Daring to dream: The National Biennial — Part 2

Tamara Scott-Williams

Sunday, January 13, 2013

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CONGRATULATIONS to Jasmine Thomas-Girvan on winning the Aaron Matalon Award as the artist making the most outstanding contribution to the National Gallery of Jamaica's 2012 National Biennial exhibition.

Her Dreaming Backwards and Occupy with their combinations of found and exquisitely handcrafted objects, brilliant peacock feathers, John Crow beads, a natural pearl here and dried Royal Palm pod, there are stunning sculptural works.

In explaining the works to this newspaper she said: "Until we can face all of who we are and understand how we arrived at this place, our capacity to dream into the future or imagine alternative histories is impeded. Dreaming liberates the imagination into sovereign space..."

Daring to dream is a fitting description for any aspiring or established artist who, often fraught with their own angst, works day and night to produce works of art and beauty that can only enhance our lives.

The visitor to the National Gallery of Jamaica, arriving with a preconceived notion of what Jamaican art is, will find a space that is at once familiar and fresh. But no casual acquaintance with Jamaican art can prepare one adequately for the variety of media on show at this year's National Biennial: painting, sculpture, collage, illustration, assemblage, installation, ceramics, photography, video, animation and textiles.

Just to ensure that any visceral reaction to the 126 works on display wasn't misguided, a second visit with a guided tour by a member of the gallery's curatorial staff was in order. In addition to the cost of entry, guided tours are available by appointment for visitors wanting art history pointers and discussion about the works on display and oh, what a little education can do.

A tour guide will point out the elephant in the room that you missed on the first visit (when you sought refuge in Miriam Hind's Atonement): Phillip Thomas's mammoth Upper St Andrew Concubine flanked by two hanging carcasses (derivative of works by Francis Bacon and Rembrandt before him) makes clear the power and dangers of sensual pleasures. And a tour guide will gently lead you back to Ester Chin's nearly hidden, sweetly shy Ester after you've raced ahead to its enormous alter ego Yistie.

A tour will teach you that art can be the best kind of therapy when you learn that Shediene Fletcher's Beneath the Skin I and II were created during her gruelling recovery from a near tragic accident, her stitched bits of goat skin and protruding cow horns a testament to her renewed strength. Astro Saulter's Multi Meat Burger — which as a work of pop art earns a look of general interest but perhaps not a second glance — becomes more riveting when you learn that Astro, stricken with cerebral palsy, uses his head to paint, literally tapping it against an electronic device in his wheelchair that allows him to construct bold designs in a digital format. This is how Astro communicates his thoughts. Through art, Astro too dares to dream.

A tour will confirm that your naïve reactions are perfectly appropriate and that without accompanying artist statements you are free to discuss your own outrageous interpretations; that Storm Saulter's Tied is really a cautionary tale: inconsolable, bleeding girl jumps into shark-filled ocean after her lover gives her crabs. And without a tour we would never know that we could insert our own notes and dreams into Judith Salmon's Pockets of Memory, or that Shanti Persaud uses her day job as a geologist to inform her photography and capture tiny signs of hope in Red Mud Essays: Wasteland & The Evolution of Things.

Away from the "go large or go home" energy of the ground floor, the mezzanine is a more calming place for the eye. Devoid of motion, sound or bright light heaping attention on Valerie Bloomfield's Looking out my Back Door, Cecil Cooper's Curtain Series, Gene Pearson's Buddha or Heather Sutherland Wade's Bamboo Alley, the mezzanine seemed more like a resting place then a place where dreams have been liberated.

In-between the very thoughtful works by PJ Stewart (Time Aged), Annabella Proudlock (Out of my Closet) and Cecil Ward's and Maxine Gibson's take on Newcastle is the very clearly smitten David Marchand who, in Rainbow and Like Censoring Sixty-Nine, has perhaps revealed his current state of affairs.

While it may have been Andy Jefferson's afterthought to mechanise his wall-mounted mixed media assemblage Caribbean Wasteland so that it turns slowly, certainly and continually, it is an excellent idea that should be executed; for it would serve well to animate the second-floor space and (title of the work notwithstanding) symbolise the sustained artistic and path-clearing efforts of Jamaica's more established artists exhibited there.

Again, in this space it is impossible to do justice to each and every one of the pieces, and all deserve some mention. There's plenty of time to see the show; The National Biennial 2012 continues through March 2013 and so maybe before then, a final word.

At the time of writing we learned of the passing of educator and artist Fitz Harrack. Born in Grenada and educated at the Jamaica School of Art (now the Edna Manley School for the Visual Arts) Harrack is known for his sculptural pieces as well as his bold paintings. Our condolences to Norma and their family and friends. Dream on, Fitz Harrack.





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