Harry Moore Scholar Set To Change The Way We See Junkanoo

By in News on August 10, 2013

Many Bahamians are probably unaware of this fact, but Jeffrey Meris may just be the country’s most popular emerging artist today.

It’s not so much because of his impressive installations at The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas—like the cotton-lined claustrophobic space “Middle Passage” on display during last year’s Transforming Spaces tour, or the mesmerizing reflective coffin “Cradle”, part of the Sixth National Exhibition “Kingdom Come”—rather, it’s because thousands of Bahamians and tourists alike see his stunning Junkanoo costume creations every Boxing Day and New Year’s as part of the One Family group.
It’s no surprise then that the 22-year old, who is the 2012 recipient of the Harry Moore Scholarship in the Arts from the Lyford Cay Foundation, recently began his academic journey to earn a BFA in Sculpture from Tyler School of Art, Temple University, in Philadelphia.

“I think Junkanoo is really what helped me get into sculpture,” Meris said. “I just feel like we live in a 3D world and for me sculpture communicates something different to the audience in a way that 2D artworks can’t. I think the biggest misunderstanding perpetuated in The Bahamas is that if it isn’t painting and if it isn’t ceramics, it’s not art. But Junkanoo is the largest cultural festival we have, and that is a parade of sculpture, essentially.”

A part of the Gaza Strip shack for One Family since he was 10 years old, Meris is set to follow in the footsteps of his mentors Jackson Burnside, Stan Burnside and John Beadle, who are considered Junkanoo icons and master artists of The Bahamas and have exhibited in numerous galleries at home and abroad. Meris credits them for encouraging his creative talent and for showing him the importance of mentorship.

“There’s a certain level of brotherhood that Junkanoo teaches you—like John Beadle says, the guy that builds the costume is just as important as the guy sweeping the floor of the shack,” Meris explained. “If you look at all of the communities that have a Junkaoo shack, and look at the crime statistics, it’s less likely that crime will happen. We learn to problem-solve, we learn to reason. I have to beat on the side of you on Bay Street, so it doesn’t make sense, us being enemies.”

Yet it wasn’t until he was in high school at C. R. Walker, under the guidance of his art teacher Carla Campbell, that Meris began to think seriously about a career in art. Campbell took Meris to his first visual art exhibition—a collection of paintings by Jackson and Bernard Petit at the New Providence Community Center—giving the young artist a chance to see how he could explore his creative talents outside of Junkanoo.

“Having Carla take me to that show was a validation,” he said. “It showed me that yes, there is a career in art, yes, I can study this, and yes, people want this in the community. All of these artists are inspirations to me. They saw the potential in me and acted as a bridge from the Junkanoo shack in Mason’s Addition to the art world—to this opportunity today.”

While studying for his Associate’s in Art at The College of The Bahamas, Meris was one of three students to earn the first Popop Junior Residency Prize, in 2010, awarded by Popopstudios International Center for the Visual Arts. A coveted spot for young artists today, the Prize gives its winners a studio space at Popopstudios ICVA over the summer to explore their artistic practice, as well as a trip to New York City and the opportunity to be part of a group exhibition.

Popopstudios Junkanoo costume designed by Jeffrey Meris displayed in the 2011 Boxing Day Junkanoo Parade and later in the “As We Knew Him: One Family’s Tribute to Jackson Burnside” exhibition at the NAGB.

For Meris, winning this award was a life-changing experience as he explored art forms beyond painting and ceramics in New York City art galleries and started focusing more on large and interactive sculptural installations. Such work has since landed him into the National Art Gallery many times—including the showing of several impressive Junkanoo pieces during the “As We Knew Him: One Family’s Tribute to Jackson Burnside” exhibition that finally saw Junkanoo entering a formal gallery space.

Though Meris is excited by the contemporary art scene in The Bahamas today, he looks forward to developing his practice even more at the Tyler School of Art and is humbled by the opportunity afforded to him by the Lyford Cay Foundation to explore art beyond his home.

“I’d like to say thanks to the Foundation for awarding me this scholarship,” he said. “Looking back, it’s such an accomplishment, especially considering my extremely talented colleagues who applied. It’s a very demanding process, and when I won, I felt so validated. I remember crying because there were days where I had no lunch money because I used it to buy art materials, and days where I wondered why I do all of this. That phone call from the Foundation answered all of my questions.”

Also immensely grateful to his mother for all of her support and the entire art community for their guidance, Meris displays a great commitment to giving back to others. In 2012, he was happy to collaborate with the FOCUS students to paint a mural at The College of The Bahamas.

Jeffrey helping the FOCUS students on their COB Mural.

For Meris, art is a powerful tool for self-realization, and he hopes that by participating in public art projects and getting as many people involved in them as possible, Bahamians will begin to see and celebrate their artistic heritage—like Junkanoo—differently.

