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Riffing on Masculinity: National Gallery of Jamaica's Masculinities Exhibition


An exploration of Jamaican masculinity, or more accurately, masculinities, now covers the walls of the National Gallery of Jamaica. Masculinities is the fourth in the Explorations series and while it lacks the awe-inspiring nature of its immediate predecessor in the series (Seven Women Artists), it lives up to the solid body of work that begs further conversations that has become a hallmark of the series. 

Masculinities presents a look at the diverse nature of masculinity in Jamaica, despite attempts at the portrayal of a single homogenous idea in much of popular culture. The exhibition presents 8 themes as the prism through which it conducts its exploration. In doing so it conjures ideas of status and power, icons and iconography, dress and undress, sexuality and performance among others.

Dr. Michael Bucknor frames the Masculinities exhibitionThe exhibition allows art from across a century (with a few pieces from beyond) to engage in a conversation about Jamaican black masculinity. Masculinities includes the works of masters such as Edna Manley, Kapo Reynolds and Barry Watson as well as the striking contemporary vision of Leasho Johnson, Phillip Thomas, Ebony G. Patterson and Marlon James.

Dr. Michael Bucknor provided an insightful frame from which to view the exhibition and its relationship to the wider society. Bucknor’s engaging presentation indicated that his own interest in exploring Jamaican masculinity was spurred by the spate of reports on murder-suicides, largely perpetrated by men, which greeted him on his return to the island in the late 1990s.

“Throughout this exhibition, we can take for granted that the black male body is the surface on which masculinity’s discursive script is most often written,” Bucknor pointed out. 

MasculinitiesThe exhibition also subtly points out, that in many ways, the black male body is often the assumed representative of blackness, whether it is the athlete, the worker, or just a group of boys dubiously described as “Jamaican Negros”.

Assumptions like this one make this exhibition even more important as it fuels the conversation about representation and the imagination.

Interestingly, this is the note on which Bucknor ended his presentation - the power of imagination.

“... [A]cts of the imagination provide a nation with its most powerful expressions of freedom and the freedom to chart new paths or in the words of David Scott to “fashion futures” for Jamaican masculinities,” Bucknor said. “This “elastic imagination” is central to what this exhibition of Jamaican visual artists has shown.”Oneil Lawrence, curator of the exhibition

Yet, in as much as Bucknor’s presentation presented insight, it also helped to shine some light on the gaps present in the exhibition.  It is interesting to question whether these absences occur because of curatorial design or because an absence from the landscape. Some of these gaps are alluded to in the curatorial notes, suggesting the latter. 

“The Athlete and the Worker” is particularly troubling. While these are archetypes worthy of examination, by not exploring wider ideas of masculinity and work, Masculinities leaves reverberating silences.

In a similar vein, the almost cursory glance paid to violence in defining Jamaican masculinity (whether historically or in the contemporary context) is glaring, although maybe it only feels that way because there is no discrete exploration of this, even though it makes more subtle appearances, raising its bullet encased head in Ebony G. Patterson’s ‘Untitled (Bulletz + Shellz Condensed)’ and Greg Bailey’s ‘Recruits’.

As such, while the exhibition is thoughtfully laid out in galleries exploring different themes, it's important to explore the cross-fertilization, as well as question the placement of an image in one gallery and not another. For example, Cosmo Whyte’s Ginal, an interpretation of Rhygin from The Harder They Come  and Jamaica's quintessential rudebwoi figure, raises far more intriguing questions when analysed in the context of masculinity and work. 

Yet, critically aware of its own limitations, the opening of the exhibition was accompanied by a DJ who filled the galleries with reggae and dancehall's explorations of masculinity. The music therefore riffed on the silences, as well as engaged with the pieces present in the exhibition. Interestingly, before he began his piece, the DJ assured the audience that he would keep it decent, a nod to the fact that we might not yet be ready to explore the more discursive aspects of masculinity.  

So fortunately, Masculinities does not set itself up as a close-ended conversation or even definitive statement about Jamaican black masculinity. Where it succeeds, as with the others before it, is by presenting a diverse exploration set to stimulate debate and conversation.