish and British colonialists; African slaves; and — in the decades since Jamaica achieved independence from Britain in 1962 — seemingly unstoppable influences flowing from the United States into such fields as business, politics, communications and education.
The Jamaica Biennial serves as a showcase for the diverse creations of the country’s visual artists as well as a forum for addressing some of the most timely ideas and issues concerning contemporary society. Among them: male chauvinism and sexist attitudes toward women in what is still an overwhelmingly macho social system, the meanings and images of masculinity in such a setting, and, with them, the ugliness of homophobia, which is rampant and in recent years has been encouraged through the songs of certain Jamaican dancehall-music stars.
The works of Jamaican contemporary artists reflect other hot topics, too, including an ongoing investigation of the symbols and meanings of national cultural identity; humankind’s relationship with nature at a time of worldwide, environmental crisis (an urgent theme for a blessedly lush island); and the lingering effects of slavery’s painful legacy on society, political institutions, and many a Jamaican’s sense of being in the world.
“With a total of 92 Jamaican and foreign artists, and almost 160 works on view, from paintings and sculptures to mixed-media installations, the 2017 Jamaica Biennial is the largest, most ambitious one we’ve ever mounted,” the Dutch-born art historian Veerle Poupeye, the National Gallery of Jamaica’s executive director, told me. A portion of the exhibition is also on view at Devon House, a 19th-century mansion in Kingston that was built by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire. That property is now a national monument. In addition, “Xing-Wang” (2016), an installation by the Guadeloupe-born multi-media artist David Gumbs, who was brought up on the island of St. Martin and has taught at the art school in Martinique, is on view at the National Gallery of Jamaica’s annex in Montego Bay, on the northeastern coast.
Upon entering the museum in downtown Kingston’s waterfront district, Biennial visitors first encounter “Self-portrait Wearing a Crown of Thorns” (oil on canvas, 2016), by Judy Ann MacMillan, a well-known Jamaican maker of portraits and landscapes who recently turned 70 and marked the occasion with a mini-retrospective that took place elsewhere in the capital late last year. (A book, Judy Ann MacMillan: Still Painting After All These Years, was published in conjunction with that exhibition.)
MacMillan is now regarded as a doyenne of a generation of Jamaican artists who in past decades explored various aspects of the language of modernism, even as some of them, like herself, remained faithful to traditional and often local subject matter. When I visited her home in Kingston, she told me, “I’ve painted many portraits, including my own at different moments in my life, and I must say, a self-portrait is always hard. That’s because, as much as you might think you know yourself, when you look in the mirror to examine yourself as your subject, the face that stares back at you can be that of a stranger.” Always ready with a good quip and a hearty laugh to go with it, MacMillan is reverent when speaking about the combination of art, craftsmanship, discipline, and ongoing study that has shaped her life’s journey.
“To be a painter — it’s a way of life,” she observed. “A painter lives for color, light, and the discoveries the next picture may bring.” In the current biennial, MacMillan is also represented by “Village Venus” (oil on hardboard, 2016), a portrait of a young, standing black woman in short-cropped tights, tank top, and a toy crown, gazing into the distance. MacMillan’s painting is an essay in light, color and form, but also a study of the mixed emotions and forces — vulnerability, defiance, resignation and maybe a certain kind of strength — that are concentrated in her subject’s face, especially in her eyes.
A number of artists in this Biennial have sought to make palpable a tug of war between thoughts and emotions, society and history. Xayvier Haughton, who, like many of the exhibition’s participating artists, studied at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, often explores what he refers to as the “Afrikan” consciousness. Here, he brings that awareness, allusively, into a Jamaican context in “Vodou: The Philovisualization of Damballa Hwedo, Giving Rise to the Afrikan Vanguards” (2015-2016), an installation whose gathering of painted bottles, wall drawings, animal horns and nearly silhouetted black figures creates an altar-like setting.
Haughton’s fellow Jamaican artist Cosmo Whyte has written that he is interested in “how notions of identity are disrupted by migration — particularly migration as an unfinished arc of motion whose final resting point remains an open-ended question.” Whyte makes drawings, photographs and mixed-media sculptures; here, his “Manifest Destiny, the Musical” (2017) features a life-size, wooden sculpture of a dreadlocked black man reaching down with both hands to hold his genitals — except that only an empty socket appears at the base of a missing phallus. This standing figure looks across at an open shipping crate, in which a scale model of a mansion — an old plantation house? — sits atop a pile of sand, surrounded by a thick, braided rope. On the wall to his side, there is a conch shell on a shelf attached to a tar-black painting, while a recording of breaking waves plays softly in the background.
Also working in mixed media, the Kingston-born artist Phillip Thomas offers the large installation work “High-Sis in the Garden of Heathen” (2017), which seems to ring several thematic bells at once, questioning conventional readings of history, the nature of power, and the latent meanings of objects and symbols (a lawn fence, a machete and garden tools, a black baby doll) that are so common they have become banal. (Thomas’s recontextualizing of his subject matter may well exemplify an old-school, contemporary-art lingua franca that is common beyond his homeland, but for many artists in Jamaica and the Caribbean region, appropriating and recontextualizing still pack something of a daring, subversive, purposeful punch.) Thomas uses toile de Jouy-style, patterned fabric as a backdrop for his installation. Its motifs feature courtly figures, which he has amended by painting the visible arms and faces of their well-dressed female forms solid black.
