Morrison: “Ceremony in Space, Time and Sound”
Catalogue, essay, National Gallery of Art, Kingston, Jamaica, 2008
Ceremony in Space, Time and Sound
By Keith Morrison
The Curator’s Eye III consists of art by 15 artists, four of whom live abroad. I call the exhibition “Ceremony in Space, Time and Sound” because the media the artists use involve dimensions that extend forms of visual forms of art. The exhibition involves film, TV and video projections, room installations, interactive art, along with paintings, photographs; prints and sculptures. It is an exhibition with a variety of ceremonial themes to be found in Jamaican art, reflecting a dynamism from which Jamaica takes its cultural character and a source of a continuum from the cultures of ancient Africa to our time. Of course, not all Jamaicans are descendants of slaves or of Africans. Jamaicans are Black, White, Maroon, Chinese, Indian, Jewish, Arab, and just about all others. However, as is commonly known, and as The Curator’s Eye III further substantiates, the cultural originality of the country is strongly affected by Africa and practices evolved from the days of slavery.
The media the artists use in the exhibition are perhaps unusually varied. There is excellent painting, prints photographs, and sculpture, as would be expected. There are four room -installations of objects and constructions, each an artist-created space that is a unique environment. Almost half the exhibition (7 rooms, each dedicated to one work by an artist) is of time-based art, meaning art that moves through space in time and in sound. These include film, video, TV, and animation. At least five of the artists use sound (i.e. noise as special demarcation, or music). There is also interactive art, where the viewer is invited to participate in creation of a ceremonial art performance. The Jonkonnu dancers that open the show symbolize the continuum of festive ceremony throughout the history of Jamaica.
Under the broad framework of ceremony, The Curator’s Eye III involves a number of themes that surface in several artists works in different ways. A common theme is common ritual, depicted in ways that are secular, religious, social, political, communal and personal. One example of ritual is Carol Crichton’s the athlete as Hero, which is an important icon in Jamaican sports. O’Neil Gordon’s photographs reveal a ritual by the sea. Khepera Hatsheptwa’s interactive installation is a ritual of social communion itself. Lawrence Graham-Brown’s work is about rituals of sexual exhibitionism. Albert Chong’s photo projections are about the ritual of the body adorned. Ras Kassa’s video is about the kaleidoscopic rituals of exuberance in urban Jamaica. As may be expected, there are several religious rituals in the show as well, including Paula Daly’s childhood Christian altar. Cleve Bowen’s mystical vision of light forces is a futuristic and abstract ritual. Another theme is of performance, examples of which are Oneika Russell’s No less Dancehall Girl, Graham-Brown’s video about beauty queens. Ebony Patterson explores the body beautiful and sexually transformed. Russell, Graham-Brown and Patterson explore perspectives of the Dancehall culture in different ways, each highlighting a dimension of iconic beauty layered with rich cultural meaning. Ras Kassa’s video celebrating the urban street culture, Chong’s tattooed figures, and Khepera’s interactive installation. Yet another theme is the concept of the wanderer or the traveller who journeys to a known or unknown destination. That Caribbean people wander the earth is an historic fact, so it should be no surprise that the image of the traveller surfaces in artists’ works. We see it in the Totems of Andy Jefferson, which are inspired by objects that drifted ashore. The journey is at the essence of Tal Rickards Serengeti. Moby Dick and Ophelia drifts away in Oneika Russell’s video, The Sea.” Transformation is a theme. In Russell’s The Sea Ophelia is transformed into Dancehall girl. A variety of sexual and gender transformations occur in Graham-Brown’s Who is more Masculine. Chong’s photographs are all about transformation. Michelle Eistrup’s paintings are about microscopic transformations and the mysteries and myths of the transformative nature of ancient and secret microcosmic potions. Issues of the all-surrounding sea itself are a preoccupation of just about all people in the Caribbean is a sub-theme. Russell’s video is about the transformative power of the primordial sea, as it engulfs and evolves imagery from age-old literature to the present-day fantasies. O’Neil Lawrence photographs are also about communion and ceremony with the sea. Much of the art in the exhibition include images about crafts as a theme, including costumes, jewellery, and body adornment, reflecting the continuing influence on today’s art of age old forms of art from Africa that are strong in Jamaica, if sometimes given short shrift elsewhere. Several artists dress figures in their work in various kinds of costumes, including O’Neil Lawrence and Albert Chong, and Lawrence Graham-Brown. Carol Campbell’s installation shows actual jewellery and a video of the body adorned in jewellery.
