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Nicole Smythe-Johnson

Jamaica Journal Submission- August 19, 2014

Anything with Nothing


A Continuing Conversation between the Street and the Gallery
Nicole Smythe-Johnson

Yesterday I risked missing the deadline for this article by spending six hours in the hot sun of Kingstons
concrete jungle heart. I was there to volunteer for the Paint Jamaica project, and its spin-off Plant
Jamaica in the Parade Gardens neighbourhood, commonly known as Southside. It was one of the more
fulfilling experiences of my creative and professional life. Over the past month an abandoned, roofless
warehouse has been converted into a mural gallery with works, designed by emerging artists and
executed by volunteers, covering the sprawling walls.
The energy around the projects was (and still is) palpable. The public and the media have enthusiastically
answered the organisers call to action, contributing to crowd-sourcing campaigns and coming out to
visit, volunteer and document the project, regardless of the fact that Southside is one of Kingstons more
notorious inner-city neighbourhoods. The projects success is convincing evidence of the power of street
art to engage, uplift and transform.
The recently closed Anything with Nothing exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) had some
similar aims to the more grassroots Paint Jamaica, it may also have had some similar origins. Back in 2013
when I was senior curator at NGJ, Matthew McCarthy one of the Paint Jamaica artists was
spearheading another street art project called New Jamaica. New Jamaica used the aesthetics of
dancehall-inflected street art to critique Jamaican society with signs and murals across Kingston. The
project caught the attention of the NGJs curatorial staff, and when McCarthy produced a well-received
exhibition version of the project for his final-year show at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and
Performing Arts, the team began thinking about an exhibition of the new directions in Jamaicas art
scene, including McCarthys street-art avenue.
McCarthy was invited to do an installation at the NGJ, as a part of the New Roots exhibition of ten
emerging artists that opened in April 2013. The result was an expansive, graffiti-styled work that covered
the walls of the NGJs cavernous welcome gallery. There were many responses to McCarthys project
(good and bad), but by far the most significant for this writer (and I would argue for the NGJ as an
institution) was the spike in visitors, many of whom were unfamiliar with the gallery. Young people,

Nicole Smythe-Johnson
Jamaica Journal Submission- August 19, 2014

passers-by and people from the surrounding downtown community were intrigued by McCarthys I took
the liberty of designing one, a mixed media piece mounted on corrugated zinc (that omnipresent feature
of Jamaicas inner-city neighbourhoods) that was mounted in the gallerys foyer and visible from outside.
The response to McCarthys installation was a clear sign to the NGJ (and other arts practitioners) that the
Jamaican public is interested in engaging art, it just may not be the modern art that dominates the
National Collection. The NGJ began to think seriously about street art as a vehicle for sparking a broader
conversation about the value and power of visual language in general, and art specifically. Critiques of
McCarthys exhibition, particularly those that hinged on whether or not Matthews murals qualified as
art, or were appropriate for exhibition in the National Gallery, also brought some of the hierarchies
implicit in national and global discourses on art to the fore. Already in the summer of 2013, the need to
articulate a more inclusive definition of art, one that reconciled visual arts high culture overtones with
Jamaicas decisively vernacular cultural landscape, was a regular topic of conversation in the curatorial
department.
I was not surprised, then, when I heard in early 2014 that the NGJs newly installed chief curator, Charles
Campbell would be leading a street art project. Campbell, who had exhibited at the NGJ on a number of
occasions in his capacity as artist, was familiar with the gallerys struggle to reach new audiences and
demonstrate relevance in a rapidly evolving cultural scene. A street art exhibition was a good way to meet
both these ends, continuing the discussions sparked by McCarthys New Roots installation, and tapping
into an oft-overlooked thread that has existed in Jamaican art historical discourse for quite some time.
One only has to recall Dawn Scotts equally popular and controversial 1985 installation, A Cultural Object,
to confirm this. As Dr Veerle Poupeye, executive director of the NGJ, has written: [the piece] remains
popular to the present day and schoolchildren still come to the NGJ asking for the Ghetto, as it is
popularly known. She goes on to note that A Cultural Object represents an instructive crack in the
institutional armour of the NGJ, whereby the stark difference between the orderly, high culture space
of the museum and the haphazard, chaotic reality of much of Jamaicas urban life are made painfully
visible. The question arises: who is the intended audience of the NGJ, and who is not? Who is made to
feel welcome here, and who is not? And one answer is provided in the response of Anything with Nothing

