Natalie Swan Reinhart
In a corner of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s 2019 Summer Exhibition, Albert Chong’s piece The Throne for the Ancestors is staged in three moments. The first, a wooden box, sits on a standard gallery pedestal. The cover of the wooden box is lightly engraved with the image of a throne from 1991, entitled “Throne for the Keeper of the Boneyard.”
Above the box is an artist statement printed in a digitized font somewhat resembling the dusty, eighteenth-century scrawl you encounter in Jamaica’s colonial archives. If legibility weren’t a concern, surely the script would mirror a plantation master’s ledger even more. And finally, the artist’s photographs are staggered across the wall in black and white, save for one in colour. They barely retain their photographic quality, some processed like a negative rather than a print. Each depicts a “throne” made of a discarded chair. The entire work is an anticipatory archival practice for the keeper of “boneyards” to come. Who is the keeper of the boneyard, if not the archivist? Read together, the piece is an engagement with the historical narratives of Jamaica’s past and the process by which such histories are collected and told.
In the artist statement, Chong explains, the Thrones series seeks to “create work that was not conceived along the usual Eurocentric norms of representation.” Images and symbols— ranging from those of Chong’s father and grandfather, to the tokens of Orishas and Santeria— become the materiality of the prints’ subjects. This destabilized materiality is successfully shown in the photographs’ dual nature as still life and portraiture. The thrones are rendered like the European royals themselves, but with brutal objects taking on a fleshy presence. The symbolic sceptre of a Hans Holbein portrait, or the golden-breasted birds of a Dutch still life, are replaced with the allegorical bones, feathers, and cod fish skins of Jamaica.
Chong’s piece perhaps best encapsulates the spirit of the most successful works in the 2019 Summer Exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica. The exhibit also helped me inch along with a problem I have been turning over for some time: how can the concept of infrastructure help to reinvigorate our understanding of the concrete forms inside which we live every day? Can we think of the social constraints of race, gender, sexuality, and vulnerability as a kind of infrastructure that can be repurposed or reimagined?
Thinking about infrastructure—the physical, and inanimate—in this way brings our attention to the scaffolding of daily life, and the ways in which different humans, in various human forms, inhabit it. I see this as being in line with academia’s recent, invigorating methods on how to re-read archives, and especially those that occlude marginal stories. (Next to Chong’s piece sits one by Laura Facey that tackles archival re-representation head-on with an enlarged document from a slave owner, which names men and women who laboured on his plantation. Below the document is a large wooden canoe with resin figures nestled, single file, in the belly of the ship. Elsewhere in the same gallery room, Carol Crichton creates a collage from an archival photograph of slaves, juxtaposed, again, on this tell-tale colonial ledger script.)*
In re-training our eyes to see infrastructure as something beyond the architectural, it is possible to view asphalt roads, electrical lines, sidewalks, or the simple furnishings of a home as dwelling sites of the human condition. Across the 2019 Summer Exhibit, the works explore the kinetic movement between flesh and infrastructure, not concerned with decay and rebuilding, but rather in the active repurposing of history and aesthetics in the Caribbean. Where the human intervenes—the flesh—the pieces successfully rework stereotypes of race, gender, folklore, climate, and yes, even the built environment such human problems occupy.
In an unassuming corner, two artists’ works form a triptych. Michele Lee Lambert’s photograph Downtown Deco settled on top of two linocuts by Lydia Nelson—The train’s already left 1 and The train’s already left II, respectively. Lambert’s photograph depicts an old art deco building—one you might easily pass on your route to downtown Kingston—first in full, and then in a close-up of the building’s yellowed and broken windows. Rust drips from the windows like rain, like a residue. Nelson’s linocuts put the obfuscation of a building into relief, leaving little open negative space in the frame. When paired together, the works ask what an urban Caribbean is supposed to look like? Are shuttered, modernist buildings from the past worth saving?
Close by, a pair of Nathan Cunningham’s drawings have the innocence of a child’s hand. A block party is joyful, simple. The architecture is defined by the colours splayed on the walls, and plainly sketched people moving in and out of them. Further into the exhibit, in a striking photograph by Michael Chambers, a man looks to the distance under a dark, rainy-season formation of clouds. The piece is titled Builders of Empires. Behind him, the bright orange of a Hitachi crane dips into the excavated landscape. Wrapped around his torso, the same orange elegantly drapes into a skirt with a long train. Made of the dirt and the metal that hollows it out, the “builder of empires” appears as a transgressive figure that appropriates aspects of the old landscape—and arguably former means of dominance, over the landscape and the polity— to fashion a male empress. In these works, previously hardened infrastructures, social and physical, are mutable.
