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Blaqmango Consultants is an initiative that aims to energise the Jamaican art scene through exhibitions, career planning, residencies and art tours. Our primary objective is artist development. This is done through exposure and promotion, as well as through exchange and collaboration. We believe that all artists should be true to their creative vision as they pursue their artistic projects. We will never seek to adjust who you are as we grow together with you and energise the Jamaican art scene

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‘Iyami Aje’ by Katrina Coombs: A Milestone Exhibition for Our Times

By Winston C. Campbell

March 2020 will be remembered by many Jamaicans as the month the COVID-19 virus was first detected on the island. In spite of the lasting economic, social and cultural legacy of the outbreak, March 2020 was a month of milestones for several other reasons. One such milestone was the launch, on March 7th, of the ‘Iyami Aje’ Exhibition at the Gene Pearson Gallery in Kingston, Jamaica. This fibre art exhibition was the first solo show for Katrina Coombs. Prior to this showing, majority of the new works that were shown by Coombs were at exhibitions in Colombia and the United States of America. This exhibition was also the first textile and fibre arts show in Jamaica since June 2017, when Coombs curated ‘3 Generations of Textile and Fiber Arts’ at the Grosvenor Galleries in Kingston.

‘Iyami Aje’ was the first solo project of an artist known around the world for her prolific and high quality productions and a consistent thematic focus. ‘Iyami Aje’ was also Coombs moving away from producing and showcasing singles to producing an album project; a body of work that was technically and conceptually consistent. With ‘Iyami Aje’, Coombs produced a body of work worthy of several viewings as an Extended Play project. The seven pieces displayed, reflect the various roles played by Coombs: teacher, mentor, weaver, artist, creator and womanist. The exhibition was curated by Coombs, along with Winston Campbell and Abigail Smith. The opening of the exhibition on the eve of International Women’s Day was also deliberate by the curators of the exhibition.

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Exhibition View

A solo exhibition is a statement; it is not an undertaking that is usually embarked on without careful thought, planning and purpose. A solo exhibition is often mounted when an artist’s practice has matured to the point of there being an indelible connection between the practice of the artist and a core audience or group within the art world. Often, viewers are presented with a body of work that is consistent in terms of the core concerns, ideas or technical elements explored by the artist in preparing for the showing. A first solo exhibition is in many ways a statement of the status of the artist within the artistic community.

Katrina Coombs is an artist who has participated in well over 30 group exhibitions over the past decade. Six of these exhibitions were in 2019, and occurred in places such as Chicago, New York, Washington DC and Kingston. Fellow artist Philip Thomas remarked at the opening reception for ‘Iyami Aje’ that the exhibition was that all have been looking out for: “I think it’s an absolutely beautiful exhibition. I am very happy to see it. I’ve been waiting for it for a very very long time. Just the exquisite quality of how the show is curated, also I think is an amazing touch for this show”.

As indicated in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, the term iyami aje means “the womb of my existence, my mother God in the Yoruba language. The term reflects the spirituality of women and the seminal role that is played by women in all creative processes.”  Despite the fact that Coombs had many pieces in storage from which to pull together a showing, she spent the better part of nine months planning and producing new pieces that enabled her to reflect and comment on the various creative aspects of womanhood that she had in mind for her first solo show. The new pieces allowed her to contemplate aspects of her identity, such as the plurality of her ancestry.

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Exhibition View

According to the artist, the seven new pieces mounted for the exhibition were intended to “reference the highly spiritual ancestral relationships that are central to understanding womanhood”. In this sense, Coombs used ‘Iyami Aje’ to speak to her community about issues and topics that were/are important to all of us, given the centrality of women in the continuity of culture. She used the exhibition to share very personal reflections about her own experiences as a woman living within the various socio-cultural and gendered structures that define one’s existence in this moment. To put it another way, the ‘Iyami Aje’ exhibition was an announcement of the importance of women within the society and within the Jamaican artistic community.

