Jamaica has a very contentious history with public art and, particularly, with some of the official monuments to key historical moments and public figures that have been erected since Independence. As I write this post, there are rumblings about the recently unveiled maquette for a statue to the popular Olympian track athlete Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and, as seems to be the norm with such statues in Jamaica, the issue at hand is whether the maquette represents an adequate likeness. The completed statue, which was commissioned by government from the Jamaican artist Basil Watson, is slated for unveiling later this year, at a date to be announced.
The Fraser-Pryce statue will be located at what has, quite unimaginatively, been christened Statue Park, in front of the National Stadium at Independence Park. There it will join Alvin Marriott’s imposing Athlete (1962), which was unveiled by Princess Margaret as a part of Jamaica’s Independence ceremonies, and various later statues dedicated to specific Jamaican track and field Olympians, such as Merlene Ottey, the first female athlete to be so honoured. Most later additions are by Basil Watson, who was also the artist of the statue to Usain Bolt that was successfully unveiled at the same location last year, after similar public anxieties about the maquette and the question of likeness. Additional statues, of Veronica Campbell-Brown and Asafa Powell and presumably also by Basil Watson, are being planned.
Controversies about public monuments, and public art generally, are fairly common in the modern and contemporary world, since public art is, by its very nature, more exposed to public opinion than what is exhibited in museums and galleries and, in the case of monuments, often represents matters of significant and contested collective interest. Controversies about new monument commissions tend to revolve around the manner of representation, especially when more experimental or provocative interpretations are involved. Who should, and who should not be so honoured is, of course, also often a source of contention. Also crucially important are the decision-making processes, the “who decides for whom” questions involved in collective symbolic representation–public monuments are, after all, associated with political and social power and often have a propagandist function. This association with power that is perceived to be unilaterally imposed, and often is, is therefore a key issue in such controversies.
Public monument controversies are not necessarily a bad thing, as they encourage public debate about, and engagement with, the historical, political and artistic issues at hand. The American art historian and cultural theorist W.J.T. Mitchell has argued, in an essay about contemporary memorials to violent histories, that this could be a very productive function for public art: “What seems called for now, and what many of our contemporary artists wish to provide, is a critical public art that is frank about the contradictions and violence encoded in its own situation, one that dares to awaken a public sphere of resistance, struggle, and dialogue” (47). The question is, of course, whether those who commission and maintain public art are prepared to engage with these critical possibilities, or are even aware of them.
In many parts of the world, such controversies have not only involved new commissions but there has also been agitation against older monuments that are associated with problematic histories. Several Confederate monuments have been removed in the USA in recent years, for instance, at the University of Texas in Austin. Contemporary artists have also made critical interventions into historical monuments: Yinka Shonibare’s 2010 Fourth Plinth Commission project on London’s Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, for instance, questioned and made visible the imperial and colonial histories that are commemorated by that monument and square. And there have also been calls for Nelson’s column to be toppled, for instance in a pointed opinion piece by broadcaster and activist Afua Hirsh for the Guardian last year. Sometimes interventions into historical public monuments are humorous and irreverent, as in the now-traditional “coning” of the statue of the Duke of Wellington in Glasgow, which has become an informal symbol of the spirit of that city.
In the Caribbean, statues of the likes of Columbus, Lord Nelson, and Queen Victoria have been similarly targeted, and in a less lighthearted manner than in Glasgow. In Guyana, the statue of Queen Victoria in Georgetown was dynamited in 1954, as a protest against the colonial repression of the leftist agitation in that country, but it was restored and, controversially, put back in place in 1990–an implied signal to the world, perhaps, that Guyana had moved past its history of political radicalism? In Barbados, there has been a sustained campaign for the removal of the statue to Lord Nelson that stands in front of that country’s Parliament building, because of its associations with colonialism and imperial rule, and this campaign has in recent years been spearheaded by none less than Sir Hilary Beckles, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies and chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Committee. Last year, Barbados woke up on November 29, the day before the annual Independence holiday, to find the Lord Nelson statue defaced with yellow and blue paint (the Bajan flag colours) and a hand-written statement demanding its removal. So clearly the campaign has been gaining broader traction, although there was also widespread condemnation of the vandalism.
Jamaica, in contrast, appears to be rather indifferent to its colonial monuments, which merely suffer from benign neglect, although that could be regarded as another, passive-aggressive form of refusal. Trees were sprouting from the base of the Columbus statue in St Ann’s Bay when I last saw it, some years ago, and the Queen Victoria statue in Kingston was quietly moved to a less prominent position in what is now St William Grant Park to make way for the Alvin Marriott statues of Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante that were erected in prominent positions in 1970 and 1971, respectively, but has thus far been generally uncontested.
