Michael ‘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.
“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”.
Thompson 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:
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.
The 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.