Site icon PREE

‘Beyond Fashion’ at the National Gallery of Jamaica

Rachael Barrett

‘Yow, come mek we PREE dis FASHION ting
Yu ting up mi G!
dun know seh, clean to mi step enuh!
Boxcova PREE di man dem nuh
…cleeean like Jesus police record’[1]  

As a graduate student pursuing my MA at Sotheby’s Institute in London in 2007, I wrote a dissertation on the intersection of Art and Fashion, a topic that I was particularly interested in as a former low tier American Vogue employee who had hung up my last garment bag and left the ‘fashion world’ in a huff to revisit my academic past and intellectual calling as a student  I was an aesthete through and through and I wanted to study the beautiful things I loved about fashion from the intellectual perspective of art. Art and Fashion: all capitalizations intentional. The hand crafted embellishment of couture; the theatre and performance of presentations; the ability to purchase and wear art, to become part of a bigger aesthetic moment simply by getting dressed. Well, my tutors picked it to shreds. The superficial layer of ‘a piece of clothing’ was too flat, and blithely incomparable to a work of art that carried more meaning and history in its very genesis. With shaking heads and red ink they made it clear that this was just not good enough; not serious enough… fashion could not and should not be considered on the same level as art.

The late Lee McQueen’s seminal Alexander McQuee runway shows (happenings?) were hailed as key emblems of the noughties zeitgeist, and designer cum performance artist Lee Bowery might have been the first fashion icon to push the limits of performance art itself, but these two legends who live on as groundbreaking cogs in the wheel of contemporary aesthetic history are considered icons of fashion, not of art. ‘Artistic Fashion’ sure; fashion that aspired to art sure, but categorically not the other way around.

It is these things I think of when I walk into Beyond Fashion at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ). I went to the launch, brilliantly timed with Kingston Creative’s monthly Artwalk, and juxtaposed with the NGJ’s own successful Last Sundays series. It was recorded as the second most attended launch in the history of the NGJ. Hordes of people poured through the rooms and enjoyed an electric interactive performance from performing arts collective Quilt. Through the selfies and the clinking glasses the exhibition featured work from artists who had never before exhibited at the NGJ; works from artists whom the NGJ often hail as leaders within the growing contemporary Jamaican art scene; and work from artisans -artists who for the first time are being exhibited as ‘artists’ in the NGJ.

Any proper evaluation of this exhibition requires first taking an etymological approach. What does ‘fashion’ really mean? The exhibition text succinctly leads the viewer into the show alerting one to the duality of meaning behind the popular ‘f’ word. ‘Fashioning’, as in the act of making by hand is under curatorial consideration in addition to any apparel related construct. The works are organized into different groupings that examine how through the use of both fashion (apparel) and fashioning, the artists have used two dimensional materials, whether paint, paper, jewellery, textile or dress, to explore notions of place, space and human condition. Or as the exhibition title implies, to explore these things by going ‘beyond fashion’.

‘LIFE is but a walking shadow, a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
and then is heard no more: it is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.’[2]  

It is this going ‘beyond’ that I’m not convinced has been successfully argued and positioned. By needing to push beyond fashion to make a statement, an exploration of fashion itself is cast aside. Why go beyond? Surely the rich life of fashion itself is enough? Why is fashion relegated to nothingness?

Beyond Fashion examines the works of artists who have incorporated elements of fashion and its creation into their practice. It explores the capacity for fashion themed art making to delve into topics of the personal and the political, as well as providing a vehicle for experimentation and expression that goes beyond everyday fashion. Beyond Fashion includes the works of artists that have experience in fashion design, fashion photography and jewelry making.”

From the NGJ’s own press release, ‘everyday fashion’ is relegated to a lesser role, and fashion itself is only considered as a component as opposed to a complete whole worthy of perusal in and of itself. That I think is unfortunate. Similar to how the great Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall fought to position cultural studies as an intellectual pursuit, and to define culture as “experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined” here fashion could have been positioned as a meaty flesh from which a range of positions–cultural, socio- economic, political–can be discussed.

