Monday, March 27, 2017

Arts: Kingston Art, "Uptown and Downtown" and in between

Even in a remarkably compact city like Kingston, there’s “world” between the Kingston Waterfront and Devon House (built in 1881 by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire, as a suburban great house).

Divisions, unwritten yet entrenched, of “uptown and “downtown” stand between these two points of the capital, and yet, there are equally entrenched links with respect to commerce, social life and the arts.

It’s through the latter that the two spaces were “re-coupled” so to speak, with the recent opening of the 2017 Jamaica Biennial, one of the big highlights of Jamaica's cultural calendar. Notwithstanding a third venue (Montego Bay’s National Gallery West), the art extravaganza brings the best of Jamaican art, with some international participation to Kingston’s National Gallery and the aforementioned great house,  which occupies a unique apex position, its locus encompassing Half Way Tree, New Kingston, Liguanea and – heading northeast -  Kingston’s more upscale residential and commercial outposts.  

The Biennial arrives at an important -  one might even coin the term Dickensian – juncture in Kingston’s artistic life. While several younger Jamaican artists – Ebony Patterson, Leasho Johnson and Phillip Thomas to name a few – are attracting increasing attention and praise from metropolitan art centres overseas, local artist have had comparatively little to cheer about over  the last decade, not least of which is the virtual decimation of commercial gallery and exhibition space, relative to what obtained previously.

This made the record crowds tat turned up at the waterfront recently for the official opening a welcome current, with Culture Minister Olivia Babsy Grange, Gallery chairman Tom Tavares-Finson and NYC-based art critic and benefactor Edward Gomez all  voicing their pleasure a both the clear strength of the assembled work and the rapturous reception afforded it by a  wide cross-section of the public.  There is clearly pent-up demand for Jamaican artistic expression and, as the Biennial continues at all three locations through the end of May, it will no doubt attract local and foreign visitors for the remainder, and serve as a catalyst for renewed artistic exploration (hopefully in more spaces) .

Beyond those parameters, an experimental ethos has been quietly yet steadily flourishing at New Local Space (NLS), an artist-run contemporary visual art initiative and a non-profit subsidiary of the widely known (certainly in professional communications circles) audio recording studio and production house Creative Sounds.. NLS, its website says,  was founded as a place for visual artists who are making work in dialogue with contemporary issues to experiment with new ideas, collaborate with each other and engage with the public. Interdisciplinary collaboration and open access are principles at the core of our operations.

Director Deborah Anzinger says the goal is to “support visual artists whose practice is based in relentless experimentation, and to connect such artists to the global contemporary art community.” NLS will do this, she continues, by “providing structured support through its artist residency programme, its exhibition programme – noted for featuring “offbeat” artists – providing affordable studio space and conducting ongoing research to assess the needs of visual artists in Jamaica.”

In one aspect, Kingston’s art scene is going “back to the future” Street art, like the streetside vending it’s practitioners commonly engage in, has a along tradition in the capital. This reached a discernible mark in the early 1980s with the Trafalgar Artists collective, so named for their “fence-mounted” exhibits along a stretch of New Kingston’s busy Trafalgar Road.

Today, the members of the Trafalgar group have moved on to various pursuits and locales, but there are other individuals who have taken up the mantle, notably on Lady Musgrave Road (which has a wry historical connection to Devon House) and, in suburban Manor Park. There, at a busy three- way, with the greens of the Constant Spring Golf Club tracking one side, passers-by can see an array of  works on canvas.

Back in the heart of Downtown Kingston, a different sort of street art has been taking shape and catching international eyes.  French émigré Marianna Farag, first came upon Fleet Street in the largely blighted Parade Gardens neighbourhood in Kingston in 2014, and was “greeted” by a large abandoned warehouse bordering the fence of a local schoolyard.

Struck by this “gigantic canvas” and feeling increasingly at home on the island, Farag called time on her former high-powered marketing job and set about making links with local artists and moving to, as she says, “uplift communities in need”.

Paint Jamaica is the upshot of those efforts, and her grassroots art movement has proven magnetic for artists, residents, students and even overseas artists and aficionados, who have flocked to the area to partake of and participate in the flourishing downtown scene.

With plans afoot to increase visitor arrivals to Kingston and to the historic downtown area in particular, the Fleet Street “miracle” is nicely poised. Taken together with the National Gallery and the other offerings, it’s a keen representation of what Kingston is and could very well become.

No comments:

Post a Comment