Not Losing Track: A Conversation between María Elena Ortiz and Phillip Thomas

Phillip Thomas is an artist living in Jamaica. His striking paintings depict Black imagery that reflect the discourses on social justice that affects Black communities in the Caribbean and across the world. Drawing from the complex history of race in Jamaica, and referencing classical motifs in Western painting, Thomas creates surreal or dreamlike images in which Black bodies are represented with honor and beauty 

Phillip Thomas. The Other Side of Now is The Same Side as Then, 2019. Mixed media on canvas. 84 x 48 inches. Image courtesy the artist and RJD Gallery  

María Elena Ortiz: First, how are you doing especially given the current context?  

Phillip Thomas: Thanks for asking. I am fine for the most part, just a bit anxious as I imagine everyone else is. The interesting thing about this very strange period is realizing the quality of your internal life and how that relates to the quality of your external one. We have been running on autopilot for so long that the shutdown has abruptly forced us to switch modalities. As an artist, I have to navigate these two spheres of our lives constantly, sometimes even on command. I can’t imagine how hard it has been for so many other professionals whose way of living has been primarily and overwhelmingly external. It feels like the world has awakened from some bizarre industrial slumber. It reminds me of the 1927 film Metropolis. Stranger yet is the paradox of being “forced” to spend time with our loved ones. Perhaps Jean-Paul Sartre had a point in suggesting that “Hell is other people.” He made an interesting play titled No Exit (1944) and it was about three people trapped in hell. Funnily enough, Sartre’s hell had art in it. Easily one of the earliest “quarantine” flicks I know! 

MEO: That’s very funny. It makes me feel better about all this. 

PT: Jamaica has managed the pandemic very well by all measurements. A country of roughly three million people, we have on record about 800 confirmed cases, 700 recoveries, and unfortunately nine deaths. Thankfully, resources are only one aspect in fighting this scourge. There are other issues that we will face; our economy runs primarily on tourism, which means that we depend on other much larger countries to manage their end of the pandemic in order for us to be able to maintain this particular branch of income.    

MEO: That is true across the Caribbean, where several islands depend on tourism. What are you currently working on? 

PT: I am currently working on a series of works about emigration. However, I am broadening the concept of people’s movement to incorporate other, far subtler forms of emigration to include the act of leaving one condition for another. So, I incorporate socioeconomics and class as categories through which to explore emigration and to see how that affects multiple parties. Going all the way back to my painting The N Train (2008) I have been interested in this concept of how people move through certain conditions. So of course, I started with a general idea and looked into artists such as Honoré Daumier (1808–1897) and the ways in which he viewed class as a concept. Then, I delve into issues of people “emigrating” from one class to the next and the concepts that come out of that. What is strange is that different cultures understand those concepts in very different ways even though many of these cultures share a similar colonial past. The US, for instance, measures class strictly by income, while Britain and India do not. I find that very interesting. Surely, there are many other issues beneath those primary ideas, and those are the issues I am using to produce art in this particular body of work.  

Phillip Thomas. Metro Media, 2018. Digital collage. 26 x 24 inches. Image courtesy the artist and RJD Gallery  

MEO: Class is certainly something that has affected how the current pandemic has been experienced in the US. Wealthy Americans have easy access to COVID-19 tests, which are less accessible for people that are not rich. This was noticeable at the beginning of the pandemic. Is there a particular work of yours that resonates with how the pandemic has affected the Caribbean or Black bodies? 

PT: This is one thing that worries me about the immediacy of art. I am not really a fan of art that is plucked from the headlines—not in a direct way anyway. There is a very long tradition of art that deals primarily in the art of being immediate. The Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746–1828) and his musings on state power have given that kind of art an enduring template that persists in things like newspaper cartoons, lambasting the topic of the day. I am more interested in works that reveal the potentials for synergy with the events of its day. Those works are never strictly taken from the moments of the day but rather are mined for ideas that seem to show up repeatedly. So, as I mentioned before, my earlier works on emigration dealt with—not just the problems of emigration—but the issues of Black emigration. In that painting The N Train, it so happens that one of the figures is masked exactly the same way we are now asked to mask ourselves during this pandemic. However, that is primarily reflective of mass migration and the global refugee crisis. In my work, several images show up as though they are acts of premonition, but more importantly, they are the results of mining the subject that targets a particular group’s experience. Some of the issues of visibility that we are now experiencing are merely circumstantial. For instance, police brutality has always been there—we simply have more cameras now than before. One new thing I am learning is exactly how invasive racism really is and the ways in which the anonymity of the internet has unleashed a new kind of racism for the 21st century.  

