Taking Liberties With Marcus Garvey

Jamaican art critics can be very intolerant. Not just the professionals who arrogantly expect us to take as gospel their point of view. It’s also the amateurs who depend on the evidence of our own eyes to pass judgment about the value of art. Especially when it’s about public figures!

I remember the controversy over Christopher Gonzalez’s inventive sculpture of Bob Marley that the Government commissioned in 1981. Born in Kingston, Gonzalez was living in Atlanta. David Boxer, then chief curator at the National Gallery, was sent to check on the progress of the work. He immediately ‘sighted’ problems.

Bob-Marley-Statues-2

Bob was growing out of a tree root. Like a merman, the singer had no feet. Worst of all, the face looked nothing like Marley’s. When the sculpture arrived in Jamaica, angry reviewers comprehensively dissed it. They authoritatively declared, “Dat a no Bob.” The statue was a brilliant evocation of the spirit of Marley. But that’s not what the people wanted.

Neither did Bob’s family! Cedella Booker and Rita Marley insisted that the image was inappropriate. Edward Seaga, then prime minister, agreed. Alvin Marriott was commissioned to do a realistic sculpture, which stands (on feet) across from the National Stadium.

Gonzalez’s sculpture is now rooted at Island Village in Ocho Rios after languishing for many years in the National Gallery. It should be transplanted to The Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. There it would inspire students to “be bright and out of order” – as a clever sign on the college campus advocates.

DEADLY REVIEWS

Two Fridays ago, a bust of Marcus Garvey, made by the renowned sculptor Raymond Watson, was unveiled at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona. The swift response of the amateur art critics was uncompromising: “Dat a no Marcus Garvey.” Some of the reviews I’ve heard are deadly: “Im look like im have cancer”; “It look like bees sting im pon im top lip”: “Im deh pon SlimFast”.

GarveyB20170523C

A Gleaner article by Paul Williams, published last Wednesday, records more responses: “‘Tek it dung,’ one woman said calmly. ‘That statue does not represent Marcus Garvey – that’s a fraud,’ pronounced an elderly Rasta, donning the colours of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). With photos of Garvey, and sometimes using expletives, he ranted until way after the formalities were over.”

Edward Seaga, a former distinguished fellow in the School for Graduate Studies and Research at the UWI, could have given valuable advice about the politics of commissioning public monuments. A student of anthropology, Seaga fully understands the power of symbols. He knows that Garvey is the embodiment of Black Power, not just for Rastafari but also for the black majority.

As minister of finance, Seaga played a leading role in bringing home Garvey’s remains from the UK in November 1964. That was an eloquent political statement. Seaga was also instrumental in ensuring that Marcus Garvey was declared Jamaica’s first national hero in 1969. I’m sure Seaga would empathise with those critics who are distressed by Raymond Watson’s representation of Garvey.

MOTHER MARIAMNE SAMAD

unknown-2The worst thing about the image is not that it doesn’t look like Garvey. Most of us haven’t seen Garvey in the flesh. Mother Mariamne Samad, who is 94, is the only person at the ceremony who actually met Garvey. She was five years old and she remembers being at the corner of 132nd Street and 5th Avenue in Harlem when Garvey briefly spoke to her.

Our images of Garvey have been mostly defined by photographs. We trust that they are accurate. But long before Instagram filtering, photos have been touched up, often to remove melanin. At the unveiling, Professor Rupert Lewis, eminent Garvey scholar, declared in a conciliatory tone, “There are many images of Garvey that you can get from his 52 years.”

True! Unfortunately, Raymond Watson’s image of Garvey reveals nothing of the authority, passion and power of more full-bodied representations of our national hero. I wouldn’t go as far as cancer. But Garvey seems poorly. His posture conveys passivity. He looks like a weakling. Who approved this diminished portrayal?

The bust should be replaced with an image that inspires unequivocal admiration of Garvey’s accomplishments as an illustrious pan-Africanist rallying the black world to affirm pride in race. Perhaps the CHASE Fund could support the commissioning of a new sculpture for UWI. And Watson’s could be donated to Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey. It would take its rightful place among the many images of Garvey archived there.

Under the visionary leadership of Dr Donna McFarlane, director/curator of Liberty Hall, the interactive museum has recently been redesigned by the brilliant creative team, Art on The Loose, based in Chicago. Marcus Garvey’s life story is told in inspiring words, sounds and images. It’s a completely engaging multimedia experience.

