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NLS provides art solutions for local artists

SHARLENE HENDRICKS
Staff reporter
hendrickss@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, February 17, 2019

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What comes to mind when you think of Caribbean art?

Perhaps the works of David Pottinger, or Richard Hall, or maybe even the vibrant paintings that are popular among tourists for giving that Caribbean aesthetic — washes of red and orange-rendering tropical imagery of an open ackee pod, or fishing boats along a sandy shoreline.

Arguably, this is the box in which Caribbean art has been relegated. A quick search on Google images would surely give that impression.

However, contemporary Caribbean art has been making waves locally and internationally with the likes of Ebony G Patterson, Oneika Russell, Leasho Johnson, and other Jamaican contemporary artists whose work interrogate and disrupt (this the very purpose of contemporary art) notions of Caribbean culture and identity, as situated within a global space.

But to indulge in this interrogative process, contemporary artists rely on a supportive network of art spaces and residency programmes that allow them to experiment and create their best work, a critical element that was missing in the local art scene until the artist-run initiative, New Local Space (NLS) opened its doors in 2012.

Located at 190 Mountain View Avenue, NLS has since become a critical node in Kingston's very own network of art spaces, perhaps the only one employing new methods of engaging local artists. Offering residency programmes, exhibitions, and affordable open studio rental, NLS has provided structured support for local artists outside the formal spaces of the Edna Manley College and the National Gallery.

NLS has hosted a number of artists-in-residence, both local and international, some of whom have had their work exhibited at art museums abroad as well as the National Gallery. This kind of art-innovation at NLS has essentially created an informal space for artists, gatekeepers and the public to meet and engage with contemporary art.

Providing opportunities for local artists has been a singular goal for NLS, especially because of the additional economic challenges that even established artists face.

During a sit-down at the studio with NLS founder Deborah Anzinger, along with programmes manager Demi Walker and Oneika Russell, she shared with the Jamaica Observer how the space has been interrupting some of these challenges.

“We did some research to find out what was the state of visual art; do visual artists have a studio space, how much was their income, how were they able to buy materials and are they able to access funding for their art, and the results were pretty dismal.

“Most artists, even those who are in the National Gallery, were saying the amount of time they were practising per week was very low because they didn't have a separate space to make work. And a lot of people still cohabitat with their parents, plus with the economic situation in Jamaica, you can't have that privacy you would want to have with the work.

“So we knew exactly what we needed to do. We knew we could not just have only a space for artists to use; we knew we needed to have a space that was going to provide other things for artists.

Other things have looked like open studio sessions with international curators for local artists who otherwise would not have had the privilege. Russell, for example, shared that work she's exhibited at NLS has ended in a show at the Perez Art Museum in Miami.

“One of the videos I had made and shown to the curator was put into a show in that museum a few months later. There was direct relationships and transfers that were happening that I had not really experienced in that way before,” said Russell.

Anzinger explained that the space also operates as a micro-gallery where local artists get to showcase their work to curators scouting for talent.

“The National Gallery has taken some of the work in our exhibitions and asked for it to be a part of their permanent collection. Even though we might not have a lot of sold work, artists are in a position to have their work selected. So if you're an artist who did not actually come up through Edna, it's actually a good opportunity to meet a curator from the National Gallery.

The modest studio space has had this level of attention because of it artist-focused and programmatic approach. Because of this, she said, visitors' perception of the space has transformed over the seven years it's been open.

“Before when people would come in, they would ask where is the rest of the space. Now when they come, everybody just communes with whatever is there, and they pay attention and engage with the artists. I can say that there has been a dramatic shift in terms of what people think can be done with the resources that you have. That made us more notable; that we are this small space, and we are able to manage our programmes and keep everything tight.

Anzinger and her team are able to offer art programmes through grants, the most recent of which was the Prince Clause Fund for Culture and Development that will go toward a curatorial intensive programme for young promising writers or curators under 25 years.

This is an example of the kind of opportunities that local artists, if they remain in the island, don't often get to exploit because those opportunities are abroad. As a contemporary Jamaican artist who has worked outside of Jamaica, Anzinger explained that while there is growing interest in Jamaican art, many of the benefits elude local artists.

“One of the issues originally when this period of interest in Jamaican art started, I noticed that most of the opportunities that Jamaican artists were getting were for Jamaican artists who were not based in Jamaica. You would have to leave Jamaica and you're still technically a Jamaican artist, but what good does that do for our local space, when it's really just contributing to brain drain?

“So we are very careful and discerning in how we bring international people here and in what capacity they come, and what they do while they are here. We want the artist to have agency in that whole process, and we don't want a situation where artists feel like we are their crutch or we have to hold their hand. So throughout the entire process, artists are given the tools to actually make connections. And for me, it is about putting the artist in direct contact with the curator who is coming.”

NLS has also been attracting a significant following of local and international artists through their contemporary art podcast NLS IN.

London sculptor and current artist-in-residence, Emily Motto told the Sunday Observer that her residency in Kingston has so far been most fortuitous, what with the many building construction happening around the city and the good vibes at NLS.

“It's been a really good space to work and be a part of. Also I have been getting a lot of my materials from the building sites around Kingston. This has just been a really good time to experiment with compositions and positions of things, and to reflect on things.”

Motto's work in progress, which proposes to experiment with drawings in space, was exhibited at an open studio yesterday at NLS.

Russell is also slated to have her solo-exhibition later this year. Her digital art series, A Natural History has had significant success and was part of the Jamaican Roots exhibition at Norway.

She explained that NLS has created an element of added value through their studio visits for artists who wish to consult with other artists on the progress of their work.

“Deborah has been rigorous in putting me on a schedule of studio visits, so I'm sure that what I end up with is of a certain quality, of a certain level of investigation,” said Russell.

These visits, Anzinger further explained, involves discussions about where artist wants to go with her work, and how to achieve that.

“None of this is market driven; none of it is about thinking whether the art is going to sell. It's a conversation about what are you interested in as an artist and how are you actually investigating those interests. And then that work can hold its own in Jamaica and internationally”.


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