Decoding Veerle Poupeye’s Laments

A response to a series of critiques of the National Gallery of Jamaica

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Philip Thomas, Pimpers Paradise, The Terra Nova edition, Beyond Fashion, National Gallery of Jamaica

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In a post titled “Too Close for Comfort” dated September 22, 2018, former executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, Veerle Poupeye, has publicly censured the institution she used to head, for the fifth or sixth time since the start of the year when she demitted office. The gist of these critiques is that the Gallery can get little or nothing right since her departure, and now, minus her vigilance and guidance, is in danger of violating museum ethics as the Board, by implication, is unaware of the high standards that must be maintained.

Please note that this response to Poupeye’s latest ‘warning’ is made in my private capacity as a writer and critic and not as a representative of the NGJ Board, on which I’ve served since mid-2016. Since September 22, 2018, Poupeye has reposted the article mentioned above at least 4 times, apparently dissatisfied with the scant attention it was receiving from those she sought to voice her concerns to.

In the preceding months Poupeye has focused an acerbic gaze at every single exhibition mounted by the NGJ since her departure and—not surprisingly—found them wanting. She freely offers her opinions and judgments on her personal blog and on her Facebook page where among other things she scolds the new PR team for allegedly failing to put out a press release before rather than after the exhibition, chides her former curatorial team for various alleged imperfections, and raises ‘concerns’ about the rights and wrongs of a board member who is also an art impresario somehow ‘benefiting’ from two of the artists she represents being in a micro-show at National Gallery West even though it is the Senior Curator who would have made the selection and not the board member in question.  It remains unclear how artists or their agents might benefit from exposure at National Gallery West, a tiny space not on the radar of most people in Jamaica, let alone the wider art world. In fact the premise of the exhibition was the opposite, to mount the work of interesting artists with connections to Western Jamaica for the benefit of audiences in that region–not to burnish the artists’ already healthy reputations.

In the screed under discussion Poupeye’s tone is lofty as she dwells on the shortcomings of the institution she has spent more than 30 years at, in one capacity or another. The subject of the former ED’s admonitions and cautionary statements is Susanne Fredricks, whose family owns HiQo Gallery, and who has recently set up an online platform called Suzie Wong Presents (SWP), designed to showcase and promote the work of Jamaican artists at international art fairs and other similar fora. Like myself Fredricks has been on the Board of the National Gallery since 2016, and has privately represented the same artists during Poupeye’s tenure as ED, although no alarm was raised at the time about this, even though the same artists were featured in National Gallery shows during that period.

The ambit and scope of what Fredricks is attempting to do with SWP is commendable, a much needed innovation that ought to be applauded rather than sneered at and disparaged as the former ED has done. Despite Poupeye’s facade of civility and feigned moral superiority her repeated attempts to try her case on social media a few days before the launching of SWP in London at 1-54, the relatively new African Art Fair held in conjunction with Frieze Art Fair, raise concerns about her motives. While Poupeye is careful to appear objective and impartial in her statements she cunningly allows her gullible followers to do the heavy lifting, generating snarky, derisive comments that verge on the libelous, and do little to show Jamaican art in a good light, as seen in the Facebook exchange below:

Veerle Poupeye Natalie D. A. Bennett Let me first say that I am delighted that these artists are getting this exposure opportunity. The required reading appears to make reference to Stuart Hall, who is referenced in the press material. Here is the other information I have: 198 is a charitable, non-profit gallery and organization in Brixton and the special projects at 1-54, to which they were invited to contribute, are not-for-profit, although the rest of the fair of course is. Suzie Wong Presents is, to my understanding, an online commercial gallery. Several works by both artists are being offered for sale through that gallery’s Artsy page. Four works by these artists that are presented as for sale on that page are presently on view in the I Shall Return Again exhibition at National Gallery West exhibition in Montego Bay. Susanne Fredricks, who operates Suzie Wong Presents, and who curated Required Reading as a collaboration with 198, is also a member of the National Gallery of Jamaica Board and the Chair of its exhibition committee.I am not familiar with the content of the display at 1-54.

Natalie D. A. Bennett what is that mi jus read…? the sed person who runs the commercial gallery that is charged with selling the works also sits on the public board of NGJ and used their position of access to put those works in a public exhibition suh more people can see it and thus buy it so dem can personally reap the benefits? so the public exhibition, while it’s bringing important and necessary visibility to the artists themselves, is actually enriching the person who put it on display in the public gallery? Suh ef it sell ah di individual an dem commercial gallery and not the public institution a get di money and then dish out fi dem portion to the artists? Suh fi dem commercial gallery nevva good enough an naa draw enough attention?