The artist’s statement also indicated that as an artist Katrina Coombs was interested in communicating or looking at the ways in which certain symbols, values and energies were communicated and or transferred across generations. The importance of the body of the woman in this process, therefore, is a critical consideration. Having being mounted in International Women’s History Month, the ‘Iyami Aje’ exhibition provided viewers of all socio-cultural identities with an opportunity to reflect on these various roles and the responsibilities that women negotiate in executing the roles they choose to, or are forced to, play. Interestingly, Coombs pursued this goal using a medium and a practice that have been stereotypically referenced to berate and denigrate the creative contributions of women. Textile and fibre creations have often been disparaged in western artistic contexts as being undeserving of consideration as an inspired, cerebral and psychological creative endeavour, as one would think of other creative practices such as painting or sculpture – in the traditional Western sense of the word. Coombs, however, used textile and fibre to celebrate all aspects of the creative contributions of women through this exhibition.

The dominant artwork in the exhibition is an installation called Oshun’s Glory. This fibre installation consisted of about twenty-five suspended sculptural forms that flow down from the ceiling of the gallery like stalactites within a cave environment. Oshun, after whom the piece is named, is an orisha or spiritual force that is venerated in Western Africa (especially among the Yoruba people) and across the Americas in places such as Haiti (among practitioners of the Voudun religion), Cuba (among the Santeria faithful) and Brazil (among Candomblé exponents). Oshun is typically associated with sensuality, purity, fertility, love and water. Water is seen as a universal symbol of life, since life cannot be sustained without it. Oshun is also associated with less attractive attributes, such as jealousy, vanity, and spite. Arguably, Coombs was more focused on the creative attributes of womanhood, rather than the more unsavoury aspects.

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Oshun’s Glory, 2020
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Coombs among her work Oshun’s Glory, 2020 [Photo credit NivLine Photography]

Oshun’s role, according to the Yoruba cosmology, is to bring life to earth and humanity. Her creative role is what has resulted in the various species of flora and fauna that are all over the earth, and which are so vital to the balance that keep our life systems going. According to Yoruba cosmology and mythology, humanity would not have existed if Oshun had not acted when required to facilitate the emergence of life. Oshun’s Glory references the creative energies of womanhood as warm (coloured) waves flowing from above. It was hard not to interface with this installation of bright reds, oranges and yellows once in the exhibition space, perhaps an indication of the difficulty one would have in denying the centrality of women as a creative force in the past, present and future of humanity.  It is the force of womanhood that essentially connects us to our ancestors and to each other, while empowering us to continue to into the future. Oshun’s Glory is a celebration of our mothers, sisters, aunts, nieces, daughters, and the women of the world, since females are the literal embodiment of our connections to the ancient contributor to all that is and the key to our future existence.

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As It Breathes Life, Life Is Taken, 2020

Another art work that had an ineradicable impact was As It Breathes Life, Life Is Taken. This piece dominated the consciousness of viewers, not only due to its size – 46 inches (height) by 77 inches (width) – but also due to its technical and formal astuteness. The white, yellow ochre, and brown fibres and threads, along with the cowrie shells were used to create an intricate weaving. The play on visual balance, and the idea that it represents the vaginal passage inspired much conversation.

The vagina is but one part of the creative ecology of the female body. The reproductive system consists of a range of elaborate elements that we are still understanding: uterus, ovaries, cervix, clitoris, fallopian tubes, urethra, labia and so forth. As It Breathes Life, Life Is Taken pushes the idea that we can only get a small look into the creative power of women, and so even when we think we have unlocked all that there is to access we only have a small bit of what is epistemologically possible. Further, the female creative power is not only physical; it is also spiritual, psychological and emotional. The creation of life then is about inter-dimensional balance.  In this sense we see consistency between this artwork and Oshun‘s Glory.

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As It Breathes Life, Life Is Taken, 2020 detail

The element of the cowrie shell adds other layers to As It Breathes Life, Life Is Taken. Cowrie shells have a range of shapes, colours and textural qualities. They are often associated with economic and spiritual systems, and are representative of fertility, birth, womanhood and wealth. With regards to the association with wealth, cowrie shells have been used in a number of societies across Asia, Africa, Oceana and Europe as a form of currency for several millennia. This was due to characteristics such as durability, convenience, consistency and transportability.

Unfortunately, women have been objectified for as long as the cowrie shell has been used as currency and the reduction of women to their vaginas often meant that women were also treated as symbols of wealth and status, that were durable, convenient and transportable. The treatment of women in this way occurs among all social groups within most human societies, even to this day. The shape of the cowrie shell is for some akin to the shape of the vagina, which also makes the use of the shells in a work such as this food for thought. On the other side of the equation is the fact that women have also manipulated the tendency by men to crave offspring and objectify women in pursuit of status, to create opportunities for social, economic and political ascendency within their communal groupings. The use of the cowrie shells in this piece represents a double-edged sword that is worthy of much deeper engagement.

