Natural Histories (April 28-June 30, 2013)

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The National Gallery of Jamaica Natural Histories exhibition, the first in a new series, Explorations, explores various thematic issues relevant to Jamaican art and culture.

Marston Bates (1954) has defined Natural History as “the study of animals and plants – of organisms … the study of life at the level of the individual – of what plants and animals do, how they react to each other and their environment, how they are organized into larger groupings like populations and communities”. Natural History has always been a significant theme in Caribbean life and was an integral part of the colonial project, which sought to categorize and exploit the natural and human resources of the regions affected. This is evident in much of the art that was produced in the Caribbean during the plantation period, which included natural history illustrations, estate views and ethnographic images that reflected colonial conceptions of race and ethnicity.

Natural History’s focus on taxonomy, naming and the environment has, in turn, made it an important site and vehicle used by modern and contemporary artists to explore the relationship between power and knowledge and articulate postcolonial critiques of enlightenment humanism and the systemic violence of slavery and colonialism. One such example was the installation An Account of a Voyage to the Island Jamaica with the Un-Natural History of That Place by the African-American artist Fred Wilson in the 2007 Materializing Slavery exhibition at the Institute of Jamaica, which recontextualized some of the Institute’s natural history and ethnographic  collections.

The Natural Histories exhibition, which is curated by National Gallery Senior Curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson and Assistant  Curator O’Neil Lawrence, builds on these critical explorations. It queries how Natural History has operated in Jamaican art throughout the island’s history, as a subject and a concept, and provides  a new critical frame for viewing works from the Gallery’s permanent collection, representing a wide variety of historical periods, media and styles, in conversation with more recent work, some of which was held-over from the National Biennial. The exhibition aims to incite discussion on the continuities and disjunctures in the island’s artistic history and explores three major themes, namely:

1. ‘We end in earth, from earth began…’, which features works that use natural history motifs to articulate aspects of human history and experience, including the subjects of mortality and spirituality, such as Margaret Chen’s Step Series, John Dunkley’s Back to Nature,  Colin Garland’s In the Beautiful Caribbean, Everald Brown’s Duppy Cotton Tree and Oneika Russell’s A Natural History 4.

2. ‘Taxing Taxonomies’, which features works that interrogate and engage the impact of Natural History’s conventional taxonomies, such as Hope Brooks’ Slavery Trilogy and Shoshanna Weinberger’s A Collection of Strange Fruit. This section will also feature a number of works from our pre-twentieth century collection, focusing on landscapes and maps that sought to obscure colonial violence with images of picturesque island life and as yet un-civilized land.

3. ‘The Medium is the Message’, which features works that utilize natural and indigenous materials, such as Cecil Baugh’s Egyptian Blue, Winston Patrick’s Floor Piece and Jasmine Thomas-Girvan’s Alchemy of Memory. These works make visible the relationship between form and content and interrogate the implications of this relationship for generating meaning.

Eugene Hyde – From the Croton Series (1974), mixed media on canvas, Collection: NGJ

Eugene Hyde – From the Croton Series (1974), mixed media on canvas, Collection: NGJ