The exhibition falls into a too familiar stereotype of insisting that fashion must first die and transform into something else–into art–to merit consideration. A true consideration of fashion and art would surely elevate the two constructs to a level playing field. The duality of the term fashion at play in this sense has taken on a Du Boisian double consciousness narrative. A thing cannot successfully be an object of fashion and an object of art at the same time? The skill required to fashion non-art objects and the skill of constructing an approved art object are not one and the same? Why not? This seems to me a too familiar trend within the Jamaican — perhaps Caribbean?— creative community where locally popular pursuits are considered to be inferior, cast down into the realm of nothingness, until otherwise anointed and lifted up. The curators could have been more courageous in deconstructing fashion, whether the craft of fashioning or the aesthetic of everyday fashion, to create a delightful cocktail of the academic and the banal. Jamaicans’ innovative take on fashion has had significant subsequent global impact on pop culture aesthetics, in particular in music, fashion, dance and cinema. This merits study. Just as the current crop of high fashion runways are awash with “urban streetwear” inspired sneakers and jogging suits, our skill at fashion and fashioning merits re-positioning within the higher canon of the arts, and we should seize the reins and do so before someone else does. This life skill of knowing how to tun-wi-han-mek fashion is certainly more than nothing.

There are some beautiful moments in the exhibition that–had a more inclusive or broader means of consideration of the core subject of fashion and fashioning   been employed–could have sparked a more diverse critical conversation.

Alfredo Piola’s photographs present an ethereal, delicate neuron-like system that suggests an emotional as well as visual relationship between animal tissue and cellulose form. Their inclusion without a larger discussion of fibrous material and the ecological environment overall — most people don’t know that Jamaica is one of the few countries in the world that produces sea island cotton on a large scale—is a pity. Within the textile/ fashion industry this kind of cotton is the most highly prized and priced — often referred to as ‘white gold‘ — derivative of the plant. Piola also works as a commercial photographer, in addition to being an artist, and primarily within the field of fashion. This angle of commerce is nothing to hide, certainly it’s something. The collaborative work of Piola and Jessica Ogden, ‘APC Jamaica  mounted in another room  of the gallery in my opinion does a  more successful job of illustrating a broader fashion-centric narrative, both in terms of concept and material. I can’t help but think perhaps there was a bigger conversation to be had that could have shed more light on why, out of all this artist’s oeuvre, these photographs merited inclusion in the exhibition. 

Ebony G. Patterson’s ‘Untitled (…they stood in a time of unknowing…for those who bare/bear witness)’  shows as yet unacknowledged victims buried in vivid plain sight, much as the poorest members of the pan African diaspora walk on foot in a shock of neon brights and dystopian patterns — a style that ironically is now the moment du jour on glitzy catwalks worldwide — yet are for the most part socially, politically and otherwise invisible. This is certainly a case of a controversial socio-economic group often cast aside as nothing, meriting review and analysis as a something.

Kereina Chang- Fatt’s ‘In Search of Silence’, an artwork that clearly takes on the essence of the everyday, is described as “protective and womblike” and a “powerful metaphor for the fragility of the human body” despite being made of delicate threads and fabric.  Yet to me it is the very delicate nature of the material used that encapsulates this fragility and communicates visually and textually to the audience the meaning implied. The textuality here is defined by the material; therefore the material here is not to be cast aside as

“To feel the world but not see the world. To be in the world yet not feel the world. To live invisibly among all things waiting to find a place in it all”

excerpted from Kereina Chang- Fatt’s ‘In Search of Silence’

