Jamaican Art Disappears In Cuba

In May, on my way home from Havana, I ran into Ebony Patterson at the airport. She was one of the international artists invited to exhibit in the Havana Biennial. And the only Jamaican! On Saturday afternoon, I had happily wandered around Old Havana with my sister, Donnette, and our friend, Ifeona, trying to find Ebony’s three installations.

Ebony.CubaWe managed to track down one of them. It was a typically complex image, both alarming and strangely beautiful: A mutilated male body lying in a bed of flowers. Dread reality transformed by the artist into a seemingly pretty picture. The body was carefully camouflaged, dressed in flowers that blended with the background.  The underwear was visible, bearing the K-Mart/Sears brand, Joe Boxer.

This is how the brand is described on its website: “Joe Boxer was founded in 1985, with the very simple idea of taking the most basic elements in men’s clothing and remaking it to reflect humour, fashion and popular trends. Because the product is based around the idea of having fun, it gives consumers a chance to identify with, and be a part of the brand.”

Ebony takes all the fun out of Joe Boxer. On the waistband of the underwear, she subversively inserts the word ‘Joeker’ between the repeated brand name. The joke is quite serious. Ebony explained that the work is one of a series focusing on murder, masculinity and consumerism. There are signs of other trendy accessories: fashionable sunglasses and mismatched shoes.

I don’t suppose the owners of the Joe Boxer brand would be too pleased with Ebony’s deadly refashioning of the product line. But they can’t determine exactly how consumers “identify with” their brand. Artistic licence permits Ebony to turn Joe Boxer into a vulnerable male model for so many youth who end up dead, just trying to have some sort of fun.

WHOSE IDEA AND EXPERIENCE?

The theme of this year’s Havana Biennial is ‘Between the Idea and the Experience’. And the curators took the decision to move some of the art out of conventional exhibition spaces into the street. They wanted people to experience art as they were going about their everyday business. Along the busy Malecon, the seawall that protects Havana, installations kept popping up.

inti-balance-2Right outside our hotel there was a grouping of beautiful rocking chairs, titled ‘Balance Cubano’. But some of the chairs were joined in such a way that you couldn’t actually sit in them. As the artist, Inti Hernandez, put it in the exhibition guide, “Furniture that could very well comfort a person and interact with the surrounding community becomes a rigid and unpleasant object.”

I must confess I thought the installation a waste of perfectly functional furniture. But Hernandez, who lives and works between Cuba and the Netherlands, wanted to make an intriguing point about a society in transition: “I dedicate these works to Cuba and its present interesting situation, aware of the many opportunities and yet also faced with challenges.”

One of Ebony’s pieces was installed on the Malecon. On Sunday morning, when she went to photograph it, she was amused to see that it had disappeared. She did admit that when she was installing it she had overheard some entertaining reviews from onlookers. They said the work would make excellent bedspreads and curtains. Not the design; the actual object! They, obviously, didn’t see the dead body. Only the flowers.

The curators’ rather ambitious concept of the biennial seems to be a far cry from the basic needs of ordinary Cubans. There appears to be a big gap between the curators’ ‘idea’ and the people’s ‘experience’. Art taken out of the ‘protected’ space of the gallery and put on the street for mass consumption assumes new functions.

THE ART OF DEAD BODIES

So it looks as if somebody decided that Ebony’s installation, like those rocking chairs, was a waste of useful material and simply repurposed it. And that’s why the installation disappeared. The fate of Ebony’s artwork made me think about the value and cost of art in societies like ours where people are literally dying of hunger. How do we justify the seeming excess that is art? Does public art, for example, make the life of the poor more bearable? Or is it a luxury we simply cannot afford?

Stop-ED-image-300x284In countries with erratic governance structures, ‘disappearance’ is often a destabilising fact of life. Just think of those 43 male students in Mexico who disappeared last September on their way to protest at a conference put on by the wife of the mayor of Iguala. Disappearance is often a code word for murder, plain and simple. The victim is abducted, often tortured, then killed and the body disposed of so there is no evidence.

The disappearance of art is clearly not comparable. Quite the contrary! Unlike so many human beings, the disappeared object is certainly not violated. It is preserved because it is highly valued. So somebody, somewhere in Havana, is enjoying Ebony’s public installation in private. Perhaps, it hasn’t been turned into home furnishings. It may have been captured by a collector who knows that it’s really ‘art’, meant for a wall.

