Ones to Watch... Art

Ones to Watch... Art

A Look Back and A Look Forward

BY DR VEERLE POUPEYE

Sunday, January 07, 2018

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On the international scene, 2017 was a year of jaw-dropping auction records. The top story was of course the record auction of the Salvator Mundi painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci at Christie's, sold for US$ 400 million plus US$ 50 million in fees, more than doubling the previous art auction record. Remarkably, this involved a work of art of disputed attribution (some experts consider it to be from the studio of Leonardo da Vinci rather than from his own hand).

It was recently disclosed that the painting was bought for the new Louvre museum branch in Abu Dhabi, where it will obviously serve as the equivalent of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. As much as the Mona Lisa has helped admission figures at the Paris Louvre, with many visitors coming to see the Mona Lisa only, I'd personally rather spend quality time with other treasures such as the Venus of Samothrace, Vermeer's Lacemaker or the Egyptian collection than to brave the crowds that surround the Mona Lisa. Museum visiting is not only about raw numbers but also about the quality of the visitor experience and I am not convinced that the current focus on sensational price tags and celebrity artists and collectors does anything good for how people engage with art.

New doors have been opening for artists from the Caribbean in the international art world and there has been a healthy crop of high-profile exhibitions and art events in 2017 in which the Caribbean, and Jamaica specifically, have been represented. While I did not get to go myself, I was excited to note the strong presence of Caribbean artists at the Miami art fairs and should make special mention of the Dean Collection's No Commission fair, which was curated by Jamaica's Nicola Vassell and included Deborah Anzinger, Di-Andre Caprice Davis, Leasho Johnson, Paul Anthony Smith, Phillip Thomas, and Cosmo Whyte as well as Ebony G Patterson and Renee Cox. And in a noteworthy first, the Jamaican writer and artist Jacqueline Bishop took the work of several local artists and craft producers to the prestigious Santa Fe Folk Art Market.

There are presently two major survey exhibitions of Caribbean art in Los Angeles in which artists from Jamaica are included. One is Relational Undercurrents, an exhibition of contemporary Caribbean art at the Museum of Latin American Art, which was curated by Tatiana Flores, and the other is Circles and Circuits I, the first of two exhibitions that explore Chinese-Caribbean art, which is on view at the California African American Museum. Andrea Chung was selected for Prospect New Orleans, which has emerged as a major biennial in the USA. Closer to home, the recently concluded Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, an innovative on-site project in the inner-city community of Grand Rue, featured Simon Benjamin and also the Inpulse Art Project, a Kingston-based community art project for young people that is managed by Camille Chedda and funded by the Rubis Mecenat.

The Jamaica Jamaica exhibition at the Philharmonie de Paris offered a comprehensive, spectacularly presented overview of the history of Jamaican popular music, and featured several artists, including murals by Leasho Johnson and the street artist Danny Coxson. But perhaps the most exciting of all is the retrospective John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night at the Perez Art Museum in Miami. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a significant part of Dunkley's oeuvre, much of which is in private collections and rarely seen by the public (the National Gallery of Jamaica had a retrospective in 1976). This exhibition was co-curated by Diana Nawi and the Jamaican independent curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson, with the late David Boxer serving as curatorial advisor, and continues until January 14, so there is still some time to see it.

At the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston and National Gallery West in Montego Bay, we had a full and diverse roster of exhibitions but the highlight of the year was surely the 2017 Jamaica Biennial, which opened at the end of February and featured Jamaican and other Caribbean artists and was shown at Devon House and National Gallery West, in addition to the National Gallery of Jamaica in downtown Kingston. It was not only the largest biennial to date, but also the most internationally visible and talked about. The lack of local galleries with suitably sized and equipped exhibition spaces continues to be a problem but the Olympia Art Centre has continued to present regular exhibitions and there was a noteworthy fibre arts exhibition at Grosvenor Gallery, with work by Miriam Hinds, Katrina Cooms and Margaret Stanley — female artists have indeed done well in 2017.

Public art continued to be a contentious issue in Jamaica, as it has been since the 1960s. There was significant controversy about the Marcus Garvey bust by Raymond Watson that was commissioned by UWI, to the extent that the original version was replaced by a second one which has proven almost equally controversial and which was recently the target of vandalism. The Bolt statue by Raymond's brother Basil Watson was thankfully spared such controversy and has been widely praised. It appears, however, that commissioning and producing a public statue has become increasingly precarious enterprise, confined by expectations about likeness that leave little room for artistic interpretation and require careful management, astute PR, and, for the artists involved, a very broad back.

Laura Facey's Redemption Song at Emancipation Park, which had caused the most intense statue controversy to date in Jamaica when it was unveiled in 2003, had become more accepted over time but again reached the news because of the recent, botched “restoration”. While this is the most extreme example to date, there are other public statues and murals that have also been subjected to questionable “facelifts,” and there is an urgent need for public education about art conservation and the applicable standards and procedures. This need goes beyond public art: public, corporate and private art collections in this country are aging and the tropical environment and materials used by the artists pose special conservation challenges. While progress has been made, with a small number of qualified art and artefact restorers now present in the island, there will have to be more capacity building in this field, with proper conservation lab facilities and further training, so that the country's artistic heritage can be appropriately preserved for the future.

We lost several influential figures in the art world during 2017. David Boxer of the National Gallery passed away in late May, after a long illness, and Delroy Gordon, the executive director of JCDC and a respected figure in the arts, died suddenly in March. David Boxer, who had been honoured with the Order of Jamaica last year, was not only a foundational figure in the history of the National Gallery and the country's curatorial and art-historical practice, but was also an influential artist and art collector. Internationally, I should note the passing of John Berger, whose Ways of Seeing (1972) TV series and book taught us that looking at art is socially informed and whose insights forever changed the disciplines of art history, curatorship and cultural criticism.

All signs suggest that there is much to look forward to in the Jamaican and Caribbean art world in 2018. This will include the Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), a major survey of artistic representations of race and history in the Afro-Atlantic world in which Jamaican art will be represented, and Ebony G Patterson's exhibition at the Perez Art Museum. There is also much to look forward to from the artists I have referred to earlier but I should mention two particularly promising young artists, Greg Bailey, who is currently doing his MFA at Washington University, Patterson's alma mater, and Kelley Ann Lindo, who was one of the strongest new voices in the 2017 Jamaica Biennial. And there was once again a strong crop of graduates at the Edna Manley College who will add to the impressive list of emerging voices in the Jamaican art world. Preparatory work for the next Jamaica Biennial will soon start and there are other art initiatives in the pipeline that may become game-changers. I can only hope that this will include much-needed exhibition spaces and galleries. But there is also a need for better funding.


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