By: Gervais Marsh
A contemporary art collection located in an upscale urban hotel begs the question of which audience it caters to? In Jamaica, a country deeply segregated by class, the boundaries of what spaces one feels comfortable entering are evidently drawn even if the lines aren’t visible.
In this context, the Beyond Tropical collection is both a bold move, constituting the only other public contemporary art display in the country along with the National Gallery of Jamaica, and an opportunity to interrogate the class structures that shape viewing art. Exhibited throughout the first floor, main lobby and restaurant of the AC Marriott hotel in Jamaica’s capital city, Kingston, the collection is curated by art advisor Susanne Fredricks as an innovative departure from the stereotypical tropes of tropical landscape scenes that populate most hotels in the Caribbean. The hotel draws a strong local presence as a vibrant social venue, allowing for the artwork to be viewed in a more approachable setting than a white cube gallery or museum. Fredricks notes, “The AC is a global brand with a universal design aesthetic, and we wanted to bring Jamaica into the hotel space, situating visitors, both foreign and local, into contemporary visual conversations from the region. I think of the collection as a kind of reclamation of our history, the politics of our being, and the dynamics around gender, place, nationhood, and economy within the culture we have brought to the world.”
Installed outside at the hotel’s entrance, a somber impermanence that often characterizes the conditions of the tropics exudes from “Becoming,” a monumental sculptural piece by Tamara Morin-Harding. The piece is made with the wood of a tamarind tree and continues to deteriorate from weather elements. This mood is sustained through “Black Petals” by Laura Facey, a smooth undulating exterior that leads into textured ridges suffused with an eroticism that emphasizes tactility. An acute attention to materiality emanates in Jag Mehta’s stoneware clay cones that contrasts with David Pinto’s “Pod” and “Waves” sculptures, reminders of the fractal contours found throughout the Caribbean natural environment.
While Jamaica is known globally as a dynamic, at times overdetermined cultural site, there is a scarcity of funding for arts institutions. This has led to a visual art scene with too few spaces for artists to exhibit work. If approached as an ongoing curatorial project, Beyond Tropical can expand the scope of where and how artwork is viewed. Thus far, the growing collection has made several recent acquisitions, including work by Ebony G. Patterson and Kimani Beckford. It also provides recognition for Caribbean contemporary artists outside of Jamaica, with pieces by Rodell Warner from Trinidad and Tobago and Katherine Kennedy from Barbados. Beyond Tropical is a prompt to think creatively about what an exhibition can look like in Jamaica, and a push for the country’s private sector to tangibly support the work of contemporary artists. Regardless, as Ebony G. Patterson’s textile piece “Who is missing” asks, when private companies become more involved in the arts, who gets a seat at the table? As one of the most well known contemporary Jamaican artists, Patterson’s work has long questioned the intimacies of class and violence, reflecting on who becomes marginalized in the imbalances of the country’s socio-cultural constructs.
Echoing Patterson’s call, artists Cosmo Whyte, Leasho Johnson and Shoshanna Weinberger grapple with the intertwined racial and class dynamics that often dictate spaces like the AC Hotel. Cosmo Whyte’s “Shotta II'' is a central focal point of the collection when entering the lobby, a jarring photo collage that appropriates the character Ivanhoe Martin from the film The Harder They Come, played by singer Jimmy Cliff. Exaggerating Cliff’s black skin tone and red eyes, the figure stares intently at the viewer in a confrontational stance, a gun pointed from each hand, as if to ask, “What is the place of the unruly within this hotel?” Whyte’s work questions the classism that often leads to the tourist/local divide. With a similarly stark image, Leasho Johnson’s “Sugar Daddy” asserts that the hustler will always find a way to make it into spaces not “meant” for him. A semi-abstract figure intertwined in the leaves and stalks of multi-colored sugar cane, Johnson alludes to the colonial histories that continue to shape complicated Jamaican masculinities.
Alongside Whyte’s collage hangs Shoshanna Weinberger’s haunting triptych “Market Fruits”. A heaviness weighs on the three amorphous black masses attached to barbed wire, tightly constricted amongst gold chains that squeeze out drips of black paint. Weinberger wrestles with the intertwined emotional and material violences that plague Black women in what feels like a rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”. Textile artist Katrina Coombs’ woven sculpture “Invasion II” is in dialogue with Weinberger’s piece, exploring the tensions of self and social perception. Her work brings a layered texture to the collection, affirming the role of textiles too often overlooked in Jamaican contemporary art.
One of the most visually striking pieces in the collection is Andre Woolery’s “Sound Wall” which harnesses a glittering shine to pull viewers into a hypnotic aestheticizing of sound system speakers. Through his intricate use of pushpins, a fairly affordable material, Woolery highlights the rich contribution of sound systems as a Jamaican art practice while recognizing its development primarily by working class communities. The glimmer of the “Sound Wall” and its embrace of technology resonate with Taj Francis’ Afrofuturist digital paintings “Masquerade” and “Numbers”. With blue skin and adorned in gold, each figure gazes outward towards other worlds yet to be built.
The otherworldly quality of Francis’ work fosters a connection with Rodell Warner’s digital self-portrait “Your Wilderness”. One of two videos in the collection, Warner’s piece engenders introspection, with patterns of nature surfacing from within the figure. Katherine Kennedy’s kaleidoscope of vibrantly colored seashells loops with Warner’s video, both providing moments to meditate on interior emotional worlds.
How does Beyond Tropical contribute to the contemporary Jamaican arts scene and greater societal support for artists? Will it shift how contemporary art is engaged and valued locally or reproduce the same class siloing that excludes many from the art world? One response is Kimani Beckford’s painting “After the New Norm” which considers the difficult global realities we must now navigate due to the ongoing pandemic. Another lies in Laura Facey’s monumental sculpture “Tines” which shifts the viewer's orientation of the space as it extends over 12 feet towards the ceiling. Embodying a forward movement in its walking gesture, the sculpture signals possibility, aptly capturing the potential of this collection to expand what can be imagined.