KINGSTON, Jamaica — Does pressure generate possibilities for experimentation? My reflection on the Kingston Biennial is driven by this question and the potential that lies in undoing the traditional exhibition format, particularly for small-scale institutions with limited funding. While the biennial provides insight into the breadth of work from Jamaican artists, this iteration felt confined in the curatorial attempt to achieve cohesion. On view at the National Gallery of Jamaica, the exhibition features works by 24 Jamaican artists both living on the island and in the diaspora. It was conceived by the curatorial team of David Scott, professor of anthropology at Columbia University, Nicole Smythe-Johnson, scholar and independent curator, Wayne Modest, Director of Content at the Wereldmuseum, and O’Neil Lawrence, chief curator at the National Gallery of Jamaica. The curators describe the theme of “Pressure” as both a force that fuels creativity and the experiences of grappling with current global socioeconomic, racial, and political unrest, amid the life-altering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lost in this open-ended theme, the biennial was more a walkthrough of artworks, rather than a challenging exhibition, and lacked the reactive energy central to the concept of pressure.
In Jamaica, resources to support artists and creative institutions are scarce, which likely affected the biennial. However, restrictions can also necessitate other ways of thinking, shifting towards overlooked venues and local programming collaborators that activate the country’s artistic landscape. As a smaller biennial not wrapped up in “elite” art world affairs, it is a chance to engage domestic audiences. Rather than an idyllic proposition to “make a way outta no way,” often projected onto underfunded institutions instead of interrogating how resources are controlled, this is a recognition of the prolific ideas that have always sparked from social and intellectual frictions.
Limiting the biennial to the first floor of the National Gallery, instead of curating it across multiple locations as in previous years, was a missed opportunity to respond to the country’s social vibrations. The gallery is in Downtown Kingston, close to both a major commercial hub and a number of severely disinvested communities in the city. Despite this location, the exhibition does not include any site-specific works that contend with the pressure that produces these tense realities and the prevalent classism that structures Jamaica.
I can imagine the jarring experience of viewing Camille Chedda’s “Untitled” — an installation built from concrete cinder blocks that invites viewers to consider the country’s economic instability and histories of enslavement embedded in Jamaica’s prominent tourist areas — in one of the former colonial sites across the city. Employing the mundane familiarity of building materials to tease out legacies of violence, through the center of each block Chedda juxtaposes archival photos of laborers in sugar cane fields and videos of dancehall parties with images of golf courses, white sand beaches, and the interiors of former plantation estates.
Similarly, what would it look like to place Jasmine Thomas-Girvan’s “The Healing Stream”in a religious space connected to her references of Revivalist preacher Alexander Bedward? The relationship between the large scale of the installation and the delicate, lightweight quality of the 12-foot black paper scroll that undulates from the roof of the gallery, exudes a fragility often found in Thomas-Girvan’s work. This contrasts in scale with her meticulous, miniature sculpture, “The Promise Key-Deluded Creatures,” with both pieces emphasizing links between spirituality, political consciousness and Black liberation.
Other installations by Nadine Hall, Christopher Irons, Laura Facey, Matthew McCarthy and Katrina Coombs were captivating offerings. A haunting vulnerability echoes throughout Nadine Hall’s “Heirlooms Unchained,” as dozens of lightweight white crochet spheres hang from the ceiling at different lengths, casting shadows onto iron shackles that lie below. An empty chair at one end faces her mother’s old handbag, hanging by an iron chain. Hall’s attention to negative space and found objects creates a vacillation between absence and presence that lingers over the piece, which the artist describes as addressing the experience of sexual trauma. The loosened shackles though overdetermined in their connection to slavery, suggest the prospect of emotional growth alongside traumatic memories that may never dissipate.
The façade of the respectable, polite, and restrained colonial citizen is an insidious psychic demand that continues to be felt in Jamaica. The biennial seemed caught in the performance of this confused societal mandate. In his catalogue essay, co-curator Wayne Modest writes, “pressure is a capacious concept that defines a multitude of maladies, a specific Jamaican condition … It works as a force on the body.” With each of my visits to the biennial, I longed for pressure viscerally working on and through the body, prompting questions without distinct answers or reckonings with Jamaica’s varied histories. What complexities would be revealed if the seams underneath the exterior were exposed?
I was drawn to the conceptual range in the work of Satch Hoyt, Hurvin Anderson and Arthur Simms, though the pieces were created between 10 and 25 years ago. Simms’s sculpture “John the Baptist, Prisoner of the Earth” is deeply evocative, skillfully interweaving materials including rope, wood, burlap, wire, and a metal rod that endows the work with an anthropomorphic quality. Unfortunately crowded in the gallery space, Nari Ward’s “Windward,” is a timely piece with its iconography of the abeng horn referencing Jamaica’s Maroon community, especially considering the recent antagonisms over the community’s call for sovereignty.
The Kingston Biennial team is composed of vibrant minds, each a critical figure engaging the work of artists from the Caribbean. While their voices felt muffled under the weight of the exhibition, some curatorial decisions stood out in their aim to engender more nuanced discussions among the artworks. The conversation between works by Kaleb D’Aguilar, Ricardo Edwards, and Simon Benjamin, accentuated the intimate and often contentious relationship between Black life and the ocean as a site of migration, risk and escape. Edwards’s digital painting “Ghetto Boy Trying to Fly” visualizes the ocean as a space of surrealist possibility, imbuing a dreamlike quality to the otherwise stark realities of familial separation through migration in D’Aguilar’s collection of video works, Taut, and the precarity of climate change that impacts a fisherman’s life in Benjamin’s short film and accompanying sculpture, “Errantry.”
I was also intrigued by the juxtaposition of Omari Ra’s satirical commentary on Black masculinity in his mixed-media collage pieces “Man Head in Re(e)volution”and “It a Come” with Monique Gilpin’s digital painting “Venus Figurines,” which attends to the fungibility often projected onto the bodies of Black women. In dialogue with both Gilpin’s and Ra’s work, Leasho Johnson’s Anansi series of paintings highlights the malleability of the human subject. Engaging abstraction, Johnson’s work extends beyond the constrained focus on figurative subjects seen amongst contemporary Black painters. Each piece is suffused with the emotional affect emerging from the tense intimacies and ambiguities that characterize Black queer life.
I recently attended an exhibition talk for Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990’s to Today at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons emphasized the demands from the art world for Caribbean artists to “perform Caribbean-ness.” She identified this as a detrimental fiction intended to circumscribe the work of artists from the region. This fiction is often reproduced by cultural institutions in Jamaica, causing a constant battle over the boundaries of creativity and an uncertainty that permeated the biennial. So much of Jamaica’s cultural innovation comes from a resourcefulness, emerging foremost from working class communities, that breeds ingenuity. I look forward to future iterations of the Kingston Biennial drawing from this energy.
The 2022 Kingston Biennial: Pressure continues at the National Gallery of Jamaica (BLOCK 3, Kingston Mall, 12 Ocean Blvd, Kingston, Jamaica) through December 31. The biennial was curated by David Scott, Nicole Smythe-Johnson, Wayne Modest, and O’Neil Lawrence.
Editor’s Note, 1/3/2023, 9:22am EST: This article has been modified slightly from an earlier version.
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