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The best thing about the UWI monument is the Garvey quotation inscribed on its base: “What I write today may live with me, but when I die, my writing lives on; therefore, what you do or write must be so clear as to live on when you are gone, that others who may read it might get a clear conception of what you mean.”  The UWI needs a lucid monument to Marcus Garvey that portrays a clear conception of the meaning of the man. Perhaps, next time, it will be a full-scale statue.

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What’s up at the National Gallery?

Last Sunday, the main exhibition of the Jamaica Biennial opened at the National Gallery downtown Kingston. It was a grand affair, attracting an unusually large crowd of enthusiastic patrons. There are also exhibitions at Devon House and the National Gallery West.

devon_house

Devon House, First Home of the National Gallery of Jamaica

The Biennial has four levels of exhibits, as outlined in the beautifully produced catalogue: six special projects by invited international artists; two tribute exhibitions honouring Alexander Cooper and Peter Dean Rickards; elite invited artists; the juried section.

Why are some artists automatically given a free pass into the Biennial? And so many of them! Thirty-four invited artists entered 61 pieces. One hundred and ten artists submitted entries to be judged. Forty-nine were accepted with a total of 66 entries. If both the invited and juried artists had been restricted to one entry each, at least 44 additional juried entries might have been included.

Dr Veerle Poupeye, executive director of the National Gallery, addresses this contentious issue in her insightful ‘Introduction’ to the catalogue: “By far, the most vexing question has been whether the invited artists system should be retained, or whether the Biennial should become a fully juried or curated exhibition instead. As is to be expected, many invited artists would not like to lose their status, but others in the artistic community feel that this perpetuates undesirable hierarchies and also makes it difficult to give curatorial cohesion to the exhibition.”

‘PRACTICAL FEASIBILITY’?

In email correspondence with me, Dr Poupeye confirmed that one of the criteria used to select entries in the juried section is “practical feasibility, for instance with regards to size”. Why is this criterion selectively applied to the juried section and not to invited artists?

fos4-copy

Fosuwa Andoh, Visual Griot

Which brings me to that hell of a drum made by invited artist Laura Facey, in collaboration with the unacknowledged international African artist Fosuwa Andoh, visual griot. Fosuwa is a textile artist and ceramic/glass crafter who came to Jamaica to direct a Prince’s School of Traditional Arts project. She established a successful pottery workshop in Rose Town. Fosuwa provided technical advice for curing the cowskin and she attached it to the body of the drum. Without her input, the artwork would be nothing but dead wood. And you know how unfulfilling that can be!

Decorated in the red, white and blue of imperial flags, Facey’s drum seems to embody colonialist fantasies: “I made the drum so that we may talk to our ancestors and bring more peace and reconciliation into our lives.” But the scale of the drum is far beyond human proportions. Our African ancestors would not recognise it as an instrument of communication. This monstrous drum has shock value, and that’s about it.

And it was quite a production to get the drum into the Gallery. According to a Gleaner article published two Sundays ago, “The two sections of the entrance door were completely removed”. In addition, “a glass partition, mounted on a concrete wall, and which separates the lobby from the drum’s temporary resting spot, also had to be taken out”. How practical and feasible was that?

FACEY-DRUM-moving-360x639

Then, “with the effort of 37 Jamaica Defence Force soldiers, the drum was slowly brought into the space. The lifting and pushing of the drum itself brought some entertainment to onlookers as the instructor raised and lowered his voice, army-style, in giving directions to the able-bodied men”. Was this regular JDF work? Or was it a roast?

The 30-foot drum sounds much smaller in metres: only 9.144. But, however you measure it, that’s a lot of space in a relatively small gallery. The drum dominates the main exhibition hall, leaving little room to view the exhibits on the adjacent walls. How many more juried entries might have been able to fit in that space, I wonder?  And Ms Facey has two more pieces in the exhibition at Devon House!

DIGITAL JAMAICA EXHIBITION

As soon as I stepped into the main gallery, a well-known artist said I looked like a work of art and I should just stand there and let people walk around me. I had a good laugh. This was my cue. I gleefully told her I was making a subversive fashion statement.