The Curator’s Eye III bridges more conventional forms of art with new media, all coming together to express art that has to do with issues of ceremony, celebration, ritual and performance. Painting, prints, photographs, and sculpture are well represented in the show, as it should be, since this tradition remains the backbone of much of the best Jamaican art. While taking nothing away from the high quality of the more traditional art, the emphasis in The Curator’s Eye III is clearly on new electronic media and installations which make up half of the exhibition.
As presented, the electronic media and installations require large amounts of space that make them difficult if not impractical to exhibit in private art galleries, and not easily marketable. It requires collaboration of a variety of sources to maintain this kind of art on a broad and sophisticated level. In countries where this is successful government agencies educational institutions and philanthropic organizations combine to prove support for artists and or their projects, being mindful of the limited marketability of some of the best art in the society. Such a strategy establishes national support, encouragement to emerging art forms and artists, and creates a broad social environment that encourages development of original and indigenous form of art. A corollary is to encourage commercial agencies to support time-based media such as film, video, and art through the internet. Artists do not always need or use the latest multi-media equipment, and in fact, often welcome older equipment to explore new cutting-edge ideas through the sheer originality of their imagination and the freedom from industry that they have as artists. Further, since older equipment may be used with peripherals to which the artist already owns or has access, its use may be more practical for artists need than new equipment. However, the new work artists create and novel ways in which they use media can also benefit the commercial world in terms of identifying new ideas for their products. And of course, the more such art is made the more intelligible and acceptable it may become to the general public, thus allowing for establishment of a wider acceptance of new media in art. In many countries, as we know, the commercial world supports much art endeavour for this very reason by donating new or used equipment to artist, arts institutions and schools. In many countries the artist is recognized as an experimenter and a source for new ideas. In Jamaica donation of equipment (new or used) by the commercial industry to schools and arts institutions could serve to cultivate a new dimension of Jamaica art, and as such serve as an incubator for new ideas for the commercial sector of the society. Such support could be a win for artists, industry, and the government equally. Best of all, it would be a win for the people of Jamaica as a whole.
Obviously all art needs broader support irrespective of the medium of the art. However, art with limited marketability needs more support than others. Further, art with limited marketability, such as room installations, performance, and electronic art, video and multimedia presentations are difficult to exhibit conventionally. However, it appears to me that the seeds for inclusion in Jamaican art lies in of some of the authentic ideas that characterize the country, such as ceremonial practices, religious or secular rituals, dancehalls, and street life, are probably best cultivated through the populist iconography of new media. “Populist” because its signs, symbols, metaphors, and narrative are commonly known; and the visual language of the art is vernacular. And in the case of electronic media, the art is also populist because it may be shared by a wider segment of the population than rational art, since the cost to own or reproduce it (copying DVD, CD, and video, or internet access) is negligible.
The creation of art installations is not cheap, neither is the art easy to exhibit and sell because of the large amount of space it so often requires. However, the art form allows the artist to create environments and to make statements about the society that in most cases can be done in no other way. Installations have therefore become invaluable to expression of the social ethos. While the cost to reproduce it is cheap, the cost to make art in electronic media is high, making it not profitable to the artist.
