National Biennial 2012: Conversations in the Gallery (or a Few Curatorial Notes)

By Nicole Smythe Johnson Sunday, January 20th, 2013 Categories: ARC Partners, Biennales, Updates

This perspective on the curatorial aspects of the 2012 National Biennial was contributed by Nicole Smythe-Johnson, Senior Curator at the NGJ. It is the first of several perspectives from staff members and viewers the National Gallery of Jamaica intends to publish.

Contrary to popular opinion, the business of placing works of art within a gallery space is by no means a simple, straightforward or even purely aesthetic matter. In fact, it is a very deliberate affair, often preceded by months of debate and planning. Though the role of curator has gone through almost as many changes as the definition of art, this is one thing that remains constant; the necessity for the creation of a conversation (between the works themselves and/or between the art and the public) and provision of a context that will best facilitate a work’s articulation of its truth.

Shoshanna Weinberger – Collection of Strangefruit, gouache & mixed media on paper, 18 panels, ea. 51 x 42 cm

A Biennial, particularly of the kind we currently have mounted at the National Gallery, presents an additional challenge to curators. The whole point of the exhibition is to have a range, to give a snapshot of the artistic landscape in Jamaica and across her diaspora. We want as many artists, forms, ideas as possible to be represented while maintaining a high standard of quality. However, it also means that the creation of conversations and the establishing of relationships between works is even more difficult. How to tease out connections and resonances from such a variety? Far less, a variety that was not selected by the curatorial team but by a largely external jury (in the case of the juried entries) and by the artists’ themselves (in the case of the 50 invited artists). A curator can feel a bit uneasy, waiting to see what comes in, hoping that the works will be amenable to being moulded into an exhibition that is varied but also cohesive. 

Installation view – National Biennial 2012

After many late hours, we seem to have achieved something like that. Walking through the exhibition, I have on more than one occasion turned a corner and been struck dumb by one piece or other shouting rudely at the one across from it, taunting its neighbor, scowling darkly in response to some barb, or even sometimes nodding in agreement. With each new viewing I see how much they really do have to talk about and how happy they are to share their witticisms. It is really only a matter of learning their language. If you do, not only will they start talking to you, you may have a hard time shutting them up; they’ve been known to sneak into dreams. So the following is my attempt to translate a bit for you, so that when next you encounter an exhibition, this one, or others, you’ll be in on the conversation.

For the purposes of focus and brevity, let us limit our discussion to one room. The one to the left of the entrance to the temporary galleries at the base of the stairs is among the rowdiest. Even before you enter, Stefan Clarke’s Life: Faith/Love/Death is already lifting her skirts in a most uncouth way, setting the tone. She really is something of a show-off, bombastic by any standard, shouting curse-words, threatening violence and being much too excessive for anyone’s good taste. It’s not clear what she’s saying, only that she’s saying it loudly, leading one to conclude that maybe that’s the point. It ispossible now to matter-of-factly place all of this; animal’s organs, decapitated female bodies locked in beautiful iron cages masquerading as lingerie, splattered blood, an ax, tattooed skin, and call this motley crew by a name that seems more like its opposite. It is equally possible to be at once repulsed by something and unable to look away. Does she scare or seduce you? Or both?

Stefan Clarke, Life; Faith/Love/Death, digital print, right panel of triptych, ea. 76 x 243.6

Let us now move into the room on the left, seeking more even ground. You are likely to be disappointed. You come upon a group that initially seem strange bedfellows but on closer inspection could be from the same family. Jasmine Thomas-Girvan’s Dreaming Backwards at first seems more comfortable, but on you’re way over, Marvin Bartley’s Birth of Venus accosts you. He speaks in a baritone, he is smooth, a photo dressed in painterly clothing. Once you’ve got over his clean-cut, smooth-talking appearance you begin to really listen to him, observe him carefully. He’s actually quite impudent. His re-writing of beauty, sex and the deity thereof is an admirable project but the new text has its own problematics. All these female bodies, strewn about, caressed by a gaze that is distinctly masculine, a gaze that undresses her and lays her bare for all to see, a gaze that visually conquers. Come one, come all and see what beauty, sex and their Goddess have become. It’s black-washed, powdered and coiffed but does that make it better?