Donnette.dress 3Donnette.dress 2

Images of the work of one of my favourite artists were printed on my dress – thanks to graphic designer Rodane Gordon at Hot Off The Press who did an excellent job! The artist had submitted two entries to the Biennial and both had been rejected. But I made sure the beautiful work was at the exhibition, if not in it. The artist I was chatting with completely understood my visual statement. Her work had also been rejected.

I’ve decided to curate a Digital Jamaica Exhibition. I’m inviting the 61 artists whose work was rejected by the Biennial jury. I also welcome those artists who were not included in the invited category. Well, I’m not actually curating. It’s an open-entry exhibition. Whosoever will may come. I’ll let the viewers decide on the value of the work.

I’ve secured the services of an internationally recognised art blogger who will design the website. I know some of the rejected artists may not want to appear in the ‘Fringe Biennial’ for fear of never ever being accepted in the ‘real’ one. A pity! Those artists who do want to participate can contact me for details at the email below. When one door is closed, many more are open.

Alpha Boys’ School Get New Logo

Prof. Hubert Devonish, Co-ordinator, Jamaican Language Unit

Prof. Hubert Devonish, Co-ordinator,
Jamaican Language Unit, UWI

There are two spelling systems 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 phonetic system designed by the linguist Frederic Cassidy.  It has been slightly amended by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  After the two Jamaican versions, there’s an English translation.

CHAKA-CHAKA SPELLING

ABS-NEW-LOGO-REDBig press conference keep up a Alpha yesterday fi show off di new logo fi di school. A long time now Alpha deh bout.  Inna 1880, Miss Jessie Ripoll buy 43 acre a land pon South Camp Road.  An she set up di Alpha Cottage fi look after poor people pikni. Fi di first, she did ongle tek een girl.

Inna 1884, Miss Ripoll decide fi start tek een boy pikni weh a gi trouble.  So dem seh. Plenty time a no di pikni dem a gi trouble.  A trouble tek dem.  Any way, Alpha school tek een di pikni dem an try wid dem fi keep dem outa trouble.

Inna 1890, govament gi permission fi Alpha turn ‘Industrial School’ an gi four shilling an eight pence fi di week fi di pikni dem, one-one. Dem time deh, a twelve pikni inna di school. Di pikni dem learn from book an dem learn fi use dem hand.  All a di pikni dem ha fi learn a trade.  Di school have a print shop, a woodwork shop, a tailor shop an a music shop.

lAn a music build up Alpha name over di year dem! A nuff-nuff big-time musician come outa Alpha: Dizzy Reece, Cedric ‘Im’ Brooks, Theophilus Beckford, Rico Rodriguez, Winston ‘Yellowman’ Foster, Vin Gordon, Harold McNair, Joe Harriott, ‘Deadly’ Headley Bennett, Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace, Leroy Smart an nuff-nuff more!

SKATALITES

holy-trinity-cathedral-jamaica1Di Alpha band start up inna 1892. Dem deh time, dem dida play drum an fife.  Den inna 1908, di school get some brass instrument from di Roman Catholic bishop. An a deh so dem buss out!  Come on to 1911, di band so good, di boy dem lead di march go a North Street fi bless Holy Trinity Cathedral.

An a so dem a gwaan.  Inna 1953, Alpha put on di first military parade fi honour di Queen coronation.  An dem keep up one big show, “March to Nationhood”, fi celebrate independence inna 1962.  Di Skatalites band form inna1964, an a four a dem come from Alpha: Tommy McCook, Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore, Lester Sterling an Don Drummond.

So hear how Alpha get new logo.  By di way, ‘logo’ a di pet name fi ‘logogram’.  Dat deh word mek up outa two Greek word – ‘logos’ an ‘gram’.  Logos mean word an gram mean enting weh draw or write, all like di letter dem inna di alphabet.  Dat simple mean, logo a di picture fi di word.

Freestylee-500pxMichael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson, one top-a-top Jamaican graphic artist, im draw one beautiful picture fi represent Alpha:  one lickle yute a blow im horn.  An yu can see seh di pikni feel im owna strength an know im power di way im a hold di horn.   Michael did put di picture inna di show weh dem did keep a National Gallery fi di “International Reggae Poster Contest” weh im did organize wid a next graphic artist, Maria Papaefstathiou, weh come from Greece.  When di head a Alpha, Sister Susan Frazer, see Michael poster, she know seh a it dat.  An a so Michael gi Alpha leave an licence fi use fi im ‘gram’ fi dem ‘logo’.  Rispek due!