Having had a close relationship with Jamaica for many years (I once worked there as a cultural-affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston), I created the Dawn Scott Memorial Award in conjunction with the last Jamaica Biennial and the National Gallery of Jamaica to honor the influence and legacy of Alison Dawn Scott, a Jamaican artist who died in 2010. Known for her landscapes and portraits made from complex, batik fabric-dyeing techniques, and for her pioneering use of found materials to make politically charged, mixed-media installation works, Scott was also an educator and cultural activist. The award, with a monetary component, is given to one or more participants in the Jamaica Biennial whose works reflect the innovative use of materials and exploration of subject matter for which Scott’s own art was known. This year the award was given to three artists — the Jamaican painters Greg Bailey and Alicia Brown, and the California-based artist Andrea Chung, whose ancestry is linked to Jamaica and Trinidad.
Working in oil on canvas, Bailey produces portraits of contemporary figures — often young, urban, Jamaican men — whom he observes in moments of apparent self-reflection. “I try to capture a sense of each subject’s presence, of what’s invisible, and that’s very challenging” Bailey said, referring to “Colonial Legacies” (2016), his Biennial entry. By contrast, Brown’s rich-in-detail “Exchange” (2016) depicts a country man standing in a farm field. He has a cataract in one eye, a feather in his hair, a bee on his shoulder, strings of beads around his neck, and a dapper handkerchief decorated with British Union Jacks in his pocket. This painting’s precision is penetrating.
Installed in a bedroom at Devon House, Chung’s “Pure” (2016) consists of cast-in-soap sculptures of the outwardly extended hands of elderly women. They were cast from the hands of actual Jamaican midwives, whose skillful intervention at the very start of a new life’s journey represents a first point of contact, physical and spiritual, between members of the human family. “They’re lying in porcelain bowls here, without any water nearby, because it’s a historic house,” Chung explained, “but ideally I like to have water available so that viewers can actually touch the sculptures, use them to wash their hands and come in contact with these other ‘hands.’”
According to Guinness World Records, the largest drum in the world can be found in South Korea, but in the current Biennial, the Jamaican sculptor Laura Facey seems to be giving that massive, traditional-style instrument a run for its money with “Ceiba” (2016), her own 32-foot-long drum.
Facey, who is known for large-scale, abstract sculptures made from tree trunks, as well as mixed-media installations addressing, in a spiritual-mythical way, the soul-scarring events of the slavery era, lives and works on a farm in the north-central Jamaican parish of St. Ann. “The cotton tree that became ‘Ceiba’ had come down in a big storm, and I had my eye on it for some time before putting together a team to haul it to my workshop,” Facey told me. She and her fellow woodworkers stripped off the rescued trunk’s bark, etched and color-stained its surface, and hollowed out its soft interior to reduce its weight. The Jamaica-based artist Fosuwa Andoh helped Facey install cow skin drumheads on each of the sculpture’s open ends.
Facey explained that she was inspired to create “Ceiba” after attending a First Nations powwow in Canada, where, she recalled, “I stood beside four drummers around a lone drum, which they beat as they chanted together; I felt pulled to the center of the Earth, riveted, with tears streaming down my face.” She was also intrigued when someone suggested that her next sculpture should include sound. As a functioning instrument, Facey’s big work vividly brings to mind African drumming, which is a big part of Jamaica’s musical heritage. Facey also pointed out, “For us Caribbean people, the cotton tree plays an important spiritual role in our lives. It is where spirit dwells.”
The 2017 Jamaica Biennial also includes two tribute sections, one honoring the Jamaican painter Alexander Cooper, who is now in his eighties, and whose modernist works range from lyrical nudes to local urban and rural scenes, and another that recalls the career of Peter Dean Rickards (1969–2014), a photographer, video artist and publisher who called himself a “media terrorist.” On a website he created, titled “The Afflicted Yard,” Rickards spoofed the art world and offered both a poetic and sometimes trenchant visual critique of his native Jamaica. (When Rickards died, his admirers in the band Major Lazer tweeted that he was “one of the most loved, feared and controversial innovators of the Internet age.”) His photos in the Biennial show, among other subjects, a man raising a pistol, a boy holding a cow’s head, and a man standing in a sugar-cane field holding a Monopoly game’s “Get out of jail free” card.
Rickards once wrote: “We are Jamaicans, living within and without cultural control. We are at once proud nationalists and harsh critics of our country of origin. A country known for its extremes. A place packed with originality and creative energy that continues to flourish despite the current socio-political state that has removed the personal pride of many.”
A lot of that energy can be felt pulsing through the current Jamaica Biennial, which certainly gives its organizers and artists something to boast about — never mind that it opened a bit later than expected, or that it took 34 soldiers from the Jamaica Defence Force to carry Facey’s big, long drum from a flatbed truck into the museum building, whose plate-glass doors and windows had to be removed to let it in.
The 2017 Jamaica Biennial continues at the National Gallery of Jamaica and Devon House in Kingston, and at National Gallery West, in Montego Bay, through May 28.