Access to Equipment and funding would not only encourages new art, but would serve to establish the originality of Jamaican art on the international stage. Originality in art is not how well artists emulate standards set by other cultures (e.g., Europe or the US), but how well they bring new ideas to the fore. Originality is the basis for cultural distinction, without which one is merely a follower, a footnote to the legacy of others. Originality, which comes from new idea, is needed before art can be made. New idea is the foundation of originality. In my opinion, without originality there is no art. Refinement of existing art ideas may be fascinating virtuosity, attained by the very few with superior skill, may be entertaining and enjoyable, but that by itself is what I would call more technical finesse than art. Originality by itself may not be art, but all true art I have seen includes originality. Original art is art that is potentially important. And importance is the criterion for change or influence on the art world at large. Jamaica is ripe with original ideas that may make new and important world-class art. These ideas are to be found in Jamaica’s spiritual and religious practices, its legacy from slavery, its multilayer ethnicity, Jamaican style, music, language, and attitude. In England and much of the world they call all black people “Jamaican” (to the disgust of other black nationalities) because Jamaican style, culture and attitude often stands spectacularly above the rest. Jamaicans are considered more African by natives of some African countries than themselves. All this should tell us that in the eyes and mind of others Jamaica abounds with uniqueness and originality. The use of new media and the embracing of long-standing practices (e.g., ceremony and multi-disciplinary performance) provide a broader framework for Jamaican artists to explore and nurture their originality, and to take their particular experience to a universal level. Universality is not static, neither is it predefined. Rather, it is created by developing indigenous ideas and revealing them to the world for all to share. If insufficient economy previously limited wider manifestation of Jamaican art, electronic media such as animation, film, video, and especially the internet has become an equalizer, since much of these, especially the internet is free. The internet is perhaps the most democratic and universal of all media, and provides a great opportunity for innumerable artists worldwide. Many have the opportunity but not the idea. Ideas are ripe in Jamaica. New media and experiences that are indigenous to Jamaica should serve to establish new art in Jamaica on a par with art anywhere in the world.
But often the best art is strident, even offensive, as it rubs against the grain to reveal complex and contradictory truths of the society it serves. So it is in contemporary Jamaica. And so perhaps the nucleus of originality of contemporary art in Jamaica is in the imagery of sex and gangsta in the Dancehall culture, which takes impetus from the mores of the slums of Kingston and flaunted as phallic shoot-outs in spotlights that defy perceived middleclass denial and suppression, as explored in this exhibition by several artists. But if the slum and Dancehall culture form the prominent contemporary paradigm for Jamaican art, it shares the stage with some other sources from which it springs, as seen in the work of other artists in the show, whose ideas harkening back to ancient Africa, through slavery, festivals, rituals, ceremonies and the urban popular culture. Jamaican artist are expressing a richly layered aesthetic as revealed in the work if these 15 artists. Jamaican artists stand to become world-class leaders through exploring the originality of their culture with its multiethnic racial and ethnic experiences, unique religious diversity and profound ceremonial practices. If The Curator’s Eye III is any indication, the future of art by Jamaicans could be internationally outstanding.
Carol Campbell’s work in this exhibition is an installation expressing an array of imaginative about jewellery from ancient Africa to the present. The objects of jewellery she shows are artistic expressions that stand alone as sculptural objects with individual expression. When worn, as some (but not all) may be, their transformative power changes how we perceive the very essence of the wearer. Campbell’s jewellery not only adorns but transforms the body. The video of Africans in ceremonial jewellery, which she exhibits as a backdrop, underscores the importance of the tradition of jewellery as wearable and ceremonial sculpture that her own art reinforces. Campbell is an outstanding maker of art jewellery, most of which may be worn conventionally. Her sculptural jewellery takes the art to an exciting extreme, showing that jewellery is as fine an art as any other. Her installation as a whole is a celebration of the passage from Africa t of the body decorated with sensual forms.
Carol Crichton makes richly layered paintings in her compositions and imagery. The forms are like x-rays of colour and patterns that move back and forth through space. Her compositions and patterns are at once highly structured and at the same time random. The counterpoint between order and randomness is an imp0rtatnt part of her work, for the artist believes that this is a duality of the natural order of life. The images are iconic, reflection at once the particular and the ephemeral. Creighton’s painting “Reality “is prismatic, showing a complexity of layered images, which can be perceived as a total abstract kaleidoscope of form or as individuals in ceremonial pageantry. Hero 1 and Hero 2 celebrate the athlete in ceremony. Of course, the athlete is revered in Jamaica, and here Crichton elevates the concept of athletic celebration from the local to the universal. In her work the athlete stands as an essence of human achievement to celebrate.