Nicole Smythe-Johnson
Jamaica Journal Submission- August 19, 2014

artist Donovan Danny Coxon McLeod to being asked what he knew of the NGJ before the exhibition:
Chu, wi neva go art school and ting, we thought it was for uptown, those who qualified . . .1
As Coxons remarks suggest, Anything with Nothing would touch on these longstanding issues, though
from an important new perspective. The exhibition featured the work of ten street artists who make their
living in Kingstons inner cities, often painting controversial memorial murals or dead paintings. It was
curated by Campbell, along with assistant curator Monique Barnett-Davidson, who has been doing
independent research into Jamaican street art for several years.2
The show represents a significant departure from the street art and popular art discourse that preceded
it, since unlike Matthew McCarthy and Dawn Scott, exhibitors Kemar Black, Anthony Brown, Cleaver
Cunningham, Vermon Howie Grant, Ricardo Ricky Culture Lawrence, Donavon Danny Coxon
McLeod, Dionne Sand Palmer, Michael Robinson, Andrew Designer Ice Thomas and T. Earl Witter are
not merely adopting the vocabulary of Jamaican street art for use within a fine art (or any other)
context, rather they are producers of Jamaicas street art culture. Their work functions within the
communities from which its vocabularies are drawn. It is a street art culture that, as Campbell helpfully
points out in his introduction to the exhibition, must be distinguished from American graffiti culture:
The night time escapades of taggers and paint bombers in New York playing a wilful game
of cat and mouse in direct contestation of police authorities is a world away from the
slow laborious painting of Danny Coxon as he tries to capture the likeness of a youth
caught in the crossfire of inner city conflicts. Although Coxon may be painting on a
privately owned wall, his work couldnt exist unless sanctioned by his community.3
This aspect of the exhibition was especially important because the first half of 2014 saw a campaign by
the Jamaica Constabulary Force to remove community murals that were thought be gang-related or
glorifying criminals.4 As the NGJ was mounting Anything with Nothing, murals some of them painted by
artists participating in the exhibition were being covered with blue paint across the city. The issue is
contentious, with well-thinking people on both sides. Even the artists are divided on the matter. In the
1

Donovan Coxon, Wall to Wall: Street Art Reasonings, panel discussion, National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston, 12
July 2014.
2
See [author], De Mi Barrio a Tu Barrio: Street Art in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean (Mexico City:
Goethe Institute, 2012).
3
Charles Campbell, Introduction: Context and Community, Anything with Nothing exhibition catalogue (Kingston
National Gallery of Jamaica, 2014), 5.
4
See Kimmo Matthew, Police Vigilant after Removing Gaza Murals, Jamaica Observer, 3 May 2014. Web. August
15, 2014.

Nicole Smythe-Johnson
Jamaica Journal Submission- August 19, 2014

artist talk accompanying the exhibition, Anthony Brown made it clear that he has stopped accepting
commissions for portraits of gang members and others involved in criminal activities. This has meant a
reduction in income for him, since like most Jamaican street artists he works on commission, but his civic
responsibility is more important.
Veteran street artist Earl Witter argued that there was a double standard inherent, as the glorification of
bad men is nothing new. The cowboy people, dem a bad man, right? Witter asks. Yet the glorification
of cowboy anti-heroes or leaders of organised crime in films like Scarface (1983) and American Gangster
(2007) is accepted as a normal part of global popular culture. How are memorial murals different? For
him, the removal of the murals is a form of oppression of poor people.
Kemar Black spoke to another aspect of the issue, arguing that the JCF has not consulted with these
communities to confirm the identities of people in murals or to assess the significance of the murals.
While Black has no issue with the stated intention to deter citizens from glorification of criminal activity
he thinks that the police are missing an opportunity to engage the community and develop a
programme based on consultation and partnership. For him the real problem is the JCFs refusal to start
pon the ground floor, engaging the people they seek to have an impact on. I, for one, hope the JCF is
listening, though I doubt it.
In an effort to address the shift in context implied by the move from the streets to the gallery, Campbell
and Barnett-Davidson worked with artists to develop presentation styles that were in keeping with the
street art aesthetic while remaining portable. In dismounting McCarthys New Roots installation, more
than a few employees and art lovers had lamented the fact that the murals would be lost forever under
layers of paint. The artists in Anything with Nothing faced a similar problem: for the most part they
worked with paintbrushes or an airbrush painter directly on a wall. A number of alternatives were
devised, including Designer Ices Rider (2014), which was painted on stacked concrete blocks that were
dismantled, brought into the gallery and re-configured; paintings on large wooden panels; and most
memorably Cleaver Cunninghams car bonnets.
Kemar Blacks The Creation (2014) was probably the most exciting work for me. Most of the other artists
tended toward portraits of national heroes or significant figures tweaking the memorial mural to suit a
broader, national audience. Others presented work that reproduced conventions in Jamaican art I am
thinking here of a work like Anthony Browns Market Higgler (2014), a conventional market scene much
like the ones found in middle-class homes and tourist shops the nation over. Most in step with Sands,
4

