Akeem Smith traverses the slippages between memory, the archive, and history, excavating the personal photographs and videos entrusted to the artist over the past decade by various family members, friends, and pivotal figures of Kingston’s dancehall community.
Words by CAROL TULLOCH
Akeem Smith’s exhibition, “ No Gyal Can Test,” generates a sense of distant knowing. On my first online viewing of the installation, I felt a pang of sorrow as I do not know Jamaica. I have a fragmentary sense of its history and lived experience that’s been passed down through my Jamaican family members and through the books and archives I have referenced while writing about Jamaica, in an attempt to educate myself about my Jamaican heritage and to undercut the version written through British imperialism. I have no direct experience, familial or social, of the style practices of the women of dancehall. So how do I respond to “No Gyal Can Test?” Through curatorial thinking and contemplation of the dancehall style narratives I mitigate my concerns of outsiderness and the unsettling emotions of distance in the contexts of time, geography, age, lived experiences, and distance between the living and the dead.
Smith and I have in common the effect of diasporic experiences that comes with having Jamaica as a “home” location while living elsewhere. While this influences our respective creative and professional paths, it also inevitably shapes our right to engage with cultures beyond our immediate familial heritage. How we bring these hybrid elements together in our chosen way of communicating about what it means to be in this world, what makes our hearts beat. This is, in essence, a practice of being black in a world that is not solely about “blackness” (Tulloch 2016: 91). “No Gyal Can Test” is a material comment on this, on what it means to be Jamaican in Jamaica for women of the dancehall, a counter-cultural group that is part of who Smith is. Through “No Gyal Can Test,” Smith made a declaration. It is exhibition as monument to the longevity of Jamaicanness that has been jettisoned out of slavery’s legacy. The women harnessed this, drawing on fashion references from home and abroad that have contributed to the much-needed recognition of the sovereignty of their style in Jamaican culture.
“No Gyal Can Test” is a bold, meditative curatorial gesture that bridges “the messy level of form and fracture,” (Rosenberger 2016:11) that results from the strategy of patchwork prevalent in the show as practice and metaphor. Patchwork is an aesthetic of Jamaica’s landscape. The patchwork homes of corrugated tin and wood are not unlike a collaged artwork. In this context, patchwork translates as an essential life skill for being. Smith’s use of patchwork in “No Gyal Can Test,” from the gallery attendant’s uniform he and Grace Wales Bonner created, to his re-purposing of homes that were once lived in and public “buildings” re-assembled that are reassembled as sculptural monuments, to the visible and invisible historical, cultural legacies that have shaped Jamaica, evoke Smith’s materialization of collage as “a de-centered patchwork, a montage of heterogeneous fragments.” (Groupe Mu 2017 :173). Smith makes systems that underwrite the resonances of the fragment. A Fragment is what is left behind as evidence that something once existed. Elements of the distant or recent past, persistently leave their mark. “No Gyal Can Test” is created with the intuition of a stylist’s eye, layered with the tacit knowledge of thinking through styling. The applied approach evokes the form and function of design practice, alongside the intuitive gestures of styling that gather and reassign pieces to provide a new “truth” on who women of the dancehall are.
CURATING AS TACIT KNOWING
Being unable to walk through “No Gyal Can Test,” I’m unable to “step into the ritual” mindset of Smith’s installation, which enables a shift of consciousness. Online viewers are denied the opportunity to experience what Smith sees about women of dancehall style—on the body, in the street, at home. He wants to convey an aspect of Jamaican culture and history that is there for all to see but is overlooked; to honor “those on the lower bracket to fight their way into history,” and by “honoring them, shape my taste,” and to state, again, that “our history is of value,” and we are ‘no longer mute”. There is also a feeling of loss, the passing of lived experiences into the past. The exhibition becomes an honoring ritual to the living and the dead dancehall contributor-participants. This is curatorial practice as aesthetic empathy, an effective visual and material tool of affirmation.
Yet Smith maintains that “No Gyal Can Test” is not about him and that he has never drawn on dancehall style in his work. His tacit knowing and knowledge acquired while observing the dancehall design-making practice of his Aunt and grandmother Paula and Mama Ouch of the Ouch Crew, seeps into to his own work as a stylist-designer through audacious hairstyles, or the thin gold sweep of eye make-up just below the brow of the eyelid. Michael Polanyi believed thought and tacit knowing leads to originality (Polanyi 1966: xix). Add the unique archive that Smith has acquired to produce “No Gyal Can Test” to this personal memory and a need to address reality to harness the pursuit of new perspectives—is curating likened to an inventory? To make a list is “seeing a problem … in … pursuit of discovery.” (Polanyi: 21). Through the installations over two floors Smith marked out the main features of the interconnected styles of dancehall—garments, hairstyles, wigs, the structure of homes, domestic interior spaces, the yard of the dancehall as material evidence of aesthetic presence.