 If a true analogy for the liminal age we live in can be expressed in felt then Yasmin Spiro’s ‘Trust Fall’ seamlessly weaves a visually symbiotic connection between a discussion of the built environment, aesthetic pathos and historical irony. Like the great Josef Beuys before her, Spiro’s use of felt immediately resonates as a signifier that common industrial material detritus of everyday life and high art, are inextricably one and the same.  Beuys insisted on blurring the lines between art and life throughout his career; a social sculptor ahead of his time, he defined the ultimate purpose of his “art” as shaping life as well as being born out of life. Art and life were one and the same. In light of this subtext, a work like ‘Trust Fall’ outlines how the everyday represents a larger life-scale set of concerns. The simple materials show how at the very core of their existence these elements are not nothing, and an examination of life itself is something. This work is definitely made to be an  artwork, but ironically is so defined in spite of its rejection of the principles of art. The protective structure referred to in the exhibition text, was but one part of the larger conceptual framework, and would have been interesting to see explored further. In an exhibition like this one, the line between everyday fashion, or fashioning and art, could have done with some erasing. 

‘Trust Fall’


‘A butu in a Benz is still a butu’[3]

The value and merit of high art versus low art and the slew of definitions and opinions that follow are often debated in Jamaican society. Here, the relegation of craft or commercial art to a status lower than their academically rooted counterparts is out of step with broader Western art discourse, in which design, craftsmanship and other commercialized art forms are valued as worthy on their own merit, without any obligatory comparison with fine art. The renowned German Bauhaus school is perhaps the greatest example of this balanced perspective as it was one of the earliest to combine art and craft into one curriculum without distinguishing between them. The Bauhaus’s  success is globally acknowledged, as the school’s aesthetic and approach to art, architecture and design has arguably left the most lasting impression on the structure of modernism and contemporary aesthetics. The school spawned notable artists and artisans including  Mies Van Der Rohe, Josef Albers, Anni Albers, Marianne Brandt, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee & Wassily Kandinsky .

In terms of determining the ‘value’ of art by untrained artists, Jamaican art history is rich with significant artists and movements that can be aesthetically and literally connected to local craft and craftsmanship. As such, one can make an aesthetic and academic comparison between the fine art contributions of Jamaican artisans, such as wood carvers and sign painters, with those of ritualistic pan-African artwork and sculpture that historically have been incorporated into high art as essential iconography by the Caribbean’s own Wifredo Lam, Europe’s Pablo Picasso and the US’s Jean Michel Basquiat. Even today exhibitions such as ‘Outliers & American Vanguard Art’  celebrate the role the untrained artist has played in influencing aesthetics and the broader art community.

Beyond Fashion makes a point of including a range of such artisans in discussions on the topic of fashion, fashioning and art, yet the work on view is categorically presented as high art. Perhaps a discussion of why this re-positioning, this making the artisans ‘smaddy’ was/is necessary in the first place would have been valuable in the curatorial exploration of what it means to go beyond fashion.

A definitive artisan whose works are deemed too beautiful to be worn, yet wearable and audience friendly enough to be included as interactive sculpture The Girl and the Magpie have long occupied an interesting niche at the NGJ. The jewelry in and of itself is highly emotive of action and story, and works such as the Hair Project remain undefined as cultural study and performance all at once. The works are presented as anthropological artefacts, with brief reference given to considerations of the environment in ‘Fragile Jamaica’, more literally in ‘Breathe’ which requires the audience to mist the greenery for it to remain alive, than the other works,. What of the craftsmanship involved in the manipulation of the brass itself? The aesthetic decisions made in finish and shape? The choice to make the living plant grow from a slaver-esque collar? Here the artisan and the fact that these objects are jewellery and meant to be worn, mean there is an important role being played by the ‘smaddy’ who wears them; the ‘smaddy’ with a varied hairstyle; the ‘smaddy’ who decided that a brassy thick cut object was just right?