Jamaica’s response to its post-Independence public monuments, in contrast, has been far from indifferent, with several major controversies. The first of these involved the National Monument, also known as the Independence Monument, which was a private initiative that was spearheaded by art patron A.D. Scott and to be executed by Alvin Marriott. The monument was to be erected at the Harbour View roundabout, one of the main access points to the capital city of Kingston, and would take the form of a large conical pyramid, cast in aluminium, and sculpted with nudes that moved from passive to active, and crowned with a nude male and female figure–the symbolic “Adam and Eve” of newly independent Jamaica.
When the project proposal was first publicized in the Gleaner on April 28, 1963, it almost immediately became controversial and most of the newspaper columns and letters to the editor that were produced in response cited one or more of the following reasons: the use of nudity, the opaque symbolism and lack of historical specificity, and concerns that decisions of public import had been made by a select few and behind closed doors–such concerns have also been at issue in subsequent monument controversies in Jamaica. The monument was also criticized for being derivative of the work of the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, particularly the Monolith (1924-25) in the Vigeland Park in Oslo, a totemic form which represents the development of humankind as an ascending mass of nudes that also progresses from passive to active and indeed resembles Marriott’s design. The Gleaner reproduced Monolith on the front page of its Sunday edition of May 12, 1963, which further stoked the debate.
The government of the day withdrew its support of the project in response to the controversy. There was a later re-design by Marriott to include busts of the National Heroes, thus adding more historical specificity, and there have been several attempts to revive the project, but the National Monument remains incomplete. The nude “Adam and Eve” statues that were supposed to top the conical structure were in 2003 placed on what would have been the base for the completed statue–a rather sad outcome for what was meant to be a symbol of the achievements and aspirations of Independence, as well as Jamaica’s most ambitious public monument to date.
The second and most protracted controversy to date involved Edna Manley’s Bogle, which was unveiled in 1965 as part of the 100th anniversary of the 1865 Morant Bay Uprising. The full-length, ciment fondu statue was designed for and erected in front of the Morant Bay Courthouse, a site of major significance in the uprising and its aftermath (a half-length, bronze version is part of the 1865 Shrine at National Heroes Park in Kingston and was also unveiled in 1965). This controversy pertained to notions of likeness, a common expectation with regards to the representation of public figures, as well as the identity of the artist and the decision-making processes involved.
Public perceptions about Bogle’s likeness have been shaped by a photograph, purported to be of Bogle but of uncertain attribution, which was brought to public attention by the Jamaica Historical Society, in an April 19, 1959 front page Gleaner article. The image has also circulated very widely, among others on a two dollar banknote, and is used as the official representation of Bogle as a National Hero, so there is significant public awareness of it. This photograph, of a handsome, youthful, confident looking black man in a three-piece suit, is an image that deeply resonates with the Jamaican public as an icon of middle class respectability and the emerging black (male) citizenry in the post-Emancipation period.
Edna Manley, in contrast, opted to represent Bogle symbolically, as a rebel warrior, bare-chested and barefooted and carrying a machete, in a cruciform pose that derives from Medieval “Christian Warrior” iconographies and alludes to Bogle’s role as a religious leader (he was a Native Baptist deacon). In doing so, however, Edna Manley underestimated the powerful hold of the presumed photograph of Bogle on the public imagination and also how her iconographic choices could be interpreted by the Jamaican public, in a country where mode of dress and body posture are powerfully coded with regards to socio-economic status. The Rastafarian artist and politician Sam Brown, for instance, argued in a November 2, 1965 letter to the Gleaner that “Paul Bogle’s statue depicts a fear ridden, harried and hunted undersized field slave, about to invoke his master’s pardon for being a truant.” Manley’s identity as a light-skinned, English-born woman was also an issue in this controversy, as was the lack of consultation with the community in St Thomas, with all key decisions having been made by the “powers that be” in Kingston.
The Bogle monument controversy went through several episodes, starting with the unveiling in 1965 and with a flare-up in the early 1970s. The monument was damaged in what appears to have been an act of protest vandalism in the mid 1990s and was finally removed for restoration some time in 2009, after the Morant Bay Courthouse was destroyed by fire in 2007, as this had caused further damage to the structure. After restoration, the return of the statue was however opposed to by community groups in Morant Bay and the matter remains unresolved to the present day, with the statue being kept at the Jamaica National Heritage Trust in Kingston.
