Skip to Content

2017 Jamaica Biennial

Nicole Smythe-Johnson

Peter Dean Rickards, Terri Lois (n.d.). Courtesy the National Gallery of Jamaica
National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston
February 24, 2016–June 1, 2017

The history of the exhibition that is today the Jamaica Biennial can be traced back to the All Jamaica Art Exhibition, which was first presented in 1938. Hosted by a private group, that exhibition was part of a rising tide of nationalist sentiment that characterized the period and would eventually culminate in political independence from Britain in 1962.

In 1940 the Institute of Jamaica (the National Gallery of Jamaica’s parent organization, founded under colonial rule in 1879) took over the ongoing national presentations with their Annual All-Island Exhibition and, later, the Self-Taught Artist’s Exhibition. Three years after the opening of the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) in Kingston in 1974, these two exhibitions were transferred to that institution and became the Annual National Exhibition, which became the National Biennial in 2002, mostly because the NGJ felt that artists would produce more compelling work with more time between shows.

The result is that, as executive director Veerle Poupeye points out in the exhibition catalogue for the 2017 biennial, up until 2014 the exhibitions functioned as “essentially national, ‘state-of-the-art’ exhibitions,” more in the model of the British Royal Academy of Arts’ Summer Exhibition than the biennials that have spread around the globe over the last two decades. The exhibitions were about articulating contemporary Jamaican-ness and mapping an evolution of Jamaican identity over time, through the lens of visual art.

The switch from “National” to “Jamaica” maintained the focus on local artists, but attended to a Jamaica whose aspirations and constituents had spread beyond national boundaries. Since 2004 the biennial had included artists of the Jamaican diaspora, tipping its hat to the oft-repeated adage “there are more Jamaicans living outside Jamaica than in.” In 2014 a selection of five artists from the broader Caribbean were invited to submit special projects. The biennial also expanded from its original site at the NGJ, to include National Gallery West in Montego Bay and Devon House, a nineteenth-century mansion and Kingston landmark.

As a result, today’s Jamaica Biennial is perched between a national past and a much-contested transnational future. I found New York–based artist Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow’s installation 8 Years to Freedom particularly congruent with that context. Lyn-Kee-Chow created three tent-like structures, each representing an element of her cultural identity—Jamaican, Chinese, and American. Each tent contains a video and is adorned with objects the artist associates with the culture at hand.

In the Jamaica tent, for example, are two small woodcarvings of a sad-looking man and woman, their heads in profile. They are mounted face to face, as though they were kissing, but in the two accompanying videos they are separate, with a singing Lyn-Kee-Chow between them. In one, the male figure seems to look wistfully at Lyn-Kee-Chow, who is outfitted in traditional Jamaican dress while she sings a Jamaican folk song for children that celebrates light-skinned women: “There’s a brown girl in the ring.” On the other screen, the female figure hangs over the artist’s shoulder. Here, Lyn-Kee-Chow is coded as masculine, wearing a Rasta tam, and singing “Jamaica Farewell,” a folk song popularized by Harry Belafonte. I won’t recite the lyrics, but suffice it to say one is left with the impression that in Jamaica skin color condemns women to one ring or another, while their male counterparts are forced into a wistfully migratory existence. Having lived in Jamaica my entire life, I can’t say it’s an unreasonable assessment.

The Chinese camp is also curiously gendered. Here we have a short film that begins with a fan found on a city street, before morphing into Lyn-Kee-Chow dressed in traditional Chinese cheongsam and head dress waiting in a snowy forest while an apparently white man wearing makeup on one of his eyes looks for her. All the while, a black woman watches. She eventually pops her pregnant belly with a pin, and out falls a red balloon. The American camp features the artist singing the notoriously gender-bending David Bowie’s nostalgic and disappointed “This is Not America.”