Respected artist Jasmine Thomas Girvan’s miniature crafted sculptures and objects often find themselves with an artisan/ jewellery like association because of her choice of materials (precious stones, pearls, and metals). Girvan’s works are juxtaposed with the works of Magpie, as a means of demonstrating reflection, and ancestral connection in various ways. Here the connection between fashioning and the everyday becomes even more lost as there is no clear discussion of the artist’s methods, technique, material choices or arresting aesthetic compositions.  The work has been relieved of its material constraints and only the conceptual intention, the ‘art’, merits any discussion. To me this seems a short-sighted and reductive means of engagement with the work of an artist who I believe is hugely  and under-appreciated in discussions of Caribbean contemporary art. Her skill, her choice of materials…these elements are key components of the work that i would have loved to learn more about. What of the ancestral traditions in jewellery making? Jewellery trading? Many of the prized African relics we adore in museums around the world were distinctively created to have ritualistic or everyday use, until they were re-purposed as high art by European outsiders. In a discussion of her work, especially in an exhibition such as this one, these materialistic elements are definitely ‘smaddy’.

Then there is the case of Seymour Lewis, the NGJ technician whose contribution to the exhibition design —  the incorporation of wood panelling throughout — is acknowledged with a credit as a contributing artist. Mr. Lewis’s design I found to be a brilliant, and refreshing addition. Although local art lovers frequent the NGJ often, the gallery sadly lacks sufficient resources to allow for architectural adaptation with each show, so creative budget friendly manipulations in the space are always welcome.  

Exhibition design is an art in its own right, and I believe like craft, jewelry-making or even hair dressing, the skill of designing space does not need to be formally categorised as ‘art’ to gain recognition or to become ‘smaddy’. Pioneering designers-cum-artists  such as Es Devlin are a great example of artisans who prefer to keep the artisanal title where possible. They don’t see that they need to cast the title off to become ‘smaddy’. I can scarcely envision a better fit for Mr. Lewis’s ingenuity, than pairing it with Jessica Ogden’s ‘A Dozen Dresses’. The pairing of the two is a mesmerizing curatorial feat of harmonious collaboration that must be applauded. The Japanese-meditation-room-esque feel that the panels evoke create a sense of Zen in the space, which perfectly suits the meditative pause the work itself requires as the viewer is to look at the 11 dresses and insert themselves as dress no. 12. Mr. Lewis is still however designing how one engages with the work. Not re-creating the work himself. Or, is he? Either way, this debate does not require Mr. Lewis to first be named an artist before his input can be considered a relevant part of the conversation. As an exhibition designer, Mr. Lewis is already ‘smaddy’.

“OK, I see. You think this has nothing TO DO WITH YOU[4]

In the same way that high art is elevated beyond something that just looks nice, in contrast to a beautiful decorative pillow one can buy to liven up a sofa, including works because there are pieces of clothing in them seems a bit reductive, both for the show and for the works themselves, without accompaniment of some larger discussion surrounding the cultural and social implications of the works on view.

To this end I think Phillip Thomas’s ‘Pimpers Paradise: The Terra Nova nights edition’ and Peter Dean Rickard’s ‘Inside the Black Ark- Lee Scratch Perry’ needed more contextualisation, either in the form of song, film, or essay to warrant inclusion in an exhibition focused on fashion and fashioning, as these are both minor elements in the magnitude of these grand impactful works.  Thomas’ work explores our complex socio-economic hierarchy through his use of skin colour, subject, and dress. The layers of meaning in the iconography depicted on canvas required a bit more explaining — dressing up? — to be fully effective. This comment on social structure and Jamaican culture could have indeed added a different conversation point to the show. Here in plain view is Nettleford’s Benz and butu. Even in Thomas’ title the artist pokes fun at the social implications of location, as well as the dress sense of the ‘well to do’.

Lee Scratch Perry is an icon across several fields and Peter Dean’s photographic style birthed itself mostly out of an interest in fashion photography and styling that defined his status as a creative before he took on the moniker of ‘artist’. The visual impact of the fashion on view is one piece of a bigger picture of capturing society and culture at its best. Dean’s very ‘fashionable’ photos of the outcasts and renegades of his Jamaica, pictures that ‘white people did not take’ often shocked the primarily conservative Jamaican middle class who shuddered to think that these misfits had anything to do with them.

