On It’s Own Terms: Oneika Russell Discusses Modern and Jamaican Art Monday 18 July, 2011

I like visually pleasing art that I can see hanging on my living room or bedroom walls. Yet, more and more, I’m growing to appreciate modern and conceptual artists who create work that isn’t necessarily beautiful in it’s presentation, but beautiful in it’s truth and purpose. Kara Walker’s silhouettes of an infant being stabbed and […]

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Oneika Russell

I like visually pleasing art that I can see hanging on my living room or bedroom walls. Yet, more and more, I’m growing to appreciate modern and conceptual artists who create work that isn’t necessarily beautiful in it’s presentation, but beautiful in it’s truth and purpose. Kara Walker’s silhouettes of an infant being stabbed and characters eating poop, for example, weren’t created for “hang appeal,” but I respect her vision.

Oneika Russell, artist and blogger, has helped me appreciate modern art on it’s own terms. Her blog, Art: Jamaica, features interviews, profiles and pieces from  contemporary Caribbean artists. Having worked with the PBS Art:21 partnership program as well as studying and creating art in Jamaica, the United Kingdom and now completing a residency at the Kyoto Seika University, Media Arts Department in Japan, Oneika is a respected voice in the art world. Here she discusses critiques of modern art, “ethnic trends” in art spaces, how her heritage influences her work and, of course, what living unchained means to an artistic adventurous traveler like herself.

What made you want to create a blog to highlight Jamaican Art?

The blog’s focus comes, in part, from my exposure while working at The National Gallery of Jamaica. Jamaican Art has certain similarities and trends in common with other Caribbean countries, but also has a specific voice and tone that comes from the political atmospheres, our social histories and art pioneers and their influence. The country where I was first trained as an artist, of course, contributed much to how I perceive art because of the artists I was able to learn from as well as the work that was being exhibited there.

Some people think of contemporary art as being difficult for a broad audience to appreciate. Do you think there are common misunderstandings about contemporary art and artists?

That’s a good question. Jamaican Collector culture in general tends to shy away from contemporary art unless it ticks certain specific boxes reflective of more traditional ideas about Art. That is partly because of the legacy of gentrification, but there are a handful of new collectors of contemporary Jamaican Art that see it as a kind of innovation and document of the way we think about culture and changing society.

 

At times it can be inaccessible if you seek to perceive it in the traditional way of looking at a lovely picture or how close that picture resembles its subject–but I don’t think it ends there. Contemporary artists internationally have often proven themselves some of the greatest catalysts of political movements, social change, technological innovation and critical thought. This shows that art is no longer for quiet enjoyment in a salon, but can really generate new ways of thinking and open discussions.

For example see this piece by GA Gardner  featured in Oneika’s blog post

You asked a really thoughtful question on your blog about acceptance in international art centers: “Do you feel that location, citizenship, etc. privileges an artist’s success within International Art Centers of the world?” How would you answer the question for yourself?

I have never really felt that my gender was an inhibiting factor within the art world, though it may be true that it is better to be a female artist depending on what country and city you are in. The same may be true for being an artist of African descent.

In practical ways, there are times in those art centers when Caribbean Art is more of a trend than other times or times when Indian or Chinese or African American Art is trendy and sometimes when it is not. It can seem that at certain times the art world only has space for a handful of artists from particular backgrounds and ethnicities. However, I think if we acknowledge that the Art world is a market, then aspiring artists also have to become game players.

Can you share some of your own personal art projects? What are you working on now?

For the last 3 years I have been making drawings, digital prints and videos from Asia, specifically Singapore and Japan and I think I am at a point where I’m starting to absorb aspects about the atmosphere of the environment. I was previously making digital animations that were really rooted in Jamaica’s colonial past and its pop culture but now I have just started to think about my experience and feelings of exotification and outsiderness in Asia. I play with language and focus more on intuitive approaches to drawing.

The images here are from my latest project titled A Natural History.

Garden Portrait

Would you say your heritage influences your artistic aesthetic or work, in general?

In terms of aesthetics and actual imagery, I feel free to take ideas from anywhere and any genre but my ideas I would say are Caribbean. I can’t help liking the look of U.S. children’s animation, Victorian Painting, Singaporean Natural History Drawings, Hong Kong Cinema so I use it all in my work but keep the ideas close to home.

Can you share any resources (other than your beautiful blog) for readers interested in learning more about contemporary Caribbean art?

Thank you very much for that! I am glad the blog is something that can be enjoyed visually. A list of some of my favorite online spaces are:

The National Gallery of Jamaica (exhibitions and collections)
ARC Magazine (current internet and print Caribbean Art magazine)
Alice Yard (Trinidad- based art space)
Paramaribo SPAN (Suriname-based art blog)

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

An unchained life would involve travel to expand the mind, new ambitions and challenges to push your limits and abilities. And, a relentless pursuit of those things that make you happy.

Written by Kathryn Buford

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2 Comments

  • Ja A. Jahannes says:

    I agree with Oneika’s statement,”It can seem that at certain times the art world only has space for a handful of artists from particular backgrounds and ethnicities.” That means playing “the game” requires artists to have real savvy at selling/promoting or have some handle that for them. Business baby. Of course, talent is the first prerequisite. I am amazed at the number of people who think they have creative talent in all the arts just because they can “make” or “do” something. In visual art, more than 98 % of the work I see is copy cat, and therefore caught in a cultural time lag. I love art that is new, fresh, original – especially in the African Diaspora. Ja


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