The triangulation of the tents invites one to wonder where these three provisional identity camps might meet. On what point do they zero in? Especially since all three identities are mediated by a subtly distorting lens. The woodcarvings look like the kind of thing one might find in a tourist shop on the north coast, but in reality the artist bought them in New York because they “reminded her of home.” They are of unknown origin. In the Chinese camp, the film is as much about the Chinese woman as about the white man hunting her and the black woman looking on. The opening sequence in a festival in New York’s Chinatown also reminds us that we are thinking China via Jamaica via New York. And the song about America (or its absence) was written by a Brit. The layers are a good index of the migratory palimpsest that is contemporary Caribbean identity.

Trinidad-based Vincentian Nadia Huggins’s Is that a Buoy employs another kind of layering. The two large-scale photos and video play with “buoy,” i.e., an anchored float serving as a navigation mark, and boy (or bwoy, as it is pronounced in much of the English-speaking Caribbean). In one photo, only the top of Huggins’s bald head is visible above the water, the tip of the iceberg. In the second photo, the artist’s head is replaced with an actual buoy. In the accompanying video, Circa No Future, boys jump off a sea wall into the water. Most of the video is shot from underwater, and Huggins disorients us by sometimes orienting the surface at the bottom of the frame. From that perspective, the splash of their dives looks almost astral, and the slow grace of underwater movement reminiscent of astronauts in space. Their dives become a violent drag out of the water by an invisible hand.

Huggins, a female-identifying queer person, routinely has to explain her gender because she has a bald head (a result of alopecia, not fashion as I mistakenly thought when I first met her). That leads through to another set of ruminations. People might mistake Huggins for a boy, but the installation seems to go further, to ask, “what do people mistake boys for?” The boys in Circa No Future are not yet men, but they still play with fluid abandon. If they are to be good Caribbean men though, all that will have to end. They will have to anchor themselves, come to the surface and reveal only that small tip of the iceberg of humanness that masculinity permits.

Reinforcing the point, just around the corner hangs a tribute to deceased photographer and filmmaker Peter Dean Rickards. A turn in this room finds you looking down a gun barrel (Gun Like Dirt, 2006), getting the finger from an old white guy while a beautiful woman with an eye patch laughs at you (Percy Lee’s A Great Jamaican, 2005), in a ganja field with a beautiful woman (Have to Have a Ganja Picture, 2004), playing menacingly with a dog (Dogball, 2006), hanging with musicians—artistes in Jamaican parlance—Sizzla (Sizzla Kalonji, 2003), Ninjaman (Where in the World is Desmond Ballantine?, 2003), and Lee Scratch Perry (Everything Starts from Scratch, 2003), and, finally, face to face with a larger than life man with a cow head (Cowheadman, 2007). You can’t make this stuff up. That is the compelling beauty of Rickards’s troubling oeuvre; he was a storyteller, and one of the very best. The sad yet seductive reality is that his stories are true.

Another of the biennial’s tributes indexes a more respectable version of Jamaican masculinity. Born in 1934, Alexander Cooper was a modern man. A painter who documents the life and architecture of Jamaica, employing a range of styles over his more than fifty-year career. He has exhibited in almost every Annual National Exhibition and National Biennial. Cooper’s Post-Impressionist explorations feel old-fashioned, especially around the corner from recent graduate Richard Nattoo’s black light-lit Orchestrals of the Odyssey (2017), but old-fashioned here is not to be understood as quaint, more charming, debonair even. It’s also stimulating to consider Cooper’s architectural fascination, best exemplified in Port Royal Tower (1961) and Old King Street (1988) alongside New York–based, Jamaican-born artist Simon Benjamin’s installation Urban Beaches: FORUM IV (2017). In both cases, landmark sites function as an access point for thinking about Jamaica’s history and “development” (for better or worse), but with such wonderfully divergent outcomes.