PRAPA-PRAPA SPELIN

images-3Big pres kanfrens kip op a Alpha yeside fi shuo aaf di nyuu luogo fi di skuul. A lang taim nou Alpha a gwaan.  Ina 1880, Mis Jessie Ripoll bai 43 ieka a lan pan South Camp Ruod.  An shi set op di Alpha Cottage fi luk aafta puor piipl pikni. Fi di fos, shi did ongl tek iin gorl.

Ina 1884, Mis Ripoll disaid fi staat tek iin bwai pikni we a gi chrobl.  So dem se. Plenti taim a no di pikni dem a gi chrobl.  A chrobl tek dem.  Eni wie, Alpha skuul tek iin di pikni dem an chrai wid dem fi kip dem outa chrobl.

Ina 1890, govament gi pormishan fi Alpha ton ‘Industrial School’ an gi fuor shilin an iet pens fi di wiik fi di pikni dem, wan-wan. Dem taim de, a twelv pikni ina di skuul. Di pikni dem lorn fram buk an dem lorn fi yuuz dem an.  Aal a di pikni dem a fi lorn a chried.  Di skuul av a print shap, a udwok shap, a tiela shap an a myuuzik shap.

images-4An a myuuzik bil op Alpha niem uova di ier dem! A nof-nof big-taim myuuzishan kum outa Alpha: Dizzy Reece, Cedric ‘Im’ Brooks, Theophilus Beckford, Rico Rodriguez, Winston ‘Yellowman’ Foster, Vin Gordon, Harold McNair, Joe Harriott, ‘Deadly’ Headley Bennett, Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace, Leroy Smart an nof-nof muor!

Di Alpha ban staat op ina 1892. Dem de taim, dem dida plie jom an faif.  Den ina 1908, di skuul get som braas inschroment fram di Roman Catholic bishop. An a de so dem bos out!  Kom aan tu 1911, di ban so gud, di bwai dem liid di maach go a North Schriit fi bles Holy Trinity Cathedral.

SKATALITES

SkatalitesAn a so dem a gwaan.  Ina 1953, Alpha put aan di fos militeri paried fi ana di Kwiin karanieshan.  An dem kip op wan big shuo, “March to Nationhood”, fi selibriet indipendens ina 1962.  Di Skatalites ban faam ina1964, an a fuor a dem kom fram Alpha: Tommy McCook, Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore, Lester Sterling an Don Drummond.

So ier ou Alpha get nyuu luogo.  Bai di wie, ‘logo’ a di pet niem fi ‘logogram’.  Dat de wod mek op outa tuu Griik wod – ‘logos’ an ‘gram’.  Logos miin wod an gram miin enting we jraa ar rait, aal laik di leta dem ina di alfabet.  Dat simpl miin, logo a di pikcha fi di wod.

Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson, wan tap-a-tap Jamiekan grafik aatis, im jraa wan byuutiful pikcha fi riprizent Alpha:  wan likl yuut a bluo im aan.  An yu kyahn si se di pikni fiil im uona chrent an nuo im powa di wie im a uol di aan. Michael did put di pikcha ina di shuo we dem did kip a National Gallery fi di “International Reggae Poster Contest” we im did aaganaiz wid a neks grafik aatis, Maria Papaefstathiou, we kom fram Griis.  Wen di ed a Alpha, Sista Susan Frazer, si Michael puosta, shi nuo se a it dat.  An a so Michael gi Alpha liiv an laisn fi yuuz fi im ‘gram’ fi dem ‘logo’.  Rispek djuu!

http://www.reggaepostercontest.com/

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

ABS-NEW-LOGO-FINAL-CRVA big press conference was held at Alpha yesterday to unveil the school’s new logo. Alpha has been around for quite some time how.  In 1880, Miss Jessie Ripoll bought 43 acres of land on South Camp Road.  And she set up the Alpha Cottage to care for the children of the poor. At first, she took in only girls.

Then in 1884, Miss Ripoll decided to start taking in boys who were giving trouble.  Well, that’s what was said. Many times it’s not really the children who are giving trouble.  It’s actually a case of trouble finding them.  Anyway, the Alpha school took in the children and worked with them to keep them out of trouble.