Although not paired with these works, here it also seems appropriate to mention Cosmo Whyte’s ‘Ginal’ that is outlined as a reflection of the classic transformation story represented through dress. More of a take on what those elements of clothing meant, both to the ‘Harder they Come’ era of Jamaican culture in which Whyte’s Ginal lives, as well as the way Jamaican culture today uses clothing or style as a means of social, economic or cultural transformation, either wittingly or unwittingly, could have ushered in a larger discussion of the ‘dress’ aspect of fashion and what that has to do with us all.

“BUSINESS art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. After I did the thing called ‘art’ or whatever it’s called, I went into business art. I wanted to be an Art Businessman or a Business Artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippies era people put down the idea of business – they’d say ‘Money is bad’, and ‘Working is bad’, but making money is art and working is art and good BUSINESS is the best art.”[5]

In one room the exhibition seeks to confront head-on the key component of the apparel industry that has often served as the argument about why fashion could never be art — commerce and business — dirty words that sully the good and pure nature of art itself. Ayana Rivere’s installation ‘Pay Day’ is a simple yet effective totem for this budding artist as it clearly considers the localised detritus from a global industry, and is paired ironically with Ogden’s quietly powerful, hand-made ‘Odette’ .

‘Odette’ caused me to stop and draw breath. In terms of concept and simple aesthetic considerations it is an indication that Ogden may be one of the most interesting contemporary artists yet to emerge in this liminal age of Jamaican contemporary art. The work is a map-like archive in fabric of a Caribbean voyage undertaken with her frequent commercial collaborator, Jean Touitou, of renowned international fashion label A.P.C. The consideration of the material used; an examination of where the material was sourced from; the stitching/ technique employed in making the work; the voyage itself of an internationally acclaimed white Jamaican designer, who is also an artist, taking a voyage with a European, whom she works with in a global commercial sense, through small islands by boat…; if there was one work that completely encapsulated the aims of this exhibit, in terms of materiality; conceptual juxtaposition and open-ended discourse it was this piece. Reducing this work to being a representation of commerce and good business alone falls short; where was the wider discussion of their business?  Or of the fashion business itself?

‘WHAT IS  LIFE? I try to see

What is life? It’s unity

What is life? I try to feel

What is life? It’s really real’[6]

The elements at play in Beyond Fashion are very pertinent to Jamaican society, one that across all demographics celebrates ‘fashion ova style’; one that understands music as culture and life better than most places in the world; and one that churns out world class literary and writing stars as well as it does athletes. Yet amazingly the visual arts community has always occupied a position on the island as the creative community underdog. The discussion as to why? yes? no? quickly gets volatile and long-winded, so can be had another time, but the point is that an inter-disciplinary exhibition such as this one solves a lot of problems in a culture where high art appreciation is often relegated to a very narrow niche of society. It excites, it engages broadly and it gets new blood through the doors. The response so far to the exhibition clearly shows that the public enjoy the show. The NGJ announced in January:

“The National Gallery of Jamaica is pleased to announce that our most recent exhibition Beyond Fashion has been extended until February 24th, 2019. This decision was a result of the exceptional reception we received from you, our patrons.”

This overwhelmingly positive response to Beyond Fashion is wonderful, which at this time in Jamaica’s cultural history should not have been a surprise. For years Saint International through the vision of head honcho   Peters staged fashion presentations during his Style Week series in the NGJ.  That budding step towards the intersection of art and fashion consistently brought new faces through the gallery doors. The public reaction to this show also reminds me of the reception toward the 2014 exhibition Anything with Nothing: Art from the Streets of Urban Jamaica, a show that for the first time broke the unspoken divide that existed between the art that occupied the streets surrounding the gallery and the art that was traditionally framed and allowed inside. These “popular” shows and interventions breathed life into the gallery and opened up the audience and creative discussions broadly.

