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National Biennial 2012: A Perspective from a Participating Artist, Charles Campbell

The following remarks were delivered by Charles Campbell at the opening function of the 2012 National Biennial. Charles was invited to speak to provide a perspective from a participating artist.

Charles Campbell installing his work in the National Biennial 2012 – Photo: Ralph Heiner Heinke

“Welcome artists and art lovers. Welcome also to those dragged along reluctantly by their spouses. Welcome to residents of downtown and uptown Kingston and to those who’ve traveled from farther a-field. Welcome to the parents who’ve found yourselves in the unenviable position of having raised an aspiring artist. Especially welcome to those who can’t wait for the speeches to be over so they can look at some art. I promise to keep my comments brief.

Most of you are here as viewers and patrons of art. It’s my hope to give you a glimpse of what this exhibition might mean to the artists involved. I was first included in the National exhibition (then an annual event) in 1994 a year after graduating art school and shortly after my return to Jamaica. To this day it remains one of the major landmarks of my career. As a young artist there is no shortage of voices advising you of the folly of your chosen path but precious few encouraging you to go on. Getting that first acceptance letter from the National Gallery was undoubtedly one of the strongest and clearest of those encouraging voices.

Of course it was no guarantee that I wouldn’t die starving in a garret with one ear only to have my work sell for millions after my death, Thank you mum, but being accepted by my peers as a peer bolstered my confidence and made a future as an artist seem possible.

In that light I would like to draw your attention to the recent graduates of the Edna Manley College who have been included in this exhibition for the first time. The transition from being an art school student to a practicing artist is neither easy nor certain. The confidence with which the following young people have taken their first steps along that road bodes well for the future of Jamaican art: Duane Allen, Greg Baley, Robert “Krusha” Harriott, Kimani Taffarie Beckford, Alicia Brown, Esther Chin, Shediene Fletcher, Taj Francis, Mathew Henry, and Ottoa Wilson.

Lets give these young people a round of applause for their accomplishments.

Most of the people here will be aware of some of the groundbreaking young artists that were featured in the National Gallery’s last Young Talent exhibition. I for one am hugely encouraged that this show did not represent an isolated peak in the talent coming out of the Edna Manley College but that more promising young artists continue to emerge.

We often see the National Biennial as taking the pulse of the Jamaican art scene but I would like to offer a different view. In fact the National Gallery and Biennial are no passive observers of Jamaican art. This institution is a cultivator and instigator and the Biennial plays a large role in motivating the production of many artists.

For many of us it is an opportunity to dig deeper, work harder and challenge our selves. The work we produce for the National Biennial may among our most ambitious projects.

And personally this is how I judge the exhibition. – Not exclusively on how “good” the work may be but as much on what risks are taken, where artists have stretched themselves who has pushed themselves beyond their comfort zone.

This Biennial scores extremely high by those criteria with both our younger artists and some of the more established challenging the limits of form and content.

If in 2010 we saw the rise of photo-based work, this year marks the step into new media and non-traditional mediums. The moving image has taken its place beside the still and bubble wrap and bird feathers are as legitimate as bronze and the brush. What is possible for Jamaican art is expanding.

For audiences this transition can be bewildering. I remember back in art school when my preconceptions of what art was and could be were exploded by a particular instructor who never seemed to get to the point never would tell me what it all meant. Eventually I learned to put aside my expectations and just listen to his long rambling stories about art and artists, to enjoy the journey and often find my own destination, deep inside myself.

The artists in this show have made you a profound offering. When you feel yourself unmoored standing in a room full of light and sound or challenged by a grid of 40 plus paintings with only minimal gestures, you can bet the artists themselves have braved much more in the way of uncertainty and self exploration to get here.

As an audience I ask you to respect that effort, to give the work time and put aside quick judgments. Take a moment to inhabit your own discomfort. You may be surprised what you find there.

So in conclusion I ask the question is the Jamaican arts scene healthy and thriving?

Perhaps you would deduce from my previous statements that the answer is a resounding yes. There is no shortage of talented artists willing to take risks and break new ground. But the talent, ability and potential of our artists is only one of the factors in a healthy art community. If we were to take the art scene’s pulse outside of the stimulation that the National Biennial provides we might find it considerably weaker. Could the most challenging work in this exhibition sit in one of our commercial galleries or any other space in Jamaica? What support can those same young artists from Edna Manley expect to continue their work? What writers are making the effort to investigate the difficult world of contemporary art or make it accessible to a broader public?

When we answer these questions honestly the picture doesn’t look quite so rosy.

But I am optimistic, optimistic that a seed has been planted. Optimistic that once creativity emerges it is very difficult to contain and that it will find it’s own path to survive and prosper. For me the hope lies not in the possibility that commercial galleries and collectors are suddenly going to embrace contemporary art or that funding is going to fall from the sky. My hope is that artists will create their own systems of support, that videos will be screened in your bedrooms and you verandas will become a performance spaces. It is up to us who have felt the power of art and been forever changed by how it has touched us to create space for it to happen.”

National Biennial 2012: A Perspective from a Participating Artist, Charles Campbell

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