Taboo Identities: Race, Sexuality+the Body- A Jamaican Context

The New Identity Politics: Race, Sexuality and the Body in Contemporary Jamaican Art

It was instructive to read the critical response to the The Infinite Island (2007) exhibition, a large survey of contemporary Caribbean art at the Brooklyn Museum which included Ebony  G. Patterson, one of the artists in Taboo Identities. The most notable review came from New York Times critic Holland Cotter who acknowledged the relevance of identity issues to the Caribbean but argued that “the show feels warmed over and sluggish: it doesn’t have the sense of risk or discovery that a re-arguing of identity as a subject now needs, at least in a New York context.” The Infinite Island was obviously uneven but Cotter could certainly be taken to task for his ambivalent Manhattan chauvinism. I am, however, not entirely unsympathetic to his impatience with how identity is represented in contemporary Caribbean art. A lot of identity-focused art is indeed formulaic and presents one-dimensional, aesthetically unimaginative and ultimately useless perspectives on the issues at hand.

In Jamaica, this is most obvious in the recent offshoots of the nationalist school of the mid 20th century, which dominate the conservative domestic art market. Nationalist assertions of a single, unproblematic Jamaican identity were relevant and necessary in their own time but are increasingly out of touch with contemporary realities and debates (although it is also easy to see why, in these troubled times, art patrons should gravitate to escapist but reassuring cultural affirmations.) Contemporary art also often falls short on that issue and fails to address the complexities of contemporary identity questions. There are notable exceptions, however, including a new crop of young artists whose work compellingly re-argues identity and takes Caribbean art in provocative new directions that may not be obvious to New York art critics. This present exhibition, Taboo Identities, includes artists who have been in the frontline of this development in Jamaica, namely Oneika Russell, Kereina Chang-Fatt and
 Ebony  G. Patterson, as well as more recent graduates of the Edna Manley College whose work shows great promise in this context, namely Andrene Lord, Sheldon Clayton, Ainsworth Case, Camille Chedda and Nicole Millwood.
The new identity art that is emerging in and around the Caribbean does not seek to produce definitive statements or to assert cultural certitudes but engages critically with the contradictory dynamics of identity and its representations. It recognizes that identities are forever in flux and simultaneously sustained and consumed by internal contradictions. It recognizes that there is no single, cohesive Jamaican or Caribbean identity but instead multiple identities that arise from the ongoing interplay between the collective and the individual, the mainstream and the marginal, the past and the present, and the local and the transnational. Much of the new work is autobiographical and focuses on the human body, as a site where collective and individual identities intersect and often clash, reminding us that when it comes to identity, the personal is indeed the political. While there are obvious shared interests, its most compelling exponents pursue a healthy diversity of ideological agendas and aesthetic choices. Their work derives from the experiences of the contemporary Caribbean “transnation” – and several of the artists in Taboo Identities live between Jamaica and elsewhere – but they are not confined by any sense of what artists from the Caribbean are supposed to do. They also have the self-confidence to contextualize their pursuits in international crosscurrents that go beyond any construct of the Caribbean – the inclusion of Sean Gyshen Fennell, an American artist whose work presents an interesting counterpoint to that of the Jamaicans in Taboo Identities, represents a case in point.

I am not suggesting that the work in Taboo Identities is entirely new in the Jamaican context: artists such as Milton George, Margaret Chen, Petrona Morrison, Albert Chong, David Boxer and Omari Ra have explored similar issues since the 1970s and 80s and thus paved the way for the younger generation. The younger artists are, however, more overtly concerned with gender and sexuality issues that were previously deemed taboo and willing to address their contradictory role in the contemporary Jamaican popular culture, such as the submerged homoerotic currents and ambivalent attitudes towards adorning and displaying the male and female body in dance hall. This gives their work an acute connection to “the here and the now” which was previously lacking in contemporary Jamaican art. It will be interesting to see how local audiences will respond to their provocations as their work gains public visibility and whether their critical interventions will have spawn any productive debate beyond the narrow confines of the contemporary art community.

