The Kingston Biennial Pressure runs till December 31, 2022, at the National Gallery of Jamaica. David Scott (Columbia University) is the lead curator, and the exhibition was co-curated with Nicole Smythe-Johnson, Wayne Modeste and O’Neil Lawrence.
KAVITA ASHANA SINGH
“Is there a pressure to be “Caribbean,” to perform Caribbeanness, to act St. Lucian, Grenadian, Trini or Jamaican for instance; a demand that we rigidly embody our culture(s)?”
–From Introduction to Pree, Issue 2, “Pressure”
Reading the description of the Kingston Biennial, its theme Pressure, which I hadn’t reflected on before making it my first activity on this first trip to the Jamaican capital (during a first trip to the country), somehow reorganized my physiological apparatus so that I started feeling relief. You might be shocked to hear this; indeed the writing on these walls describe “an environment burdened with difficulties and hardships…pervasive, chronic, and generalized,” and more damning, it wasn’t meant to describe me but Jamaicans, and here I was — a Guyanese, kinda Trini, Caribbean Studies scholar who lives in the USA — reading that “Jamaican people are forever under pressure,” and as a result feeling relief? As if, thank goodness that wasn’t me, so now that I was let off the hook I could… enjoy it?
But I had been experiencing pressure, the kind described in the epigraph above, the kind where Caribbean belonging becomes a source of shifting tectonic plates and the resulting shaking or breaking of my identity, itself but an ephemeral scaffold. A Caribbean Studies scholar who had never been to Jamaica; a West Indian who had lived outside the West Indies much longer than I had lived in it; a brown person who moved through Kingston with a sense of my visibly North American posture, dress, accent, smile; a solo femme traveler, who had escaped to Kingston after the confusing but recognizable, tension-filled experience of a week spent at a beach resort along with my entire family.
All the intellectual guilt I had brought to that experience, all the elitist resistance I had put up against my mother’s desire for picturesque familial luxury and togetherness — but here I was in Kingston now, wondering how to get around and where to walk because how to know where I could feel “safe”? I had arrived by bus the night before, anxious and berating myself for arriving with no anchor, contact, guide, friend. I have so many contacts from or in this region! I teach Jamaican literature! Why hadn’t I found a better way to land here, what a failure, this was no different from when I showed up in Trinidad for the first time as an adult and went wandering around until a random car stopped and asked me if I knew how dangerous walking down that particular street was? Maybe I’m supposed to belong in these parts but really, who would not scoff at my nostalgic insecurities, my foreigner’s naivete?
And then yes, it was the message that “Pressure is always personally experienced but… no less social” that relaxed my shoulders and allowed me to exhale; it was the message that I wasn’t wrong (in my being) and that I hadn’t been wrong (in my discomfort at the resort) and even that by coming here, to this exhibition, I was not wrong. Here, these recognizable claims about the Caribbean’s postcolonial malaise, this familiar academic language with its critical perspective on the illusions and possibilities of art and discourse — this was a space that was accessible and validating to me, for better or worse, it was a space where I was not, in my being, wrong. Yes, in this statement of the persistent hardship experienced in small countries discarded by empire — such language constructed for me something like a “safe space.”
This is a bit uncomfortable to admit. Was I relaxing into where I felt power, as when I practiced authority through teaching, presenting, writing, in this same kind of language? Ah, these reflections now summon up new dilemmas, greater anxiety… but you see, these anxieties are real, not unlike the material conditions that subject the proverbial Jamaican to constant sufferation, constant pressure. This limbo — not belonging, not recognizing myself, not comfortable even when I find firm ground — did things to me that were not unrelated to the anxieties of in-betweenness that define the Caribbean, the Jamaican experience of the neoliberal, neo-colonial twenty-first century.
This particular meaning of pressure, I found, echoed back at me and mounted as I moved from the lobby into the exhibition, facing what it put in front of me and asked me to engage. This was the pressure that is suggested in the hackneyed term, “hybridity,” describing people and societies wedged somewhere between “Independence” and the vicissitudes of power, money, and weaponry located always elsewhere. It was the pressure of keeping afloat in a world that has no regard for our visions of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and oft-repeated freedom. “We” of the Caribbean were not to feel secure, to consider our small territories a real grounding, to be where and what we were, already. We must not just relate, interact, trade with the world, but we must destabilize our realities, hide our dirty laundry (or degrading history), and put on the masks that make us attractive, saleable, and even affirm, in a cruel pantomime, that we are “free.”