The third, and perhaps saddest controversy, involved the Christopher Gonzalez’s Bob Marley monument, which was removed hours before its official unveiling in 1983, in response to increasingly hostile responses from the crowds that witnessed the mounting of the statue at its designated location near the National Stadium. The Marley family also expressed concerns about the appearance of the statue, and specifically its physical resemblance to Marley, and then Prime Minister Edward Seaga ordered it removed. The statue was sent to the National Gallery of Jamaica, where it was on view for many years and over time became quite popular, and it is presently on loan to the Island Village shopping and entertainment centre in Ocho Rios. A new statue was commissioned for the Kingston site from the elderly and ailing Alvin Marriott and unveiled in 1985, without noteworthy difficulty. It was Marriott’s last public monument.
The main issue with the Gonzalez statue of Marley was, once again, the matter of likeness. Marley was then the most photographed Jamaican, known for his iconic “reggae rock star” poses, not unlike Usain Bolt in more recent times, and he had only recently and tragically passed away, so the representational expectations were very powerful and acute. These expectations were met, and excruciatingly so, in the 1985 Alvin Marriott version of the statue, although that very predictable and rather boring version now seems to be met with indifference from the local public.
While the National Monument and Bogle statue controversies could also be explained as a clash between the iconographic and stylistic conventions of the Jamaican artistic community and the expectations of the broader public, it has always fascinated me that Gonzalez used a visual vocabulary, literally representing Marley as a roots man, that was quite common and widely accepted in Jamaica’s popular culture. Since the Gonzalez version has become more popular over the years, I have always suspected that it might have been accepted if it had been more vigorously supported by the “powers that be,” who had after all approved the commission, and, perhaps, if more time had elapsed between Marley’s death and the unveiling of the statue, as this might have lessened the pressures to produce an exact likeness. For Gonzalez, the Marley statue fiasco was a major professional disappointment which left him very bitter about the artistic establishment.
Arguably the most significant monument controversy in Jamaica to date pertained to Laura Facey’s Redemption Song, which was unveiled in 2003 at Emancipation Park in New Kingston and serves as Jamaica’s de facto monument to Emancipation. The debate about Redemption Song revolved mainly around the nudity, passivity and lack of historical specificity of the statues, as well as around the identity of the artist as a light-skinned Jamaican. While this commission was based on a blind competition, the selection and public consultation processes were also questioned, and the judges were accused of being out of touch with the visual vocabularies that speak to, and for contemporary Jamaicans.
Those are concerns that also appeared in the previously discussed controversies but were amplified by the difficult and inherently contested nature of the monument’s subject–the history and legacy of Slavery and Emancipation–and the politics of representation that surround these subjects. Laura Facey opted to present a hopeful image of unity and healing, but most of her critics wanted to see a more historically specific representation that focused on the heroic struggles for self-liberation that contributed to the end of slavery, and acknowledged the socio-economic and racial divisions that still exist in Jamaica as a result.
The controversy was active for several months, with significant involvement of the local and international media and a major new factor, the turbulent and unpredictable transnational public sphere created by the internet, although this time around the government and the commissioning agency (which was for this monument the National Housing Trust) did not flinch in their support of the monument and the artist. While elements of the controversy still linger today, Redemption Song has become an established Kingston landmark.
Last year, finally, another controversy erupted: about a bust of Marcus Garvey which had been commissioned by the University of the West Indies-Mona administration for its campus. This time, the artist was Raymond Watson, Basil Watson’s brother. The controversy, once again, revolved around the question of likeness– and, also once again, it had nothing to do with the choice of subject, since Garvey is arguably Jamaica’s most popular National Hero. The artist had sought to represent Garvey as a young scholar but, while competently executed, the bust admittedly did not look one bit like Garvey. A second bust was subsequently commissioned which turned out to equally controversial, although it bore more obvious resemblance to Garvey, and which was defaced in a subsequent protest action. The UWI administration held its ground this time around and the second bust remains in place.
So where does all of this leave us with regards to public art and, particularly, public monuments here in Jamaica? One thing is sure, namely that the Jamaican public is very demanding and opinionated when it comes to matters of collective symbolic representation. That is, as such, a good thing that reflects the existence of a robust and democratic public sphere. And surely, there are a lot of valuable lessons to be learned for those who handle public art commissions, in terms of how to reconcile cultural conventions and the need for public consultation with the obligation to support the artist and the art work, especially once it is commissioned. But, I am also concerned that producing public art has become a no-win situation, in which many artists shy away from producing public commissions, for fear of being embarrassed, and decision-makers have become so risk-averse that they opt for the safest, most predictable and pandering approaches. This can ultimately only have a limiting, negative effect on the quality and diversity of Jamaica’s public art and it certainly does not result in the sort of critical public art W.J.T. Mitchell called for.
