VIDEO: Art's Spiritual Awakening in the Second City

Style Observer

By Kedon Willis

Sunday, July 20, 2014    

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Montego Bay is famously known as the Second City, a term that, though affectionately appended, carries with it a note of condescension — a casual acknowledgement that the city trails in the cultural shadow of Kingston to the east.

It is with well-deserved validation, then, that Montegonians greet the opening of the new Montego Bay Cultural Centre, a complex for the arts at Sam Sharpe Square that opened to the public on July 11.

Formerly known as the Montego Bay Civic Centre, the Cultural Centre, which houses the National Gallery West and National Museum West, will act as a principal cultural facility for the promotion of Jamaican art in the western parishes. And one of the key players behind this artistic revival is Josef Forstmayr, chairman of the Montego Bay Arts Council.

The Start Of A Movement

Forstmayr, who is also the managing director at Round Hill Hotel and Villas in Montego Bay, has lobbied long and hard for an artistic outpost centred in Montego Bay, but financial constraints and no clear resolve at the local-government level brought constant challenges to realising that goal.

Hope was renewed when MP for Central St James Lloyd B Smith, Montego Bay Mayor Glendon Harris and Government Senator Noel Sloley, contacted Forstmayr about establishing an arts council that would oversee the conversion of the Civic Centre into a premier facility for the promotion of fine arts in the West. The arts council, a 14-member body composed of government officials, private sector representatives and members of the arts community, was instrumental in driving the rapid development of the cultural centre, Forstmayr explained. In addition to housing the western branches of the National Gallery of Jamaica and National Museum Jamaica, the site will also be home to a bistro, a gift shop, a multi-purpose town hall, an artisans' village and an outdoor stage area -- Ground Zero West, in other words, for showcasing the dynamism of Jamaican art, music, literature, cuisine and even sport. Its completion is a significant acknowledgment of the West's vast contributions to the development of Jamaica's social and artistic culture, and will also act, Forstmayr hopes, as a creative catalyst that will spur the revitalisation of downtown Montego Bay.

"That's why we're eager to rebrand the [civic centre] into the Montego Bay Cultural Centre, so that people can now see that something is happening."

A Space For All

The former civic centre in many ways represented the ideal base from which to launch a facility dedicated to the promotion of western heritage (a heritage marked by rebellion and struggles for autonomy). The elegant, colonial-style edifice in Sam Sharpe Square stands at the site where slaves were once sold, where the Proclamation of Emancipation was read and where, of course, National Hero Samuel Sharpe was tried and executed for his role in the 1831 Christmas Rebellion. A fire destroyed the original courthouse in 1968, upon which the civic centre was built and opened in 2001. And though it hosted a museum and a theatre, it never fully capitalised, Forstmayr felt, on the location's cultural significance. It needed to act as a focal point for the examination of the region's rich artistic heritage, and the rehabilitation project endeavoured to do just that through the creation of a premier arts centre meant to serve both locals and tourists.

"The rehabilitation of the current space alone cost $48 million," he said, which includes installing state-of-the-art lighting, security equipment, generators, water pumps, elevators and important details such as ensuring the facility is accessible to all.

"We're preparing the museum as a 21st-century space," the arts council chairman said. "To get that respect you have to make sure you're doing it at the highest possible standard."

And it is the people, he hopes, those in St James and beyond, who will ultimately reap the rewards from a space dedicated to probing the complexities of their forceful culture.

"We need to showcase the good, the bad and the ugly," he urged. "We need to have an engagement, a conversation about it. That's what this place is for. It's for everyone to be a part of it."

The Spirit of Jamaican Art

The museum hall at the cultural centre showcases a panorama of 500 years' worth of Jamaica's history through select artefacts — a mock-up of currencies the Spanish used for commerce in the New World, for instance, and replicas of tools used by the Maroons and slaveholders. Explications of historical events that speak uniquely to St James's history — as the site of the historic Christmas Rebellion and as a hub for the development of Jamaica's tourism industry — line its colourful walls.

At the back of the cultural centre, within the stately domed structure, lies the National Gallery West's Religion and Spirituality in Jamaican Art exhibition, which will be on display from July 12 to August 3. It is an abridged version of the Religion and Spirituality exhibition previously shown in Kingston. But in many ways, according to Veerle Poupeye, executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, it was the ideal exhibition to begin with.

"It's a very accessible exhibition in terms of subject matter," she said. "It also includes some of the major names in Jamaican art. And we really wanted to start on a very high note in Montego Bay."

"Plus," she continued, "the space is very, very beautiful. We wanted something that would work very well in the environment."

It is indeed a gorgeous space. The room is relatively small, but the near floor-to-ceiling length of its windows provides an abundance of natural light that gives the room an open, airy feel, with the moveable display walls, stationed away from the centre of the room, adding strategically to the generous sense of atmosphere.

The collection's abridged quantity neatly lends itself to the room's intimacy. There are, at most, two pieces on each wall, which avoids the cluttered effect that sometimes plagues larger exhibitions.

Though abridged, the exhibition nevertheless explores a range of spiritually focused narratives — from forthright depictions of biblical passages as seen in Leslie Clerk's Christ and the Apostles (Christ Writing in the Sand) to the celebration of notions of black nationalism as found in Clinton Brown's Victory March.

The Gallery plans to showcase four exhibitions per year at its Montego Bay location. And while most will be related to exhibitions from the National Gallery in Kingston, at least one will be specifically curated for the western branch, Poupeye explained.

Though Religion and Spirituality isn't grounded in a western focus, per se, it does showcase a roster of artists who hail from different parts of the island. Albert Artwell, whose large painting, 33 1/2 Years Story of Christ, stunningly reinterprets the story of Christ through the use of black imagery, hails from Catadupa in St James.

"A lot of the big names and emerging names in arts have their roots in western Jamaica," Poupeye explained. John Dunkley, for instance, is from Savanna-la-Mar. Albert Huie hails from Falmouth, Trelawny, and the renowned Barrington Watson was born in Hanover.

"There are quite a few artists who have been participating actively in western Jamaica," continued Poupeye. "It's really a matter of tapping into that cultural resource and recognising that not everything cultural happens in Kingston."

In other words, Jamaican culture is a heady mix of sex, song, spirituality and folkways encompassing all 14 parishes. And it's important to note that the pastoral scenes and spiritual practices that make up a significant portion of our art spring from beyond Kingston's urban cacophony.

The Montego Bay Cultural Centre is, then, the first in a number of steps that will see to the inauguration of artistic development outside of the country's two cities, Poupeye hopes.

"There are other parts of Jamaica where something like this can happen -- Portland, St Thomas and Manchester," she said. "I hope this initiative can get ideas flowing."

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