Barb Wires & Picket FencesSaturday, December 05, 2015
By T Nevada Powe
Summary remarks given at the opening of Phillip Thomas's exhibition Barb Wires & Picket Fences
December 4, 2015
About seven years ago, I was sitting in the living room of a major collector of Jamaican art when, amidst piles of paper and art books, I came across a hardcover journal with pages of densely handwritten notes and drawings. The writings detailed broad surveys of various topics and themes which provided the intellectual basis for dozens of paintings done, partially done or never begun. The journal belonged to Phillip Thomas. It appeared that, like Alfred Hitchcock who is known to have storyboarded all his films before a single camera had been turned on, Thomas approaches his work in a similar vein with extensive thinking, planning and drafting before he puts brush to canvas. Nothing is by accident. Everything is laden with symbolism and intent. Thomas is not simply a painter: he might be the most cerebral painter Jamaica has ever had.
Tonight Phillip Thomas asks us to contemplate Barb Wires and Picket Fences. Barb wires and picket fences are demarcating lines that typically separate landowners from non-landowners, or separate one landowner from another. Someone is usually inside the fence and someone is usually outside. Barb wires are their own protection as they are difficult to cross. The wire, after all, can 'jook' you. Picket fences, on the other hand, are protective only in so far as they have institutional power backing them up. You dare not cross this picket fence or you will be arrested! Thomas sees far greater violence in the gentility of rules that govern the global world order of the picket fences. One of his installations here tonight is even titled When the grass is cut, the snakes will come out.
The digital image on the invitation for the exhibition reverses a slave narrative of the Middle Passage. While the slave ship once carried the Negro to the New World, the Negro now carries the slave ship on his head proudly and resolutely. A beautiful rendering of the oft-quoted Garvey/Marley phrase about freeing ourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.
Thomas's IMF, I AM F***ed, mixed media on canvas, which was first on display at the Biennial at the National Gallery, created all kinds of sensation when it was first seen. This massive six-panel work, which is also on display here, seems to be the final statement in the Matador series. Now one might rightly ask why would a Jamaican artist who had never been to either Spain or Mexico, or even seen a bullfight, be interested in, neigh obsessed with, this image. Thomas himself would have a perfect comeback. Why would people who have never stepped on our shores cling to strong images about who we are -- images and stories we have all heard: Jamaicans are a violent people. Jamaicans are all weed-smoking Rastafarians, etc, etc. We Jamaicans will often even participate in this myth-making about ourselves: "Jamaicans are the worst drivers in the world," said by a Jamaican who has never driven in Rome, Cairo or New Delhi. Thomas claims the right to mess with colonial images the way they have messed with ours. He places a black matador into the cultural iconography where there was none.
The black matador in IMF -- squeezed as he is into an outfit that, while form-fitting, does not sit quite right -- feels ready to run with the bulls. Effete, dainty, and standing on tippy-toe so as not to offend, he gets trampled by the bull of the bull market and of the bull s**t in the system. His economy and society a carcass. His million-dollar currency wiped out and deemed worthless. How worthless? So worthless, in fact, that it could be used as the background papering in a Phillip Thomas painting. He, we and IM.. F***ed, indeed.
Wrapping the multi-year Matador series, Thomas now turns his eye to the iconography of rebellion and revolution. He takes a simple pastoral scene on wallpaper and by overlaying a golden machete and selectively blackening certain players in the mix, he ever so slightly disturbs the peace. With General Bustamante and General Manley, placed appropriately on opposite sides of the room, Thomas recasts the forefathers of our country as Middle Eastern or Latin American generals laden with their medals, stripes and stars. Big up! Big up for their bravery and significant contributions to the development of our country! On closer examination, though. the medals are actually Aunt Jemima or Smile Mon rubber magnets! Hardly the accolades that we had presumed adorned our national heroes. Thomas pulls the rug out from under us and asks what, exactly, have these heroes accomplished? What is their legacy? And 50+ years on, what are the current results of our supposedly illustrious past? The politically disaffected and disinterested youth would seem to agree. The revolution was a mirage. The afro pick, the Malcolm X bow tie, the dark shades that hide the wearer's eyes from outsiders, and the dark shades that colour the view of the wearer are all motifs and emblems of the revolutions that have now become simple fashion statements. The revolution itself is now decidedly out of fashion. Empty symbols whose meaning has withered away without Marcus, Malcolm or Marley.
In Selves portrait, or portrait of the artist as a revolutionary, we are confronted with what initially looks like an unnervingly scary black man. But is it? The black paint being used is not the black of skin colour but the black of the abyss or of the darkness. In the dark, scary things can fester. But also in the dark, beautiful things can grow nurtured by the undisturbed stillness. Dressed in Che Guevara revolutionary garb, this shadow figure stares back, questioning, perceiving. Is the figure appearing or disappearing? It's not clear. The language of stars awarded and rewarded, whether for generals or for homework well-done, is not his world but the backdrop against which he must function. Noseless, he cannot breathe. Yet somehow he does not lack for oxygen. Mouthless, he cannot speak and so he is relegated to painting. Or, in the case of a talent as sublime as Thomas, maybe he is not relegated but elevated to painting. After all, when the spoken word has died and been forgotten, the painting will live on. So I now invite you to step over the barb wires and walk through the picket fences. Try no mek nutten jook yu too hard! Welcome to Phillip Thomas's world. I now declare this exhibit open.
Writer's Note: Barb Wires and Picket Fences is the first in a series of art exhibits organised under the Red Easel umbrella. Conceptualised by Paul Morrison, Red Easel aims to bring exhibitions to found and borrowed spaces around the country. These pop-up galleries are an attempt to take art out of the intimidating establishment spaces and bring it more closely to the masses.
Phillip Thomas was born in Kingston, Jamaica on Feb 20, 1980. Upon graduating with a Bachelor's of Fine Arts from the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica, Phillip Thomas received a grant from the Cobb Family Foundation as well as a scholarship from the CHASE Fund to study and complete a Master's degree in New York. He completed his studies at the New York Academy of Art, where he graduated top of his class and was awarded a fellowship from the Academy.
At the end of his master's and during his fellowship year, Thomas produced works that dealt with issues of colonialism in the Caribbean, and many of the issues of classism that persist in Jamaica and the New World, even today. As an artist who is fluctuating between the Americas in a sort of nomadic sense, he developed a very clear picture of the ways in which different cultures of the region have dealt with the issues of colonialism as well as post-colonial conflicts. His work began to ask questions about social identity, in a way that would challenge many traditions about the very subject in Jamaica, critiquing Jamaican culture and its willfully invisible middle class as well as its relationship with the masses.
Internationally renowned Jamaican-based visual artist Phillip Thomas's first solo exhibition is on display at UWI Regional Headquarters and continues until December 20.
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