For the first time in its almost 40-year history, the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) is hosting an exhibition of poster art. It opens this morning at 11:00 o’clock and showcases the top 100 entries from the First International Reggae Poster Contest. Six hundred and seventy-eight designers from 80 countries submitted 1,142 posters! The lyrics of the Hotstepper, Ini Kamoze, are the inspiration for the title of the exhibition: ‘World-a-reggae’.
The contest was co-founded by Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson, a Jamaican digital poster artist, and Maria Papaefstathiou, a German-born graphic designer and art director who now lives in Greece.
Michael defines himself as an ‘artist without borders’. This is not just because he was born in Jamaica, lives in the U.S. and traverses the globe on the digital highway.
Thompson’s conception of his ‘freestylee’ art as borderless also signifies his refusal to get caught in narrow definitions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture or ‘pure’ and ‘commercial’ art. And his work is ‘outer/national’. It’s rooted in Jamaican culture and, at the same time, incisively engages with the whole world of international politics.
Maria’s brilliant blog, <www.graphicartnews.com>, documents what she calls her ‘twin passions’: graphic arts and photography. She describes her blog in this way: “It is a blog for graphic designers and photographers, focusing on high quality designs and art photography. The ultimate desire is to constantly inspire people and expand their work all over the world.”
Like Maria, Thompson is a politically committed artist whose sophisticated posters lucidly articulate the breadth and depth of his insights. In an interview posted on the House of Reggae website, he talks about how he started to do poster art. His story is a graphic indictment of partisan ‘politricks’ in Jamaica.
“My poster art goes back to the late 1970s in Jamaica. My first protest poster was about an incident in Jamaica called the Green Bay Massacre. An incident that took place on January 5, 1978 in which seven youths from the South Side ghetto in Kingston were lured to the Green Bay military firing range in Hellshire, St. Catherine and were executed by JDF (Jamaica Defense Force) Soldiers. This incident was shocking when the truth came out and I had to use my art to protest the massacre by the Jamaican State.
“Some Reggae artist[s] at the time also recorded protest tunes about the incident, songs like ‘Green Bay Killing’ by Big Youth and producer Glen Brown. Incidentally one of the youths who was killed in the massacre was a young Reggae singer name Glenroy Richards who ironically recorded the chune ‘Wicked Can’t Run Away,’ on Glen Brown’s ‘Youthman’ riddim. This chune was later renamed ‘Green Bay Killing’, this was a wicked dancehall anthem and a haunting tribute to those who suffer injustice at the hands of the ‘wicked men’”.
Reggae Hall of Fame
Thompson conceived the International Reggae Poster Contest as a first step towards the construction of a Reggae Hall of Fame Pavillion and performing arts centre in downtown Kingston. Thompson’s grand vision encompasses not just the intellectual capital of reggae culture but also the symbolic architecture of the building that would house the enterprise.
Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson is talking Frank Gehry: architect of the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain; the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles; the Experience Music Project, Seattle; The Vitra Design Museum, Germany; the Novartis campus, Switzerland. A magnificent BioMuseo has been designed for Panama but it’s still under construction.
So why not Kingston, Jamaica? I can just see it. On Kingston Harbour, the 7th largest natural harbour in the world, with the majestic Blue Mountains as a spectacular backdrop, an organic mass of crumpled steel rises to affirm the indomitable spirit of the Jamaican people. Well, that’s before the IMF ‘done wid wi.’ Greece and Spain, here we come.
Yes, ‘wi ha fi tek bad tings mek joke’. But fun and joke aside, doesn’t reggae music deserve a hall of fame worthy of the global reach of Jamaican popular culture? Who would have thought that out of Kingston’s concrete jungle would have come a ‘riddim’ of resistance that now reverberates across the world? Reggae music and its wild child, dancehall, symbolize the unlimited potential of the creative industries that enable hard-working, talented people to make ‘nuff’ money out of brainpower.
Jamaica Music Museum
Thompson’s dream of a Frank Gehry-designed Reggae Hall of Fame does not at all diminish the value of the pioneering Jamaica Music Museum, now temporarily located on Water Lane. ‘Yu ha fi creep before yu walk an den bolt like Usain’. Mr. Herbert Miller, Director/Curator of the fledgling museum, is doing the best he can in the cramped quarters he’s been assigned by the Institute of Jamaica.
The Museum’s current exhibition, “Equal Rights: Reggae and Social Change”, uses mostly record album covers, along with sound clips, music samples and poster boards to document social history. It resonates with the National Gallery’s ‘World-a-reggae’. Both exhibitions focus on visual sound. The powerful word and sound of music are transformed into the equally powerful image and ‘zeen’ of graphic art design.
All the same, can you imagine what a Gehry building would do for downtown Kingston? And for the Jamaican economy? Without a penny in my pocket for the project, I contacted the Frank Gehry practice and was taken quite seriously when I asked if the firm might be willing to consider designing the Reggae Hall of Fame. What is needed is a formal proposal and a commitment from ‘whole heap’ of people all over the world who love reggae music to come up with the ‘dunny’. It shouldn’t be hard to do if the overwhelming response to the First International Reggae Poster Contest is anything to go by.
Alon Braier, winner of the contest, is a freelance illustrator and reggae musician living in Jaffa, Israel. His brilliant poster, “Roots of Dub”, features King Tubby, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Augustus Pablo. Alon uses the image of the recurring circle to represent dub echoes. He got it completely right. I knew he had to come to Jamaica for the opening of the exhibition. I called my sparring partner, Ainsley Henriques, honorary secretary of the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica. He immediately caught the vision of cross-cultural exchange. With the support of the Israeli government, ‘di yute deh yah’ in the Promised Land of reggae.