Veerle Poupeye, historienne d’art et chercheur attaché à l’Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts de la Jamaïque au moment du séminaire, aujourd’hui directrice de la National Gallery de la Jamaïque a présenté cette communication lors du séminaire Art Contemporain dans la Caraïbe co-organisé en 2008 par la Fondation Clément, CulturesFrance, l’AMCA, l’AICA Caraïbe du Sud, la DRAC Martinique.
“Where Are the Jamaicans ?” », was the recent lament of a US-based Caribbean artist and dealer who has been trying to promote Caribbean art internationally. He was not just talking about the lack of Jamaican participation in his own projects, despite repeated invitations, but also about the apparent invisibility of Jamaican artists in the international arena. Such concerns have also been expressed about Anglophone Caribbean artists as a whole. Félix Ángel, the director of the IDB Cultural Centre in WashingtonDC, recently complained about the lack of Anglophone Caribbean participation in that organization’s Inter-American Biennial of Video Art. He stated:
The English-speaking Caribbean countries still remain skeptical of the Biennial, however, and their conspicuous absence is bothersome; it may be symptomatic of an apathy that not even the increase in the dollar amount of the awards was able to melt but there must be other reasons.
We’ll get back to those “other reasons” shortly but such concerns have also been raised locally in Jamaica. Earlier this year, the newly appointed Chairman of the National Gallery of Jamaica, Wayne Chen, in a much-noted public speech chastised the Jamaican art community for what, he believes, is its blinkered self-absorption and lethargy and cited the Jamaican music industry, especially Dancehall, as a model of creative energy, individual and collective resourcefulness and international success that should be emulated in the visual arts. The Indian expatriate art critic Annie Paul has, as you may remember from the Brooklyn Museum’s Infinite Island catalogue, advanced a similar position, although her focus has been on the creative independence, cultural relevance and cosmopolitanism of Dancehall, which she believes is lacking in the visual arts of Jamaica, and less so on its international exposure.
Each of these assessments is debatable and I will devote a significant part of this paper to the comparisons with Jamaican popular music but before I do so I must acknowledge that there is an obvious malaise in Jamaica when it comes to international exhibitions and other forms of international exposure for the visual arts. While the Jamaican visual art world undeniable lacks the searing ambition and irrepressible “can do” mentality that fuels Jamaican music world, this malaise also stems from other factors such as uneven access to information about such opportunities, limited resources, unrealistic expectations, negative experiences and fears of exploitation, the belief that such projects require a lot of effort but are of no real benefit to a locally-based artist’s career, and, most of all, it stems misgivings about the gate-keeping power and interpretive control of foreign curators and critics and those local cultural institutions and art professionals through which overseas exposure opportunities are usually channeled. Overseas exposure is a thus a contentious issue in the Jamaican art world and non-participation does not necessarily stem from apathy. If I would be asked to speculate about the reasons for the lack of any Jamaican participation in the Inter-American Video Biennial, for instance, I would venture that most Jamaican video artists – and there are quite a few video makers in Jamaica, because of the importance of video to the music industry – simply did not know about this exhibition or may not have been aware of their eligibility to participate. Those few who may have known about it may not have regarded it as a project of immediate relevance to them, in part because Jamaican artists do not typically contextualize themselves in the Latin American cultural sphere, which is driven by different cultural and political agendas. On that note, I should add that Jamaican artists are more likely to regard themselves of the Caribbean sphere, although Jamaicans are notoriously indifferent to their Caribbean identity and tend to see themselves as Jamaicans and, in most instances also, Black persons first.
The Jamaican response to overseas exposure opportunities for the visual arts has it own specific dynamics but the experiences in other Anglophone Caribbean countries and, indeed, most other parts of the Caribbean have been very similar. The significance of these experiences has not gone unnoticed to those of us who are involved in the international exposure of Caribbean art and has been the subject of an emerging critical debate. In 2007, for instance, the Barbados National Art Gallery Committee and Zemicon Gallery organized a unique exhibition, discussion forum and publication project titled For Export, which examined the Brooklyn Museum’s Infinite Island exhibition along with the general disconnect between the Caribbean art that is shown and acclaimed in international exhibitions and what is recognized as Caribbean art within the region itself. This present seminar provides us with a welcome and timely opportunity for further reflection and debate on these issues and I am grateful that the organizers of the forthcoming Caribbean Crossroads exhibition are present and willing to participate in these discussions which, I believe, need to be part of the preparation for any major exhibition of Caribbean art.