In 1890, the government recognised Alpha as an ‘Industrial School’ and gave an allowance of four shillings and eight pence per week for each of the children. In those days, there were twelve pupils in the school. The students got both academic and practical training.  All of them had to learn a trade.  The school had a printery, a joinery workshop, a tailor shop and a music school.

images-6And it’s music which established Alpha’s reputation over the years! A lot of great musicians have come out of Alpha: Dizzy Reece, Cedric ‘Im’ Brooks, Theophilus Beckford, Rico Rodriguez, Winston ‘Yellowman’ Foster, Vin Gordon, Harold McNair, Joe Harriott, ‘Deadly’ Headley Bennett, Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace, Leroy Smart and many, many more!

SKATALITES

The Alpha band started in 1892 as a drum and fife corps.  Then in 1908, the school got some brass instruments from the Roman Catholic bishop. And that’s when the band took off!  By 1911, the band was so good, the boys led the procession to North Street to dedicate the Holy Trinity Cathedral.

skatalites-logo-blk-300x264And they just kept on going from strength to strength.  In 1953, Alpha put on the first military parade to mark the coronation of the Queen.  And they mounted a huge show, “March to Nationhood”, to celebrate independence in 1962.  The Skatalites band was formed in1964, and four of them come out of Alpha: Tommy McCook, Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore, Lester Sterling and Don Drummond.

So this is how Alpha got its new logo.  By the way, ‘logo’ is an abbreviation of ‘logogram’, which is made up of two Greek words – ‘logos’ and ‘gram’.  Logos means word and gram means an image, like a letter of the alphabet.  Simply put, a logo is a picture representing a word.

Michael put his picture in the show that was kept at the National Gallery for the “International Reggae Poster Contest”.  He co-organised the contest with another graphic artist, Maria Papaefstathiou, from Greece. http://www.graphicart-news.com/

When the principal of Alpha, Sister Susan Frazer, saw Michael’s poster, she knew instantly that that was it.  And that’s how Michael came to give Alpha permission to use his ‘gram’ for their ‘logo’.  Rispek due!

Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson to speak at UWI

Freestylee-500pxMichael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson, co-founder of the International Reggae Poster Contest, will speak about his work as a politically engaged graphic artist on Thursday, April 18 at 7:00 p.m. in the Neville Hall lecture theatre (N1) at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  Thompson, a Jamaican who now resides in the U.S., is a distinguished graduate of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

In an interview posted on the Jamaica Primetime website, published June 7, 2010, Thompson highlights the cultural and political messages in his poster art:  “My graphic designs, and in particular my posters like the ones on Flickr draw their influences in terms of style from the retro Cuban Revolutionary Poster of the 1960s. The “golden age” as that period is called. The aesthetics and communication are based on the principle that “simple is best” and the message is king. The designs can be placed in the category of modern iconic art with strong political or social messages.

saudi2.jpg.w300h405“These types of activist or socially conscious art are now becoming main stream; made popular by artists like Bansky and Shepherd Fairey whom I admire greatly. My designs are quite varied, depending on the poster type and whether it is political or cultural, regional or international. I tend to lend a voice to issues which I feel passionate about, such as injustice against indigenous people, environmental exploitation and poverty.

“However, I also touch on Jamaica’s rich historical and cultural past. Jamaica’s musical experience is a treasure I just cannot ignore; Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae. My style is also deeply rooted in Jamaican popular symbols mostly from the iconic years of the 1970s. I take those images from Jamaica’s urban visuals and turn them into cool posters of our time. Images include hand carts, skates, Honda 50s, s-90 (Honda motorcycle), Rastafarian lion of Judah etc; turning them into hip international visual icons, anything that is retro Jamaican was fair game.

“I try to keep the designs crisp with a minimalist feel yet visually powerful. I always retain a fresh and direct approach to my designs. I illustrate all the elements and just roll with it in a freestyle way. The political side of my art plays a big role in my design collection. They speak on the burning international issues and conflicts. The Israeli attack on Gaza and the wider Israeli Palestinian conflict, the US embargo on Cuba, Healthcare, Police brutality, Exploitation in the Amazon, Freedom, Anti War and Peace, Tibet, and Globalization. I guess I am an internationalist at heart and so is my art”.

