'AS I AM' — Kimani Beckford's Affirmations

'AS I AM' — Kimani Beckford's Affirmations

Sunday, May 03, 2020

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Last year, the young Jamaican painter Kimani Beckford presented a solo exhibition project, titled Affirmation . The exhibition was shown at two venues: its inaugural display was at the Jamaica Conference Centre in Kingston, in space that is used for art exhibitions by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), and the second, smaller version was shown at National Gallery West in Montego Bay.

Affirmation was supported by the inaugural Dean Collection TDC20 St(art) Ups Artist Grants, of which Beckford was one of 20 awardees and the only Jamaican. The US-based Dean Collection was founded by Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean and his spouse, Alicia Keys, and is, as the TDC20 website states, “a contemporary, family art collection focused on the support of living artists”. The grants were available by competitive application to artists globally and serve to support young and emerging artists in organising a “start-up” solo exhibition, irrespective of themes, genres or media. Other than providing funding support and lending its name to the venture, and of course making sure that the artists delivered on their commitments, the Dean Collection was not involved in the resulting exhibitions, which were the sole responsibility of the awardees and no commissions were charged. It was an exemplary, development-focused patronage model that surely warrants emulation in the Jamaican context, where such initiatives are sorely needed as there is still nothing that has taken the place of the now-defunct, but influential, Mutual Gallery Super-Plus Under-Forty Artist of the Year Awards. In the face of the current Corona pandemic crisis there is even greater urgency, as such initiatives will be needed to reanimate the local art world.

Kimani Beckford is a 2011 graduate of the Edna Manley College and he has distinguished himself since then, among others being the co-winner, with Camille Chedda, of the inaugural Dawn Scott Memorial Award in the 2014 Jamaica Biennial. He has exhibited regularly at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), in the 2012, 2014, and 2017 biennials, and in the digital exhibition in 2016. His international exposure to date includes Icons: Ideals of BlackMasculinity (2018) at Xavier University in New Orleans, and Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora (2016) at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol. While he has also worked in other media (his contribution to Digital was a video installation), he is first and foremost a painter and one of a strong cohort of contemporary figurative painters who have emerged from the Edna Manley College in recent years, which also includes Michael Elliott, Phillip Thomas, Alicia Brown, and Greg Bailey, as well as younger artists such as T'Wauni Sinclair, Kevin McIntyre, Jordan Harrison, and Tiana Anglin.

Affirmation was Beckford's first solo exhibition, which is an important step for any young artist, and it was the first exhibition in which he showed a significant body of work. In its original form, the exhibition consisted of 30 new paintings, made for this exhibition and over an intensive work period of five months, and only the earliest painting in the exhibition, Affirmation, from which the exhibition also took its title and concept, was dated 2018. The exhibition was accompanied by a small catalogue publication with various texts, including an extended artist's statement.

The catalogue introduction cited Omari Ra, the head of the EMC Fine Arts department, who described Kimani Beckford as “an artist of conscience”. Without displaying the more strident rhetoric that often characterises such art, Beckford's work indeed engages deeply, and very politically, with the social landscape of Jamaica and the African Diaspora, and is primarily concerned with affirming blackness. In the works he has exhibited previously, for instance in the Jamaica biennials, he has shown mainly anonymous figures, with facial features obscured or undefined. In these works, he navigated and interpreted an image economy of representations of blackness which included formalised group photographs of families and army recruits, and made reference to the work of other contemporary African Diaspora artists who deal with the visual politics of blackness, such as Barkley Hendricks, Kerry James Marshall, and perhaps even Amy Sherald.

In the 2014 Jamaica Biennial, Beckford showed a large painting B.I.B. (Black is Beautiful) that responded to the African-American artist Barkley Hendricks' iconic Lawdy Mama (1969). Some observers then complained that the work was too derivative of the Hendricks painting and I posted a response on the NGJ blog, as I was of the view that the work was being misconstrued. I argued the following about the substantive differences between the two works:

While Hendricks's realistically painted portrait represents a lanky, brown-skinned young woman with a large Afro who gazes at the viewer with stern confidence, Beckford's subject is so dark-skinned that her features are practically invisible, except for the schematic eyes. Beckford's painting is in actuality not a portrait at all but represents a more abstract “type” and reminds more of the “hyper-black” images of contemporary African-American artist Kerry James Marshall than of Barkley Hendricks's portrait. The flattened, largely undefined features of Beckford's figure transition almost seamlessly into the equally flat black halo/hair background and the woman also seems younger, shorter and less confident than Hendricks's subject — an awkward young girl rather than a self-assured young woman. The fashionable, well-fitting 1960s dress in the Hendricks painting has been replaced by a less glamorous and ill-fitting, uniform-like outfit, which further adds to the deliberate awkwardness of Beckford's depiction.

The differences between Barkley Hendricks's Lawdy Mama and Kimani's B.I.B go to the heart of the latter's artistic politics. While iconicity is obviously important to both artists, Beckord avoids the idealisation that often accompanies racially affirmative images, and the unspoken socio-racial hierarchies these in themselves reflect. Instead, he depicts his subjects “as they are”, in a way which is un-embellished, matter-of-fact, and relatable but no less powerful and affirmative, implicitly arguing that true affirmation does not require idealisation. As he puts it in his catalogue:

My aim is to project respect for 'self' and re-contextualising the accepted and proliferated notion of what and who is seen as beautiful. My subjects in these paintings are all persons I know personally. We are all images of what we conceive to be beautiful and acceptable and accepted and everyone deserves affirmation in this regard. Their expressions portray one of affirmation— of having humility and power in their own right.

The body of work Beckord presented in Affirmation was less dependent on his earlier sources and takes him in different directions, although earlier characteristics remain, such as the use of brilliant colour patterns juxtaposed with deep blacks and grisaille, and the tension between the two-dimensionality of the patterns and the volume and space suggested by the bodies, furniture and spatial contexts. The series consisted of actual portraits of family members, friends and fellow artists — a collective portrait of the community that surrounds him as a person and an artist, which is another kind of affirmation, of where he comes from and belongs and of who has helped to define him in his life and artistic development. The iconicity of the resulting images still resonated with some of his earlier sources, which after all draw from the same iconographic conventions, but a more personally grounded artistic voice appeared to be emerging.

While Affirmation consisted of a strong and distinctive body of work, there were a few problems too. The sort of oil on canvas painting that Beckford typically practices is a slow and intricate craft, and painting thirty canvases in five months is a very challenging proposition for an artist like him. Some of the work, not surprisingly, seemed rushed and even unfinished, and a number of paintings were in effect presented as studies. Most of the works in Affirmation were portraits, as noted earlier, and in a few there appeared to be a technical struggle between realistically representing facial features and his earlier abstracting and flattening approach. This too may have been a consequence of the fast pace of production or a challenge that is to be expected when an artist moves into new representational and technical territory. This does not take away from the achievement and merit of Beckford's Affirmation series, however, and it will be very interesting to see where this exciting and thoughtful young artist will go next with his work.

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