Nicole Smythe-Johnson
Jamaica Journal Submission- August 19, 2014

Blacks work departed from the shows dominant narrative with four paintings on wooden panel. Three
women one on each panel, their stylised bodies floating in otherworldly landscapes and dressed in
elaborate outfits stand beside a painting of a man. Black describes the fourth panel as a portrait of
himself as master of the universe.5 He is also a fashion designer and poet, and this work seems to draw
on all three tendencies. When I first came upon them, I immediately thought of Afrofuturism, which jives
well with Blacks commitment to community building and the growing of an empire.6 The larger-thanlife, flattened figures also bring to mind ancient Egyptian figure painting, an interesting association given
the relationship between size of figures and social status in ancient Egyptian convention. Black and his
three models, wearing his own designs (in fact Black wore the outfit in the self-portrait to the opening)
tower above the gallerys visitors, affectively challenging the notion that the gallerys visitors are
necessarily more socially significant than Black and his friends and colleagues in his Matthews Lane
community.
Sands minimalist works were also a favourite, but then I have loved Sands work for some time now. He is
the only artist in Anything with Nothing to have exhibited at the National Gallery before.7 His works
presence in the exhibition is also a welcome blurring of the taken-for-granted distinction between
intuitive artists and street artists within Jamaican art history discourse. As Monique Barnett-Davidson
pointed out at the accompanying NGJ Artist Talk event, there is something to thinking about how an
overlap between the categories of intuitive and street artist might change our conception of both
categories.
Finally, having spoken about the exhibitions significance within Jamaicas art history and cultural
landscape, I must speak about two weaknesses. The first is a distinctly curatorial problem. There is a
saying among fiction writers: Show, dont tell. It means that in writing a good story, one should not
depend too heavily on ones own explanation and description of events, instead one should seek to have
the reader apprehend the story through action, thoughts, senses, and feelings.
I would argue that this is equally true of curatorial work. There is a way in which an exhibition can be
organised to say something that is not written on the text panels, or heard in an explanatory video. There
is a provision of context that should not be limited to labelling and the scripts of tour guides. While much
of the information I have shared in this review was available via tours or careful combing of the NGJs
5

Kemar Black, Wall to Wall: Street Art Reasonings.


Ibid.
7
Sands work was included in the NGJs exhibition Young Talent V (month 2010).
6

Nicole Smythe-Johnson
Jamaica Journal Submission- August 19, 2014

website, the exhibition itself did not communicate all it could have. Car bonnets aside, I got no real sense
of the tension between the street and the gallery (as contexts) in the way this work was exhibited.
Walking through the galleries, there were no real gestures toward the art historical discourse that these
works tap into. And though photographs showed examples of street art in context, the photographs were
not very strong and were exhibited (rather arbitrarily) upstairs, apart from the rest of the exhibition. This
meant that I was not aware that they were there until I took a tour. It is difficult to communicate what I
am trying to get at, but to my mind, the exhibition could have done with more showing and less telling.
My second critique takes us back to Paint Jamaica, the project I started with. Much has been made, again
told not shown, of the importance of context for Jamaican street art. The audience matters, the
community matters, the sense of connection to these works matters; that is their real power. As Black
said during the Artist Talk, the covering of the murals by JCF is analogous to taking bullets out of the
police gun, or taking his badge off his chest for the communities in which they exist. My greatest
disappointment in regard to this show was the absence of any real gesture toward this communal and
functional aspect. Early out in the project there was discussion of partnering with nearby Gallery 174 to
have participants in their youth summer programme which engages children and teenagers living in and
around the gallerys downtown location to paint a street mural nearby the NGJ as a part of the
exhibition programming. That does not seem to have materialised. A few works on wooden panel by the
Gallery 174 youth participants were added to the exhibition toward the end of its run, but to say they
were mural-sized is generous. Whatever the reason, that was a missed opportunity to demonstrate the
real force of Jamaican street art. While I understand that Paint Jamaica and Anything with Nothing are
two very different projects with different aims and capacities, I must say that there is something ethereal
but significant that the former might learn from the latter. It is something that can never be told; only
experienced, embodied. If I were looking for a shorthand, some inadequate, word, I might call it soul.