None of the above is true but Bennett has correctly decoded what was implicit in Poupeye’s statements. Alarmed by these insinuations Lucy Davies, director of 198, the non-profit, London-based gallery mentioned by VP responded to the same post pointing out there was little basis for the claims being made of conflict of interest. She also corrected Poupeye’s misconceptions about what constitutes a non-profit in the British context:

Lucy Davies It is most unfortunate that you have chosen to try and undermine our involvement in 1-54 with your posts suggesting that our partner Suzie Wong Presents is gaining financially from their participation . We in London have worked hard to achieve this opportunity for Jamaican artists and invited SWP to participate. You might be surprised to learn than no actual artworks are on display. Both partners invested considerable funds in creating a bespoke multi media installation (which has been really well received btw) without external sponsorship.

Even if works had been sold it is unlikely that any commission due to partners would have covered the costs incurred in providing this opportunity to two great artists. Also non profit does not mean you cannot sell works. We do this at 198 quite often. It simply means that any funds raised are reinvested in further work to support artistic endeavours.

You are welcome to post this comment on the Caribbean Artist network page as 198 would like there to be complete clarity on this. Also I’d like to suggest that any grievances you might have with SWP be approached via appropriate channels as calling people out on social media is not exactly a professional look.

In the back and forth that ensued on Facebook  (see screenshots below) the former ED does what she does all too often; she climbs on her moral high horse and rides it for all its worth, accusing Davies of personal hostility and animosity although no one reading Davies’ calm and measured comments would come to the same conclusion. In fact a glance at her comments in the screenshots pasted below show that Davies is the one accusing VP of personal motives in the timing and nature of her attack on SWP but in a classic instance of gaslighting VP throws the accusations back at her with absolutely no evidence offered!

“The comments by you I have read since then ARE personally hostile and it is clear that you bear animosity towards me for reasons only you can clarify. I believe that it is your professional conduct that is inappropriate here and I will write the governing body of the organization you represent with a complaint about same. Enough is enough!”

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It has become commonplace for any criticism of the ex-ED to be routinely dismissed as “highly inappropriate” or “distasteful” and the critique characterized as a personal  attack. Quite often in her lengthy jeremiads Poupeye moralizes on Jamaican society beyond the art world. Her statements are oracular, and “delivered like Holy Writ, without sourcing or self-reflection or doubt”, a quote from Mark Judge’s article, “Are You Guilty of ‘Virtue-Signaling?’”  in which he discusses the phenomenon of less than virtuous individuals going out of their way to signal their superiority and integrity by frequent expressions of moral outrage. According to Judge “Virtue signaling is the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favor for certain political ideas, cultural happenings, or even the weather.”

It’s something one cannot help but notice in Veerle Poupeye’s Facebook utterances: her vigorous, indeed, aggressive virtue signaling. The following are examples of what I’m talking about.

Veerle Poupeye
29 September at 20:44

 If you sell works of art, in a space or online, you operate a commercial gallery, and you are a dealer; no matter how many times you call your operation a “platform.” or yourself a “curator”. Nothing wrong with selling art, dealers and commercial galleries are very important and the good ones fulfill many other roles, but at least be clear, and honest, about the fundamental nature and purpose of your operation and do not try to masquerade as a non-profit operation.

This statement indirectly references SWP, the fledgling art platform that for reasons best known to herself, VP seems determined to scuttle. Yet SWP has never masqueraded as a non-profit operation as suggested in the above Facebook post, and further it is an incorrect assumption on Poupeye’s part that non-profits can’t sell work, so what is all the alarmist talk and concern about? Let’s throw mud, some of it is bound to stick, seems to be the rationale behind it. In the following Facebook update, Poupeye tries a different tack, laying on her moralism with a trowel and introducing the victim card:

Veerle Poupeye
3 October at 10:59 ·

 Why do some people attack the messenger in very personal and disparaging way when an issue they do not want to hear or acknowledge goes into the open, especially when they are directly or indirectly compromised in the matter. Should we just ignore things that are plainly wrong out of fear for those reprisals? What message are we giving to people who speak up for what they believe in, that they will not be supported and should keep quiet? That it is “all good” even when what is happening is clearly wrong, merely because it benefits them? And why is this happening in an era which is full of rhetoric about “speak truth to power” and “me too”. Very, very disappointing, especially when it comes from someone who should know better, but chooses to act otherwise out of self-interest. Whatever happened to integrity and principle? Is it just optional when it is convenient?

