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.

Persistent Perversity On Jews and Slavery

Ainsley Henriques

Ainsley Henriques, honorary secretary of the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica, ought to know the African-Jamaican proverb, ‘Cock mouth kill cock’. If he doesn’t, I’d be very surprised.  After all, we’re one people.  We all know each other’s cultures intimately.  In any case, there must be a Jewish equivalent of this proverbial warning.  It’s not only black people in Jamaica who know that sometimes words have to be eaten. And they can be very, very bitter, even toxic.

 In a Gleaner article headlined, “Jews The Victims of Slavery, Too”, published on Friday, August 3, Ainsley gives a most peculiar response to my column, “Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean”, published on July 8. In his opening sentences, Ainsley launches a childish attack on the messenger, not the message:

 “Your columnist Professor Carolyn Cooper reminds me of the lines often given to recalcitrant school boys. I quote, ‘Persistent perversity provokes patient pedagogue producing particularly painful punishment’”.  Once you get past the tongue-twisting alliteration, what Ainsley seems to be saying is this:  my insistence that Jews played a major role in plantation slavery in Jamaica is ‘persistent perversity’.  Apparently, I’m a recalcitrant schoolgirl who doesn’t know how to behave.

       Having been provoked, Ainsley, the ‘patient pedagogue’, threatens to produce ‘particularly painful punishment’. It all sounds rather sadomasochistic.  Telling the whole story of Jewish history in Jamaica is a dangerous business. Truth doesn’t always set you free.  It sometimes imprisons you in other people’s fictions. Next thing you know, I’m going to be labelled as ‘anti-Semitic’.

It’s not kosher

Oddly enough, having tried to use schoolboy tactics to discredit the messenger, Ainsley does concede the truth of the message. He admits that I’m “correct” in asserting that the Museum of Jewish Jamaican History gives “an incomplete history of the Jews of Jamaica”.  Surprisingly, Ainsley justifies the gaps in the story with the bogus argument that “no history is ever complete”.

It is true that many histories are partial – in both senses of the word:  incomplete and one-sided. But some histories are more complete than others.  There is a lot of historical evidence to support the claim that Jews played a major role in plantation slavery in the Caribbean.  In the case of the incomplete history in the Museum of Jamaican Jewish History, it seems as if the truth has been deliberately concealed.  To what end?

      Ainsley serves up a big red herring in an attempt to explain why “no mention is made of the role of the Jews in Jamaica in the horror of enslavement”.  And it’s not kosher:  “this is because their history with enslavement is much more than just that – too much for a poster board”.  But how is this history different from the other long stories that are compressed and told on those same poster boards?

Furthermore, Ainsley shamelessly switches the topic from the role of Jews as agents in the enslavement of African people.  Instead, he rehearses the story of Jews as victims of slavery, as if that was ever in question.   And, again, Ainsley resorts to attacking the messenger.  He dismisses my call for the whole story to be told on the specious basis that I am ignorant of the history of Jews in Jamaica and I need to read the “eminent historians at places like the University of the West Indians”.  The same scholars, I suppose, who all fail to write ‘complete’ histories.

Setting the Record Straight?

I’m quite sure there are Jamaican Jews who are prepared to admit the truth about their history of participation in the slave trade.  I got an email from one of them.  He sent me looking for Eli Faber’s book Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade:  Setting the Record Straight which was published in 2000 by the New York University Press.  I haven’t read the book as yet.  But I’ve seen a most intriguing summary of its thesis posted on Amazon:

“Focusing on the British empire, Faber assesses the extent to which Jews participated in the institution of slavery through investment in slave trading companies, ownership of slave ships, commercial activity as merchants who sold slaves upon their arrival from Africa, and direct ownership of slaves. His unprecedented original research utilizing shipping and tax records, stock-transfer ledgers, censuses, slave registers, and synagogue records reveals, once and for all, the minimal nature of Jews’ involvement in the subjugation of Africans in the Americas”.

How, in Jehovah’s name, could the word ‘minimal’ be appropriate in this context? Having sold their human ‘cargo’ and counted the profit, Jewish traders simply washed their hands of the whole sordid affair, just like Pontius Pilate.  And then there were those Jews who did own slave plantations.

‘Playing Fool Fi Ketch Wise’

The final paragraph of Ainsley Henriques’ response to my column is rather disturbing.  Its smugness suggests a complete failure to acknowledge the complexity of our history on this rock: “We must not wring our hands in despair nor hang our heads in shame, but hold them high and rejoice in the chance that we have been given in this life to redeem ourselves in the present and create a future for the generations to come”.

Who is the “we” for whom Ainsley speaks with such rhetorical flourish?  The enslaved or the enslavers?  The naked mad people in Emancipation Park?  Or the distinguished panel of judges, clothed in their right mind, who selected that bestial image to brand black people? And how can we really ‘redeem ourselves in the present and create a future for the generations to come’ if we can’t manage to speak the truth about our past?

‘Cock mouth kill cock’.   Ainsley’s own words produce ‘persistent perversity’.  Like the Jewish trickster Joha, a distant relative of Anansi, Ainsley is desperately ‘playing fool fi ketch wise’.  It would be so much easier for him to just speak the plain truth about Jews and plantation slavery in the Caribbean.

Pontius Pilate