Words by Lorna King
To say these last few months in Britain have been tumultuous would be the understatement of the year. With the EU referendum and Euro 2016, people have been rampantly tuned in to our international activity. The eyes of the world are on us and we have been glaring right back.
News reports have been swift to leap onto the bandwagon of negativity. Focusing attention on dissolving political parties, xenophobic scandals, and footie failures, many are endlessly suggesting we’re sinking only moments after setting sail from Europe. Amidst this mess, I fear people are forgetting the positives of global communication. Left to our own devices, we risk falling into the false comforts of nationalism and introversion. But Jamaican Pulse is a beacon of respite for all internationally inclined art lovers. In exploring responses to the remnants of colonial conquest, the exhibition sparks a new kind of cultural exchange for the 21st century, bridging gaps created by political fluctuation.
At the core of the exhibition is the question of identity. What makes a person or community Jamaican? From the outside we have associations of triumphant athletes, invigorating cuisine, and distinct, energetic music. Though positives, these are not what Jamaican Pulse taps into. Instead, the exhibition deepens our awareness of cultural and social realities as understood from first hand perspectives. Adorning her male models with floral print and modern accessories, Ebony G. Patterson investigates the objectified body and taboos around its function within Jamaican culture. Her larger than life frieze widens the window through which the ‘West’ gazes by discussing issues of sexuality and masculinity. Positioning the men in an indistinct, ornamental space, Patterson draws attention to issues of social isolation caused by colonial legislators and religious imposition that still impacts Jamaican attitudes today.
Rich in its assorted media, the exhibition challenges common threads of postcolonial debates that tend to underscore inequalities rather than admire present achievements. Immersive art forms such as video and installation thread throughout the exhibition, transporting viewers into first person experience of individual, diverse narratives. Whilst not entirely letting go of hostility towards colonialism, the exhibition encourages awareness of the vivid cultural currents emerging from Jamaica today.
The RWA’s nuanced curatorship has delivered a pinnacle exhibition that contributes to recent art historical debates. Gerardo Mosquera, curator and critic based in Havana and Madrid, spoke in June at the Bristol Museum and Arnolfini about the limits to global circulation of art. Mosquera defined two metaphorical planes of perspective to help conceptualise international exchanges: the Vertical (West by South) against the Horizontal (West by West or South by South). He insisted, most exhibitions organised between Western nations and the ‘Global South’ only reaffirm cultural distance. Speaking about alternative spaces of local art, Mosquera described what is meant by ‘Global’ as a ‘holistic totalising notion’, a ‘neo-liberal mantra’ that in many ways only perpetuates privilege of the West.
Conditioned by the immovable prestige of Western canons, Vertical activity often serves as a licensed pastiche of colonial mentality. As a result, Western curating betrays a tendency to re-enact boundaries between cultures, undermining any pursuit of diversifying the Horizontal. Opposing this convention, the RWA’s display opens up a dialogue amongst the artists for us to listen in to. Shoshanna Weinberger’s triptych, for example, abstractly summarises ‘woman’ as experienced in Western art, a central clamshell referencing Botticelli’s infamous Venus, and how this has affected perspectives around the world. Similarly, Leasho Johnson’s explosive mural illuminates how colonisation has moulded the sexualisation of Jamaican women into an exotic counterpart to Renaissance beauty.
Jamaican Pulse demonstrates an alternative way the Vertical should approach the Horizontal. Rather than singular tokens upon which we project limited views of ‘Jamaicanness’, we are prompted with a series of debates and ideas, subtle, multifarious, and profound. The struggle to define and present a unified whole attests to an embrace of diversity, signalled especially by a national motto: ‘Out of Many, One People’.
By not holding others to cultural expectation we enrich our community’s space for interaction and creativity. This is something Bristol as a city seldom struggles with, and the RWA is another step in the right direction. As the 2016 Olympics loom on the horizon, there is hope we will find ourselves inspired to embrace a similar l’esprit internationale to what we see in Jamaican Pulse.