Forum on contemporary arts held at Edna Manley, Jamaica

Ever wondered what contemporary art is, … the Contemporary Arts Forum at Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts answered all these questions


If you have ever wondered what contemporary art is, what it entails and what it means to be a contemporary artist, then the Contemporary Arts Forum held at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMC) recently, answered all these questions and raised a few others worthy of consideration.

This was an initiative of the college’s School of Visual Arts (SVA) to cultivate discourse about the visual arts landscape in the Jamaican context.

Petrona Morrison, director of the SVA believes that it is important for practising artists to, not only, produce, but discuss, evaluate, assess the impact of and celebrate art as a discipline, profession and agent of economic and social change.

In this forum various methods and perspectives were shared, much to the appreciation of those who study, those who interact with, and those who collect art.

There have been many questions in recent times concerning the direction of SVA and the output of its students.

Omari Ra, head of the Painting Department, in his historical and academic overview of the contemporary art landscape, noted that the school pushes for excellence, experimentation and unconventionality – which often means, in practice, the exploration of a wide range of expressions in media, content and context.

Often in Jamaica, art is used for aesthetic purposes and often evades critical thought. The college provides students with the physical and intellectual rigour to engage in their particular projects.

Contemporary work

It was necessary to initially understand what the term ‘contemporary art’ meant. It is believed that anything produced after 1945, can be considered as such, or anything currently being practised or produced in the art world. The word itself literally means new, and so, a newer version of or specifically technologically enhanced works can be seen as contemporary in nature. But as identified by Lecturer Phillip Thomas, from the SVA Painting Department, the procedures applied, the technique involved and the descriptive role of the term tells but half the tale of what we now categories as contemporary.

A more holistic view would encompass historical trends, years of evolution and the variable acceptance for change.

Intuitive art (often seen as real Jamaican art), as pointed out by Lecturer Kereina Chang-Fatt, is also seen as contemporary.

Lecturer and sculptor Margaret Chenalludes spoke to process as a key element in contemporary art making. She noted that often, some of the most profound pieces are created when an artist lets go of the reigns and allows the work to dominate in direction and message. She also stated that shedding the constraint of rigid adherence to technique often enhances creativity and innovation and that approach is truly contemporary. Other presenters included photographer, Marlon James, film director, Storm Saulter and fashion designer, Michelle Haynes.

Dynamic nature

They presented and related their personal and professional experiences, which fuelled much dialogue about the dynamic nature of visual arts in the contemporary climate of the 21st century.

Panelists included Annie Paul, historical writer, cultural critic and blogger; and Winston Campbell, art-history lecturer, whose academic and historic perspectives served to add diversity to the discourse.

Others who were invited were Dr David Boxer, curator emeritus, and Veerle Poupeye both of the National Gallery of Jamaica, who could not attend due to extenuating circumstances. The forum was the first of what will be an annual event enabling media, writers, historians, artists, educators, enthusiasts and collectors to share in a non-judgmental environment, their experiences as it relates to visual arts.

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