At first, the exhibition looks like it targets a specific locale on a specific occasion, created by a specific group of artistic souls.
Despite its focused purpose — a celebration of Jamaica’s golden jubilee anniversary of independence — “Outward Reach: Seven Jamaican Photographers and New Media Artists” at the Art Museum of the Americas F Street Gallery breaks through all kinds of boundaries, from the geographic to the artistic.
The works, some kinetic, some abstract, and others just plain odd, are the brainchild of seven Jamaican artists based in the United States reflecting on their homeland. But it’s not that simple. Some of the themes, images and emotions on display strike a universal chord, touching on issues such as colonialism, gender and the environment, while others seem to toggle between the U.S.-based artists’ island homeland and the land they now call home. Others still are clear attempts to put a cutting-edge stamp on Jamaican art.
Just ask curator Jacqueline Bishop, whose ghostly photograph “Folly” adorns part of the exhibition — and who sees a duality in her own art and that of the other contributors.
“I think all of us came here to America for various reasons — opportunities, relatives, education,” she said. “And I suspect we will become permanent here, as opposed to returning to the homeland. But there is this dream thing, this undeniable pull of heart and soul. You are who you are wherever you are. I know that’s true for me.”
Bishop is multicultural and multi-gifted. She teaches in New York, where she writes poetry and fiction, and is the author of “My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories from Jamaican Women in New York” and “Writers Who Paint Painters Who Write: 3 Jamaican Artists.”
Without question, Bishop’s work, whether visual or literary, is highly personal, though it too strikes a more universal tone.
“I think when I dream, I am Jamaican,” she said. “But here, you can do so much more with your art. There’s a community of artists here, and the great wide world also, and that does not exist in Jamaica.”
Moreover, the island nation, though only a few hours away by plane, has changed for her. “There’s a culture of violence that’s hard to deal with,” she said.
Bishop originally came to New York because her mother lives there, but “it’s more than that, of course. I suspect that’s also true for the artists in this exhibition. It’s a dichotomy in the exhibition of reaching outward to the homeland, of remembering and commenting.”
Her own contribution is like a photoshopped dream in which she remembers an abandoned house once occupied by her grandparents and formerly owned by the Tiffany family (of jewelry fame). Ghostly sounds seem to permeate her photography. It’s a haunted house, just as Jamaica itself has become a haunted place for some of the artists.
Similarly, photographer Cosmo Whyte embodies the dilemma of an artist torn by two worlds in a series of photographs depicting a barefoot man in a Wall Street business suit overwhelmed by big, high-end, colorful ties practically choking his neck — a straightforward but bold metaphor.
In a series called “Come Back to Jamaica,” Andrea Chung recalls redolent television travel ads and how native Jamaicans become invisible under the eyes of tourists and mobs of cruises visitors.
Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow shows an Asian woman in New York trying to lose herself in the spirit of Jamaican flowers by stealing into or creating urban gardens. “It’s one of those things you truly miss and remember. Sometimes you want to place flowers into spaces where they’re not accommodated,” said Bishop of the island’s lush beauty.
Radcliffe Roye captures a different, more authentic side of the island in his evocative, kinetic photographs of people in Jamaican dance halls. “This is not what other people are used to, the old reggae-style music. This is much rawer, in-your-face kind of dancing and music,” Bishop noted.
She told us that it was important to include both photography and video in this exhibition. “Photography in the islands is a kind of ugly stepsister or brother in the visual arts, and that’s just not so, given all the potentials of the form.”
Bishop’s own sensibilities certainly factor into this show, echoing the memories, dreams and concerns of her fellow relocated artists.
“I think for most of us the transference is permanent,” she said with a note of regret. “But the dream, the idea of Jamaica, the heart, that’s always there.”
Outward Reach: Seven Jamaican Photographers and New Media Artists
through Sept. 28
Organization of American States (OAS) Art Museum of the Americas F Street Gallery
1889 F St., NW
For more information, please call (202) 458-6016 or visit www.museum.oas.org.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.