Alpha-Boys-SchoolThompson recently designed and generously donated a logo for the Alpha Boys’ School which has nurtered several generations of Jamaican musicians. Sister Susan Frazer, RSM, Director of the school, first saw the illustration of the boy playing the trombone that would become Alpha’s logo at the ‘World A Reggae’ exhibition held at the National Gallery of Jamaica in September 2012. “The moment I saw Michael’s work and the image which is now the Alpha logo I instantly knew it would fit perfectly with our history and our vision for the future at Alpha,” remembers Sister Susan. “The logo has really become not just about branding but a catalyst for collective action across the Alpha community”.

An exhibition of Thompson’s reggae posters is on show at the UWI Museum. These posters were used in the design of the Global Reggae book, edited by Carolyn Cooper.  Maria Papaefstathiou, a Greek graphic artist who co-founded the International Reggae Poster Contest, designed the elegant book:

http://www.behance.net/gallery/Global-Reggae-Book/7627493

Dr. Suzanne Francis-Brown, curator of the museum, says Thompson’s exhibition has attracted a lot of positive attention, both for the vibrant graphics and for the reggae music content. Visitors have been intrigued by his visualisation of the music from its early days through to its global incarnations. The exhibition remains up through the month of April, in tandem with an exhibition on the Origins of the University of the West Indies.

michael-thompson-freestylee-i-am-tivoliThe UWI Museum is located on the ground floor of the University’s Regional Headquarters on the Hermitage Road, across from the main entrance to the Mona Campus.  Opening hours are 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  On the 18th of April, the Museum will remain open until 6:30 p.m. to facilitate visitors on their way to Thompson’s talk.  He will speak on the subject, “Freestylee:  Artist Without Borders”.  The public is invited to attend and admission is free.

Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson Exhibits at the University of the West Indies Museum

FreestyleeATUWI-f.eps copyMichael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson’s reggae posters inspired the design of the Global Reggae book which was recently published by the University of the West Indies Press.  As editor of the book, I suggested to the Director of the Press, Mrs. Linda Speth, that we needed a funky image for the cover.  She agreed and I went searching on the Internet.

There I found the work of ‘Freestylee’ who describes himself as an “artist without borders”.  He readily agreed to let the Press use the image of the selector I’d selected for the book cover.  He recommended that we ask Maria Papaefstathiou to design the book.  She’s the co-organiser with Michael of the International Reggae Poster Contest:

http://www.reggaepostercontest.com/

reggae-poster-exhibition-march2013Maria did a brilliant job incorporating other posters by Michael into the design of the book, especially for the chapter headings.  These posters are now on show for the month of March at the University of the West Indies Museum in the Regional Headquarters, Hermitage Road, Mona.  Opening Hours are Monday to Friday, 10:00 to 4:00.  Admission is free.

Israeli Artist Wins First International Reggae Poster Contest

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’.

‘Freestylee’ poster

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.”

Maria’s ironic design

Partisan ‘Politricks’

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.

Biomuseo, Panama City

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.

Happy Birthday All The Same, Buju!

It’s Buju Banton’s 39th birthday today and it ‘hurt mi to mi heart’ that he’s behind bars.  Buju should be walking like a champion down Redemption Street.  Instead, he’s trapped in Uncle Sam’s conspiracy to derail his career.  It’s not an easy road he’s been forced to travel.

The Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison certainly understands the difficult path of the Rastaman as he ‘trods’ through creation.  In her poem, “The Road of the Dread”, she declares:

Lorna Goodison

That dey road no pave

like any other black-face road

it no have no definite color

and it fence two side

with live barbwire

And no look fi no milepost

fi measure you walking

and no tek no stone as

dead or familiar

for sometime you pass a ting

you know as . . . call it stone again

and is a snake ready fi squeeze yu

kill yu

or is a dead man tek him

possessions tease yu.

That poem, published in 1980 in Goodison’s first collection, Tamarind Season, uncannily predicts the way in which a snake-in-the-grass squeezed Mark Myrie, teasing him with the possessions of a dead man.  That trip to the warehouse to inspect a boat turned out to be a one-way street to catastrophe.

Spreading propaganda

Brought down by a paid informer, Mark Myrie seems to have carelessly forgotten what Buju Banton knows about the ways in which the political systems of the West work to spread propaganda against the innocent.  In his prophetic pan-Africanist chant, ‘Til I’m Laid to Rest, on the ‘Til Shiloh album, he details his sense of alienation in the Diaspora and his longing for repatriation.