Finally, I need to comment on the fact that the Taboo Identities was curated by
 Ebony G. Patterson. There has been much debate, of late, about the passivity of contemporary Jamaican artists and their individual and collective failure to take responsibility for the representation of their work. Taboo Identities is a most welcome change to this pattern and further adds to the sense that contemporary Jamaican art is at a watershed moment, in which new possibilities are emerging.

                                                                        -Veerle Poupeye
                                                                         Curator, Art Historian,                                                                     and Author of the Book                                                                             Caribbean Art

The 'Taboo' on Display at Tuska

Media Contact: Whitney Hale

Photo of Patrons at the Taboo Identities show in Kingston looking at Untitled Blingas I, 2008 by Ebony Patterson

Patrons at the Taboo Identities show in Kingston look at Untitled Blingas I, 2008 by Ebony Patterson

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 10, 2008) – The "taboo" will be on display this month as a new art exhibition on Jamaican identity makes its debut at the University of Kentucky Tuska Center for Contemporary Art [http://news.uky.edu/news/]. "Taboo Identities: Race, Sexuality + The Body" [http://news.uky.edu/news/] brings together work from nine Jamaican and American artists confronting valid constructs of identity as it relates to a Jamaican context. Curated by Ebony G. Patterson [http://news.uky.edu/news/patterson.php], assistant professor of painting at the UK Department of Art [http://news.uky.edu/news/art], this free public exhibition premieres on campus Oct. 16-Nov. 16. The public is invited to an opening reception presented in honor of the show to be held 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16.

Throughout modern Jamaican art, identity has been a pertinent issue, and has proven to be even more relevant to young Jamaican artists as questions of self, race, body and autobiography become far more relevant. "Taboo Identities: Race, Sexuality + The Body" seeks to specifically uncover discussions of what is considered taboo and notions of identity as it relates to these discussions within a Jamaican context.

The show hosts a visual discourse between eight young Jamaican artists and one young American artist, for whom the construct of identity is an ongoing discussion through explorations of body, race and sexuality. Other artists joining Patterson in this exhibition are Ainsworth Case, Kereina Changfatt, Camille Chedda, Sean Gyshen Fennell, Sheldon Clayton, Andrene Lord, Nicole Millwood and Oneika Russell.

The exhibit, which first opened in June at the Olympia Art Center in Kingston, Jamaica, was made possible through the support of independent donors and the Olympia Art Center, UK, UK College of Fine Arts [http://news.uky.edu/news/finearts], and the UK President's Commission on Diversity [http://news.uky.edu/news/l].

Patterson, a native of Kingston, has a bachelor's degree in painting from the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and a master's degree in printmaking and drawing at Sam Fox College of Art and Design at Washington University in St. Louis.

The artist and educator, who came to UK in the fall of 2007, has participated in several group exhibitions at institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, Tacoma Contemporary, Kingston's Mutual Gallery and France's Centre International d`Art Contemporain. Amid her group exhibition credits are "Infinite Islands: Contemporary Caribbean Art," "Jamaica Biennial 2004" and "Jamaica Biennial 2006" at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and the "Royal Overseas League Travel Scholars 2002 Exhibition" presented in both London and Edinburgh.

Patterson, whose work is part of several public and private collections, also has staged solo exhibits at the University of Montana; Mutual Gallery; University City Library in St. Louis, Mo.; and Seeline Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., where she also is represented.

Hours for the Tuska Center are 12:30 to 6 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays; 12:30 to 3 p.m. Tuesdays; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays; and noon to 3 p.m. Fridays. For more information on "Taboo Identities: Race, Sexuality + The Body" or other exhibits scheduled for the Tuska Center, contact (859) 257-1545 or visit online [http://news.uky.edu/news/]. Or visit the exhibit's online catalog [http://news.uky.edu/news/].

Also check  out our webpage at Artslant:


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