The Jamaica Biennial
The Jamaica Biennial has been driving the focus of innovating and sustaining the views of contemporary artists. The exhibition investigates local voices and narratives, which international curators, residencies, and exhibitions are keen on learning.
Organized and presented by the National Gallery in Kingston, the Jamaica Biennial, formerly the All Jamaica Art Exhibitions, started in 1938 as a private initiative. Today, the structure has largely changed and occurs every two years. This time frame gives artists more time to produce significant work. The Jamaica Biennial taps into Jamaica’s culture at the core. Jamaican culture is dynamic, vibrant and has a unique rhythm that unfolds in its own time. It presents a “state of art” that seeks to define and document what art means in the Jamaican culture.
The Jamaica Biennial showcases the diverse creations and interpretations of the country’s visual artists. It also serves as a forum that has its hands on the pulse of the culture. This year, the Biennial displayed timely ideas and issues reflected in society. Among them are male chauvinism, homophobia, images of masculinity, skin bleaching, dancehall culture, remittance, sexism, echoes of colonialism and slavery on modern culture, environmental crisis, national cultural identity, politics and a sense of Jamaica’s place in the world.
“With a total of 92 Jamaican and foreign artists, and almost 160 works on view, from paintings and sculptures to mixed-media installations, the 2017 Jamaica Biennial is the largest, most ambitious one we’ve ever mounted,” the Dutch-born art historian Veerle Poupeye, the National Gallery of Jamaica’s executive director, said in an interview with Hyper Allergic magazine
A portion of the exhibition is also on view at Devon House, a 19th-century mansion in Kingston that was built by Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel. The art inside the mansion are staged interventions to the space. Five artists were selected whose work resonates with the history and context of the house. Devon House holds a unique link between plantation culture and marked social change. Andrea Chung, Laura Facey, Jasmine Thomas-Girvan, Sharon Norwood, Deborah Anzinger and Leasho Johnson all have exhibitions inside. Some of the interventions are jarring and obviously noticed, but others are seamlessly incorporated and may be mistaken as part of the original house. The discovery process of these pieces makes the Devon House experience more alluring.
The displays in Devon House are particularly stirring. Girvan’s miniature installations in the dining room echoes life on a plantation for slaves. Black silhouetted bodies juxtaposed against tea cups on a long, perfectly set table with well- polished cutlery, doilies and fine China.
A number of artists present a visceral tug of war between emotions and thoughts, history and present society. Xayvier Haughton’s large installation, “Vodou: The Philovisualizatoin of Damballa Hwedo, Giving Rise to the African Vanguards” (2015-2016), show many painted, decorative bottles, symbolic chalk drawings, animal horns dark silhouetted figures with piercing eyes are presented on a alter. Haughton’s work explores “Afrikan consciousness.”
Laura Facey’s 32 feet long drum installation, “Cieba”, is probably the largest drum in the world at the moment. Facey is known for large scale abstract sculptures made from tree trunks. “Cieba” is made from a felled cotton tree after a storm. She and her team of woodworkers stripped the trunk, hollowed it out and etched and stained the surface in bright blues and reds. Cow skin drumheads were placed at both ends. The drum is a functioning instrument. African drumming is a big part of Jamaica’s musical heritage. The symbolism if the cotton tree is a soul stirring and scarring one as Jamaicans believe that spirit resides in the tree and because of the tree’s sturdiness; it was a favourite selection for hanging slaves.
Marlon James’s poignant portraits in “Blackout Kingston 12” show individuals in the inner city with bleached out skin. The individuals staring back at us have a certain strength and conviction despite their surroundings of punctured zinc and rusty fences.
There is a lot of energy pulsating at the Jamaica Biennial, each piece and installation carefully thought out to illicit different emotions. It is worth a few hours out of the day to absorb Jamaica’s rich art culture.
The Jamaica Biennial can be seen in three locations:
12 Ocean Boulevard, Kingston
Phone: (876) 922-1561
National Gallery West
Montego Bay Cultural Centre,
San Sharpe Square, Montego Bay
Phone: (876) 971-3920
26 Hope Road,
Phone: (876) 929-6602