Rachel Barrett Hopes to Bring the Contemporary Art Conversation to the Caribbean

Rachel Barrett’s new kunsthalle brings an unusual, global sensibility to Jamaica

Two years ago, Rachel Barrett had a eureka moment. “I was home [in Jamaica] looking into taking office space to work on an export project,” she says. “Like most Jamaican’s living abroad, I’ve always wanted to find a way to do something back home.” Barrett turned to friend and mentor, London-based architect David Adjaye. “He has long been encouraging me to do something more to connect my experience in the international art world with the Jamaican-Caribbean art community. This just made sense.”

This was the seedling for _space, Jamaica’s first contemporary art kunsthalle, designed by Adjaye, which opens this month with an exhibition of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat. “On a series of late nights [during Art Basel], I started asking people what they would think if I developed an art space in Jamaica, and most importantly, would they support it?” she says. The response was incredible, and, according to Barrett, one thing led to another. It was time for her to move home to see things through. Barrett, who started as a dancer, studied art history and literature at Colgate University in central New York, followed by stints at fashion magazines in New York City; she finished her studies at Sotheby’s Institute in London. “My parents have always collected art, and my mother is particularly interested and involved in the local literary arts scene in Jamaica. I’ve basically always been socialized to be involved with the arts.” She adds, “I do love the business of the art world, and so that’s something I just pursue across different avenues as opportunities arose.”

Located on the estate of late filmmaker Perry Henzell—who helped make Jimmy Cliff’s career with his film The Harder They Come—Adjaye worked with local firm Atelier Vidal to restore the historic building. “The architecture of the site is a testament to the evolution of culture in Kingston,” Barrett says. “The idea is to preserve and restore them, and to leave the new additions as ‘ruins’ showing the urban sprawl that took place on the site as its use varied over the years.”

Barrett has devised a program split into 80 percent educational initiatives and 20 percent exhibitions. She hopes it will be a “network of _spaces” on islands across the Caribbean. “To truly evolve the conversation concerning contemporary art, one needs to start at the root, with the youth,” she says. While only showing international artists, _space will invite local curators to connect the exhibitions to aspects of the local arts landscape. Her primary aim: to activate the Jamaican community, which has largely been outside of the contemporary art world. She is hoping to expose edgier genres, mediums, and concepts in contemporary art to regular folk. “The weirder, the better.”

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