“Being a child raised in a lower socio-economic climate, I want to make art more present in those communities,” he said. “I think slow and steady strides are what we need for now. I think somehow—I don’t know if this is going to be the government or some private partner—but we need to start to consider Junkanoo as more than a competition that occurs a few times a year. We need to see how we can consider it and celebrate it as an art form.”

When asked what caused the Harry C. Moore Arts Scholarship Screening Committee to choose Jeffrey as their 2012 candidate, the Committee Chairman responded, “Mr. Meris inspired the committee with his raw passion, intensity, honesty and determination. From his application essays and portfolio to his impressive interview, Mr Meris demonstrated an intelligence, a comprehension and the potential of the makings of a very great artist. He also displays a sincere humility, which is sometimes a rare attribute in the truly talented.

“Mr. Meris has grown up and exists in the most challenging of circumstances but largely credits Junkanoo and the mentors who he found in ‘the shack,’ such as Jackson Burnside III, as being a lifeline that saved him from what could have been an unfortunate end.

“His artistic influences and significant talents were groomed and forged in ‘the shack’ to the point where he has garnered the hard-earned respect and admiration of the most steely Junkanoo veterans and legends with his new ideas and innovations in design, materials and construction. This is quite an achievement in itself for one so young. But he has also proven himself during his time at the College of The Bahamas where his skills were sharpened and tested and his thinking matured in both the fine arts and academic courses.

“The fact that Mr. Meris was accepted into two of the most prestigious art schools in the world, schools which only accept a third of its applicants, proves his unique talent and ability. Mr. Meris has chosen to study Sculpture and this is what interested us most of all.

“The scholarship committee had not seen a candidate like Mr. Meris before – one who wishes to study Sculpture, who is immersed in the essence of our national festival, and one who has the desire and real potential to revolutionise the art and practice of Junkanoo. He also has a sincere and proven desire to give back to his country. All these factors were profoundly exciting to the members of the Scholarship Committee and confirmed our conviction to choose Mr. Meris as our pick for the 2012 Harry C. Moore Memorial Scholarship in the Arts.”

By Lyford Cay Foundation Scholar
Sonia Farmer
Source: Bahamian Arts and Culture

My Progress
by Jeffrey Meris

“I am studying a Bachelor’s of Fine Art in Sculpture with a concentration in Social Practice and a certificate in Community Arts at Tyler School of Art, Temple University located in Philadelphia, PA.

“Last semester was very fulfilling especially due to the fact that academically there was a paradigm shift. The way that I valued grades (success) has been redefined by simply one semester of study at one of the leading art schools in America. Success was measured not by the ability to masterfully craft an object, but rather by the integrity behind the artwork and the character development adopted thereafter. This was a unique experience I really didn’t begin to appreciate until I began putting what was explored into action during this summer 2013 in a social practice project I am currently working on. I am quite appreciative of the support systems in place which enable me to stay in communication with my lecturers concerning several projects I am working on in The Bahamas.

“My studies have resulted in a much more responsible homo sapien after just one semester abroad. I now factor in so much more into every project or piece that I take on that I didn’t before I began my studies at Tyler School of Art. There is a growing urgency for art that is socially cognizant of the environment it exists in; one that has less of a reliance on traditional institutions of art but rather is inclusive of the art world and the “real” world and is ecologically alerted simultaneously. This is where my interest lie.

“I am learning what it means to function as an artist in a co-opted world where objects are being less fetishized, even though I feel that was, and still is, a very difficult transition (because our art community is so objectified). Nevertheless, I think the beauty of such practices lie within the common ground where object meets strong concept or relatedness.

“I owe much credit to artists such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Theaster Gates, Chris Robinson, Pepon Osorio, Damien Hirst, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paul Ramirez Jonas, Tavares Strachan, Félix González-Torres, Du Ho Suh, Phoebe Bachman (a student at Tyler), Alfredo Jaar, and the faculty at Tyler School of Art who have all aided in my reconfiguration of art. Locally, I would also like to give a heartfelt thank you to John Cox, Antonius Roberts, John Beadle, Heino Schmid, Stan Burnside (all mentors among others) and Jackson Burnside (now deceased), The Lyford Cay Foundation, Popopstudios, the N.A.G.B, the One Family Junkanoo Group, The D’Aguilar Art Foundation, Dawn Davies and donors who have all supported me to this day.

“Currently, my work asks the audience not only to spectate but also to participate and engage in a reciprocal process of sharing. Recurrent themes in my work are centered on the validity of history and the way that organic discourses still ale contemporary society today and how immediacy is depleting everything we once coined as culture. I am no healer of the poor or mystic magician but I am the beginning of change.”

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