No problem, they said at the resort, is the real Jamaican motto. “Be like a real Jamaican, and relax,” is what the well-fed bodies at the all-inclusive hotel heard from their real Jamaican yoga instructor. Sink into the still waters of artificial beaches and soak away your tension, relieve any pressure. “Don’t worry,” Bob Marley sang to these consumers of the Jamaica product, so they wouldn’t worry if the yoga instructor had ever had to coach relaxation to the various Jamaicans working in this tourist bubble — Jamaicans don’t need it, they already know that “every little thing” will be alright. Was it just my scholarly overthinking that made it difficult for me to find a footing in this dual experience of Jamaica — knowing that there is no shortage of worries in this West Indian country, but hearing repeatedly that there is “no problem”?
Does the person who lives that reality, grinning with guests in the resort but carrying a piece when outside it — as our excursion driver implied he did — also experience these shifting sands as an over-familiar quotidian anxiety? What had helped me feel a release of tension, in reading the exhibit’s explanation of “pressure,” was the momentary confirmation that this reality is defined by limbo — that slave ship survival technique — from the constant, tiresome vigilance to constant changes of costume, the permanent instability.
Witnessing this performance of a consumable national identity, wondering where to find the reality in which Jamaican minds and bodies could find some rest, feeling slightly mad at the paradoxes that I felt compelled to take seriously — seeing that experience echo in the National Gallery’s new exhibition is what ultimately brought me a kind of relief, in a small but powerful confirmation of the Caribbean reality that I, and we other hybrids, share with Jamaica: the tense, knotted precarity of subsisting without fixed ideas or stable ground.
Images, Symbols, Gazes, and Meanings
First world problems? Absolutely, but also, Caribbean ones. Like Camille Chedda’s installation — the one that stayed with me most clearly. I stood in front of an unfinished brick wall — what are these concrete blocks called, the ones with gaps built in, a kind I’ve only ever seen in the West Indies and that make sense here, where you want to let some air in, some light, where you never have to worry about insulating out the cold and you know it would be foolish to try to screen out the insects. Those familiar bricks transform the wall, still under construction, into little impeded windows. They invite the viewer to peer from their enclosure into the outside of Jamaica, an outside that looks different in each tiny window: a beach with palm trees, a cane field with laborers, some powder in a bag — cement, or coke?, a gold chain on a bag of rice, the expansive green of a golf course, a big stone obstructing the tiny view, a waterfall…heavy water falling in an exhilarating, violent rush.
On the opposite side of the room, the unfinished wall echoes in a printed collage of similar bricks and views, this one dominated by views of greens and blues and greys and blacks, and titled “We all live under the same sky”. Yes, like “out of many, one people,” the Jamaican motto, right? The motto restated in Nari Ward’s installation, Windward, just around the corner in the first room, reminding the viewer with a rearranged inscription of the official statement of Jamaican identity, but one built from shoelaces that suggest lightness and loose knots, an affirmation without firmness but grave in its demand for a revision. Meanwhile for Chedda, the blue and green of the reproduction do not eliminate the grey and the black that dominate the installation. The black and white of its bricks seem a low-quality copy, old and faded, its pasted image wrinkled in places.
The whole starkly conveys the unbearable intimacy of the golfer’s green with the ghetto. The viewer does not feel quite as hemmed in by this image of the bricks as by the actual objects across the room, where the experience is of peering out from these tiny windows with limited protection from the glaring brightness that such a wall could offer. Instead, the collage’s very materiality as image rather than objects suggests its contrasting status as illusion or distortion of reality, its ephemerality as pasted, buckling, glossy thin paper, highlighting the deceptions in this more verdant representation of Jamaican space and vision.
Does anything have staying power, then? Greg Bailey’s triptych seems to suggest that yes, there are relics that persist, although they bring no grounding, no liberation from oppression. The three well-dressed people, suggesting politicians, maybe a CEO — the three maybe representing a family, facing the camera for a portrait that includes a model ship, a model cannon, and a life-sized handgun. Filling a buffet table next to the Sony speakers, stylish men’s shoes and a powdered wig (is the wig a part of the present façade of justice or can we relegate it to past hierarchies?). Does one wear the luxury shoes when using the classic tea set, set off by the only thing that will eventually decompose, a half-peeled orange?
Beholding the striking, deep oils of these life-sized portraits, I feel both cowed and called to scrutinize. How is this trio of unsmiling power personalities bringing the insecurities of history into their business-like, polished and cocky — but joyless — modern stances? The wrinkles in the elder man’s face suggest the weight of time as much as the disappointments of the present, whatever his guilt or innocence as someone representing those Black people now with the means — but perhaps not truly the power — to impact the lived reality of their country.
Bailey’s is one of three triptychs in which Jamaicans in evocative oils and mixed media confront the viewer, the life-sized figures surrounded by the iconography of their present, their past, and their unstable geographies. The other two, Phillip Thomas’ Barbershop and Alicia Brown’s The Weight of the Crown also evoke the determining texts that convene in Jamaica and on the Jamaican, whether they’re local, foreign, or dislocated. In Brown’s oil paintings, where a grandfather and granddaughter in a garden sit with an empty white chair between them, communication seems limited to the scattered logos of social media floating above their heads. His incongruous pearl necklace, shell and dragonfly halo are exchanged for her red, white, and blue headdress crowned and crowded with Twitter’s birds, Instagram’s cameras, and Snapchat’s ghosts.