AN UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTER
In “No Gyal Can Test” there are four “Mannequin” sculptures adorned with clothing that was given to Smith by the women who wore them in the dancehall. The sculpture showcasing a pink and grey Issey Miyake dress was an unexpected encounter. It activated personal memories and meaning for me. During 2003–4, while co-curating the “Black British Style” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, I wore a range of Issey Miyake designs: a Pleats Please mid-calf black skirt, an ankle-length coat-dress and a pair of grey Issey Miyake White Label pleated trousers. For the exhibition opening I wore a White Label pleated black evening dress. In 2005 I was invited by British Council Zambia to the “Interactive Network Event on Cultural Heritage” in Livingstone. Delegates were asked to wear their national dress. As a Black British woman of Jamaican descent, I did not have one. I wore my Issey Miyake evening dress.
In relation to Sandra Lee, who wore this Issey Miyake dress, the sculpture takes on the possible meanings of this garment, as worn by a black woman, and more specifically a Jamaican woman from a particular social stratum. They make the women into monuments in their own right and simultaneously reiterate the importance of the components of style to the concrete relevance of dancehall as mitigated through the bodies of these women. Issey Miyake said that “[T]o me design must get into real life. Otherwise, it’s just couture, it’s just extravaganza.” (Frankel 2010: 146). The women of dancehall achieved both; an extravaganza style that reflects their sense of real life. The woman who owned the pink and grey Issey Miyake dress drew on the designer’s vision to enhance her stature at a dancehall event and as an expression of upward mobility. This was in line with my reliance on an Issey Miyake design to project professional mobility and curatorial belonging, a cross-referencing that is legitimated by the diasporic experience of self-invention. This layering of Jamaican and international style references on the body adds a considered and complicated dimension to Jamaica’s national motto “Out of Many, One People” through the counter-culture of dancehall.
I view the period of dancehall as freedom time for the women referenced in the photographs and videos featured in “No Gyal Can Test.” In the formal street photographs, taken by Photo Morris, in that night’s styled-dancehall version of themselves, or dancing and negotiating and claiming the dancehall space candidly on video, life is good for these revelers in the frame, regardless of the realities of what it means to live day-to-day.
“No Gyal Can Test” offers a unique opportunity to see movement, due to Smith’s collation of an extensive video archive that presents themed moving images, as in the catwalk show Reconstruction Act. The archive confirms the range of styles that define the women of dancehall. Extreme possibilities of detail — grandiose sleeves, tiny shorts, head-to-toe silver ensemble, a pvc laced-back corset with spikes running down the side seams — smashes the ideal of a torso into a “look, don’t touch,” translation. The video, Queen Street, is an intense profile of a dancehall event and the wide range of looks captured. It zooms in on details or full-length looks, including montages that rotate and pulsate with overlapping looks, creating a whole like the “No Gyal Can Test” structures. The hallmarks of dancehall style are here. The myriad fashion references, further evidence of looking to fashion capitals abroad, intense garment details, and the material clash of ornamentation are topped by exaggerated flat cloth caps. These extravaganza creations mingle with sedate, coordinated, two-piece outfits such as a top paired with wide trousers.
These designs were driven by what Smith calls a “dressmaker mentality,” a concept based on how the Ouch Crew used to operate:
Dressmaker mentality is what I refer to when one would go to a neighborhood tailor or seamstress to create a specific garment (dress, blouse, pants, etc.). I can remember they used to take Vogue Patterns and sort of alter them. The Vogue Patterns were a sign of upward mobility through dance hall style They had a lot of magazine clippings on the wall, images that represented fashion in their eyes. My grandmother Barbara was the one that was really good with appliqué, and would take a lot of time with studding, grommeting, adding stones to everything, finishes etc. The Ouch store was one of the few establishments in Jamaica that, in addition to making the garment, consulted on the overall look. They sold shoes, hair, lashes and [coloured] contact lenses as well.
The place of the sewing machine in the creation of dancehall outfits intrigues me. A sewing machine enables agency. Surprisingly still an underrated tool, it contributes to a sense of what life can be. In his poem Opera, Robert Crawford said his mother’s sewing machine was “her typewriter” (1988). I like the idea of the Ouch Crew collective using sewing as a way of writing dancehall style into visibility.
This example of dancehall style creations between Ouch Crew and the women of dancehall has connections for me with the emergence of the professional stylists in the 1980s. Stylist pioneers such as London-based Ray Petri achieved a “sublime complexity” in their rejection of the fashion standard, by creating their own aesthetic “a style treatise on the possibilities of beauty,” and possible new dimensions” that incorporated concepts, argumentation and disturbance’ (Tulloch 2011: 183–184). This is a type of thinking that underwrites the women of dancehall.
The issue of taste has been a point of contention between those inside and outside dancehall. Taste defined in whose eyes? I view women of dancehall using their taste as a tactic (Gikandi 2011: 2411-2) to assert their styled bodies as a valued symbol and site of Jamaicanness. Taste can be a distinctive trope with which to assert difference as part of a life with expanded meanings of taste: taste as necessity, taste as a statement of autonomy, taste and belonging, taste as “us-ness,” taste in the definition of a life.
Akeem Smith (b. 1991) is a Jamaican-born, NYC-based multidisciplinary artist, stylist, designer, and creative director who’s spent the past few years defining fashion’s underground and establishing an archive of Jamaican Dancehall. Besides collaborating with fashion firms as Helmut Lang and Hood By Air, in 2020 Smith had a major solo show at Red Bull Arts in New York and Detroit.