I suppose we won’t ever know the fate of Ebony’s installation. We can only be philosophical about its disappearance. Ebony’s startling artwork about dead bodies ends up like a corpse in an unmarked grave. That’s the terrifying appeal of Jamaican culture.

The High Cost Of Development

casaamI recently visited Grand Cayman for the first time. I was on my way to Havana for a conference on cultural diversity in the Caribbean, hosted by that distinguished Cuban institution, Casa de las Américas.

One of the highlights was a symposium titled ‘Bob Marley, Time Will Tell’. Professor Horace Campbell, author of the classic, Rasta and Resistance, gave the opening lecture on ‘Bob Marley and the Resistance to War’. All the speakers acknowledged the power of Marley’s music as a political force, urging the oppressed across the globe to rebel against systems of injustice.

The struggle against colonialism is a recurring theme in Marley’s lyrics. But, from what I could see of Cayman, colonialism didn’t look like such a bad thing. Cayman is still a colony of Britain. And Grand Cayman does seem to be rather grand. First World. I kept wondering what was hidden beneath the surface. Offshore banking has been a source of great wealth. But the obvious material prosperity of the Cayman Islands wasn’t the whole story.

My sister, Donnette, noticed that there didn’t seem to be too many ‘local’ people around. At the hotel on the island’s famous seven-mile beach where we overnighted, most of the employees were not Caymanian. The majority of the waiters in the main dining-room appeared to be Filipino or South Asian. The housekeeping staff on our floor were Jamaican. We went into town for dinner and the waiter who served us was from Santo Domingo.

Where were the Caymanians? The female taxi driver who took us back to the airport on Sunday gave us the answer. She described herself as one of a dying breed. Soon, Cayman will be almost completely overrun by foreigners. They will be the primary beneficiaries of development. For Caymanians, the price of ‘development’ will be loss. Loss of land, loss of social place, loss of identity.

BRAND-NEW SECOND-HAND

In Cuba, I was immediately struck by the ‘retro’ development of the communist state. Even on the website where we booked our boutique hotel, Terral, we were warned that the neighbourhood wasn’t so hot. So we were prepared for the crumbling buildings. Very few seemed as if they could be salvaged. But Terral was a bright spot. And the building next door was being renovated.

The decades of embargo imposed by the US, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union, have forced the Cuban people to be extremely creative. Recycling is both an art and a science. The antique American automobiles are legendary. They are more than mere cars. They are symbols of the resilience of the Cuban people who take pride in craftsmanship, demonstrating their capacity to transform ‘old bruck’ into ‘brand-new second-hand’. I hope that with the lifting of the embargo, these glorious antique cars will not be sold for a song to greedy collectors. Surely, the owners must know their worth.

MacklinCreativity takes many forms. At the main craft market in Central Havana, I met Arturo Macklin, an elderly gentleman who was born in Cuba of Jamaican parents. He approached my sister, asking if she was Jamaican. He’s 86 years old and his walking stick was a marvel. It was made from empty deodorant containers, placed over a stick and joined, like sausages, by being heated! At the top was an umbrella handle. Mr Macklin stylishly twirled his home-made walking stick as if it were pure ebony from the finest of gentleman outfitters. And he posed for the camera with an athletic ‘to the world’ gesture, worthy of Usain Bolt.

LOOKING FOR JAMAICAN FAMILY

At the conference, a Cuban woman with Jamaican roots gave me a list of names and asked me to help her find her family. Her name is Belkis O’Connor Jones. At the top of the list was Archibald Edinazer O’Connor, who was born in Westmoreland in the 1870s. Belkis didn’t know the district. Next was Anna Gardener. But there was no information about her birth. Then there was Albertha Adeline Gregory, who was born in Port Antonio in May 1895. And Lois Alexander Jones, who was born in St Ann in the 1890s. I promised to try my best to see if I could find any record of these births and, if possible, any descendants. But I wasn’t hopeful.

G-best-genealogy-sitesSo many Jamaicans went to Cuba to work on the sugar estates and did not return. They made life in their adopted homeland. But their grandchildren now want to reclaim their Jamaican culture. Mr Macklin spoke longingly about wanting to eat ackee and salt fish. His ackee tree in the country was blown down in Hurricane Flora! I promised to check with the Cuban embassy to see if I could send him some canned ackee. Not the same as fresh from the tree. But better than nothing.

There is so much that we share across the Caribbean. A common history of ‘discovery’, genocide, squatting, enforced mass migration, enslavement, resistance, emancipation, colonisation, flag independence and economic colonisation all over again. But there are still cultural differences that make us claim particular places as home. Even when we don’t always feel at home. Like that woman in Cayman who sees herself as an endangered species. And Belkis, who is not completely at home in Cuba, wanting to find her distant relatives in Jamaica.