Then Thomas’ three paintings of dapper, formally-dressed black men in the barbershop — all facing outwards while either leaning or sitting on the barber’s chair — subtly remind the viewer of the persistence of violence through miniatures scattered at their feet (tanks, warships, machine guns), numbered objects that suggest either a crime scene or an exhibit to be gaped at. Violence echoes again in images decorating(?) the wall, as quotidian as they are laden with history: tree lynchings, brutality to domestics, policemen pointing cocked pistols, golfers insulated from reality but carefully positioning their heavy clubs. The material and psychological splitting here takes on multiplying shadows, repetitions, and mirror reflections, like the artist’s face appearing in two portraits and a suspended mirror. It also calls on disquieting absences, like the headless masculine suit that stands before various heads displayed on the shop’s wall — will he choose his replacement from cubist depictions of African heads, or the mugshot photo of a woman? This preponderance of images, symbols, gazes, and meanings across this scene is stimulating and overwhelming: does it, like the multiplicity of triptychs in the curation, express the inadequacy of singular representations, the unavailability of secure experiences, the instability of subjective poses?
The heavy symbolism of objects and faces, and the need for large canvasses also impress in Omari Ra’s diptych, The Quilombo Mandate: My Life in the Bush of Spirits. Here images of art critics, historical icons, villains, and ignoble savages combine and repeat in a bed of green foliage amongst predatory animals and blood-colored fruit, some represented in black and white photography, some in cartoon drawings, all merging with the menace of the “bush,” or the jungle so feared by the Westerner who sees only abstract and indecipherable confusion. A quilombo means “mess” in Argentine Spanish, a slippage that renames to obscure, but also suggests the power of secrecy and confusion, to hide, protectively, the original Quilombos, large and legendary communities of runaway slaves in Brazil. Indeed, one of the two paintings seems to have cannibalistically digested all the images of white bodies and faces and is dotted exclusively with superheroes and revolutionary figures, Black and brown. Alongside this celebration of resistance, and other powerful Omari Ra paintings using comic-book aesthetics to depict menacing Black heroism, I find myself moved still more by his two sculptures that collect objects in dusty bundles, incongruous relics that include brooms, machine guns, spears, books featuring Marcus Garvey and Vladimir Putin, bullets and a compass: the material and psychological apparatus, contained and tightly held together,of a guerrilla’s itinerant revolt.
History and its dead weight are inescapable, but not always a clutter. Nadine Natalie Hall’s installation takes up space with its open shackles, trailing old and heavy chains that cannot but call up slavery, the empty wooden chair in front of them suggesting a prison with some individual punishment: an electric chair? A seat of interrogation? A torture chamber? The contrastingly airy, white, mobile structures made of crochet thread that hang over the entire scene summon up a Victorian fancy, the hypocrisies of brutality and delicacy combined such that their convergence in memory cannot but signify trauma. However, the worn-out purse that hangs in front of the chair is no colonial object but a twentieth-century banality of modern, unglamorous, women’s business. Hall’s installation is in truth about a more recent history, the artist’s personal story of sexual abuse and the failures of a mother as protector. This trauma is layered, and so are these objects that collect in its re-membering: the bald brutality of colonialism in which is imbricated the secret complicities through which feminine lives are devalued, well after Emancipation, or Independence. Walking around the old purse, rusted iron, ghostlike mobiles, I sense a staleness that begs the lie in bright dreams of liberation and of self-actualization for the West Indian — visions inadequately conceived — not “worries,” but a more pervasive, existential stagnation.
One need not reference the past to exhibit the disillusionment of the present, however. Ricardo Edwards’ vivid portraits of Black, masculine figures set against views of the ocean focus the tense immobility of conflict between these entities. “Ghetto Boy Trying to Fly” vertically suspends a gleaming Black body in the white clouds above a dark blue sea. The boy’s head is tilted to the side, so that the tree and rope of a lynching seem to have been substituted with sea-and-sky indifference. That bright body, fetishized and sacrificed, is stark against the pristine colors of water and air, and it stands as an accusation against paradise’s maritime clichés. This boy wears no clothing and has no physical constraints, but his arms hang close to his body, his feet point down in a straight line. He does not fly, spreading limbs, taking the wind and moving in any forward direction as in a mythic return to Africa. In the cruel liminality of these heavens, his ghetto boundaries are confirmed, his limbo reified. A ghetto boy, plucked out of his landbound present, can only try to fly, rehearsing the scripts meant for the free, never truly enacting an escape from the enclosing narratives of sea, sun, sky, of paradise.
