The art we breathe

Schoolchildren viewing Leasho Johnson’s installation at Devon House


Schoolchildren stand in front of portrait of Col. Peter Beckford as they view Jasmin Girvan’s installation Laying the Table for the Ancestors

Culture–that overused and often abused word– is simply the panoply of distinctive features produced by the ‘livity’ of a people. Culture arises from the environments people live in, the resources at their disposal, the languages they speak, the way they prepare their food, the songs they sing, the clothes they wear, the things they read and watch, what they call art, how they do business, the games they play, the dance moves they make, how they build their physical and metaphorical homes. What they deem obscene and undesirable versus the obscene and undesirable things they tolerate everyday.

Culture cannot be mandated or legislated into existence. Nor can it be easily changed. Cultural change occurs at a glacial pace, primarily instigated by modification in environment, education and resources. The quickest way to transform cultures is by changing the living conditions of people but cultural adaptation is also influenced by exposure to new ways of seeing, doing and thinking.

Sometimes resources exist but are not fully utilized—or are used only by small segments of the population. How many Jamaicans visit the National Gallery of Jamaica for instance? Aside from the mandatory school trip how many people make a practice of visiting the Gallery regularly to view the exhibitions mounted there? Visual art is an aesthetic practice that has developed greatly beyond the basics of drawing, painting and sculpting what is visible to the eye yet too many of us don’t seem to realize this.

What does the mind see? How does it express it? How do we process history, location, time and identity to create new visual objects, sites and experiences? If you’re curious about such things this is the time to visit the National Gallery of Jamaica to see the 2017 Jamaica Biennial which opened on February 24 and will be up till May 28 this year. The National Gallery is an institution created as a repository for the visual musings of the nation, and should be patronized by all Jamaicans. Your taxes underwrite it.

Laura Facey’s 30-foot long drum, Ceiba

The opening saw a record crowd filling the Gallery, the largest in memory, with families and children out in their numbers; one can only hope this trend continues. Leading up to the opening both the Gleaner and Observer carried bulletins about the Biennial and social media also did its bit to instigate the brimming support the Gallery received last Sunday. Perhaps nothing drummed up as much support for the Biennial as Laura Facey’s Ceiba, a 30-foot long cylindrical drum made from a fallen silk cotton tree (see photo above). Its installation at the Gallery, carried on the shoulders of 35 JDF soldiers, created a startling and colourful instagram moment that was widely featured across both traditional and social media.

The Biennial has spread outside the walls of the National Gallery itself, into Devon House and all the way to Montego Bay, where there is a spectacular display at National Gallery West by Martiniquan artist David Gumbs. The small but well-proportioned domed space of Gallery West has been transformed by five projection screens, one of them in the dome itself. Playing on the screens in psychedelic, patterned symmetry is self-generated, flower-inspired imagery, drenching the space in pure shape-shifting colour. The shape and size of the pulsating imagery depends on the length and strength of breath blown into a conch shell by visitors. The Dome projection is animated in realtime by the considerable street noise of Montego Bay. According to Gumbs, this work reflects on the need to breathe, the symmetric patterns referencing the lungs and the double sided aspect of things in life. Such as light and darkness. Or up and down. Balance.

For me Gumbs’ work symbolizes a shot in the arm of a city that has lost its balance: Montego Bay. Ravaged by the fallout from the vicious Lottery Scam that has embroiled too many citizens of Western Jamaica and Mobay in particular, what that part of the country needs is new life to be breathed into it. It needs a fresh pair of lungs, and Xing-Wang (which means ‘Blossoms’ in Chinese) by David Gumbs is that metaphoric, life-enabling apparatus. Go forth and breathe new life into your city Montegonians…

In Kingston the work of Jasmine Girvan casts a spell at Devon House with the intricately crafted historical horrors she has unleashed in that old building. For her outstanding contribution to the Jamaica Biennial 2017 she has rightfully won the Aaron Matalon Award for the second time. Girvan’s work gives you the unnerving feeling of walking into a spider’s web, leaving you uncomfortably aware of having been touched by something creepy while simultaneously feeling stunned by its sheer beauty. You have until May 28th to feast your eyes on this and other provocative work, and ponder the grotesque scaffolding Caribbean societies are built on.

Originally published in the Gleaner, March 1, 2017. Photos and video added.

A Small Collision at Devon House

In which I meet Doc Cornish, shadow Minister of Justice of the Accompong Maroons, literally, by accident in the parking lot of Devon House.