The Cooper tribute is also a reminder of what makes the Jamaica Biennial interesting at a meta-level, its history and the nationalist (as opposed to most biennials’ internationalist) underpinnings that have shaped it. Yes, the inclusion of diaspora and regional artists makes for a richer articulation of the state of the arts in the space-place of Jamaica, but what of local artists? These artists have neither the access to ongoing institutional support for their practices that many diaspora artists (very reasonably) migrated to get, nor the additional NGJ support (assistance with transport, customs, installation, and production costs) that invited artists can access. With very limited resources, a not merely public, but national institution must carefully negotiate these thorny questions. It is all the more urgent since the NGJ is Jamaica’s only art museum, and one of the only remaining exhibition spaces dedicated to art in the island.

This is perhaps why, even though I could wile away hours in David Gumbs’s joyous and interactive Xing Wang (2016) installation at National Gallery West, the installation at Devon House is the strongest of the three sites for me. Here, the Jamaica Biennial elegantly engages its most unique calling card, its history.
Unlike the other two sites, Devon House is not a typical gallery setting. Its five site-specific installations are in conversation with the substantial history of the house itself. Built in 1871 by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire, Devon House holds a special place in Jamaican history and contemporary social life. On weekends the lawns host weddings and picnics, and throughout the week tourists and patrons of the shops and restaurants on the property stream through. The exhibition is in the main house, which is a kind of museum, maintained in the style of the house’s heyday as a residence.

California-based Andrea Chung’s special project highlights the caring labor that rarely makes it into historical documents and the museum exhibits based on them. In the bedroom and bathroom of the house, pairs of brown hands are placed throughout the space: over a wash basin, in a rocking chair, sometimes grasping coins or a red string that leads under the bed. The project is based on research Chung has been doing into the tradition of grassroots midwifery in Jamaica. It is particularly relevant in a home where generations of some of Jamaica’s most powerful families lived, heralded into life no doubt by the brown hands of a woman that history has written out. The project earned Chung the Dawn Scott Memorial Award for innovation and social awareness. Greg Bailey and Alicia Brown were co-awardees for their paintings Colonial Legacies and Exchange, respectively.

Jasmine Thomas-Girvan walked away with the biennial’s Aaron Matalon Award for Parallel Realities Dwelling in the Heartland of My People (2017). The epic piece colonizes the dining room with Thomas-Girvan’s signature detail, no doubt helped by her background in jewelry-making. Tiny mythical and sometimes frightening creatures made from glass and metal climb out of the silverware and frolic across the dining table’s elaborate settings, a reference to Jamaican Revivalist traditions. All this under the larger-than-life portrait of a British governor that is a part of the Devon House’s permanent exhibition.

Deborah Anzinger and Leasho Johnson take a different approach; where Chung and Thomas-Girvan’s work integrates with the house to tease out, their work stands out, contrasting pleasantly with the surroundings. Johnson’s In the Middle (2017) greets you in the foyer with its hardwood floors and palm-frond-wall-painted panels. His trademark neon orange avatars seem to make fun of the tasteful surroundings—all legs and bums, pouring out of traditional Jamaican dutch pots, which Jamaicans use to cook curry goat and make a raucous noise when celebrating or protesting.

Anzinger’s A Piercing Void Where We Meet (2017) is a large-scale 3-D painting with Devon House’s ballroom as canvas. Using hair, mirrors, Styrofoam, paint, and aloe vera and palm plants, Anzinger constructs an orifice that seems to hang (but stands) in the center of the ornate room. She has described the work as exploring “the female body, not as a space to be penetrated, but penetrating space,” thus a hole with a large black tongue pouring out, tasting the space and forcing the audience to watch themselves look.

At Devon House the works rub up against the history, they are in dialogue with it, rather than reproducing contemporary art’s pristine white cube and the untethered cosmopolitanism that attends it. Here, you get the sense most keenly that there’s something different about this biennial. Let’s hope that continues to be the case.

Nicole Smythe-Johnson is a writer and independent curator, working from and living in Kingston, Jamaica.2017 Jamaica Biennial.