The title As It Breathes Life, Life Is Taken indicates that life is also about balance. It is not only about the giving of life, or the breathing of life, so to speak. As the creation process occurs, something is also being taken away. Such ideas are consistent with the wake traditions and philosophies that exist in communities within Western Africa, as well as among the African Diaspora in the Americas. Sometimes as well, we have to give up on our desires to ensure that the balance of our current existence is maintained. As It Breathes Life, Life Is Taken is asking us to reflect on the complexities of the creative process, the sacrifices that are often involved in this process and the sense of gratitude that should come forth because of our reflections on the complexities of the creative process.

Other pieces in the exhibition spoke to other aspects of the creative contributions of women. For example, Inward Soul and Her Constellation referenced the immaterial aspects of womanhood, such as cosmology, ancestry and ontology. Armour of the Other noted the psychological battles that women have to prepare for as they navigate and negotiate the daily tribulations of life within systems influenced by both patriarchal and matriarchal power dynamics. Lost Souls Not Forgotten seemed inspired by a reflection on loss, which may be physical or non-physical in nature. In celebrating womanhood, The Beauty Between Her Thighs was a wall piece that seem to have a more overtly sensual reference source.

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Patrons at the opening night [Photo credit NivLine Photography]

Her incredible work ethic makes Katrina Coombs the epitome of consistency; she is an example for artists of all generations working with any medium. She is equally consistent in ensuring that her work is of a high standard. The excellence that exudes from her practice has seen her being asked to speak of her work to the Jamaican Prime Minister during a showing of her work in the 2017 Jamaica Biennial at the National Gallery of Jamaica. Her regular participation in international residencies and exhibitions have also helped to keep her technically sharp and conceptually sound.

The ‘Iyami Aje’ exhibition was a bold presentation of honest and provocative work by an artist who has been constant in ensuring that sincere Jamaican visual artworks are being accessed by patrons, collectors and art lovers all over the world for over a decade. Katrina Coombs’ creative work adds to the contributions of fibre artists from across the globe, such as Cecilia Vicuna (Chile), Sheila Hicks (USA), Magdalena Abakanowicz (Poland), Daisy Collingridge (Britain), Sandra de Groot (Holland) and so many others. Combined, the works of these creators show the versatility of fibre arts, as they create pieces that function as sculptures, illustrations and wearable art from natural and synthetic materials.

The artworks presented in the ‘Iyami Aje’ exhibition are welcomed additions to the global conversations facilitated by the creative work of fibre artists. The body of work showcased for the ‘Iyami Aje’ exhibition also stands tall among Caribbean artistic showings for the past 12 months, and the pieces should be further showcased once the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided across the region so that more persons can be given the opportunity to see the works. All involved should do all they can to ensure that ‘Iyami Aje’ becomes a travelling exhibition. The pieces remind us of the creative power of women, as we reflect on our own ancestors and our children on this mother’s day, 2020.

Tracing Memories: A Reflection

By Errol Keane II (Artist in residence)

The Tracing Memories exhibition opened on August 11, 2018 and revealed the culmination of four weeks of art process through the Grosvenor Galleries Residency. Those who were fortunate to have seen the development of the artworks and observed the artists in studio during that time may have an even truer understanding of the artists and their processes. Artists Esther Chin, Errol Keane II and Kelley-Ann Lindo, are each at varying stages of their artistic journey but are at eerily similar spaces in their personal lives. Their respective understandings of loss and grief are some of the threads that ties the practices of these seemingly unrelated artists.

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Esther Chin hails from St Mary, Jamaica and is a recent graduate from The School of Arts and Visual Studies in Kentucky, USA where she received her MFA. Taking inspiration from the world around her, Esther’s art draws parallels with flora and fauna, social issues, as well as her own cultural identity and personal experiences. Esther is meticulous, whimsical and ethereal, and these qualities are mirrored in her art and practice. The subtle and delicate nature of the (now dead) flora that is embedded in and characterizes her work speaks to life as a fleeting essence, here one moment and then gone the next. The linear elements seem to inflect and speak in  whispers yet are contrasted by the embolden punctuation marks found in the placed soft sculptures, dream catchers and various other elements. At its nucleus sits a shrine in remembrance of Esther’s late mother, complete with censor and incense.

