Cocktails with Nicole Smythe Johnson

Senior Curator The National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ)

Sunday, February 10, 2013    

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What are you sipping?

Vodka tonic with three pieces of lime.

What kind of day are you having?

A 'getting-over-flu' day.

What's in your handbag?

My cellphone, iPod, wallet, a fan, moleskine notebook, lotion, lipgloss and an NGJ brochure.

Jeans or LBD?

LBD, though generally I'm one for colour.

Flats or Stilettos?


Who does your hair?

Me or my mom.

How would you describe your personal style?

A friend once described it as tropical bohemian chic. In my own words: classic silhouettes accented with lots of colour and texture, strictly natural fibres.

The 2012 National Biennial exhibition has been described as one of the strongest in years. How challenging was your role as senior curator?

Well, the show is team-curated and was being planned long before I got there, so I can hardly take the credit. It was definitely challenging, though. I don't think I ever worked so hard in my life, perhaps with the exception of writing my dissertation. My very first week was the mounting of the Biennial, so it was really "baptism by fire". The NGJ team is really strong and great to work with; so I learned a lot and had lots of support while settling in, but there was also a lot of getting down and dirty. I was thinking of curating as this very academic thing, but that first week was all paint, tape measures, drills and levels. Not to mention intense 16- and 18-hour days. We certainly bonded though and, as one staff member told me when I got a huge splash of paint across my forehead, I earned my ceremonial marks — I emerged as one of the tribe.

How did you get into art curating?

Well, I only started last December so I guess I'm still "getting into" it. I did a Cultural Studies Master's and BA, so I was already well trained in the reading of text, but until 2011 when I finished my dissertation, my focus was largely on film and literature. During my Master's programme I shifted more into the visual arts. I also have training and experience in project management and programme development, so I started looking at curating as a way to merge my academic and professional backgrounds. I had a long-standing mentorship relationship with Annie Paul, an art critic and writer here in Jamaica, so she started recommending books to me, people to talk to, and so on. Holly Bynoe at ARC magazine was also really encouraging and I started writing on local art exhibitions for her. When the opening at NGJ came up, I figured it was divine intervention. I just jumped at it and now, a couple months later, here I am... The moral is, if you really, really want it and go for it, you can do just about anything. Go hard or go home, right?

What developments would you like to see happen for the Jamaican art scene?

I would like to broaden the audience. I would like a more robust museum-going culture, more rigorous and thorough criticism and in general more critical engagement. There are so many artists working in Jamaica and in the Caribbean; many of them receive acclaim abroad but are completely overlooked in their homeland. Additionally, there are a lot of young artists who are working hard but need to be engaged by academics, other artists and the public. It is absolutely necessary for the healthy development of our society and for the further development of the arts and artists. I am also very interested in public art for many of the same reasons. Making art accessible to more people is a major focus for me. I just believe that art has the potential to articulate so many things that right now fall by the wayside in Jamaican culture. There is a whole world of analytical subtlety and nuance, of hope and resistance that is only available through the arts, and there's a whole set of people who could find solace and therapy and joy in creating, but don't even know it.

Outside of art, what are your other personal interests?

I love food, going to the country, watching films, reading and yoga. I spend a lot of time hanging out with family and friends; I draw a lot of strength from my personal relationships. I also do a lot of writing and journaling. Social justice and advocacy are also important to me, so I'm trying to make space in my schedule to help address issues like homophobia, mental illness and support for at-risk youth.

Are you a romantic comedy or action adventure type of girl?

Romantic comedy.

What bad habit would you most like to put in your rear view mirror?

Smoking. Yes, I know. It's terrible.

Who inspires you?

I collect mentors, many of them don't even know I consider them mentors, so it's hard to narrow that one down. I'll tell you the first and foremost: my mom. She just keeps going and going, changing and growing. I love that.

What is your idea of the perfect man?

Well... since I'm by no means perfect, I figure the perfect man is unavailable and don't give him much thought. Wit, calm confidence and jeans that fit are always a plus, though.

What is your idea of a perfect date?

A secret garden and a three-course meal, including but not limited to chianti and chocolate mousse.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

Somewhere more fantastic than I can imagine right now.





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