Let me now return to the case of Jamaica: Jamaica is unique in the Caribbean because of the exceptional international exposure of its popular music – Reggae and Dancehall – and is arguably the most culturally visible – or audible – country of the Caribbean in the international arena. Travel anywhere in the world, even where there are significant language barriers, and when you say “Jamaica”, you are likely to hear “Bob Marley” in response. I grew up with Reggae in Belgium in the late 70s and early 80s, long before I knew anything about Jamaica, such as its geographic location or history. My love of Reggae, shallow and stereotypical as it may have been, greatly contributed to my decision to move to Jamaica when the opportunity arose in 1984. Jamaica’s international image thus relies almost entirely on its music (although, in this post-Beijing Olympics era, also on its athletes) The term “Brand Jamaica,” which encapsulates this international image, is constantly used in Jamaica these days, in discussions about how the local economy and culture should be developed and externally promoted. It has also become a central tenet of Jamaican cultural policy and the current policy document, grandiosely titled Towards Jamaica the Cultural Superstate (2003), posits that culture is Jamaica’s most valuable asset, including in the economical sense.
While Jamaican popular music has a distinctive visual culture of its own, which is negotiated between Jamaica and the international music industry and circulates along with the music, Jamaican visual art as a whole does not have a recognizable image in the international arena. This international invisibility of the Jamaican visual arts is remarkable, at least in comparison, and it is easy to see how this could be construed as a failure. This has significant implications for local expectations about the international exposure of Jamaican visual art. The economic success of Jamaican music is, for instance, fueling the perception that successful international cultural exposure must necessarily translate into immediate and significant economic returns and that the visual art sector is somehow delinquent when it fails to achieve these goals. This perception is reinforced by the dynamics of the local art world in Jamaica, which is supported financially by a robust but very conservative art market but virtually no non-profit patronage, other than the precarious state support of institutions such as the National Gallery of Jamaica and the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. The guest speaker at last year’s academic staff conference at the Edna Manley College, Robert Gregory, the CEO of the government’s investment agency Jamaica Trade and Invest, told us point blank that Jamaican culture is a highly marketable commodity and that all aspects of the local cultural sector – and, by implication, the Edna Manley College – would have to “earn their keep” as part of the culture industries or face redundancy.
These arguments have some validity – Jamaica is, after all, a poor and socially troubled country that cannot afford to subsidize an elitist and socially irrelevant art world – but they are also very problematic. It is particularly troubling that Jamaica’s cultural worth is now defined almost entirely in economic terms, as this invalidates those cultural expressions that are not readily commodified but nonetheless very important to Jamaica’s overall cultural and social health. It is, in actuality, usually the less deliberately commercial side of Jamaican art that gains the most critical acclaim and exposure abroad – a fact that seems to escape our cultural policy makers. The comparisons between Jamaican music and art also fail to take into account that visual art functions and circulates in ways that are fundamentally different from popular music, and, furthermore, that Jamaican music is an exceptional phenomenon which cannot necessarily be replicated in other areas of cultural expression.
The claims about the international recognition and economic success of Jamaican music also warrant closer critical scrutiny than they have thus far received. The Cultural Superstate policy document prominently cites a 1999 study by the Recording Association of America, which estimated that Reggae music was worth 14.5 billion US Dollars in the US economy. Whatever this staggering figure actually represents – and the cultural policy document characteristically provides no such detail – it is more than twice as high as Jamaica’s national budget for 2008-2009, which totaled at about 6.8 billion US Dollars and included the 50-odd percent that goes to national debt servicing. Add to this that the same 1999 report also claimed that Jamaica recovered only 0.5 billion US Dollars (or less than 3.5 %) of Reggae’s total US worth and it is easy to see why there is this eagerness to cash in on Jamaica’s actual and perceived cultural-economic assets. We are yet to see any credible figures, however, about what Jamaica could and should actually make out of its music industry. Such careless, emotive use of figures and facts is all too typical for the way in which Jamaica currently construes its international cultural status and earning power. I should also make reference to the intense controversies that surround Dancehall, because of its association with gun violence, lewdness and homophobia, and which have recently led to the cancellation of Dancehall concerts in the metropolitan West and the refusal of certain Caribbean countries to grant entry to particularly controversial deejays. I will also argue that Dancehall does not measure up to the political and creative standards that were set by Reggae and in actuality represents a decline of Jamaican music. Energetic and expansive as it may seem to be, the Jamaican music industry clearly has its own problems.
