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Rockstone and Bootheel Comes To City With Nation's Third-Largest West Indian Population


November 08, 2009

For Jamaican-born artist and Real Art Ways curator Kristina Newman-Scott, the creation of the major exhibit "Rockstone and Bootheel: Contemporary West Indian Art," opening Saturday, has been a labor of love.

But there was also some actual labor in there, too.

Kendall Zion Scott, her first child with husband Gordon Scott, was born Oct. 29, only two weeks before the opening of the splashy 39-artist show.

"A lot of people who know me say I'm giving birth to two babies," Newman-Scott says.

"Rockstone and Bootheel" takes its name from a dub-metal song of the same name by Leebert "Gibby" Morrison, meant to convey a journey. And the vibrant, multi-media show, co-curated with Yona Backer, is less of a journey to the West Indian islands formerly under control of the British than it is a way to bring the artists to the contemporary art forefront.

More than half of the artists represented are showing work in the United States for the first time in a city where their work should be well-accepted. Hartford has the third-largest West Indian population in the country, after New York and Miami, and the fourth largest in North America.

Reflecting the many interests among the artists, the show includes a number of videos, installations, large-scale photographs, paintings, sculptures and a performance piece. Music pulses in the exhibit, too, but not the bass-heavy reggae or percussive calypso one might expect.

Instead, one hears the music of Peter Dean Rickards' "Proverbs 24:10," a lyrical video of slowed-down dancers at a neighborhood sound-system dance-off, paired with a lovely melody on piano and strings. At the other end of the art center, a persistent thump accompanies the giant necklace of chrome wheel rims from Satch Hoyt.

Hoyt, who was among those doing public art in Hartford for Real Art Ways over the summer, is one of a couple of artists whose work has been at Real Art Ways previously. The other is Simone Leigh, whose "Cage" installation includes some of the missile-shaped forms she previously used in a chandelier in the "Architecture of Wonder" show, also curated by Newman-Scott.

Mostly, though, the artists are new not only to Hartford, but the United States, from the off-putting combination of stuffed turtle, brushes, thermometer and I.V. bag in one disturbing sculpture to the striking series of oversized portraits by Ebony G. Patterson depicting feminine, bleach-faced youths done up in flower borders and the halos of Catholic iconography.

Face-lightening is apparently a real trend in Jamaica. Not yet a trend are the baby-powder designs applied from stencils on the schoolgirl subjects of Marlon Griffith's large-format photographs.

Body image and identity is one theme of "Rockstone and Bootheel," especially as a commentary on the intense homophobia of Jamaica, where homosexuality is illegal. Lawrence Graham Brown bravely counters this with work that blends buttons of black leaders with that of gay rights, all on military jackets of Jamaican colors. O'Neil Lawrence's large-scale photographs of naked men at the shore also defies his country's strict mores.

There are big gestures and small in the show, from the deteriorating flowers of Jamie Lee Loy to Nadine Robinson's wall hanging of woven hair, installed right next to a peacock's-tail assemblage of pocket combs from Sonya Clark.

Such works transcend place, but others can't help but comment on what's happening in the English-speaking Caribbean, from the series of juice cartons redrawn with social images by Leasho Johnson, to the blood-soaked skies of a triptych by Khalil Deane to the delicately embroidered scenes of police action on linens by Adele Todd of Trinidad and Tobago.

The faces of Petrona Morrison's "Stick-em Up" seem silenced by their words; the faces in Christina Leslie's photographs appear to have been oriented to other cultures, but their comments are still spelled out in the patois of the islands.

One work that appears in the catalog but was caught up in customs was the remade Bible containing wooden guns by Omari Ra. (Technically, marijuana found in a varnish resin, which the museum was not aware of, kept it in Kingston).

Video has made as big an impact on the islands as it has elsewhere, and more than a dozen video works play on big screens and in smaller monitors, silently or with a soundtrack via headphones.

"Rockstone and Bootheel" is the latest in a series of Real Art Ways exhibits to embrace and represent a whole culture, following its overview of Polish art in "POZA' or "None of the Above: Contemporary Work by Puerto Rican Artists."

But unlike a museum approach to the subject, it's a much freer sampling of young and old artists and their work of the moment.

"Rather than saying 'Here's how the Caribbean sits outside of contemporary art discourse,' we're saying 'here is how it is a part of it,'" says Newman-Scott. "That's something I think has been missing."

Instead of being a survey or overview of the area, she says, she approached the show as something more like a "mash-up," which in contemporary music blends seemingly dissimilar songs together.

And unlike "The Architecture of Wonder," which was more cerebral and contemplative, "this one is not," she says. "It's supposed to have all this dialogue, there's music and sound, and works having conversations with each other. It's a very different kind of experience."

Newman-Scott hadn't been able to personally oversee all the installation due to her maternity leave, but she won't miss Saturday's opening.

"I'm so close to this project on so many different levels," she says. "It was so wonderful to work with people who taught me when I was in Jamaica. It's such a great way for me to reconnect. I can't miss it. It would be like missing my mitzvah."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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