Interview: Chief Curator of NAGB John Cox on NE6

on Sunday, November 18, 2012

Chief curator at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, John Cox, recently sat down with me to discuss his curatorial strategies behind the newly realized National Exhibition ‘Kingdom Come’. Cox explores his relationship to the NAGB and his current engagement with local artists who have been included in this year’s collection.

John Cox at the NAGB's National Exhibition 'Kingdom Come'. Photograph by Keisha Oliver.

Keisha Oliver: In January of this year you took on the position as chief curator with a great deal of optimism. How have you found the past few months in this role?

John Cox: It has been a rewarding experience, with a lot of work involved, which is a good thing. There definitely is this load that comes with the position and in some regards I may have underestimated it. I’m very familiar with the physical handling of the artwork so that aspect hasn’t been intimidating. The longer I’m in the position the more I begin to understand the gravity of the responsibility that I have. In a conversation with Heino Schmid, one of the NE6 artists, we discussed a way to measure how well you’ve done with a show like NE6 by the increasing numbers of people (particularly artists) who right you off at the end of it.

John Beadle - Mobile Housing Scheme -Mixed media/Various dimensions 2012. Image courtesy of The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas.

KO: Having worked with the NAGB previously as a curator and education officer would you say the ethos of the NAGB and dynamics of your role is much different?

JC: The team and the dynamics of the roles were very different before. Just under a year ago there was a team that had been put in place by the former NAGB Director Erica James, but no leaders had been appointed. In returning I was very careful, as I didn’t want to be the guy that is kind of in charge, but stepping on toes, disregarding policies that were already put in place. I wanted to feel it out and gain the respect and trust of my curatorial staff. This time around has been very different and the evolution of the process has been slower, but I feel that with this exhibition I needed my team to really step into gear and I feel they did well because it can be a complicated process.

During my first role at the NAGB I really didn’t have anything to do from a curatorial perspective, it was all really educational projects. The roles weren’t as compartmentalized as they are now, back then you pretty much had to do everything.

KO: You have expressed that you believed “the new NAGB team could leverage the institution in the future to engage in local, regional and international conversations around contemporary visual practice in ways the country has not yet experienced”. Do you feel Kingdom Come is the beginning of introducing The Bahamas to this new experience?

JC: Yes I do. I don’t think that Kingdom Come can take the credit solely, but I think it’s a major part of it. I think a part of how we begin to advance ourselves is to introduce and re-introduce contemporary practice to our local community. In putting together Kingdom Come most of the participating artists have all this experience in working in this language so it’s not like I am encouraging them to do things that they wouldn’t normally do. I think a show like Kingdom Come and the NAGB’s past National Exhibitions have pushed the envelope. That’s what I think this show should be doing, it should be cutting-edge. I feel it is a relevant show and there is an important role and responsibility where I have to purpose specific shows with specific agendas. Kingdom Come is about the future.

Whilst on the NAGB’s Blank Canvas radio show recently I was discussing with Amanda Coulson the NAGB Director about balancing the various spaces within the gallery. Kingdom Come is so contemporary in contrast to some of the other things that people understand. It is about balance, and the thing is there are more young people in art school getting art related degrees than there were 40 years ago, and the types of practices they are being exposed to and engaging with are new practices. They are not engaging with egg tempera painting. As beautiful as it is the reality is that they are not doing it and their language is moving forward. We need to move with the shift and create opportunities for people that coincide with this shift, because a lot of this work is pretty difficult work to sell. Unless you had a really good reason to do this work why would you do it? My job is to create a reason for artists to be innovative, creative and individual in their practice.

KO: Do you feel any previous NAGB National Exhibition has been able to engage regional and international conversations?

JC: I don’t think so. The reason behind that is we haven’t really promoted or presented the exhibitions in a way that increases exposure beyond the Bahamas. That’s why I’m very excited about our connections with organisations like ARC magazine. Also, the emergence of the facebook culture of the last 3-5 years has become a pretty central mechanism for a lot of people and it makes what we do so much more visible and accessible.

