Explorations IV: Masculinities Exhibition

Masculinities, Johnny Cool, Montego Bay Cultural Centre, National Gallery West, National Gallery

The following notes were contributed to the Explorations IV: Masculinities exhibition catalogue by its curator, O’Neil Lawrence. Masculinities opened at National Gallery West on May 1, 2016.

While I feel privileged to have been part of all the exhibitions in the National Gallery’s Explorations series, co-curating the first, Natural Histories, with Nicole Smythe-Johnson, the second Religion and Spirituality with Veerle Poupeye and curating the third Seven Women Artists, the current edition, Masculinities, is somewhat different to me. It is different not because its thematic concerns are particularly unique amongst the concepts explored in previous Explorations exhibitions, but because the theme is related to my own academic work, on subjects in which I have a strong personal investment.

My recently concluded Master’s thesis looked at the convergence of constructions of masculinity, eroticism, exoticism and the black male body in the photography of Archie Lindo – whose work is included in this exhibition. Explorations IV: Masculinities however, goes significantly beyond the necessarily narrow focus of my thesis, as the concepts and realities of Jamaican masculinities are quite complex. Because of this, the exhibition is organized around eight thematic concerns that we hope will take into consideration the breadth of the topic:“Sexual Bodies”; “Beyond the Normative”; “Power & Status”; “The Male Body as Icon”; “Precarious Masculinities”; “The Athlete & the Worker”; “Style & Fashion”; and “Fathers, Brothers & Sons.”

There is, naturally, significant overlap between these themes, as none of them exist in isolation. Many of the works in this exhibition could have been shown under more than one of the exhibition’s thematic headers and many other artists and art works could have been included, although this would have resulted in an exhibition of an impractical size. The themes and selections are meant to act as provocations for further thought, research and debate on what is a topic of enormous complexity and social significance, rather than as any definitive or exhaustive statements. I am in this essay presenting my own notes on these themes and the key selections I have used to represent them but this catalogue publication also features introductions to each thematic section, contributed by Veerle Poupeye, that provide slightly different and more detailed perspectives on the works on view.

“Sexual Bodies” – “Beyond the Normative”

Jamaican perceptions and attitudes towards masculinity have been informed by social anxieties about the expected roles of men and the most acute anxieties pertain to the male body and male sexuality. Jamaican concepts of masculinity seem particularly challenged by the varied ways in which the typical male gaze can be reversed and the works in what is therefore arguably the exhibitions’ most provocative gallery are grouped under the dual themes “Sexual Bodies” and “Beyond the Normative.” Though part of the accepted canon of nostalgic Christmas images, Isaac Mendes Belisario’s Koo, Koo or Actor-Boy (1837) is as transgressive as it is familiar

Leasho Johnson’s work parodies, questions, and critiques contemporary popular culture’s generally accepted expressions of gender-normative behaviour. The cartoon characters in his provocatively titled Boney Boney Ripe Banana, Me and the Monkey Man (Hugging up) and Brace, all from 2013, straddle decidedly phallic images of bananas in a critique of the hyper-sexuality and homophobia within Dancehall.

“Power & Status”

The attire and posture of Paul Bogle (?), in a circa 1865 tintype photograph which has become his de facto official portrait, denotes the status and respectability of the photograph’s middle class subject. This image quickly gained purchase in the public imaginary and superseded not only the controversies of origin but all other representations of Bogle and the Morant Bay uprising, as it embodied the aspirations of the poor and disenfranchised. The style and fashion represented in Vermon “Howie” Grant’s Dance Hall Artiste [sic] (2014) are also a mechanism by which masculine hierarchies are maintained: the jewellery of Bounty Killer and the tattooed and bleached face of Vybz Kartel, in particular, speak to the various ways in which Dancehall represents aspirational tendencies but also defiance of middle class norms.

“The Male Body as Icon” – “Precarious Masculinities”

Varun Baker’s Journey 6 (2013) poignantly challenges the connection between physicality and masculinity. The photographs subject, Joshua, a quadruple amputee, demonstrates quite dramatically just how precarious the concept of masculinity could be if it is solely tied to physicality but also that attitude is even more important. Albert Huie’s The Island (1972) provides a more critical perspective on this contradictory objectification and poignantly represents the touristic exoticisation and exploitation of the island, represented by a reclining black male figure who is assaulted by camera-wielding tourists.

“The Athlete & the Worker”

The “athlete” and the “worker” are important figures in Jamaican life, and are usually assumed to be male, and also appear as iconic subjects in Jamaican art, in ways that invite further discussion on the complexities and contradictions of these constructs.

The vision of the athlete is hardly celebratory in Barrington Watson’s Athlete’s Nightmare which depicts an uncertain, unresolved result to a particularly contested run.

“Style & Fashion”

Style and fashion are important considerations in the construction and expression of gender identities, even though these are often stereotyped as female preoccupations. Amongst the lush vegetation of A. Duperly and Sons Castleton Gardens (1901), a particularly well dressed black man stands in the centre. Self-possessed and assured, he represents the emergence of a black middle class, and challenges the demeaning anthropological representations of black masculinity that predated and still persisted during the period. The same self-assured defiance is found in Osmond Watson’s Johnny Cool (1976), who presents a cool, collected and well-dressed posture of “rude boy” confidence. The protagonists in Ebony G Patterson’s Untitled II, III and IV (Khani + di Krew from the Disciplez Series) (2009) address similar issues but also allude to Dancehall’s homophobic, hyper-masculine and contradictorily feminized aesthetic.
Their bleached faces (a trend formerly exclusive to women and poor gay men) and “blinged out” style act as challenges to the standards of good taste and black self-affirmation of the Jamaican middle classes. Peter Dean Rickards’ Proverbs 24:10 (2008) acts as a poetic tribute to the male dancers in the Dancehall and the use of slow motion in the video poignantly depicts the self-affirmative ceremony that is the dance.

“Fathers, Brothers & Sons”

This final section of the exhibition focuses on the representation of male family relationships, in the literal and more extended sense, the latter referring to the homosocial (or platonic) relationships and interactions among men that are widely accepted in Jamaican society, despite the anxieties about homosexuality, for instance in the field of play and recreation.
Prevailing notions about absentee fatherhood are also challenged in Rose Murray’s depictions of Rastafarian fathers and children, reminding that Rastafari has provided an alternative of strong father roles in the popular culture. Her Seated Boy (1975) depicts a young Rastafarian boy who is leaning against a painting that literally predicts a positive future for him as a “young lion.”
In closing, it is my hope that this exhibition will lead to productive debate on how notions about masculinity operate in Jamaican society, and how this is in turn represented in art and other cultural expressions. Quite naturally, there is a lot more to be said but what is presented already offers a very rich array of possibilities for debate and further exploration.

O’Neil Lawrence is Senior Curator (acting) at the National Gallery of Jamaica.