Just so, the “Pirate Bwoy,” adrift at sea alone in a dinghy with only a makeshift crown and loosely held glock for protection, looks up at the viewer from a dull blue-green sea with a weary desolation that belies the shotta king accessories of his appearance. This performativity is re-emphasized in “Wave Files,” where a line of armed marine officers stand by the water, identical except for the one who confronts the viewer with a frightening wooden mask, its white teeth in a wide-open mouth hearkening to the disconcerting themes of primitivism and negrophilia. Is this another involuntary masquerade, or the brief revelation of an unfriendly spirit, a menacing return of the art-appreciator’s gaze? This aberration from an ordered modernity borders between play and ritual, obedience and subversion — “no problem” and a tour guide’s concealed firearm.
Threat and disorientation can be painfully elegant, Roberta Stoddart’s Sleepwalkers suggests. The archetypal characters of a colonial plantation face the viewer and arrest my attention with their expressionless eyes, an unfocused assemblage of some familiar but frightening story. As if the frills of a Victorian England have been translated into a Caribbean myth of horror, each figure wears the fussy garb of either Madame, Maid, Minister, or Master. They are all dressed in shades of black and white, and along with the deep green and brown hues of an enormous tree and the vegetation behind them, the tableau manages to illuminate while remaining fundamentally dark, a nightscape that awakens. Is this monster story connected to the effrontery of the Madwoman in the Back Room painting next to it, where a light-skinned Creole woman (seemingly the same as the Madame in the center of Sleepwalkers) has shed her ballooning gown and squats to expose her vagina lasciviously—or dispassionately. The viewer might try to look away—I did—but remains as complicit as Charlotte Bronte’s Rochester who has taken Jean Rhys’ Antoinette from her hauntingly beautiful estate and put her in a… back room? We have few “attics” in the West Indies. Can a painting be a whole epic? An argument between British and postcolonial discourse? My literary reflexes beg for more of the secrets implied in this luminous, demented allegory. My Caribbean sensibilities are thrilled to see scattered chickens unconcernedly pecking and preening amongst the characters — as ubiquitous for the region as Chedda’s blocks — retrieving far-flung allusions into the original meeting grounds of a West Indian yard.
The very first piece of Pressure, mounted in the lobby, across from the exhibit’s introduction will perhaps offer a counterpoint to the building darkness in my description of the Kingston Biennial so far. Robin Clare’s Inna de dance paintings each present in repetition the words to describe a dancehall move against stop motion illustrations of said move. In bright colors, movement and rhythm is staged, the frenzy of the movement invoked at the same time that it is diagrammed, demystified. As I looked at this, I thought of the only experience of “dancehall” I’d had until then, at the resort — of course. During a dance party, a group of young men seemed to spontaneously take over the dance floor and feed off each other’s fluid, acrobatic, improvised moves, delighting the onlookers who, for the most part, suddenly feel included in Jamaica’s famous dancehall culture without ever having to enter a real yard.
I later learned from one of these dancers that they are a troupe, hired once a week to show up and animate the parties — clockwork spontaneity — in addition to their regular daytime work on the resort grounds. Oh no, I had thought, of course, this is the ultimate illustration of a people reduced to the commoditization of their culture. Yet, these young men loved dancing, and showcased it weekly, with each “exhibition” an opportunity for them also to practice, to comment on each other’s progress, to show off new moves. Was this their “trying to fly” that was not constrained by threats of violence from either the sea or the firearm? Considering all this as I look at this first work, just after entering the gallery and reading the exhibition’s description, I let my newly relaxed muscles set the tone. Dancehall, of course, is both product and practice. These paintings demystify a cultural phenomenon — exposing its secrets? — but they also claim the brightness and glee, the frenetic release of a dance’s repetitions and improvisations, for Jamaican agency, power, creativity.
When I left behind these, amongst many other brilliant pieces that I had wanted to linger amongst for much more than the two hours I had available, my tension did not suddenly resurface. You see, what the exhibition gave me was what I already knew but needed to see celebrated — the brilliant creativity, insight, and intensity of vision through which Jamaicans would navigate the pressures of their realities, including the economic pressures to perform ease while standing on shifting sands. The genius of the Caribbean cannot erase the weight of neo-colonial legacies, the late capitalist exploitation of a whole people, landscape, and culture, but it still could and would demand that we see, feel, and contemplate this reality, its poignant beauty, and its paradoxical effects. If the resort brings one tourist to “use” the beaches and natural beauty of Jamaica, then the “cultural” sector of tourism — as complicated as such a concept itself might be — will hopefully bring some of those same tourists and a few others, looking for a more cerebral experience, face to face with their own part in Jamaican geopolitics, reversing that appropriative gaze. They, also, must feel this pressure. I hope they won’t feel as at home in it as I do.