Not Enough Pressure at the 2022 Kingston Biennial

KINGSTON, Jamaica — Does pressure generate possibilities for experimentation? My reflection on the Kingston Biennial is driven by this question and the potential that lies in undoing the traditional exhibition format, particularly for small-scale institutions with limited funding. On view at the National Gallery of Jamaica from June 26 through December 31, the biennial opened this summer with works by 24 Jamaican artists both living on the island and in the diaspora. The exhibition was conceived by the curatorial team of David Scott, professor of anthropology at Columbia University; Nicole Smythe-Johnson, scholar and independent curator; Wayne Modest, Director of Content at the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam; and O’Neil Lawrence, chief curator at the National Gallery of Jamaica. The curators describe the theme of “Pressure” as related to both a force that fuels creativity and experiences grappling with current global socioeconomic, racial, and political unrest, amid the life-altering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the biennial remains an integral opportunity to gain insight into the breadth of work from Jamaican artists, this iteration felt confined, perhaps due to the curatorial attempt to achieve cohesion, and lacked the reactive energy central to the concept of pressure.   

In Jamaica, resources to support artists and creative institutions are scarce, which likely impacted the biennial and its programming. However, restrictions can also necessitate other ways of thinking, shifting toward overlooked venues and local collaborators in the pursuit of curatorial decisions that engage the country’s artistic landscape. As a smaller biennial not wrapped up in elite art world affairs, it is a chance to engage local audiences. Rather than an idyllic proposition to simply “make a way outta no way,” which is often projected onto underfunded institutions instead of interrogating entities that control where resources are funneled, this is a recognition of the prolific ideas that have always sparked from social, systematic, and intellectual frictions.

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Limiting the biennial to the first floor of the National Gallery, rather than extending it across multiple locations as in previous years, was a lost opportunity to position artworks in response to the country’s social vibrations. Located in Downtown Kingston, the gallery is close to both a major commercial hub and severely disinvested communities in the city. This geography positions the exhibition to contend with the pressure that produces these tense realities of space and place, deeply felt in the prevalent classism that structures Jamaica.

Katrina Coombs, “Apocalypse, Lifting of the Veil” (2021), performance still

What would it look like to install Jasmine Thomas-Girvan’s “The Healing Stream” in a religious space connected with her references to the history of Revivalist preacher Alexander Bedward? The 12-foot black scroll welcomes viewers to the National Gallery, undulating from the roof toward a small sculpted black figure mounted on a wooden banister. Thomas-Girvan’s work exudes a fragility that further emphasizes its link to spirituality as a means of political consciousness and Black liberation. Similarly, I can imagine the jarring experience of viewing Camille Chedda’s “Untitled” — an installation built from concrete cinder blocks that invites viewers to consider the country’s economic instability and histories of enslavement embedded in Jamaica’s prominent tourist areas — in one of the former colonial sites across the city. Through the center of the blocks viewers can see archival photos of laborers in sugarcane fields, videos of dancehall sessions, and tiny transparent bags filled with concrete juxtaposed with images of golf courses, white sand beaches, and the interiors of former plantation estates, teasing out the violence that is fundamentally a part of the Jamaican society.     

Other installations by Nadine Hall, Christopher Irons, Laura Facey, and Katrina Coombs were captivating offerings. Coombs’s “Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil” is a sensory transformation of a small adjacent gallery space into an intricately woven cocoon that explores difficulties of motherhood and childbirth. A haunting vulnerability echoes throughout Hall’s “Heirlooms Unchained,” as dozens of lightweight white crochet spheres hang from the ceiling at different lengths, casting shadows onto iron shackles that lie below. An empty chair faces her mother’s old handbag, connected to the shackles by an iron chain. A sense of absence lingers over the piece, which Hall describes as addressing the experience of sexual trauma, and the loosened shackles suggest the prospect of catharsis while reckoning with memories that may never dissipate. 