Marvin Bartley – Birth of Venus, digital print, 116.7 x 215 cm

Across the room Shoshanna Weinberger’s A Collection of Strange Fruit insists it does not. She stares at him defiantly, almost petulant. ”So you like breasts?” she asks, ”How about five breasts lumped together? Do you like me now?” Strange Fruit takes beauty and sex appeal and turn them on their head. She is giving you gold chains, stilletos, curves aplenty, the stuff of rap videos without the pretense of narrative. Somehow, all that glamour and glitter manages to be ugly, a potent and pungent distillation. Looking back at Birth of Venus, he seems more sheepish, his baritone cracks in a way that suggests he may be closer to puberty than stately middle age.

Then there’s Marlon James’ Gisele. She is trying to look on calmly, her pose and framing is regal. She averts her eyes carefully away from Strange Fruit, aligning her body with Birth of Venus. Yet, her scars betray her. How can she deny that Strange Fruit is a close cousin? That her beauty came through fire? How can she disavow that impulse toward dis-embodiment that self-harm always implies. So she remains silent, burning holes into you with her eyes.

Marlon James – Gisele, C-print on archival paper, 50 x 34 cm

Across from her, Vogue is quite the opposite. He won’t give you his real name but he’s giving you everything else as loudly as he can. He’s giving you man, he’s giving you woman, albeit a version of both that may seem foreign. He’s a public secret, dressed in hot pink, an assault to the senses flaunting a peace sign. He’s looking around the room and saying, ”They are feminine? They don’t do the feminine justice! I am feminine and loving it! Stop complaining and revel!” No one is taking him on, whenever he starts talking they all avert their eyes as he might be their undoing.

Then quietly in a corner is Franz Marzouca’s Canoe Series #1 and #2, she is wondering what’s going on.  She left the house certain that she would be the belle of the ball but now she feels slightly bastardized. Look what Strange Fruit has done to her curves? She knows she lacks the pomp of Birth of Venus but she refuses to let them shake her confidence, she is beautiful yet, if slightly harassed by her erstwhile neighbors. All the better that her back is turned. In all this fuss, Robert ‘Krusha’ Harriot’s Omhas taken the high road. He is calm, his androgynous subject doesn’t want to be involved. The world has been turned upside down but he holds to peace, the work gazes inward. It’s gone old school, seeking beauty within.

Robert “Krusha” Harriott – OM, digital print, 122 x 81 cm

All the while, the siren song of Olivia McGilchrist’s Ernestine and Me, beckons you to the next room. Is that Bob Andy you hear? In the gallery? You’re not done here yet though, there’s one last thing that demands your attention. Dreaming Backwards awaits you. And with an elegance that only experience brings and an eloquence that is the by-product of rigour she assures you that this is as it should be. No matter how we might try to rush (or be pushed) into a brave new future of machines and gleaming, metallic surfaces, a world where there are more than two genders and infinite permutations of sexuality, a world where beauty does not always please the eye and ugliness can seduce, the past always lingers. We are forever pulled in between. So yes, you are welcome to meticulously mould, carve and weld your future, but remember that you’ll still be building from what’s really the melted down past, you’ll have to include a few ”found objects”. Don’t worry though, because when it all comes together, the chorus will be stunning. In this statement, they all find a home.


For more news from the National Biennial 2012 visit the National Gallery of Jamaica Blog.

Nicole Smythe Johnson
Nicole Smythe Johnson

Nicole Smythe-Johnson is a curator and writer living in Jamaica and working across the Caribbean region. In 2013, she completed her tenure as Senior Curator with the National Gallery of Jamaica where she worked on the 2012 National Biennial, Natural Histories (2013) and New Roots (2013) exhibitions. Since then, she has worked with contemporary Caribbean art and culture magazine ARC as an editor and writer, and also works with Jamaica-based contemporary art organization New Local Space (NLS) as outreach coordinator and host of NLS’ online art conversation series IN.