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Esther Chin, Symbiosis Lost & Found – For Mama, 2018 (Detail), Mixed Media Installation, Variable Dimensions

Loss and grief are running themes in Esther’s works and the installation introduces the viewer to a space where they can find a unique appreciation for dead things and a human acceptance of mortality. Through the memorial of her mother, Esther’s work encapsulates these themes and allows us to relate to her work at an intrinsic level. The elements of dream catchers or ‘sacred hoops’ as described by Esther, as profoundly feminine and can be likened to wombs, this aspect coupled with the soft sculptures, makes the soft sculptures feel almost malignant. The soft sculptures, interpreted as a representation of diseases that affect the womb and the ‘sacred hoops’ may be a means of purification of both dreams and wombs. The overwhelming amount of shear detail and work that was produced by Esther in the four weeks is astounding and indicative of her prowess as someone who has and continues to develop her practice profusely.

Born in Jamaica, Kelley-Ann Lindo studied painting at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and received her BFA in 2015. Kelley-Ann has exhibited numerous times since graduating and has participated in two artist in residence programs prior to the Grosvenor Galleries Residency. Recently her notable works include her ‘Barrel Children’ series, and ‘Flood’. With regards to the wider context of her work the techniques and medium that Kelley-Ann has explored in this residency can be seen a far-cry from what she has become known for. However conceptually these new works follow along the same vein and delve further into the ideas of family and home. Kelley-Ann does this by deconstructing the idea of the recognised icon of the ‘home’ and then constructing her works and ideas around the shape itself.

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Kelly-Ann Lindo, A Place To Escape To & A Place To Escape From, 2018, Patchwork, Trapunto & Embroidery on Mixed Fabrics, 91” x 75”, (Center) Separated I & II, 2018, Ink & Embroidery on Fabric, 76” x 15.5” (Left & Right)

Similarly to Esther, Kelley-Ann is also using art as a means of coping with the loss of a loved one. Conceptually Kelley-Ann’s works seek to question ones notion of what makes a home while simultaneously imparting her ideas of home to the viewer. The patchwork quilt, is sewn together with red yarn, and turns something once seen as an epitome of homey into something quite jarring and yet still comforting to the touch. It is this duality in her definition of home that is so profound, forcing us to question the nature of our own homes or rather the families that construct them. This suggestion is then reinforced with the simplified icon of a home and a cage superimposed onto the quilt. Lindo’s present explorations in medium and concepts of home are refreshing, providing insight into an artist who is constantly and consistently developing.

Errol Keane II is an emerging artist and recent graduate of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts receiving his BFA in 2017. Errol’s illustrations explore themes of black identities, narratives and ancestry. Often incorporating poems or quotes on the surface of his works in Braille, Errol encourages physical interaction with the art and awareness of Braille and the visually impaired community. The acrylic illustrations that he produced during his residency fundamentally explore black identities and narratives but were also charged and resonated with the social climate of the ‘Me Too’ movement. The works depict solemn female figures enthralled by alien glowing mushrooms. The energetic growths almost feel enchanting suggesting to the viewer that they are a malady under the guise of something benevolent, in one instance creeping from an eye-socket.

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Errol Keane II, Daughters of Oshun I, II,III & VI, 2018, Acrylic on Ply Board, 36” x 22.5” each

Errol’s illustrations thematically looks at several issues that are affecting society such as seduction, over-sexualization, and sexual assault while focusing on ‘sexual coercion’. At first glance the messages are simply testimonials from women whom he interviewed, however looking further into the context of the work, the Braille becomes a more poignant element in the understanding and interpretation of the art. Errol’s inclusion of the Braille message then acts as not only a metaphor of our seeming inability to recognize the effects of sexual coercion but also by inviting the viewer to physically interact with the work. It invites them into this ‘grey space’ where they are complicit in ‘groping’ the figures. This forces us to question our choices of how we interact with the art itself and hopefully members of the opposite sex. Despite being stylistically different from Chin and Lindo’s works, Keane’s work doesn’t feel out of place within the exhibition.