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CARIBBEAN CULTURE AND BEYOND

Which is exactly what the NGJ itself is trying to do. In the past two years, four of Jamaica’s handful of commercial art spaces have shut their doors or scaled back their activities. That has given an added challenge to the National Gallery:

It’s a hot Sunday afternoon, and the streets of downtown Kingston are still and silent. It’s a bit of a surprise, then, to open the doors of the venerable National Gallery of Jamaica and be greeted with laughter and vibrant dancehall music.

A standing-room-only audience claps along to the performance of Ackee and Saltfish, a visiting Japanese dancehall duo. It’s a mixed crowd — Jamaica’s newly minted Poet Laureate, Mervyn Morris, brushes past edgy photographer Marlon James. Notable collectors and stylish uptown art patrons sit next to artists on hand to discuss their pieces in Anything With Nothing, a ground-breaking exhibition that has brought street artists into the National Gallery to mount large-scale installations.

It’s also a noticeably younger crowd than the typical NGJ audience of a decade ago, remarkable in the high concentration of young artists, and a group of teenagers present to check out the closing day of Japan: Kingdom of Characters, a traveling exhibit facilitated by the Embassy of Japan. The energy is palpable. With the clink of glasses, pull-ups from the deejay, and the giggling of a couple of cosplay-loving teens, one thing is clear: this is not your parents’ National Gallery.

The fun, eclectic gathering was just one in the NGJ’s Last Sundays series of monthly events mixing the visual arts with performance — dance, drama, music, — as well as panel discussions, book launches, and even yoga. What began as an experiment in 2012 is now a fixture on the Kingston art calendar, and has been credited with increasing and broadening traffic to the gallery.

“It’s interesting what happens when we let all the arts interact,” says O’Neil Lawrence, senior curator at the NGJ (and a practicing visual artist). “Sometimes what happens isn’t exactly what’s planned. It’s interesting to see how the artists respond to what’s around them.” Those words could apply just as well to the gallery itself — in its fortieth anniversary year, the oldest and largest national art museum in the Anglophone Caribbean seems to be reinventing itself, reflecting and in some ways driving changes in the field it represents. In the middle of an economic downturn that has posed challenges for the local art scene, the NGJ appears more accessible, more dynamic, and, most of all, more relevant to a broader cross-section of Jamaican artists and art lovers.

“It’s an interesting time [in Jamaica’s art scene],” says Lawrence. “There’s a particular energy. There are artists challenging the various status quos, and accurately tapping into the social pulse — a wave of artists tackling issues like poverty, gender, sexuality; taking them on explicitly, and making statements. There’s a social consciousness, and they’re trying to make a difference.”


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