One of the disappointments I have with putting together a show like this is sometimes you get the feeling the artists just don’t really take it seriously. I think that people in the creative community fail to recognize the potential scope that opportunities like this have. Like if this show is a successful show in that it has a strong body of work or an interesting context there is no reason why curators in the region or other parts of the world couldn’t review it. That’s my goal. I don’t want to stop working on the opening and say well I’m just going to sit back and wait for the next opening, but I think we should be promoting even more while the show is up.

L-R Dede Brown 'Chaos is the Law of Nature... - Mixed Media / Various dimensions 2012, Kendal Hanna 'Shock of Kingdom Come' - Acrylic on Canvas / 12.5' x 10.5' 2012 & Sue Katz 'Cycle' - Mixed Media - Various dimensions 2012. Image courtesy of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas.

KO: How would you introduce the concept of the show to someone who isn’t typically concerned with the arts?

JC: The first thing I wouldn’t do would use the word ‘apocalypse’. The past few months I’ve learned that that is not a good way to start a conversation. I would describe it as giving artists an opportunity to respond to the challenges of change in modern times. I think that everyone can identify with that if they give it just a little bit of thought. There is this discomfort we have with so many things going on in our society and I feel this exhibition is an opportunity for artists to address some of these conditions.

KO: You have referenced sociologist Carl Jung and mythologist John Campbell during the promotion of NE6. Are there any contemporary artists or recent exhibitions that you have drawn inspiration from when planning the show?

JC: There was an essay that was written by contemporary American painter Julian Schnabel that I came across in Hi-Fructose magazine and I made reference to in the invitation to the artists. The essay discusses multiple apocalypses in a person’s life and having to realign one’s life several times based on significant events that would force them to reevaluate their situation in a meaningful way. Also, the lectures and presentations by American scholar Joseph Campbell have been a key reference. For the last 15 years I have been a fan of Campbell. He often has an interesting perspective on religion and mythology and the roles we play in society. I feel those kinds of things really drove what I thought could be the basis of a strong show.

Heino Schmid ‘This is Remembering’ - Mixed media on wood - 2012. Image courtesy of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas.

KO: The choice to change the direction of the National Exhibition to invitation only invited both criticism and praise from the local art community. Given the large numbers of artists living in The Bahamas what criteria helped you fine-tune your selection to the 48 participating artists.

JC: I think that what makes an artist an artist is beyond talent and vision, it’s initiative. Which sets of people are actually going to do something unprompted. So the first thing I thought was usually the National Exhibitions happen every two years, which naturally started to fit the format of a biennial like the Whitney Biennial and Venice Biennial. Amanda and I agreed that those exhibitions are actually invitation only. I thought this would be a good approach because curating an open call is a little challenging, its like you are dis-empowered as a curator. You’re in a position where you don’t know what you will receive because the works may be all over the place and then you're presented with the job of threading them back together. It is a little vague in the sense that so many artists work in different ways, with different measuring sticks in assessing what they do that it makes it difficult to put all the categories of creativity in one box.

The bigger issue is you’re always having to reject people, those whose work isn’t selected for the show often creates a fallout that sometimes is irreversible. For example, you may have artists who would put the NAGB on their black list for years because they didn’t get into one of the shows and I feel that is unfortunate. The original jurors who were here for the first five National Exhibitions really did have a subconscious agenda with what they were looking for. They mostly wanted to include the strongest collection of new work that was no more than two years old. We would have really brilliant artists submitting works, but it was the same brilliance that the artist had discovered 15 years ago.

The new direction of the invite gave us more curatorial control in a way that we could enter the conversation and with the artist in assisting them with the development of their concepts, whilst still allowing them complete creative freedom. This allowed for a better selection process. Using a garden as a metaphor where we picked the corners of the garden selecting where we wanted the art to come from so when the work flourished the garden would be full. Opposed to having pockets of over population and then dried out areas where no photographers are represented or no ceramicists are represented.