Old Man No Fi Grudge Young Boy

Unknown-1Two spelling systems are used for the Jamaican language below. The first, which I call ‘chaka-chaka’, is based on English spelling. The second, ‘prapa-prapa’, is the specialist system designed by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy. It has been updated by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona. After the two Jamaican versions, there’s an English translation.

CKAKA-CHAKA SPELLING

It no right fi old man a grudge young boy. Some a dem old man must be figet seh dem did young one time. A no like seh dem born old. Dem did get fi dem chance fi live young-boy life. An pick an choose dem woman-friend. An mek fi dem owna mistake. So wa mek dem no stop diss di young boy dem? Dem no have nutten good fi seh bout dem.

Chruu nuff a dem old man a look young gyal, dem can’t believe seh young boy coulda want big woman. A must someting di young boy dem a look. Money, car, house, land. A coulda never di so-so woman sweet dem. No matter if she a healthy-body woman; an she know how fi treat man; an she just nice-nice. She no have nutten weh di old man want. So ascorden to him, no young boy can’t want her fi nutten good.

The-Power-of-Ambition-Part-7Wat some a dem old man no know, a no all young boy a look big woman fi mind dem. Some a di young boy dem a mek good-good money. Legal. Dem no ha fi a beg woman nutten. Dem deh youth have ambition. An dem no prejudice gainst big woman. Dem two yeye wide open. Dem see one big uman an dem skin ketch fire. Dem just love how she flex. An dem put argument to her.

If it sweet her, she mighta tek on di youth. A no like seh dem a plan fi seh “I do”. Dem just a seh, “See me ya”. Ya so. Fi now. An if dem lucky, it sweet-sweet. A it dat. An it mighta last one night, one week, one month, one year. It coulda gwaan long-long. An wen it done, it done! An nobody no ha fi bex wid nobody. A so it go.

NO BODDER TALK BOUT VIAGRA

Then some a di old man dem love fi gi advice to big woman. A warn dem seh di young boy dis a use dem. Fi wa? Money? Sex? Deh so a di problem. A dat mek di old man dem so bad-mind an grudgeful. Di ting weh young boy have over old man a stamina! An dat a one a di ting weh big woman a look fa. Di old man dem no got it. No matter how dem chat. An no bodder talk bout Viagra. A no di same ting. Any stand weh last fi more than four hour can’t good. Dat a kill dead sinting.

But mek mi tell unu someting. A no ongle old man a diss young boy. Some a di said same big woman dem weh tek up wid young boy a diss dem. One youth tell mi seh im did deh wid a big woman. An any time im go a her yard all she waan do a sex im. Like im a human vibrator. An im seh it hurt im. Sometime im just waan fi talk. Seet deh! Man an woman story no easy.

Di big woman dem ha fi treat di young boy dem better. Dem can’t gwaan Iike seh di yute a machine an dem waan wear out im battery. Still for all, if young boy an big woman waan fi try a ting, mek dem dweet. Nobody can’t tell dem which combination nah go work. A no padlock. A life! Some a dem outa order old man better mind dem owna business an stop tell people how fi live dem life.

PRAPA-PRAPA SPELIN It no rait fi uol man a groj yong bwai. Som a dem uol man mosi figet se dem did yong wan taim. A no laik se dem baahn uol. Dem did get fi dem chaans fi liv yong-bwai laif. An pik an chuuz dem uman-fren. An mek fi dem uona mistiek. So wa mek dem no tap dis di yong bwai dem? Dem no av notn gud fi se bout dem.

Chruu nof a dem uol man a luk yong gyal, dem kyaahn biliiv se yong bwai kuda waahn big uman. A mos somting di yong bwai dem a luk. Moni, kyaar, ous, lan. A kuda neva di suo-so uman swiit dem. No mata if shi a elti-badi uman; an shi nuo ou fi chriit man; an shi jos nais-nais. Shi no av notn we di uol man waahnt. So azkaadn tu im, nuo yong bwai kyaahn waahnt ar fi notn gud.

Wat som a dem uol man no nuo, a no aal yong bwai a luk big uman fi main dem. Som a di yong bwai dem a mek gud-gud moni. Liigal. Dem no a fi a beg uman notn. Dem de yuut av ambishan. An dem no prejudis gens big uman. Dem tuu yai waid uopn. Dem si wan big uman an dem skin kech faiya. Dem jos lov ou shi fleks. An dem put aagyument tu ar.

