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National Visual Arts Exhibition 2015: Valiant Effort in the Face of Scant Regard

The public mural for the 2015 National Visual Arts Exhibition

The Jamaica Visual Arts Competition and Festival 2015 staged by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission and currently running at the Jamaica Conference Centre in downtown Kingston is intended to be a celebration of the visual arts being produced by the country, yet, it may well be its indictment, not of the calibre of the art being produced, but rather how we treat it.

The JCDC has to be commended for their use of the space, especially as the Conference Centre provides a delightful location brushed up against the waterfront, that we do not use enough. A solo exhibition by Kester Bailey (winner of the 2013 Studio Art Prize) is a welcome addition and along with works from Garfield Morgan, Ewan Peart and Mortimer McPherson, line the main corridor leading to the gallery and allows the exhibition to spread beyond the main space. 

The main exhibition features just under 300 entries crammed into a make-shift gallery. And this is a part of the problem. The space is not sufficient for a national exhibition and makes it feel far smaller and less significant than it is. 

Between 2007 and 2012, the National Visual Arts exhibition earned the treatment it deserved and was displayed at the National Gallery of Jamaica. This allowed a breadth of display that itself said that the exhibition was noteworthy. That partnership ended in 2013, and it is a disappointing turn of events. 

Marcella Seivwright's 'Red' the sole gold medalist of the exhibitionSana Rose-Savage, Visual Arts Development Specialist at the JCDC explains that the exhibition is no longer housed at the NGJ because the two organizations, though they have some common goals are at variance with how they work. Rose-Savage explained that while the JCDC works with “the ground-up” in the talent it uncovers and showcases, the NGJ works with “the middle-up”. This was a diplomatic way of indicating that the two organizations disagree about the level of art to be showcased, and that it was probably decided that the some of the art being shown by the JCDC was not good enough to grace the NGJ’s walls. 

In truth, much of the work being showcased as a part of the exhibition is neither stimulating nor arresting, and this is possibly reflected in that most have only achieved merit, with only a few silver medals and a single gold (Marcella Seivwright for ‘Red’) being awarded. 

Samantha Hay's 'I Pledge' earns a silver medalYet, while in this country we bandy around the words national or Jamaica(n) so that they can be applied to plumbing or bread as easily as to institutions attempting to wrestle with, excavate and exhibit the nation’s identity, there are times when the word should be significant.

So, the Jamaica Visual Arts exhibition should be treated as such, not be squeezed into a space that one can walk through in five minutes and then come out wondering where is the rest of it.

Additionally, the exhibition opened March 15, 2015 and will close Sunday, March 29 giving it less than a month on the walls of the Conference Centre. Surely, this narrow two-week window cannot be the space we give to a national exhibition, and cannot provide sufficient time for public engagement.

In truth, the JCDC is valiantly trying to do its best to counteract this, and if there is one organization that knows how to work with scarce spoils, it is them. So, as part of its thrust to ensure public engagement with the National Visual Art exhibition currently, The Jamaica Cultural Development’s is staging a series of Main Audience Days. Last week’s event was devoted to students and saw several young people converging on the centre to view, share in and make their own art. 

Students add to the public mural at the JCDC Visual Art ExhibitionRose-Savage explains, that one of the major aims behind the exhibition and the Audience days is an encouragement of art appreciation.

“We want to increase art appreciation,” Rose-Savage said, explaining that for many art can be intimidating while others can be dismissive of the arts. They wish to help audiences get over this hurdle. “We hope that over time they can become patrons,” she continued.

It is because of this important and commendable goal that it seems so tragic that the exhibition will only be up for two weeks. Of course, it can be expected to go on an annual tour of the island, yet its initial stay should be longer. This exhibition deserves no less treatment than those at the NGJ which as a rule remain for at least a month, often longer. 

And maybe this signals that there ae problems with this exhibition. If that is the case then we owe it to ourselves, and to our children because the national signified in its title is for not bread, or constrction supplies, outdoor advertising, insurance, or even land. This is our art, a part of how we define ourselves, a reflection of ourselves, where we are, and if we are lucky, it can even tell us how we got here.

So, the 2015 National Visual Arts Exhibition underscores that we do not make enough time and space for the arts, and then we hold our heads and (in) wonder, why the country mash-up so.