I recently did a Zoom panel discussion for a Jamaican organization called Kingston Creative. I was presenting on the works of Kimani Beckford and Camille Chedda. Both of these artists are colleagues of mine who both address very pressing issues without being “ambulance chasers.” In the middle of this public forum, a group of white nationalists hacked into the panel discussion bombarding our feed with Ku Klux Klan imagery and so on. I am saying this to say that this issue isn’t simply happening in the major metropoles where the international news agencies reside. No. These acts of racial violence are happening in the small nation states, where one would mistakenly think that such an act is less likely.  

MEO: That is both horrible and completely credible.   

PT: It is important for me as an artist to consider the conditions in which I am working, and one way that I go about doing that is by having these discussions with my peers, looking at the ways in which they have approached these very issues from their own vantage points. In critical moments like these, a good kind of homogeneity comes forward and the best thing about that is that you get an overview of these shared concerns as they are being addressed from so many angles. Chedda has asked very poignant questions about the potential problems of monuments with her painting, Too Close for Comfort (2015). In a way, Beckford has done what Marc Quinn attempted with his Affirmation (2019). These works function—not as some kind of crystal ball—but as a concentrated effort to recognize consistent problems in changing times. 

MEO: In your work combining Caribbean narratives and traditional art historical motifs, you have developed a signature visual imagery and vocabulary. How did that come to be? 

PT: The concept of the Caribbean is one of immense trauma and cultural collision. Much of our understanding of the region comes out of this collision and it is from this historical narrative that many of our aesthetic ideologies flow. One early expression of this was a painting I made titled Carousel (2009), which used other works of art from the Western art historical canon as raw material. While I was a student, I produced “master copies” of two paintings selected from former colonial states: James William Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840) and Jusepe de Ribera’s The Flying Marsyas (1624). I reproduced these works of art to produce a kind of meta-narrative, which positioned these artists and the institution of the museum as material for this discourse. What resulted was a sort of repositioning of the concept of Turner and Ribera’s works.  

From there I began a series of paintings using the exotic still lifes of Dutch painting. Following the narrative of Carousel, I started reconstructing many of these works in an attempt to tell the story from the other side of the canvas. These paintings were incorporated into much larger paintings, creating a kind of tapestry of Western art history’s canon. 

Phillip Thomas. Pimper’s Paradise, The Terra Nova Nights Edition, 2019. Mixed media on canvas. 82 x 192 inches. The Harvey B. Gannt Center for African Arts and Culture. Image courtesy the artist and RJD Gallery  

MEO: Please tell us about your work Pimper’s Paradise, The Terra Nova Nights Editions (2019). 

PT: Pimper’s Paradise, the Terra Nova Nights Edition is a large triptych. The title was inspired by a very famous song by Bob Marley.  

MEO: I love that song.  

PT: In order for me to contextualize this work, I must explain a bit about Jamaica’s race and class system. Jamaica’s political dynamic, going all the way back the colonial era, was steeped in this idea of class. The legal system in Jamaica still carries, to this day, remnants of these ideas about the ways in which one’s shade of skin determines how one inherits things like land, wealth, education and so on. There was a system of inheritance that was centered on this notion. Terms such as “Quintroon,” “Quadtroon,” and “Octoroon” were terms used to describe a person with a particular percentage of white blood or heritage in their lineage. As you can imagine the laws of the time dictates that one’s inheritances was based on one’s “proximity” to whiteness. As a result, the society was flayed in order to maintain wealth, power and privilege in specific pockets of the society. The legal system has changed over the years, for the most part, but as we know, the legal system does very little—at least in the immediate—to affect the psychology of any society. 

MEO: That is very interesting as it relates to your paintings that present wealthy men with very dark skin. Now, I read those paintings as alluding to the pigmentocracy system that affects Jamaica, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world.       