If it swiit ar, shi maita tek aan di yuut. A no laik se dem a plan fi se “I do”. Dem jos a se, “Si mi ya”. Ya so. Fi nou. An if dem loki, it swiit-swiit. A it dat. An it maita laas wan nait, wan wiik, wan mont, wan ier. It kuda gwaahn lang-lang. An wen it don, it don! An nobadi no a fi beks wid nobadi. A so it go.

NO BADA TAAK BOUT VIAGRA

images-1Den som a di uol man dem lov fi gi advais tu big uman. A waan dem se di yong bwai dis a yuuz dem. Fi wa? Moni? Seks? De so a di prablem. A dat mek di uol man dem so bad-main an grojful. Di ting we yong bwai av uova uol man a stamina! An dat a wan a di ting we big uman a luk fa. Di uol man dem no gat it. No mata ou dem chat. An no bada taak bout Viagra. A no di siem ting. Eni stan we laas fi muor dan fuor ouwa kyaahn gud. Dat a kil ded sinting.

Bot mek mi tel unu somting. A no ongl uol man a dis yong bwai. Som a di sed siem big uman dem we tek op wid yong bwai a dis dem. Wan yuut tel mi se im did de wid a big uman. An eni taim im go a ar yaad, aal shi waahn du a seks im. Laik im a yuuman vaibrieta. An im se it ort im. Somtaim im jos waahn fi talk. Siit de! Man an uman tuori no iizi.

Di big uman dem a fi chriit di yong bwai dem beta. Dem kyaahn gwaan Iaik se di yuut a mashiin an dem waahn wier out im bachri. Stil far aal, if yong bwai an big uman waahn fi chrai a ting, mek dem dwiit. Nobadi kyaahn tel dem wich kombinieshan naa go work. A no padlak. A laif! Som a dem outa aada uol man beta main dem uona bizniz an stap tel piipl ou fi liv dem laif.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

Old men shouldn’t envy young men. It’s just not fair. Some of these old men don’t seem to remember there was a time when they were young. It’s not as if they were born old. They had their chance to enjoy their youth. They could pick and choose their female friends. And make their own mistakes. So why won’t they stop dissing young men? They have nothing good to say about them.

imagesBecause a lot of those older men are trying to hook up with young women, they can’t believe any young man would want an older woman. The young man must have an agenda. He wants the woman’s money, car, house or land. It couldn’t possibly be just the woman herself that he finds desirable. It doesn’t matter if she’s physically attractive; and she knows how to treat men; and she’s just very sweet. She has nothing that an old man would want. So, as far as he’s concerned, no young man could want her for any good reason.

What some a these old men don’t know is that not all young men are looking for an older woman to look after them. Some of these young men are making good money. Legally. They don’t have to ask women for money. These young men are ambitious. And they’re not prejudiced against older women. Their eyes are wide open. They see an older woman who excites them. They just love her vibe. And they chat her up.

If she likes what he says, she just might fall for him. It’s not as if they’re planning to say, “I do”. They’re just saying, “You can have me”. Right here. For now. And if they’re lucky, it’s very good. And that’s it. And it might last one night, one week, one month, one year. It could go on for a very long time. And when it’s done, it’s done! And they don’t have to get angry with each other. That’s just how it is.

DON’T EVEN TALK ABOUT VIAGRA

viagra3_aotwThen some of these old men love to give advice to old women, warning them that young men are just using them. For what? Money? Sex? That’s the real problem. That’s what’s making those old men so malicious and envious. The advantage young men have over older men is stamina! And that’s one of the things mature women are looking for. And old men just don’t have it. No matter what they say. And don’t even talk about Viagra. It’s not the same. Any erection that lasts for more than four hours can’t be good. That’s a death sentence.

But, by the way, it’s not only old men who diss young men. Some of those same older women who get involved with young men diss them as well. A young man told me he used to be with an older woman. And when he visited her, all she wanted to do was have sex. As is he was a human vibrator. And he said it hurt him. Sometimes, all he wanted to do was talk. You see! Male/female dynamics can be quite complex.

Older women have to treat young men better. They can’t get on as if the young man is a machine and they want to wear out his battery. All the same, if a young man and an older woman want to have an affair, let them go right ahead. No one can tell them which combination can and can’t work. It’s not a padlock. It’s life! Some of those officious old men should mind their own business and stop telling other people how to live and love.