Now full disclosure, I am one of those people who felt a sheer sense of depression and lost faith in humanity when in 2009 the New York MoMA’s Tim Burton exhibition counted more than 800,000 visitors, making it one of the museum’s third most attended exhibits ever. To me that was a death knell ringing in the end of intellectual civilization as we know it. Yet I also celebrate and appreciate the increasingly liminal inter-disciplinary nature of the creative arts. The halls of the Edna Manley College, and the streets of Kingston come alive at night in dancehalls and recording studios where people that refuse to limit the definition of their creativity continue to keep the rich culture of the island alive. On any given night, something billed as a music event will be peppered with painters, graphic artists, fashion designers all working together weaving the fabric of contemporary Jamaican creative life.

Beyond Fashion is an exhibition staged at a peak time of this demand for cross-referential creative engagement and exploration, so provided a plum opportunity to do the same. The curatorial decisions made as to the artists selected is spot on, as is the very organization of an exhibition in this vein.  However, while I acknowledge that the conversation has begun there seems to be some restraint in moving past a preamble and properly diving into the issues at hand in the show itself. Perhaps the accompanying programme of film screenings, talks and tours may make up for any oversights, but sadly an exhibition is most critically judged on what is readily and easily available for a viewer passing through to experience (A pamphlet or panel outlining the related programme events and their relevance may have mitigated this issue).

Overall the NGJ has positioned a timely subject in its programming, but could have done more in terms of the depth and range of examination of the topical issues on show; both in terms of how these have been communicated through the wider media and in the accompanying texts. This was their chance to push the envelope and creatively engage the comprehensive topic of fashion itself. The works needed better contextualisation and the audience needed more points of departure from which to be able to analyze the bigger picture of “fashion” and discuss the subtly implied or otherwise omitted concepts at play such as objecthood, fashioning, emotional experience, socio-cultural environments and textuality; whether within fashion or beyond it. The biggest issue is the timidity with which the premise is presented. The concept is strong, assert its relevance. Fashion does not need to become art. Fashion is art. Fashion is culture. Culture is life.  Ahead of the finnisage I encourage Jamaicans to see the show and decide for themselves.

[1] Author to dancehall artiste Shelly Belly at Sexy Tuesdays in Kingston, Jamaica, 2018

[2] Macbeth, from William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ (c. 1605), Act V, Scene 5, line 23.

[3] Ralston Milton “Rex” Nettleford, OM, FIJ, OCC.

[4] Miranda Priestly, a character from the 2006 film ‘The Devil Wear’s Prada’

[5] Andy Warhol, as cited in‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol’ , 1975.

[6] Black Uhuru, ‘Anthem’ from the 1984 album Anthem

An occasional writer, Rachael has contributed to publications in print and online across different genres and locales including, MoDA Magazine, The Jamaica Observer, Kuya Magazine, British Vogue, Our Jamaica, Post-New,, Kingston City Guide, Kultureflash, and Apollo Magazine. In 2014 Rachael was asked by prestigious art fair and forum Art Basel to moderate and initiate that fair’s first forum dedicated to Caribbean art and culture. In 2015 Rachael founded _space caribbean , a contemporary art driven NGO that acts as a platform to connect world class international contemporary art culture to the Caribbean local creative community, and advocates the use of culture as a tool to drive socio-economic change. The charity’s first operational outlet _space jamaica, has hosted pop-up forums with international bodies such as TBA21 from Vienna for art exhibition, performance and educational programming as well as presented a forum for Caribbean contemporary art during Miami Art Week December 2016.

Rachael has also served as a Lecturer in the School of Arts Management and Humanities at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. Rachael is currently completing M. Phil research toward earning a PhD in the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies with a focus on contemporary art in the Caribbean.

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