‘Til I’m laid to rest, yes

Always be depress

There’s no life in di West

I know di East is di best

All di propaganda dem spread

Tongues will ha fi confess

Oh I’m in bondage living is a mess

And I’ve got to rise up alleviate the stress

No longer will I expose my weakness

He who seek knowledge begins with humbleness

Work 7 to 7 yet mi still penniless

Fa di food upon mi table Massa God bless

Holler fi di needy an shelterless

Ethiopia await all prince and princess

A decade ago, when ‘Til Shiloh was released, Buju’s bondage was metaphorical.  Today, it’s all too literal. Having foolishly exposed his weakness – running up his mouth with a stranger – Mark Myrie is paying a terrible penalty.  He’s facing the prospect of incarceration for fifteen years.

Myrie could have been given a mere three-year sentence if he had yielded to the temptation of a plea bargain.  But he has resolutely refused to concede guilt.  Some may say he’s foolish to hold out for justice.  But those of us who believe in his innocence completely understand why Mark wants his name cleared.

Stamina Daddy and Mr. Mention

‘Til Shiloh was a decisive turning point in the artist’s stellar career.  It marked his transition from dancehall DJ to roots reggae Rastafari icon.  Buju’s first two albums, Stamina Dadda and Mr. Mention, both released in 1992, are classic dancehall.  Most of the tracks focus on sexual love.  Buju pays respect to the shape and flexibility of the well-endowed woman in tunes like Mampy Size, Bxtty Rider and Love How the Gal Dem Flex.  But it’s not only the woman’s body that Buju admires.  It’s also her intelligence and her capacity to make her way in the world:  “Unu move up inna life no doubt about that”.

The early albums also include the exceptional ‘bad-man’ tunes Gun Unnu Want and Man Fe Dead.  Assuming the persona of the Hollywood gangster, Buju Banton discharges dangerous lyrics with unbelievable bravado: “Di amount a gun wi have wi can’t run outa stock”; and “Gun shot fi bus up inna informer head”.

But there was also the occasional politically charged song that anticipated Buju’s later preoccupation with social justice.  In How the World A Run from the Mr. Mention album, Buju takes up the mantle of the Warner man:

Where food is concerned there is a problem

Uman can’t find food fi gi di children

While di rich man have di chicken back a feed di dog dem

But woe be unto dem

He who rides against poor people shall perish inna di end

Voice of Jamaica, released in 2002, featured even more tunes focusing on social issues: Deportees (Things Change), Operation Ardent and Wicked Act featuring Busta Rhymes.

On tour in France in the 1990s, Buju had a Damascus Road conversion.  At the launch of his Rasta Got Soul album at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Buju told a compelling story of the impact of Burning Spear’s performance:  “Di man deliver such a set dat if dem never call mi right weh, mi just run come back a Jamaica. So mi inna di dressing room now an mi start tink inna mi self, it start come to me, ‘Mark, you’re not ready for this. No, you’re not. Yu lickle Bxtty Rider an yu lickle Love Mi Browning weak. Dis bigger dan you, man.’”

The very next day, Buju turned to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry for a spliff and advice: “Lee, mi waan music, Iyah! Weh mi see di I dem a do, an mi see dem a play, mi cyaan, mi mi waan music, man.” This is how ‘Scratch’ responded: “Heh heh heh heh heh! Yu have to go out and make the music that the people can feel wid a humanistic approach.” The result was the masterful Til Shiloh.

Marcus Garvey

Til I’m Laid to Rest documents Buju’s trod across Africa and his ‘overstanding’ of Marcus Garvey’s vision of African Redemption:

What coulda bad so bout di East?

Everybody want a piece

Africa fi Africans, Marcus Mosiah speak

Unification outnumber defeat

What a day when we walkin down Redemption Street

Banner pon head, Bible inna hand

One an all mek wi trod di promised land

Buju go down a Congo stop inna Shashamane Land

Di city of Harare is where Selassie come from

In Addis Ababa then Botswana

Left Kenya an end up inna Ghana

Oh, what a beauty my eyesight behold

Only Ethiopia protect me from the cold

Keep the faith, Buju!  You’ll soon be walking down Redemption Street again.