Jacqueline Gopie: Freedom to Play
By PETRA MASON, December 2020
These ‘digital days’, like everywhere else in the world, Miami’s Art Week went online. As viewing rooms replace white cube galleries, in the Northwest of Miami downtown in Overtown, artist Jacqueline Gopie opened a real-time exhibition. Surfing the traffic on the expressways that once displaced many original Overtown residents while metaphorically riding the current ‘Corona Coaster’ Freedom to Play Gopie quietly makes her-story. Adding contemporary cultural volume to the area nicknamed ‘Southern Harlem’ where legends such as Billie Holiday once performed -- and artist Derrick Adams recently exhibited -- Gopie presents a selection of recent works on canvas.
‘My overall intention is to interrupt unconscious racial bias. I’m focused on diminishing the existing mountain of negative images of black and brown people by littering it with my images of children. The paintings are based on my own photographs and are children of color engaged in simple, universal forms of play. They are titled with quotes from a variety of sources: historical figures, historians, authors, filmmakers, politicians and victims of police violence. These quotes are intended to provoke the viewer to further consider the content of the paintings. The lively and colorful backgrounds coupled with gestural figures and unfinished areas invite the viewer to question further the work. To wonder whether or not it is finished and then perhaps to actively participate with the painting by filling in the missing parts in their minds. This deeper involvement with the work hopefully leads to a questioning of biased cultural concepts of beauty and inclusion.’
Gopie’s paintings are refreshingly energetic, unpretentious, and wonderfully well-painted, ranging from over six feet to just under six inches. The artist thinks her work looks best when there are several pieces that present a cohesive narrative. Even so, those "under six inches” pack a punch, resonating with colorful, joyful energy.
With several solo exhibitions under her belt, Gopie wasted no time joining artist ranks. Upon retiring from a 21-year military stint in the United States Army, the Coral Gables Miami-based, Kingston, Jamaica-born artist attended the University of Miami where, with military precision, she received her BFA in 2005 and her MFA in painting in 2012, and was a recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation 2016 Emerging Artist Grant as well as attended, among others, the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2018.
Going beyond the obvious, with Freedom to Play Gopie makes a profound political statement with multilayered references to the racial injustices heaped on people of color and especially children in historic and contemporary American culture including the harsh reality that:
Black children simply playing outdoors are seen as a threat or criminal
Black children are more heavily policed and harshly punished in schools than white children
Black children are more often treated like adults in the criminal justice system
Black children are seldom taught to swim due to lack of access to pools and recreational facilities – resulting in an irrational and perpetual myth that Black people can’t swim
‘Freedom to Play’ is also a play on words making reference to the 6 January, 1941 speech made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “The Four Freedoms.” Which were:
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of Worship
Freedom from Want
Freedom From Fear
To which I think should be added – Freedom to Play.
‘By implanting images of black and brown children having a chill time onto your visual cortex I am intentionally contrasting the negative images we are constantly bombarded with by every form of media. The visual cortex learns from experience and self-organizes its structure to process visual input.’ Gopie is highly eloquent and an engaging conversationalist. She speaks with honesty and insight, and sings the praises of working at her home studio in pajamas.
PETRA MASON: Tell us about the sense of longing and belonging in your work.
JACQUELINE GOPIE: I had a very tough childhood in Jamaica and I think it is probably related to the feeling of never really belonging I had as a child. I am a mix of East Indian, African, and European descent, and in Jamaica that put me in the minority of not black/not white. So I never really fit in. That [feeling], coupled with being reunited with my family that I hadn't lived with since I was about two years old, and thrust into a rough junior high school in Brooklyn, New York in the 1972 really intensified the feeling of being an outsider--it made me wish for something I guess I never really had: that sense of belonging.
PM: How has being in the military influenced your work and outlook, if at all?
JG: The discipline and work ethic I developed in the military definitely have an influence on my work. I excelled physically in the Army, and I think that drive to succeed certainly pushes me to work hard and not quit or accept failure. I try to learn from every experience and I want to be self-sustaining. I also think I developed a sense of confidence in taking risks and learning new skills--I got through a lot of difficult Army training by saying to myself, "if that guy can do it, I know I can too."
*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. WM
Cultural historian and publisher. Beefcake 100% Rare, All Natural is her first Universe title, Bettie Page Queen of Curves and Bunny Yeager's Darkroom are her Rizzoli titles. Mason edited Fall 2015 Skira/Rizzoli's Imperfect Utopia.