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Dear Nicole Smythe-Johnson

(Note of context: this is an email I wrote to a Jamaican curator who came to talk about her practice which really questioned our concept of what constitutes a curator within the Western gallery world)


I came to lectures you gave  at GSA and the CCA in Glasgow and I don’t think I’ve ever been so enthused by an art talk before. I couldn’t think of a question at the time that I felt had any point in me asking, and it’s taken me until now to formulate a line of thought that I feel justly calls to your well of knowledge. I suppose my question is more a collection of ramblings/musings that were set-off by the novel way you approach the Art World - energetically lambasting its institutionalization and the idea of running your curatorial practice like a salon, where the artists just drop by for tea/food and a creative dialogue emerges.

It’s chimed a lot with how I’ve been thinking about the setup of art education in the UK, which seems to isolate and formalise art into a process of production and within which I find it difficult to cultivate any of the creativity I thought should be inherent in making. Art school seems to make a duty out of an ‘art’ way of thinking, allotting time and records and outcomes to prove that Art has been done. Say even in a geographical sense: the school provides a studio space for us to produce and work in to complete our degree in Art, separate to our private dwelling place where we fulfil our lives, this therefore prescribes a dichotomic art production/private life mode of living, the equivalent of the expected office/home system of economy that divides human existence into two separate parts, working and leisure. It’s here that I’ve been struggling to find the singing heart of making art, the poetic life of functionless creation.

I feel so distanced from myself as a child, when drawing, playing, talking, being just happened without having to consciously think ‘I am now going to make art’. I can’t help but now think in this living/working dichotomy, separating creativity from the chores of daily life, where once a bus ride would have been a tour through my imagination. Clearly this is part of having to take on more adult responsibilities, and part of the fallout from growing up is realising the extent to which I was privileged with having no responsibilities in childhood. But I don’t think they are necessarily mutually exclusive, it couldn’t be true that creativity is a luxury that only a few can afford to admit to their mind.

One of the best examples I’ve found of where this sort of spirit of cultivating a refreshed outlook is used as the ideology of an art education was with Norman Potter - a cabinet maker who established the Construction school in 1975 to work out a radical non- hierarchical education structure focused on making, where students worked in “families” and awarded their own degrees. A tale goes that on sensing a lull he bandied a group of students into a boat and to sea, to become blustered and enlivened by the storm and sea waves. This energetic pedagogic style seems to me to be trying to dissolve the distinction between that which has been established as the formal production of art (and artistic disciplines for that matter) and everyday life. The same goes for the Tembe Art studio that you showed us. Tembe, being in Suriname, I suppose has the advantage in having little by way of a formal educational precedent to dictate its form. There is a lack of a history of established art centres as we know them in Western Art education ( hence the complicated tradition of hegemony, specialisation and political wielding).

It seems that in the Caribbean maybe you have the opportunity to see an art scene emerge that is more in conversation with why humanity is creative? I find that what could be intuitive in Art is fettered by its aloof and austere status here in the European establishments, Art markets and galleries,it is honed for white gallery spaces and deemed to make grand statements. All of this makes the theory of art very interesting and rich to study but confuses my understanding of creativity. As you pointed out in the talk there is a serious lack of investment in the arts in Jamaica, and I wouldn’t want to fetishise this nor the mindset of the counter-public, however I would love to know if what you’ve seen in Jamaica gives insight into why people make art.

Say if an artist’s piece was a line of Lego men stuck to a gallery ceiling I would hate its veneration by the expanse of white space, it’s lazy provocation and the way it demands to be read as Art, as a statement. If someone were to just offhandedly place the same line of Lego men on the ceiling of my flat I would like this un-austere, unpretentious, little bit absurd and un-emphasised interlude on my ceiling. I feel that in the western Art world artists are wrapped up with egoism as a consequence of the way the market venerates artistic individuals as genius’s, elite figures with a special aura about them; that in some ways people are drawn to being artists as an aspiration to this character, that this societal/market attitude moulds what once was intrinsic motivation into a performance about the reception and consumption of art. But maybe this is just a really cynical mode of thinking that I’ve fallen into, performativity is maybe a desire to share an artistic enthusiasm and way of seeing with other humans, a way of creating a universal pool for other people to dip into and swim in some energy external to themselves? Does seeing artists emerge out of a culture without a system of art training or much gallery space demonstrate to you that some people have an inherent compulsion to create, to work with materials and colour and to manipulate them into some form of expression? Like an itch they have to comply with? Do they have a sheer joy for creating that is worth chasing despite the practical difficulties that must emerge without the infrastructure to support them?

Do you consider your curation as a sort of way of going about creating art? Does art have to exist physically, or is it more of a mindset, and could that this enthusiastic approach to functionless things in life be less a matter of authorship and record and instead become de-institutionalised, less distinct and consequently more globally accessible? I really like the way you talked about your approach to curation as more of an engagement rather than just a mediating arrangement between the individual artist and the public, that curation can be less compartmentalising than that.

Sorry that I have just divulged the sludge of soup that was in my brain into an email, but it feels very nice to have the soup now more coherent and solid, so here we are.

Thanks for coming to speak to us!

P.S. Nicole never replied to my barrage of words. However, if anyone can help me re-love the art world then please do, I would love to know why you’re all making art

Becky Brown has studeied Architecture and Communications Design at GSA. She is currently studying for a MA (Hons) in History of Art.

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