In light of the above, it is necessary to challenge the schematic view that Jamaican popular music represents the genuine culture of “the people” and entirely defines Jamaica culturally, while modern and contemporary Jamaican visual art represent the alienated and derivative cultural values of the elite – an interpretation which has gained almost dogmatic status in the current debates about Jamaican culture. Despite Jamaica’s troubled social dynamics, the culture of its small but powerful middle class is an important, legitimate, diverse and, indeed, in many ways problematic part of the island’s culture, which exists in a constant, complex and generally fertile dialogue with the equally complicated and problematic popular culture. (On screen, you will see two examples of work by emerging Jamaican artists art that engages explicitly with this dialogue: Peter Dean Rickard, who evocatively captures the contradictory romance of Jamaica’s gun culture, while Ebony Patterson critiques the ambivalent gender constructions in Dancehall, which have homoerotic overtones, despite the strident homophobic rhetoric.) The debate about the defining role of popular music, which typically comes from middle class intellectuals and inadvertently harks back to cultural nationalism’s concern with the popular as the exemplary national culture, is in actuality a part of these fraught inter-class cultural dialogues. There is, furthermore, significant middle class involvement in the Jamaican music industry, at the level of the business management and as part of the middle class youth culture. Some noted Reggae and Dancehall artistes, such as Cat Coore of Third World and Sean Paul, actually come from elite families. Contemporary Jamaican popular culture is also not entirely defined by Dancehall, but competes for space with other significant cultural forms, such as the Gospel music of evangelical Christianity.
Clearly, the local and international circulation and reception of Jamaican music and Jamaican art cannot be credibly compared in the binary and prescriptive terms that have been used thus far in this debate but much can nonetheless be learned from the story of Jamaican music, in terms of what needs to be done to promote Jamaican and Caribbean art more effectively in the international arena and what stands to be gained, and lost, in the process. This requires a fuller discussion than I could possibly provide here today but I want to close by focusing on one very basic issue that is of particular concern to me, namely that international success and cultural branding can also be a creative liability. The development of Jamaican music has, after all, also been limited by its success, since the dominance and marketability of Reggae and Dancehall has coerced Jamaican musicians to conform to these idioms, at the expense of other possibilities and, as the extreme routinization of Dancehall suggests, of innovation and genuine inventiveness. The current “Brand Jamaica” campaign only consolidates the dominance of these idioms and promotes a narrowly defined, undemanding and easily recognizable vision of Jamaicanness, which is trendy and attractive but often borders on caricature and stereotype. It is bad enough to do this in tourism but quite another to frame the entire Jamaican culture in such terms – a giant step backwards in my view. I do not think that it is in the interest of Jamaican art to go along that route, which is not only unlikely to result in any sustained economic gains but also may well undermine the vibrancy and integrity of Jamaican culture in the process. In Jamaica, as it does in many other contexts, the most significant art does not come from the middle of the road but from the margins, and often engages critically and provocatively with what comes from the culturally dominant. My own preference within the Jamaican art world is definitely for those individualist voices, those eccentric perspectives that add depth and texture to Jamaican culture. For instance: several new contemporary artists, such as the earlier-mentioned Ebony Patterson and O’Neil Lawrence, engage critically with the gender politics of Jamaican society, in ways that may not speak about, for or to any majority in Jamaica but provide an important and necessary counterpoint to the mindless sexism and homophobia that dominates Dancehall culture. I certainly want Jamaican artists to do well internationally, in terms of exposure, critical acclaim and commercial success, but this should never come at the expense of the individuality and creative freedom that is currently claimed by our contemporary artists, who do not feel pressured to be “Jamaican” or “Caribbean” in any prescribed manner but deal with whatever they chose to deal with, including issues of Jamaicanness or Caribbeanness, in personal, challenging and compelling ways. This takes me to my final point, which is of specific relevance to this seminar, namely that we need to that we have to be more self-reflexive about the consequences of promoting categories such as Jamaican or Caribbean art in publications and exhibitions. I have been a wary participant in these processes and keep telling myself that it is fine to use these labels, as long as they are supported only by soft, open-ended definitions. However, when it comes to the reception of such publications and exhibitions, soft definitions tend to translate into hard categories, since they inevitably suggest that there is or needs to be a cohesive and uniform cultural and aesthetic identity. Let me make myself clear: I am not suggesting that there are no commonalities in Jamaican and Caribbean art that shared aesthetic and thematic pursuits should not be recognized. Nor I am suggesting that we should not hold regional events such as this seminar, which help to create a much needed sense of artistic and intellectual community across the Caribbean and its diaspora. What I am saying is that we should make a conscious decision to steer clear from prescriptive, limiting and externally imposed labels and definitions and give the art the breathing to evolve on its own terms. The US-based artists Renee Cox, who is by far the best known Jamaican-born artist on the international scene, makes no secret of her Jamaican background, which plays an important role in her work, and has recently started exhibiting in Jamaica but has not promoted herself as a Jamaican artist and is not usually regarded as one. Her Jamaicanness is asserted on an individual rather than a collective level and she has certainly benefited from being to negotiate her identity on her own terms, without being pigeonholed. In a sense, then, I am glad to hear complaints such as “Where are the Jamaicans?,” because it also means that our contemporary artists have thus far escaped the limiting pressures of the cultural branding of Jamaica and any imposed corporate identities. This is thus the very basic question I wish to leave you with: what is gained and/or lost by promoting the art of Jamaica as “Jamaican art” and of the Caribbean as “Caribbean art” and are there other, less restrictive but critically productive ways to represent the art of the Caribbean region?