The National Gallery of Jamaica’s 2008 National Biennial – the premier national art exhibition in Jamaica – is scheduled to open on December 14 and will run for three months, until mid March 2009. The National Biennial features recent work by well-established as well as new and emerging artists and provides a unique opportunity to view the most current directions in Jamaican art in a single exhibition.
The National Biennial has a long and significant history, which is an integral part of the island’s art history. It had started in 1940 with the establishment of the Institute of Jamaica’s annual All-Island Exhibition, to which another annual national exhibition, the Self-Taught Artists Exhibition, had been added in 1968. Many key Jamaican artists gained their first national exposure through these seminal exhibitions. The responsibility for staging Jamaica’s main national exhibitions was in 1977 transferred to the National Gallery, which had been established three years earlier as a division of the Institute, and the Annual National Exhibition, which was essentially a more tightly curated amalgamation of the two, was thus born. This Annual National was in turn replaced by the National Biennial in 2002 and the 2008 edition is the fourth in the series.
There are two ways artists can gain entry to the National Biennial: as invited participants, a privilege that is reserved for artists who already have a proven track record, or in the juried section, which is open to all Jamaican artists and all artists residing on the island and selected from submissions by a panel of artists, collectors and art professionals that is specifically appointed for each Biennial. The list of invited artists currently consists of over seventy artists and is reviewed and updated for each biennial. This year, Lawrence Edwards, Ebony Patterson, Phillip Thomas, Wilfred Francis, Franz Marzouca, Michael Parchment, Keith Reece (Uhuru) and Basil Watson were added and all but the latter were able to submit work.
For the 2008 National Biennial, forty-nine artists gained entry through the jury while fifty-two invited artists have submitted works. The exhibition consists of nearly two-hundred – which makes it the largest National Biennial to date – in media and formats ranging from painting, sculpture, ceramics and photography to mixed media installation and in styles that range from the conventional representational to the experimental. Several artists who had been on the invited list had passed away since the 2006 National Biennial and three of these, Milton George, Ras Dizzy (Birth Livingstone) and Christopher Gonzalez, are represented in the current edition with some of their final works – a sad but fitting good-bye to these important artists. The ceramicist Phillip Supersad and the photographer Howard Moo Young, who were awarded the Institute of Jamaica’s Silver Musgrave medals for 2007 and 2008, are honored with a special display, as is customary for Musgrave medalists for artistic achievement.
Participants in the National Biennial vie for the prestigious Aaron Matalon Award, which is named after a past Chairman of the National Gallery who was also its most generous individual donor, and the winner receives a uniquely minted medal and a cash award.
The National Biennial is by its very nature an eclectic exhibition, which combines the familiar and the established with the new, the surprising and, even, the controversial and the 2008 exhibition is no exception. The Gallery is pleased to welcome back one of Jamaica’s most eminent artists who had not participated for several years, namely Barrington Watson. His participation will delight many Jamaican art lovers. Recent efforts to encourage the participation of photographers have paid off and the strong photographic section includes well-established photographers such as Maria LaYacona, Franz Marzouca, Donnette Zacca, and newer names who work in more contemporary idioms, such as Paul Stoppi, O’Neil Lawrence, Lisa Solon and Nigel Scott. Two of the newly invited artists – Ebony Patterson and Phillip Thomas – are graduates of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts who have recently completed postgraduate studies in the USA and have already made their mark in the local and international arenas. Patterson opted to redo her installation from Curators Eye III, which she felt required additional work, and the resulting work even more provocatively comments on the politics of gender, sexuality and violence in Jamaican society. Thomas is showing two major works from his very successful graduation show at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. At some 12 feet wide, his spectacular “N” Train will be the largest work in the show and, no doubt, one of the most dramatic entries. The self-taught Intuitives, as usual, represent strong idiosyncratic visions and include several relatively new names, such as the ceramist Sylvester Stevens and the painter Christopher Harris, but the quirky mixed media constructions of David Marchand and Gerry Ruecker and the ceramic sculptures by Uhuru are no less eccentric. The 2008 National Biennial thus has work for every taste and will, it is hoped, provoke much debate about the state of Jamaican art and culture.
The 2008 Biennial is presented in association with SkyWritings and with the kind assistance of Hi Qo Gallery. The opening function takes place on Sunday, December 14, starting at 11 am. The guest speaker will be Ralph Thompson, C.D., noted Jamaican businessman, poet and painter.