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A Gallery of Her Own: National Gallery of Jamaica Presents Seven Striking Female Artists
The National Gallery of Jamaica opened Explorations 3: Seven Women Artists last Sunday. The subtitle ‘Seven Women Artists’ is awkward and shambles uncomfortably off the tongue. This discomfiture evident in the very name is deliberate. Explorations 3 makes no attempt to define that nebulous thing that could be called ‘female art’. It does not try to declare the kind of art women are and/or should be making. It simply says here are seven artists, all women, and this is their work. Isn’t it interesting? And it is. Very interesting.
Explorations 3 features works by Kereina Chang Fatt, Miriam Hinds-Smith, Amy Laskin, Prudence Lovell, Berette Macaulay, Judith Salmon and Jasmine Thomas-Girvan. In his curatorial notes, Senior Curator Oneil Lawrence explains that the NGJ chose to focus on mid-career artists who have been consistent but have not received great levels of attention. If the signs of appreciation coming from the audiene was anything to go by, it is attention that is well deserved.
Exporations 3 is a dynamic and engaging exhibition that begs the viewer to return to it again and again. I will err on the side of the over zealous and describe it as fantastic. Indeed, the works Jasmine Thomas-Girvan and Amy Laskin urge you to revel in the fantastical and take flights of fancy.
Thomas Girvan’s sculptures and wearable jewelry is a journey through Caribbean magical realism. The fifteen pieces includes the award-winning mixed media piece 'Dreaming Backwards' (2012) and the awe-inspiring ‘Grow Wings my Love, Grow Wings’ (2015). Girvan’s work explores and re-interprets Caribbean history and culture. Intricately crafted and with the jeweler’s eye for the tiniest detail, her sculpture sings of untold stories and stories that need to be re-told.
At first glance Amy Laskin’s paintings of natural floral arrangements and landscapes are beautiful and even a little whimsical. At second glance they remain beautiful but also offer up much more becoming a commentary on beauty and femininity. Though beautiful flowers sprout from the heads of her figures, the delicate blooms are woven into sturdier vines and/or spiky succulents. 'Queen of Her Domain With Cereus' is particularly striking.
Three of the artists employ fibre and journals, media traditionally considered the realm of the feminine, but tell divergent stories. The almost ephemeral and often haunting pieces created by Kereina Chang Fat speak of fragility, fertility, loss, and longing, while Judith Salmon’s interactive pieces embody the idea of art as an act of communal and personal memories. Also working with fibres and textiles, Miriam Hinds-Smith mixed media pieces turn the attention to social injustices.
Both Prudence Lovell and Berette Macaulay to varying degrees, use photography and digital media. For Macaulay it is a tool for exploration of self, identity and personal history, while Lovell’s work questions the connectivity brought by communication technology.
Explorations 3 is not about gender, but what it clearly wants to do is engender a conversation about female artists in the contemporary art world. Although the work therein often touches on gender and identity, as with the name, the exhibition shuffles around it, and in doing so it pointedly asks us to question gender in art, or rather, gender in the makers of art.
Poet Tanya Shirley brought witty and cogent context to the exhibition with her talk, wonderfully dubbed ‘The Female Artist: Living Bad a Man Yard’. As she explained, the title was borrowed from the phrase (which she claims to have got from her grandmother) “to live bad a man yard”. Shirley argues that unlike the rough and decrepit living the phrase originally describes, these women were being subversive and rebellious. To step a little further and borrow a phrase from dancehall, these women are out and bad.
“I view art as a political
platform that can mirror a society as well as impel it to be greater. The artistic landscape of a country cannot be processed as a mirror if only one segment of that society participates in artistic production,” Shirley said. She went on to note that the seven artists in the exhibition may possibly be informed by their experiences as women but they are not defined by it.
“What this exhibition reminds us,” Shirley said, “is that there are many accomplished female artists doing ground-breaking work in our country and their names deserve to be on on the tips of our tongues.”
Shirley referred to Virginia Wolf's statement that women writers need a room of their own in which to create. In a similar vein, these seven female artists deserve to have, even if it is only temporarily, a gallery of their own.
Explorations 3: Seven Women Artists opened as a part of the NGJ’s Last Sundays programme on Sunday, May 31, 2015 and featured a musical performance by Kelissa. The exhibition continues through to August 8, 2015.