In short, the open call is sometimes like inviting someone to a party and then saying you can’t come in, whereas I feel it’s better to say we’re having a party, but we want you to wear a polka dot outfit. This way you’re giving the artist a choice.

Yutavia George Journey - Mixed Media - Various dimensions 2012. Image courtesy of John Cox

 KO: Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

JC: Robert Duvall from Apocalypse Now

KO: What is your motto?

JC: Anything with the word ‘epic’.

KO: What is your greatest fear?

JC: Something happening to my children.

KO: During your promotion of the NE6 these three questions were put forward to the public. Can you elaborate on how they relate to Kingdom Come?

JC: I tried to approach the show like a project. Being a practicing artist I feel that the next best thing from actually having someone else be the curator and inviting me to the show would be to have some kind of creative process play a part in the construction of the show. The reason we chose those questions was because in the beginning the word apocalypse kept coming up and people didn’t seem to respond too well to it. So we decided that we needed to lighten it somehow.

I think it is unfair that we always ask artists to write so much because in an essence that is why they are creating the visual work. They are not writers, if so they’d just write a novel and wouldn’t have to paint anything. We decided this was a way to first lighten the theme in a way that it would have the sensibility that would really give the viewer some insight into the psyche of the artist. This also provided an easier way for the artist to respond opposed to presenting a thousand word essay of their work. Initially there may have been 25 questions for us to choose from. We choose the motto question because in a way it represents a person’s life philosophy, and presented a relevant contrast to the question on fear. I feel a individual's motto is often lined up in a way where it seems it is needed to overcome challenges, adverse scenarios, and ultimately one's fears. These two questions definitely balanced each other out.

I found the hero question most interesting because it brings me back to Joseph Campbell and how he played a central part in the way the show was constructed where he talks about how wonderful it is that we can make believe. Like how little girls make believe they are princesses and boys are superheroes. He expressed that it is so wonderful and playful, but also so necessary and as you get older that framework of mythology and projected non-reality becomes your religious situation. He’s a little controversial in that he doesn’t believe literally that most of the things in religion ever actually happened, but maintains they are very important. It is like saying to the little girl you’re not really a princess and realizing what that actually does to her. For many this realisation may crush one's ability to get outside of their body.

Kendra Frurop- Duran Duran - Mixed Media - 6' x 40" each 2011 & l A Constant Interna Smile - Mixed media / Various Dimensions 2011. Image courtesy  of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas.

KO: In lieu of portraits a series of open palms of the participating artists is used on promotional material. For some the open palm may be perceived as a welcoming symbol. What was your purpose for using it and what has been the public’s response thus far?

JC: I thought it would be good to get away from using faces. I feel there is something a little more honest about your hands. They are usually where the creative process begins and are very much rooted in the work. I hadn’t even really thought of it as a welcoming symbol, but it is and there’s something about the potential unity of hands where they almost seem like a collaborative. The concept has seemed to have really worked well. Somehow people are really tied into the conversation surrounding the meaning of the hands, which makes me feel it was a good decision.

KO: In the NE6 press release you expressed, “Now is the time for the NAGB to help shift the gallery into the global spotlight, beginning with what is sure to be a powerful dialogue.” What sorts of conversations have developed so far leading up to the opening? What conversations do you hope will follow?

JC: The Minister of Youth, Sports & Culture the Hon. Daniel Johnson has been involved in this campaign, and he has seemed genuinely engaged showing a lot of interest in the creative industry in The Bahamas. He was concerned with learning what the core energy was that caused this work to develop and why artists would want to be involved even though it wasn’t salable and what kind of credibility could come along with it.

I feel that those conversations are coming. A major part of my job is to some degree to pull together artists that I already feel are talented and to give them an opportunity to exhibit their creativity, which is relatively easy. I want to challenge myself now to see how I can get this show to be more visible now that its up. I would like to use ongoing connections with magazines like ARC and new relationships with curators like Paco Barragan who I recently met at the Aruba Linked/Caribbean Linked symposium to help push the dialogue beyond The Bahamas and establish a dialogue within the region.

Article originally published in ARC Magazine.