Jamaican artist Akeem Smith debuts ‘No Gyal Can Test’

Akeem Smith's "No Gyal Can Test" installation at Red Bull Arts New York, 2020.
Dario Lasagni. All artwork courtesy Akeem Smith and Red Bull Arts

As his first solo presentation-cum-retrospective, Jamaican-born, Brooklyn resident Akeem Smith debuts an installation of new works at New York’s Red Bull Arts centered on his extensive archive accumulated over the last decade as a monument to the promise and legacy of dancehall music.

Artist Akeem Smith.Dario Lasagni

Traversing the slippages between memory, the archive and history, “No Gyal Can Test”, according to Red Bull Arts, excavates the personal photographs and videos entrusted to Smith over the past decade by family members, friends and prominent figures at the heart of Kingston, Jamaica’s dancehall community.

Pulling its title from a hand-written note scrawled on the back of a photo sent to his father, Red Bull Arts told Caribbean Life that the exhibition “draws upon Smith’s experience growing up between New York and Kingston in an attempt to record a collective memory that exists at the edges of the artist’s own.”

In his first solo exhibition, an homage to the women who raised him, Red Bull Arts said Smith presents two video installations and a series of large-scale multimedia interventions formed from salvaged architectural remnants transplanted from Kingston.

“Carefully housed within these vessels like relics, the archival photographs, videos, ephemera and period artifacts coalesce as a lyrical reconstitution of a social world gone but not yet forgotten,” Red Bull Arts said.

Largely absent from institutional archives, it said documentation of Jamaica’s popular movements is still commonly seen in the eyes of Jamaica’s socio-economic elite as “unwanted clutter rather than treasured national heritage.”

Red Bull Arts said Smith counters this through the construction of “monumental reliquaries, which house these corroding testaments within the material landscape of corrugated zinc, tarp, repurposed wood and breeze blocks from which they came.”

“Composed of the marked, residual traces of a former life, these structures are also ruin in reverse, and the possibilities once envisioned within them are rejuvenated with renewed hope,” Red Bull Arts said.

Falling into the abstract time of memories and dreams, it said Smith places the viewer somewhere between “formerly imagined (and now remembered) utopias and a distant, nostalgic future both entropic and far away.”

Red Bull Arts said this exhibition would not have been possible without the trust of innumerable members of the dancehall community and their faith in Smith’s artistic vision.

Akeem Smith’s “No Gyal Can Test” installation at Red Bull Arts New York.Dario Lasagni.  All artwork courtesy Akeem Smith and Red Bull Arts

A deeply personal journey that has resulted in sought-after spiritual growth, Red Bull Arts said “No Gyal Can Test” is “a love letter to not only the women who raised him but to the intrepid spirit of the people of Jamaica and a contribution to the evolving shadow archives of the Black experience.

“In the context of our hyper-mediated, socially distanced present, it’s hard to ignore the illuminations of a past that speak to the fundamental need within all of us to gather in community,” Red Bull Arts said.

As an insider and outsider both, it said Smith is in “the unique position to navigate the gaps between Jamaican and American culture, the aspirations of the era and the realities of its legacy, and the often-conflicting roles of the documented and the documentarian.

“The distinct bonds and insular language of a community of color, first seen through a young person’s eyes, offer the potential for a lifetime’s work,” Red Bull Arts said.

Red Bull Arts is located at 220 W, 18th St. in Manhattan.

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