Art and Artifice

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Gleaner column, Dec 13, 2017

Art has been in the headlines globally, regionally and locally in the last few weeks. On the global stage Christie’s mid-November auction featuring a long-lost work by Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, was very much in the news especially after the much hyped painting sold for US$450.3 million. Created more than 500 years ago the painting depicts Christ as Salvator Mundi (Latin for Savior of the World).

According to Wikipedia “The painting shows Jesus, in Renaissance dress, giving a benediction with his right hand raised and two fingers extended, while holding a transparent rock crystal orb in his left hand, signaling his role as savior of the world and master of the cosmos, and representing the ‘crystalline sphere’ of the heavens.”

Before the auction Salvator Mundi was estimated to sell for approximately US$100 million. Christie’s elaborate marketing campaign toured the painting around the world attracting more than 27,000 people. A YouTube video showing mesmerized expressions on the faces of those who gazed upon the artwork was circulated virally by the auction house as well.

The clever campaign certainly delivered. On the day in question a mystery buyer paid four times the estimated value of the painting leaving everyone agog about their identity. CNBC speculated that the sheer price of the painting ruled out “most everyday billionaires”. Eventually the New York Times broke the news that the da Vinci had been purchased by an unknown Saudi Prince named Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud.

Within days this version of events was disputed by the Wall Street Journal which claimed that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the buyer, with Prince Badr acting as proxy, and that the painting was intended as a gift for the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAR). The Crown Prince has been in the news recently for abruptly arresting 159 other princes and powerful business and political rivals.

The latest news is that a statement has now been put out by Christie’s announcing that Salvator Mundi was actually acquired by Abu Dhabi’s department of culture and tourism once again contradicting the earlier story that the Saudi Crown Prince bought the rare painting as a diplomatic gift for the UAR. What remains certain is that the renowned artwork will be on display at the Louvre, Abu Dhabi.

Closer to home, speaking of diplomatic gifts, mystery surrounds rumours that a painting given by President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic to Prime Minister Andrew Holness on his recent state visit to Jamaica, is a fake. The painting by the Dominican master artist Guillo Perez, has become the subject of intense debate and disapproval in the Dominican art community. The country is apparently plagued by counterfeiters, with fake works having been sold to foreign collectors as well as institutional collections according to an article in the Diario Libre.

“I can give assurances that if the president of the Dominican Republic, Lic. Danilo Medina has presented a work of art by a Dominican artist, it is because he feels pride in our art and because he is interested in the world paying attention to our artists, especially when this happens in a regional market forum “said renowned gallerist Juan José Mesa to Loquesucede.com.

Back home the art world is expressing consternation over the refurbishing of Laura Facey’s emancipation monument, Redemption Song, during the course of which the large bronze was painted a startling jet black. Nothing inflames art purists more than unwarranted interference with a work of art; such horror and anguish has been expressed in the public sphere over the re-pigmentation of the emancipated couple that you would think they had been painted shocking pink.

In a Gleaner article the sculptor explained that the repainting occurred during an attempt to resolve the issues of calcium build-up on the fingers of the bronze sculptures and on the walls of the surrounding water pool. The National Housing Trust, which is in charge of the monument, consulted Facey on the best way to do this. Facey recommended an expert and the rest as they say, is history. Black history.

The process to remove the marine paint and restore the monument’s natural bronze patina will be expensive. Perhaps in future artists might voluntarily monitor renovations of their works to avoid the commission of this kind of costly error. If it’s any consolation Laura, questions were also raised internationally about the authenticity of da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi because it had been painted over and refurbished so many times. This didn’t prevent it, five hundred years later, from fetching 450 million dollars.

The art we breathe

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Schoolchildren viewing Leasho Johnson’s installation at Devon House

 

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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.

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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.