Veerle Poupeye
8 October at 15:53 ·

 Earn your position through hard work, carried out with integrity, and through ability and achievement, and you’ll have my respect, no matter who you are or how I otherwise feel about you and what you represent. Earn it through opportunistic, talentless hustling (or with the hustle being your only real talent), and through dishonesty, disregard for others, and taking credit for other people’s work and vision, and I can only offer total contempt, no matter how far you get.

What is all this frantic virtue signaling about? James Bartholomew, the man who invented the term, gives us a clue:

“It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandizement would be obvious. . . . Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.”

In general Veerle Poupeye poses as a moral exemplar and has set herself up as the ‘conscience’ and gatekeeper of Jamaican art. But how reliable is she as an objective commentator on Jamaican art or anything else?

In the post under discussion Poupeye mischievously uses a bee metaphor to introduce her latest bee(f). The reference is to an essay by Kei Miller in the inaugural issue of PREE, a new online platform of writing on, from and of the Caribbean, that I am associated with. Titled The White Women and the Language of Bees, the essay prompted Poupeye to pen an open letter to Miller on her blog. Her blog has a ‘commentary facility’ she says to Lucy Davies. However Kei’s response to her open letter remains unpublished, for undisclosed reasons. Did it contradict Poupeye’s assertions perhaps? Was it an inconvenient counter to her narrative? Whatever the reason, to voice a strong critique of a writer, then decline to publish his response, is an act of bad faith and does not demonstrate a commitment to the fostering of critical discussion in the region, a claim often made by Poupeye.

Miller’s essay provoked quite a reaction in certain quarters, which caused us to temporarily take it down until the firestorm, in which Poupeye was a vociferous participant, subsided. When the essay was subsequently restored to the PREE website Poupeye immediately added a note to her post stating authoritatively that Kei’s essay had been “replaced by a  substantially revised version.” This is patently untrue and I challenge Poupeye to provide evidence of these substantial revisions (WordPress keeps scrupulous track of edits so this is easy to do). I am the one who uploaded the new version and I struggled to identify the minor changes Kei had made to his essay long before PREE came out. We had published an earlier version and he asked us to put up the most recent version which he had neglected to give us at the time of publication. There were no changes made to the parts that caused the fuss, and the objecting parties continued to campaign against it, so it’s unclear why Poupeye felt the gratuitous lie was necessary. But lie she did, making one wonder how many of her sweeping truth claims are fabricated and how many or how few are accurate and true.

Finally, in her post “Too Close for Comfort” Poupeye quotes from a 2009 essay of mine in which I drew attention to the conflict of interest in one person, then curator David Boxer, simultaneously being Chief Curator, a practicing artist whose work was shown in almost every show the NGJ curated, as well as one of the biggest private collectors in the country. Poupeye rightly observed that “Any attempt to critique these issues was construed as a dismissal of the otherwise indeed valuable and pioneering work done by the NGJ and Boxer” but neglects to mention that she was very much part and parcel of this construal. I had been trying to draw attention to this problem long before 2009, but never received support from Veerle Poupeye who was then very much Dr. Boxer’s right hand woman, having been his protégé since the 80s. Mine was a voice in the wilderness, except for Roberta Stoddart, who in the 90s demanded a meeting with the then Board to insist that something be done about this conflict of interest.

Was Poupeye unaware then of the ICOM Code of Ethics she so frequently waves in our faces nowadays? Had she not found her moral compass yet? There is no published work I’m aware of in which Poupeye raised the alarm about the state of affairs at the National Gallery in the days when she was part of the inner circle. Her 2011 thesis Between Nation and Market certainly doesn’t mention the conflict of interest although David Boxer figures prominently in it. Incidentally my critiques of the incestuous Jamaican art world Poupeye is very much a product of, were disruptive in the true sense of the word. I take it she’s in agreement with my views now though there was never any indication of it back in the day when she could have done something about it.

One notes with amusement the former ED positioning herself as the lone disruptive voice today and generally posturing as a daring art crusader who will ‘tell it like it is’ whether Jamaicans like it or not. “I will continue throwing stones in the pond and to act as a “disruptor,” to use fashionable management speak, for as long as I can and as long as I am convinced that it is important to do so. I believe that it is needed for the health of the Caribbean art ecology.” Good! Better late than never, welcome to the stone-throwing club! But beware: if you live in a glass house don’t throw stones.

