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Nicole Smythe-Johnson: Making a Case for Independent Curation

Nicole Smythe-Johson

The slippage of language and the eloquence of silence brought Nicole Smythe-Johnson  into the wold of visual. Smythe-Johnson recently completed her first independent curation, Trajectories: 70 Years of Art at Myers, Fletcher and Gordon (July 25 - 27, 2014), officially becoming the rarest of creatures in the Caribbean landscape, a curator without an institution to call home. But if Trajectories, the weekend exhibition at the downtown Kingston law firm, is anything to go by, this position is allowing her freedom to carve change into the walls of the contemporary art world.

The Friday night opening of Trajectories declared that this is not your traditional art show. The the top floor offices had been converted into the temporary gallery, and the art seemed rather at home. However, one of the night’s most striking features, other than the art, was the party atmosphere with booming dance music, which underscored the idea that the art scene is an invigorating space. 

The exhibition largely featured works in the Myers Fletcher and Gordon collection of iconic Jamaican art from the likes of Barrington Watson, Seya Parboosingh, Karl Parboosingh, Eugene Hyde, Kapo, Edna Manley, Milton George, Gene Pearson, Colin Garland, Hope Brooks, Norma Harrack, Fitz Harrack, Sidney McLaren, Carl Abrahams.

Smythe-Johson and Oneil Lawrence at the opening of Natural HistoriesYet, Smythe Johnson was not satisfied merely showcasing the classics. So These pieces were then brought into a conversation with contemporary artists Leasho Johnson, Marvin Bartley, Phillip Thomas, Debra Anzinger, Di Andre C Davis, Oneika Russell and others allowing Trajectories to become an intriguing lens through which to see the evolution of Jamaican art.

Smythe-Johnson’s own trajectory into the world of art is an interesting one. A student of literature and cultural studies, she explained that her Masters dissertation (University of Leeds) used much of the works by Germany literary critic and essayist Walter Benjamin who also paid great attention to the visual arts. Benjamin's writing influenced her own recognition of the inadequacies of words.

“When I became suspicious of language, the next place to go was the visuals,” Smythe-Johnson explained, noting that as she explored history and identity, she found that much of what was said was only “almost right”. The visual arts she found, spoke eloquently in those moments when words slipped into silence. Her engagement wSmythe Johnson at the New Roots exhibitionith Jamaican art, was directly sparked by her viewing of Oneil Lawrence’s exhibition Son of a Champion in 2012. 

“I went to that exhibition and I was very moved by it,” Smythe-Johnson explained. She noted however, that although she had noticed important statements that the work was making, all the reviews she saw of it didn’t fully engage with the artwork. She therefore wrote her own piece on it, and the result found her stepping deeper into the Jamaican art landscape.

“Before long I found myself applying for a job at the National Gallery (of Jamaica),” Smythe-Johnson said. 

A few years later, having worked at The National Gallery of Jamaica, the experimental art space New Local Space and Arc Magazine (where she was senior editor), Smythe-Johnson is on a bit of a solo trod. She explains that she remains a contributor with Arc Magazine and continues to collaborate in exhibition projects with the magazine’s co-founder Holly Bynoe as well as NLS’ Deborah Anzinger. Smythe-Johnson also points out that Bynoe, Anzinger as well as art critic Annie Paul and the NGJ's executive director Veerle Poupeye have taught her much.

Smythe-Johnson expresses elation that Trajectories worked well, because she believes it can be the first of many such privately staged exhibitions. She explained, that while the firm exercised some caution, they were supportive and gave her sufficient lattitude. So, while she admits that staging an exhibition without the backing of an art institution has its challenges, it is a trend she would like to see replicated.

“I was very keen to have a good example of what this kind of collaboration could produce,” she explains. “To that end, I have worked day and night for the last three months to produce a show that would inspire hope and maybe even a bit of jealousy so we could have more of this work,” Smythe-Johnson admits with a laugh.

Her wish to have more independently curated work isn’t merely driven by a desire to create more work for herself.  

“I don’t mean that I want to do all that work,” she quickly protests, explaining that Jamaica could greatly benefit from from an increase in the curatorial arts. Her wish is to see the landscape benefit from having more independent curators.

“I’m the only one I know fo, but I intend for it to be a thing,” she said, and from the top floor of these law offices, she makes a great case.