And this takes me back to the monuments to Jamaica’s star athletes that are currently being commissioned. It is one of the conventions of representational statues to public figures that the subject is represented in an iconic pose, doing what they are best known for, and for track and field athletes, this inevitably involves running, jumping, or celebrating victory. Let’s face it, there are not a lot of choices in terms of the pose for any statue of Usain Bolt, the track and field athlete who has arguably been most successful in history in forging his personal brand through his victory pose. Any artist who wants to represent Bolt has to contend with this and we certainly would not expect to see a public statue of him lounging on his couch or sitting at a desk. So celebrating athletes with public monuments is a subject area that does not allow for significant freedom or creativity in terms of how the athlete is represented, although it does call for technical prowess, as Marriott and Basil Watson’s precariously balanced athlete statues illustrate.
But does all of that necessarily mean that Sculpture Park at National Stadium has to become a forest of running, leaping and pointing renderings, with the debate focused only on who should or should not be included and whether the likeness is close enough? It is certainly not what was originally intended. Alvin Marriott’s iconic athlete was about more than celebrating the achievements of any particular athlete: it was about Jamaican moving into Independence, with hope and forward-moving energy. And this idea was echoed in the dynamic shape of the sculpture’s base and the dynamic architectural design, by Wilson Chong, of the National Stadium itself. I am not questioning whether Jamaica’s star athletes should be honoured with public statues but this level of artistic thoughtfulness and sophistication seems to be absent from the recent commissions, which are far more pedestrian in approach.
And there is another concern: Alvin Marriott used to be the most prolific monument artist in Jamaica in the 1960s and 70s and, while he had his bout of controversy with the National Monument, he was the “safe choice” of his day, as his Bob Marley monument illustrates. Today, this position is held by Basil Watson who has surely broken all records when it comes to public art commissions in Jamaica, from government and from private organizations such as the Rotary Club and Doctor’s Cave Beach. Somehow, despite the minor anxieties that have surrounded the Bolt and Fraser-Pryce statues, he appears to have found the “golden formula” when it comes to producing the sort of public sculptures the Jamaican public appears to expect. I have nothing but the greatest respect for Basil Watson as an artist, and particularly like his more intimate drawings and sculptures, but there is a mannerism and routine sameness to his public commissions in Jamaica that I find increasingly troubling, especially since there are now so many of them. I am also not convinced that it is advisable, in this day and age and in the Jamaican context, for a government to cultivate an “official artist” to produce public statuary. It seems more appropriate to spread the joy to other artists and, especially, to provide public art opportunities to younger artists, so that such commissions also serve to support local artistic development.
All things considered, I would like to see more diversity in Jamaica’s public art, in terms of the technical, aesthetic and iconographic choices and the artists selected, and to have those decisions based on open-call competitions, instead of direct commissions, so that there is more transparency in the process. And I would also, quite frankly, like to see more courage in the face of actual and potential adverse public reactions and public art that is just a bit more innovative and challenging, lest we end up with dozens of boring academic statues that attract only limited public engagement past the pomp and circumstance of the unveiling. And finally, I would also like for contemporary artists to engage more actively with the issues and debates that surround public art in Jamaica, as these are of significant cultural importance, keeping in mind examples such Yinka Shonibare’s brilliant intervention on Trafalgar Square in London. Other than a series of works by Camille Chedda that engaged critically with the sexual politics of Redemption Song, nothing immediately comes to mind in terms of any such spirited critical responses and interventions.
[Minor edits were done on July 24, 2018]
Sources and Further Reading
Dacres, Petrina. “Monument and Meaning.” Small Axe 16 (2004): 137-154.
—————. “An Interview with Laura Facey Cooper.” Small Axe 16 (2004): 125-136.
—————. “Constructing and Contesting the National Past: Jamaica’s Public Monument Controversies” (2016). Caribbean Intransit 5 (e-publication: caribbeanintransit.com)
Mitchell, W.J.T. . “The Violence of Public Art: Do the Right Thing.” In Art and the Public Sphere, edited by W. J. T. Mitchell, 29-48. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.