Paula Daly has created an installation about her memory of childhood experience marching to the altar to receive the priest’s blessing in church. Her work seeks to recapture the magic and beauty of the mysterious artefacts and symbols of the altar. Daly’s art is essentially about the indelible stamp and lifelong joy of the Christian church to many in Jamaica. As ceremony has become widely celebrated in its guise of Africanness, it is no less so in the many forms of Christianity in Jamaica. It would be far from an over statement to assert that mainstream Christianity has been and continues to be a central cultural force in Jamaica, moulding the ethic and ethos of succeeding generations of children of varying backgrounds and ethnicity, even as they meet the challenge of Africanness and cultural diversity of Jamaica. Daly’s art is a straightforward traditional Christian statement. The essence of it lies in the forms she has recreated with their unusual beauty that elevates a childhood memory to a height of spiritual and aesthetic beauty.
Michelle Eistrup makes microscopic inventions of plant, objects, animals and birds symbolic participants in her aesthetical expression. Her method fuses photo and drawing. She creates an art about the existence in cultural dichotomies, by using the microscopic interpretations as intermediaries in spiritual and sacred spaces. The artist feels her work embodies much of the essence of expatriate Caribbean people who cull information from plants and insects to develop potions for survival. Eistrup’ work is about the world of the microcosm and the potency it can maintain in a larger world. Eistrup’s work consists of forms that weave a personal hive, sometimes insect-like, sometimes serpentine. The imagery is mysterious and suggests a primordial and sub-cultural entomology of strands of knowledge strung together like ingredients of the Juju and Obeah seen through a lens akin to the microscope. Eistrup creates a world that is ancient as it is contemporary, mystical as it is natural. Hers is a world of ways of the past that form a continuum to the future.
Andy Jefferson mines his background as printmaker and mixed media artist to create a two-part concept of Totems mirrored by flat, mixed media images. His six Totem poles mirrored by three prints and three paintings form a concept of ceremony and ritual. Jefferson’s Totems (each 6-12 ft. Tall) each represent an area of ceremony, including secular, civic, religious and staged ceremonies. The artist uses African, North American Indian and Taino symbols, embellished with mixed media, found objects (e.g., gaskets, nails, and driftwood), paint and varnish to create imagers of ceremony. The six prints include three collographs (intaglio and cardboard) prints mirroring three of the Totems, and three tartaruga prints (i.e., prints a texture based medium similar to acrylic modelling paste) to mirror the other three Totems.
Out of Many is one such work, which is about ritual/performance and beliefs as an object of worship, and the warding off of evil spirits. The artist observes that different cultures throughout time have used grotesque faces, spirits, or imaginary beings to instil fear in other people. The painting Travelling Souls is part of a series on the rituals around the sea. Travelling Souls is homage to the Caribbean ritualistic dependency and respect for the sea. The Caribbean soul in Jefferson’s painting wanders the sea like a contemporary Ulysses.
Ras Kassa’s work titled The Stew is an audio visual presentation of traditional and contemporary practices in life and performance in urban Jamaica. His work captures on film pedestrians, traffic and accompanying sounds in teaming Kingston. Imagery of Kumina, Jonkunu, Rastafari, Carnival, Dancehall, Obeah, marijuana, and a variety of other social ritual are wielded together in a kaleidoscopic vision. Ras Kassa’s camera follows a stray mongrel stray dog in one path through some of the grittiest parts of Kingston. At another point his camera follows a girl to a reading in a one-of-a-kind experience. Testimonials and narration pervade the whole. The tempo of the music and tone is varied, being moistly dub, but other variations are blended in too. Ras Kassa’s The Stew is a rich blend of the sights and sounds of urban Jamaica forming a cultural mix and ethos of a place and its times, and the rich multi-layered spirituality of its past and present.