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Quilt performing

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Crowd waiting outside the National Gallery of Jamaica

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My writings about the insular curatoriat of the NGJ, of the fraught and problematic concept of the ‘intuitives’, of the importance of contemporary art, preceded Poupeye’s  belated critiques by more than a decade, something rarely acknowledged today. What is curious is that Poupeye is suggesting that the non-issue of Susanne Fredricks’ online platform Suzie Wong Presents is equivalent to the conflict of interest involving Boxer’s triple role in his time. This is a false equivalence Madame Poupeye and you would be hard put to prove otherwise. If you actually believe this then it’s a clear sign that you’re dangerously out of touch with reality.

Let me close by relating an anecdote. A few years ago my friend Elsie was returning to Jamaica for the first time after retiring as Executive Director of an institution she had helmed here for about 15 years. Are you looking forward to visiting your old haunt and catching up with your former employees I asked? Elsie looked at me in horror, “Oh no! I would never do that,” she said, shaking her head vigorously. “It’s considered infra dig to appear at a company you used to head, I might be accused of interfering. As former head, best international practice dictates that I maintain a distance, allowing the new head to find his feet and develop relationships with the staff, without my casting a shadow over them. So no, I don’t intend to go anywhere near my former office.”

Poupeye, who is fond of reminding us of international best practice in relation to art and aesthetics should take a leaf out of Elsie’s book and stop haunting the National Gallery. It’s not international best practice for former executive directors to appear at every event and exhibition mounted by their former institution, haranguing staff and dominating q and a sessions. Stop policing your former employees, Board and institution unless you’re vying for a Provincial Best Practice medal. Your former position as head of the NGJ renders you unsuitable to provide meaningful critique on a subject that is much too close for comfort to your own personal history. Now there’s a true conflict of interest we can and ought to discuss.

It would be advisable also for Poupeye to pay attention to the reception of her posts. When you post an article on social media four times and still get the cold shoulder while a post about the possibility of starting an online art journal receives an enthusiastic response, your social media ‘friends’ are trying to tell you something. Drop the accusatory, finger-pointing mode and embrace the ‘building new platforms’ mode, something as I said you are uniquely well-placed to do. Of course to accomplish this you might want to park the high horse, rest the Voice from Above and ditch the Veerle Knows Best approach to art and life. It doesn’t sit well in this era of decolonial aesthetics. If possible bring back the Veerle Poupeye who wrote Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica, a magisterial study that I highly recommend to anyone interested in Caribbean art or just art, period.

 

If there was ever any doubt that the NGJ is undergoing a resurgence since Poupeye’s   departure it was manifest at the opening of ‘Beyond Fashion’, the exhibition that has put her former protégé O’Neil Lawrence on the map. A record-breaking crowd of young folk descended on the Gallery on September 30, 2018, showing that there is indeed life and art after Veerle Poupeye. It’s a tough truth to swallow but take consolation in the fact that your protégé has done you proud. You deserve some of the acclaim for his success just as you deserve some of the blame for the many faults you continue to find with the Gallery, for you were in charge of this institution for at least 10 years, and associated with it for 30.

PS: As I get ready to post this Veerle Poupeye has just posted a review of Beyond Fashion in which she’s refreshingly self-reflexive about being too close for comfort to the subject at hand. She goes on nevertheless to level critiques against the curation of the show, the text panels, their placement, their content, “the thematic considerations that shape Beyond Fashion, and the underlying scholarship and critical engagement,” proving her point that she’s too close to the subject matter she’s discussing. We predict that Veerle Poupeye will continue to review every show presented at the NGJ and find them all wanting, in one respect or another.

Just to add that the unprecedented crowd at the opening of Beyond Fashion cannot simply be attributed to the Kingston Art and Architecture Walk (which had about 100 people) or the performance group Quilt both of which have happened there before  without attracting such a large crowd. A lot of credit must go to the curator, O’Neil Lawrence and his team, the curator who according to Veerle Poupeye, can’t get anything right anymore. Yet this is the same curator Poupeye relentlessly tried to have appointed as Chief Curator some months ago, angrily vilifying those who suggested he might not be ready. Did you get it wrong then Veerle, or is your current judgment off? You were wrong then, or wrong now, proving that your judgement is not infallible. Time to stand down?