During a recent trip to Jamaica I was pleased to visit the National Gallery, located on Ocean Boulevard in downtown Kingston close to the city’s scenic Waterfront. Although the National Gallery was first established by a special committee of the Jamaican government in the early 1970s, with an embryonic collection of 230 works placed on public display at Devon House in 1974, the artworks were eventually relocated to the current site within Kingston Mall (in a building that was formerly a commercial bank) during the 1990s, occupying more than 2700 square metres of exhibition space.
Displayed over two floors, the Gallery’s upper level features paintings and sculptures from the permanent collections – including artworks from the Edna Manley Memorial Collection, and holdings of paintings, sculptures, archaeological artefacts and ephemera covering the history of the island dating back to the time of the Taino before 1000 AD/CE.
My particular highlights from the permanent collections included: figural sculptures from the 1930s by Ronald Moody and Edna Manley; a single-figure portrait in oils of a woman at prayer, titled “The Lawd is My Shepherd” (1969) by Osmond Watson; a very poignant and spiritually charged mourning scene “Nine Night” (1949) by David Pottinger; and a beautifully rendered, gentle and amusing oil painting of a “Mother and Child” (1958) by Barrington Watson.
At the time of my visit on 17 January 2018 the two temporary exhibitions displayed throughout the ground floor galleries were: “Explorations V: Portraits in Dialogue” – featuring 40 artworks that traced the history of portraiture in Jamaica from the 18th century through to the present day, specifically curated to examine and pose challenging questions about intersected issues of race, class, and gender reflected in the works in focus; and “Engaging Abstraction” – comprising 41 modern and contemporary paintings, sculptures, collages, digital installations and mixed media assemblages, primarily dating from the 1960s through to the 2010s.
One of the most interesting and arresting portraits in this dialogically-themed exhibition was Renee Cox’s photographic self-portrait “Red Coat” (2004), from her celebrated series “Queen Nanny of the Maroons” – positioned in a room alongside 18th century group portraits by George Robertson depicting white planters (“Richard and Jane Pusey”) being waited on by un-named enslaved Africans. Cox’s commanding and defiant appropriation of the red military uniform and cutlass as symbols of power, strength and resilience provided a stark contrast to the marginalised black figures relegated to the peripheries of the 18th century paintings. Moreover, the close proximity of Michael Thompson’s contemporary digital print of Paul Bogle – titled, “Rebel” (2010) – positioned in the gallery alongside four famous covers for Bob Marley and the Wailers albums “Catch A Fire,” “Kaya,” “Rastaman Vibration” and “Confrontation” (featuring art by Esther Anderson, Paul Smykle, and Neville Garrick), further exemplified the transition towards contemporary artists using powerful and politically charged image-making to visually signify the strength of modern Jamaican men and women empowered and emboldened by the sacrifices of heroic freedom-fighters throughout the island’s turbulent history.
Out of all the portraits on display, the one that held my attention for the longest time was a sublime and sensitive portrait of Ras Dizzy (1974) by Judy-Ann MacMillan – a work that rightly deserved its central place at the entrance to this thought-provoking and captivating exhibition.
In the “Engaging Abstraction” exhibition, works ranged from very well-known pieces by internationally renowned Caribbean painters – including “Corn of Plenty” (1973) by Aubrey Williams (b. Georgetown, Guyana, 1926-1990), and “Maverick” (1975) by Frank Bowling (b. Bartica, Guyana, 1936) – through to more recent works by emerging avant-gardists, such as the video installation “Xing-Wang” (2015) by multi-media artist David Gumbs (b. 1977, St. Martin). It was a pleasure to see abstraction given prominence within an institution that has historically privileged and foregrounded figuration above other forms of artistic expression and representation.
I am delighted I had an opportunity to visit the National Gallery of Jamaica at a time when the organisation is going through significant structural changes, not least as a result of the recent departure of its Executive Director Dr Veerle Poupeye who had been in post since 2009. It is my hope that this transitional period will open the door to more innovative collection development practices, more diverse programming, and more inclusive audience engagement strategies. In this way, the National Gallery of Jamaica will certainly become a more welcoming and less elitist space that can truly be described as accessible and of relevance to all instead of positioning itself as a space reserved for the privileged few.
The temporary exhibitions “Engaging Abstraction” and “Portraits in Dialogue” will be on display at the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston until 25 February 2018.
Title image: North, South East, West in Conversation (n.d.), by Fitz Harrack. Metalwork sculpture. 249 x 213cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.
National Gallery of Jamaica Blog – https://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com/
Renee Cox artist’s website – http://www.reneecox.org/
David Gumbs artist’s profile – https://en-gb.facebook.com/DavidGumbsArtist/