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New Roots: 10 Young Artists 'Shoot' Bold Statements at National Gallery of Jamaica
“Put dis pon page 2” declared the graffitied statement on the wall of the National Gallery of Jamaica. Created with the vibrant energy of street art, the statement was part of a series of murals created by Matthew McCarthy, recent graduate of the Edna Manley College of the visual arts and one of the artists being featured in New Roots: 10 Emerging artists. A coil of rope dangled from the words holding up a tube of “rubins” highlighting the strange fruits that have been born from Jamaica's class/shade stratification bourn out by ‘Page 2’.
New Roots installations by McCarthy, Varun Baker, Deborah Anzinger, The Girl and the Magpie, Nile Saulter, Ikem Smith, Astro Saulter, Gisele Gardener, Camille Chedda, and Olivia McGilchrist, ten emerging Jamaican artists.
That McCarthy’s bold social critiques have been given pride of place in the NGJ’s Gallery 1, is a marker of change in multiple ways, signalling the NGJ's attempts to broaden its exhibition content and audience in recent years. Not too long ago the National Gallery of Jamaica was the bastion of conservatism and was far more likely to be visited by those who grace the pages of Page 2, than the more diverse audience that turned out for the New Roots opening.
In keeping with the new roots and routes being explored in the exhibition, the morning’s opening featured a performance by Kat CHR who brought an acoustic blend of rock and reggae with pieces from her upcoming album Gold. After the acoustic performance, DJ Pelps delivered an eclectic selection of Reggae and Dancehall, keeping in tune with the social engagement of the art.
A notable element of several of the installations, was their insistence on audience participation. McCarthy’s work featured placards and masks allowing members of the audience participate in the protests. McGhilchrist had the River Mumma persona from her video and photography installation come alive and wander through the audience, while Anzinger’s work allowed the audience to have their input by pasting words and images to the walls.
In her opening remarks that cogently couched the exhibition and its relevance to a contemporary reality, Petrona Morrison, director of the School of the Visual Arts, Edna Manley College, spoke to the social activism evident in New Roots.
“I think we are looking at shifts in the ways can look at the work and engage with the work,” Morrison said, noting the diversity of medium and message in the exhibition. “The art in this exhibition require of us to engage with it on its own terms.”
According to Morrison, one of the critical questions now raised by New Roots, is how to support the work on show.
“If we can't use it as a marker of social status how do we support it?” Morrison asked. This support comes through the engagement that the pieces insist on, either through audience participation, or the disquiet they generate or the sharp focus to which they bring to their subjects.
Under Gisele Gardener’s brush, mouths become dangerous, disturbing cavernous things that draw the eye in only to force you to look even as they make you uneasy. They become dangerous territory framed and guarded by jagged teeth protruding like rocky outcroppings or stalactites and stalagmites.
Through their lenses, one still the latter video, Varun Baker and Nile Saulter draw our attention to society’s overlooked and forgotten. For Baker, his subject is the a quadruple amputee often seen begging on the streets while Saulter creates a documentary of a man who peddles pillows on the street, creating an intimate portrait which he then juxtaposes with the intimate role that a pillow plays in our lives.
Morrison pointed out that the works in New Roots had strayed from the nationalist bent of activism shown in the 1970s and was showcasing something equally rooted but different. She noted that the work reflected the greater levels of uncertainty in the world, breaks down hierarchies and seeks solutions.
"This is not anarchy,” Morrison said. “This is also optimism."
The New Roots art exhibition closes September 30, 2013.