THE ART OF DIPLOMACY

It has been my experience, having worked in several countries around the world, that whenever you receive an invitation to the U.S. ambassador’s residence, it is not an invitation to be declined. So when I was invited to have tea and a private tour of her art collection, given by the ambassador herself (and a fellow art enthusiast), I simply had had to forego any form of feigned indifference and enthusiastically say yes. So, armed with my artful curiosity to see this art collection, I made my way to Barbican, one of Kingston’s oldest and most exclusive neighborhoods, and where Pamela Bridgewater, U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica has called home since her appointment in 2011.

 

I first met her soon after she had arrived at an art exhibition at the now shuttered Mutual Gallery, where she had been a habitué when she was first posted here. In fact it was while being posted in Jamaica in the 1980s as a labour attaché at a time when the U.S. Embassy was located in New Kingston. It was on one of her regular lunchtime pilgrimages to Mutual Gallery, that she saw, fell in love with and acquired one of her first major artworks, an oil on canvas painting depicting a street scene by a little known artist, simply known as “C. Morgan”.   I would later find out that she has not only eclectic tastes in artwork, but a curiously discreet way of purchasing, like the time when she saw a street artist selling a very compelling painting and she instructed her chauffeur to purchase it later that day.

Art & Tea at the Residence

When I arrived at the residence, I half expected to be frisked by tall, sturdy marines, but alas, instead I was greeted by a very friendly assistant from the embassy and escorted inside. The residence is as much an art gallery as a living space with dozens of works by denizen artists including Edna Manley and Barrington Watson. The scent of incense greeted me like an affable host as it permeated throughout the house. Ambassador Bridgewater is the consummate hostess (is that de rigueur to say these days?). She radiates warmth that makes you immediately feel at home and welcome. And though her career has included travels around the globe, she has managed to maintain a quiet and steely dignity, which might I add, is reflected in her art collection. On this particular occasion she is dressed in an all-white African inspired cotton pants lounge suit. She immediately asked if I wanted to sit down to tea first or view the collection – I chose to follow her lead and had tea first. Not to deviate from the matter at hand, but I have to say the Kentucky Bourbon balls were an absolutely decadent delight, while the escoveitched smoked marlin tacos almost made me forget why I was there. The fact that she is a career diplomat is evident as she claims she has no favorites in her art collection – though I couldn’t help but notice that there seems to be every sizes and styles of Johnny Johnson (who’s artistic style is similar to Jamaican watercolorist, Patrick Waldemar) throughout the home. In addition to Johnson, Bridgewater credits her other teachers, including her college teacher and others along the way that honed her love and appreciation and curiosity to know and acquire art. She finds art calming and somewhat introspective.

Now the ambassador’s love of the arts is evident, no doubt from the influence of her father who was a jazz trumpeter – and that is reflected in the art pieces that she collects and the baby grand piano that is prominently displayed in the formal living room. On the piano are framed pictures of the ambassador, her family and some of her famous friends like Nelson Mandela, who she met while she was stationed in South Africa.

Art in Embassies Promoting Cultural Diplomacy

What makes this particular collection more interesting is that it’s a combination of both her personal pieces and also artwork from the Art in Embassies (AIE) program. The program, now in its fiftieth year, is part of the US’ cultural diplomacy initiative that was cultivated by the Museum of Modern Art in 1963. The AIE is currently in a yearlong celebration of honoring over 20,000 stakeholders that includes artists, museums, galleries and private collectors in over 200 venues in almost as many countries, including Jamaica.  While the term cultural diplomacy is relatively new, there is evidence that the practice of it has been throughout history and for centuries. In fact, artists, explorers, travelers, teachers and students can all be as informal ambassadors. Bear in mind that the early trade routes by Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus were forged through cultural diplomacy.

Fifty years ago also, Martin Luther King Jr. led a historic march in Washington, D.C. to advocate for civil rights for black Americans. In front of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech to a crowd of hundreds of thousands. The march was a watershed for the civil rights movement and put pressure on Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the months that followed. Likewise, the AIE program has launched the careers of emerging artists and cemented the works of established artists to a solidified cultural epoch. Just last year, when artist Johnny Johnson visited Jamaica and exhibited his works in Jamaica, it was at the request of his former elementary student, Pamela Bridgewater. . . AIE cherishes its role in promoting art and in charting a legacy.

The AIE art collection in Jamaica includes works by African-American artists like Maya Freelon Asante, whose work Migration is an exploration of tissue on ink. It was inspired by the destruction in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that led to mass flooding. What ensued afterwards was a displacement of residents, who were primarily African-Americans. She attempts to illustrate how that mirrors the displacement of enslaved Africans from Africa. The tissue represents the familial fabric that has been broken and later strengthened by the symbolism of ink and water. And like King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it reminds us that, though changes have been made, raises the dialogue for further reflection.

Meanwhile, Norman Lewis’ Serpentine and Lorna Simpson’s Nervous Conditions, though created about twenty years apart, are two of larger pieces that dominate the wall space on opposite sides of the Ambassador’s living room. Lewis came of age in the politically charged atmosphere of the 1930s, but in the postwar years, he often asserted that art could not solve society's problems. However, Serpentine is in fact a somewhat political painting. The abstract uses the color black to reflect figures moving about and expanding with the strong pervasive use of the color red to represent bloodshed. Meanwhile, Simpson’s Nervous Conditions, two color Polaroid prints with engraved Plexiglas, challenges our perceptions and views of gender, culture, and sexuality. Somewhat like our own Ebony Patterson, she raises such dialogue in a very loud way by making her works bold.      

There are other very strong pieces of artwork by artists like Kehinde Wiley and Ruben Ubiera who use juxtaposes urban pop culture with more traditional approaches. And artists, G.A. Gardner, Sam Gilliam, Jo Ann Jones, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, and glass blowers, Mark Rosenbaum and Michael Trimpol.   

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