Re-tooled images of black femininity dominate in two of Shoshanna Weinberger’s large-scale collages. Tropical Tan and Midnight Selfies with one Sunset use a reverse silhouette technique to highlight two feminine figures in Banana-Boat-Orange against black backgrounds. The latter work captures the uncertainty of a nighttime selfie; feeling yourself, only one of the eighteen frames may produce a desirable result. But it’s Hansani Claxton’s sculptural satires of angry black women that stand out. Two disembodied heads perched on black pedestals—part realistic, part emoji—burst with exaggerated emotion. The first, Angry Black Woman/ A Right to be Hostile uses the canonical emoticon composition of facing horizontal Vs ( > < ) for eyes. The rest of the face stays realistic; her pained, open grimace exposes uncannily crafted resin teeth, a plump and moist looking tongue, and a trembling, tear drop uvula in the back of the throat. In Buggin’ Out the woman’s eyes are white, vacant orbs of supernatural anger. Missing pupils and her teeth filed into neat, gnashing triangles, she looks less like a caricature and more like someone whose indignation and fury has altered her on a cellular level.
Two of the exhibition’s largest pieces destabilize the figure of the Caribbean male. Looming in the first gallery room, Nadine Hall’s Heirlooms 2: Cycles of Genocide shows six pregnant male torsos, their necks and heads swinging by nooses, as they “abort” their potential—rendered in red, oblong mesh forms. What it lacks in nuance, it makes up for in scale and composition.
Just around the corner, Laura Facey’s Heart of a Man visually renders a snippet from a William Blake poem referencing the Middle Passage. The line “their hearts were ripped from their chests” is shown quite literally; a supine male figure hangs from his bellybutton over a decrepit canoe that overflows with wooden carved hearts. It’s hard to not read male pregnancy allusions into this piece as well, especially when positioned so closely to Hall’s installation. As a stand in for those who forcibly crossed the Middle Passage, the supine man is the father to many severed hearts. Facey’s two pieces in the show most directly aim to create physical forms for lacunas in the archives—what is lost and ineffable. The grandiosity of the works, at times, take away from any real re-imagining of what slave life looked like beyond the hold of a ship.
The exhibit also highlights several softer explorations of diverse masculinity. As mentioned before, Michael Chambers’ Builder of Empires portrays a male empress. Jeana Lindo gently photographs a young man, bougainvillea draped over his shoulder, in Sunlit Man. Randall Richards’ print Black Bodies in the Sun I shows two anonymous figures, concealing their faces as they pull the same jumper over their heads. The androgynous bodies—perhaps belonging to the same person—are multiple and fluid.
At one end of the exhibit is a bewitching three-channel video installation by Ania Freer, River Maid. The three screens and the imagery of Caribbean flora are immediately reminiscent of John Akomfrah’s—among other video artists— latest works. But the content is Freer’s own. A man sits on the banks of Turtle River to tell a winding story about a mermaid who lives in the waters below. The video is ambivalent in distinguishing whether the story is folklore, cautionary tale for curious children, or a lived recollection. Despondent, the young man rarely acknowledges the camera. The story he’s telling frightens him. The mermaid is a jealous creature. She falls in love with women whom she abducts, or she seduces, as a shape-shifting white fowl.
The story ends the way most do, when a mysterious, mythical woman angers the townspeople: spiritual men drive the mermaid away. “Them things rule over people,” the young man says. The obscure and divine instruments of our own histories—made more baffling by the power they have over us— can be expressed in many ways.
*CORRECTION: Carol Crichton clarifies that the group in the photo she used “are free persons. It is a celebration. The title ‘Roll Call’ in a Jamaican context is an event — a concert with great stars.”
Natalie Reinhart is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University, New York. Her research questions the enduring legal histories of Jamaica from the periods of slavery and Apprenticeship to the present, including the social structures of voice, testimony, and embodiment for young women. Her work asks how agency may be determined through archival and legal documentation, and how race, gender, and vulnerability are fashioned inside of the courtroom and through the category of girlhood.
Currently a visiting student at the University of the West Indies, Mona with the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES), as well as a research fellow at Jamaicans for Justice, Natalie is managing editor of PREE for the year 2019-20. She worked as an editorial assistant for Small Axe: A Journal of Caribbean Criticism from 2016-2019.