PT: The “Mother” of Jamaican art, Edna Manley, wasn’t simply a white woman from England, but was also a part of a political dynasty that created a certain image of what Jamaican art ought to look like and be about. Now, after the rise of riots in Jamaica in the 1930s, a shift in the political norms of the society began to take hold. The formal Jamaican art system began to recognize the importance representing the other ninety percent of the country’s population. Works of art depicting the struggles of the Jamaican people emerged to create a new aesthetic ideology. This long-awaited shift in the aesthetic body politic in Jamaican art reimagined the right of the “ownership” of that representation. Simply put, “brand Jamaica” isn’t owned by the formerly “branded” Jamaicans. 

Here is a difficult thought. The vast majority of Jamaican art is made, managed and owned by that ten percent demographic that is not depicted in any of its work. This strikes me as a frightening problem for several reasons. If what we see of Jamaican art is ultimately of our lumpen proletariat—a term from our political yesteryear—and the authenticity of said work is judged by the over-representation of that demographic, then it seems to me that the economy of Jamaican art simply serves a minority of people in their discussions of the majority. This one-dimensional presentation, on the one hand, can seem as if it presents the underserved, underprivileged, and underrepresented. The problem with that is that, in fact, we are not holding to account many of the other demographics that hide in Jamaica’s aesthetic shadows, puppeteering from behind the scene. Art is supposed to serve the entire populous, and if Jamaican art and its authenticity is primarily “made by some, describing others” then a very dangerous gap exists within our art history. 

Pimper’s Paradise, The Terra Nova Nights Edition deals primarily with these issues of authenticity and representation, with the over depiction of some because of the access of others. One does not readily expect a painting about Jamaica to be seen through an opulent interior. The picture is divided as a triptych, but more importantly even, the painting is divided into pieces psychologically. What is presented in the foreground of the image is in complete contrast with what is happening in the back. Images of lynching’s, police brutality, riots, and other forms of unrest are juxtaposed next golfers and ballerinas. So many of my paintings play on the stark contrast of the image internally and the contrast of the entire work to the culture its purports to represent. 

Phillip Thomas. Tie, 2015. Oil on canvas. 74 x 49 inches. Image courtesy the artist and RJD Gallery

MEO: I enjoy your work, and dedication to explore the complex dynamics of race and identity in the Caribbean, especially Jamaica. It shows a global discourse that affects communities of color internationally. How does the current Black Lives Matter movement resonate with you? 

PT: The current Black Lives Matter movement is very important for several reasons, and in some ways, it echoes the Black lives matter movement that spread through Jamaica in the 1930s. That was a pivotal point in our history that has made many of the things that we enjoy today possible. However, in the same way we made some mistakes then, we could be in danger of making other kinds of tactical errors now that we won’t see for another generation. This means that we now have a unique opportunity to react with even more specificity and with the clarity of hindsight. Jamaica has joined this discussion and, like every country around the world, our version of this current discussion has taken on its own context and its own set of demands. Part of the issue here is that Jamaica does not have the kind of demographic contrast between its police departments and its citizens, but this is exactly why our miscarriages of justice don’t carry the lightning bolts they ought to. That one important distinguishing issue hopefully will be addressed here in Jamaica.                  

MEO: We are all building on the work of others, and we need to continue building for others to come. I want to end by pointing out that while you do not produce work responding to immediate situations, your work it is consistently relevant given the themes and issues that you have been developing in your career, and that gesture speaks to the role of an artist today. 

Phillip Thomas. An Upper St. Andrew Concubine, 2012. Mixed media on canvas.  88 x 56 inches. The Kolleen Russell Art Collection. Image courtesy the artist and RJD Gallery  

Phillip Thomas is a graduate of the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts​ in Kingston, Jamaica, where he received the Albert Huie Award for Painting. He attended the New York Academy of Art, earning his MFA and studying under notable artists including Eric Fischl, Vincent Desidario, and Jenny Saville. Thomas’s work has been discussed in various art journals and magazines, and is included in public and private art collections. He has lectured at ​his undergraduate alma mater, has sat on many public and private art committees, and received numerous governmental awards for his work, including the Anthony Musgrave Medal. Thomas ​lives and works in Kingston, and is represented by the RJD Gallery in New York.