An insidious psychic aspect of colonialism often felt in Jamaica is a demand to perform the façade of the respectable, polite, and restrained colonial citizen. In his catalogue essay, co-curator Wayne Modest writes, “pressure is a capacious concept that defines a multitude of maladies, a specific Jamaican condition … It works as a force on the body.” With each of my visits to the biennial, I longed for pressure viscerally working on and through the body, prompting questions without distinct answers or reckonings with Jamaica’s varied histories. Sometimes complexities are revealed when the seams underneath the exterior are exposed.

Kaleb D’Aguilar, TAUT (2021), film

I was drawn to the conceptual range in the work of Satch Hoyt, Hurvin Anderson, and Arthur Simms, though the pieces were created between 10 and 25 years ago. Simms’s sculpture “John the Baptist, Prisoner of the Earth” is deeply evocative, skillfully interweaving materials including rope, wood, burlap, wire, and a metal rod that endows the work with an anthropomorphic quality. Unfortunately crowded in the gallery space, Nari Ward’s “Windward” is a timely piece, with its iconography of the abeng horn that references Jamaica’s Maroon community, especially considering the recent antagonisms over the community’s call for sovereignty.

One of the most anticipated aspects of an exhibition assembled by a curatorial team is the balance between individual approaches and a collective vision. The Kingston Biennial team is comprised of vibrant minds, each a critical figure engaging the work of artists from the Caribbean. While their voices generally felt muffled under the weight of the exhibition, two curatorial combinations stood out in their aim to engender more nuanced discussions among the artworks. The proximity between works by Kaleb D’Aguilar, Ricardo Edwards, and Simon Benjamin, three of the biennial’s youngest artists, accentuated the intimate and often contentious relationship between Black life and the ocean as a site of migration, risk, and possibility. Edwards’s digital painting, “Ghetto Boy Trying to Fly,” brings a surrealist element to the oceanic connection, adding another layer to the realities of familial separation through migration that come across in D’Aguilar’s collection of video works, Taut, and to the precarity that characterizes a fisherman’s labor in Benjamin’s short film, “Errantry.”

I was also intrigued by the juxtaposition of Omari Ra’s satirical commentary on Black masculinity in his mixed-media collage pieces “Man Head in Re(e)volution”and “It a Come” with Monique Gilpin’s digital painting “Venus Figurines,” which attends to the fungibility often projected onto the bodies of Black women. In dialogue with both Gilpin’s and Ra’s work, Leasho Johnson’s Anansi series of paintings highlights the malleability of the human subject, his abstraction examining the tense intermingling of intimacy and violence that characterize Black queer life.

I recently attended an exhibition talk for Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s to Today at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons emphasized the demands from the art world for Caribbean artists to “perform Caribbean-ness.” She identified this as a detrimental fiction intended to engage the work of artists from the region. This fiction is often reproduced by cultural institutions in Jamaica, causing a constant battle over the boundaries of creativity and an uncertainty that permeated the biennial. So much of Jamaica’s cultural innovation comes from a resourcefulness, emerging foremost from working-class communities, that breeds ingenuity. I look forward to future iterations of the Kingston Biennial drawing on this energy.

Leasho Johnson, “Gully Creeper (Anansi #4)” (2020)
Nadine Natalie Hall, “Heirlooms Unchained” (2020)
Camille Chedda, “Untitled” (2020)
Arthur Simms, “John The Baptist, Prisoner of the Earth” (1992–93)
Omari Ra, “Man Head in Re(e)volution and It a Come” (2019–21)
Jasmine Thomas, “Girvan Helaing Stream” (2022)

The 2022 Kingston Biennial: Pressure continues at the National Gallery of Jamaica (BLOCK 3, Kingston Mall, 12 Ocean Blvd, Kingston, Jamaica) through December 31. The biennial was curated by David Scott, Nicole Smythe-Johnson, Wayne Modest, and O’Neil Lawrence.


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