Devon House by Varun Baker

Something surreal happened last night. Rather than go into any lengthy explanations I’ll let the following series of tweets, messages and status updates fill you in on the circumstances:

off to have dinner with Belinda Edmondson author of Caribbean Middlebrow…still haven’t decided on restaurant

On my way to pick Belinda up, i glanced at my phone during a red light break and saw:

Ok if diana paton and gad heumann tag along? They asked where i was eating?

Shortly I was tweeting from The Terrace at Devon House, formerly known as Norma’s on the Terrace. Norma no longer being on the scene (the famous chef died rather suddenly in 2010) the restaurant has been renamed by dropping Norma’s name (a new take on name-dropping?).

At The Terrace, Devon House w Belinda Edmondson, Faith Smith, Gad Heumann, Diana Paton. Magnificently lit tree

‘In courtyard’ I would have added if I had any character(s) left. And Shani Roper. By now you must know about Twitter’s infamous 140 characters, including spaces?

The tweet included a photo–not the best one–of said tree (see below).

Devon House Christmas Tree

The courtyard at Devon House is a splendid sight. The enormous tree in the centre is all decked out in lights for the season, done by someone with a light, magical touch. When you step into that space you feel transported–to happier, more cheerful times, to the festive, to thoughts of celebration and contentment–

There was only one jarring note; a mass produced nativity scene, reminding us that we live in a world largely made in China, out of cheap plastic, in garish colours.

Conversation was lively at our table as it was bound to be with several top ranking scholarly authors around it who happened to be in town for an editorial meeting. The book is to be about Victorian Jamaica, edited by Wayne Modeste, formerly of the Institute of Jamaica, and Tim Barringer, one of the Yale art historians who curated the massive Isaac Mendes Belisario show a few years back. That show produced one of the most sumptuous catalogues of its art the region has yet seen.

Belinda, who’s recovering from an illness, suddenly started to feel ill, and decided to leave before the food even arrived. I left with her to take her back to the Terra Nova where the authors were all staying, and return. In the parking lot people were coming and going, we got into my car and started pulling out when two ladies in a large forerunner type vehicle to our left started hissing and carrying on saying “Stop! Stop!”

What the hell–? I saw no reason to be detained by them so tried to start off again. This time one of them actually came and pounded on poor Belinda’s window shouting, “You can’t go!”

“But I’m feeling sick!” protested Belinda weakly while i leaned over to give the woman a piece of my mind.

“Jesus Christ, these women don’t understand?!” the younger woman shouted throwing her arms up in the air. “Look how long we been waiting for you to come out and now you don’t even want to listen! Lady, we bounced your car by accident, see the damage here!” she said dramatically pointing at the bonnet of the car which i now noticed was slightly bent out of shape.

Meanwhile the older woman came up and said “We’re really sorry, see my card here, just call me.”

This was all very confusing. Red wine had been imbibed after all. I was being pulled down to earth very suddenly and wasn’t sure how to respond. Surely i should be enraged and express some hostility towards these ladies but i couldn’t muster any. They were just so contrite and had been waiting for nearly an hour for me to come out. I shuddered to think what would have happened had Belinda not taken sick because i would only have emerged another couple of hours later.

“Jesus, mi feel faint. Mi was was scared so till…mi seh the driver going to so vex, he will beat mi up.” gasped the younger woman leaning against the bonnet of her vehicle for support. In retrospect i realize she must have been the driver though at the time i didn’t even have the sense to ask who was driving, much less take any photos which i decided some time ago I must do in the event of an accident.

I did have the sense to take down the young woman’s name, number and the license plate number of the vehicle, though i can’t for the life of me tell you what brand of car it was. I looked at the card the other woman had given me. ACCOMPONG it said. Maroon Traditional Medicine. VIH. Doc Cornish. Nature Pathic Practitioner. It gave a Stony Hill Address.

“You’re a Maroon?” I asked stupidly, feeling vaguely honoured at having been bounced by someone with such a legendary heritage. “Yes,” she answered proudly, “I’m the shadow Minister of Justice of the Accompong Maroons.”

Again I have no memory of the name she gave me. Vivian Cornish? I also forgot to ask for her documents or to get details of her insurance company but I just called the driver who assured me that the security guards last night had got all the details from them after examining the requisite documents. I’ll drive by there later today and talk to them.

As i said, somewhat surreal. This morning I wondered if I had dreamt it, but my car bonnet is still a little bent out of shape so i guess not. Somehow I can’t help thinking there’s something fateful about this collision. Its not often that people are honest enough to stay and face up to the consequences of their action. The lady must be a formidable Minister of Justice. Will keep you posted.

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