Some Thoughts on the Miss Lou Statue

 

Jamaica has been on a statue frenzy recently and that is, in itself, a good thing. Late last year there was the unveiling of the Usain Bolt statue at National Stadium and this will soon be followed, I gather, by the statue to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (we were initially told this would take place some time this summer but, unless I missed something while traveling, only the maquette has thus far been unveiled.) Statues for Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown are also being planned, all of them as part of the Jamaica 55 legacy projects. Earlier this summer, a group of National Heroes busts was unveiled at Emancipation Park, which was organized and funded by the Rotary Club with the blessings of government, and last year there was also the very contentious unveiling of a Garvey bust, the original of which replaced by another version, at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. (I have written another blog post on Jamaica’s public statue issues recently, and it can be read here.)

Most recently, on Friday, September 9, or the 89th birthday of the subject, a statue to Miss Lou was unveiled on Gordon Town Square.  Let me first say how happy I am that this long-overdue project has finally  come to fruition, and how excited I am that the statue was placed in the community where Miss Lou lived for most of her time in Jamaica, as her rootedness in community needed to be part of the recognition process. The placement of the statue in the middle of the square is fortuitous, although there are a few practical and aesthetic problems arising, and it is quite appropriate that Miss Lou is the one to welcome visitors to her community. So congrats and thanks (or should I say “tenky”?) to all who made it happen, the private and public individuals and the artist, and the many efforts that were made over the years.

As is now customary with any new public statue in Jamaica, the debate about its merits and failings almost immediately started and when we visited the statue to photograph it yesterday, several other persons were also seen taking pictures. So the statue is already making its mark and public opinion appears to be divided between those who absolutely love it, those who have a few reservations, and those who totally hate it. Most of it revolves, as usual, around whether the statue is an appropriate likeness but there are also concerns about the location (some would have preferred Emancipation Park), and about the politics that have surrounded its production and unveiling. It is not a major controversy at this time but there are definitely rumblings. I have a few reservations myself and thought I should share them here.

One of my concerns pertains to the commissioning process. All aforementioned recent and forthcoming public statues, except for the UWI Garvey bust and the Heroes at Emancipation Park, are government commissions. And all are by Basil Watson, except for the Garvey busts, which are by his brother Raymond (they are both sons of the painter Barrington Watson). The four commissioned statues to the track and field Olympians and the Miss Lou statue are furthermore part of the Ministry of Culture, Entertainment, Gender and Sport’s Jamaica 55 legacy project.

Creative products are exempt from government procurement guidelines, because it is understood that works of art are unique and need to be selected based on artistic merit and originality, rather than to be subjected to competitive bidding, as this would involve comparing apples and oranges. Direct commissions are thus permissible but that does not mean that there should be no transparency. I thus have to ask why Basil Watson was selected for all of these government commissions and how much public expenditure is involved for each statue. I ask this question without personal rancour or bias against Mr Watson’s work, which I greatly admire, but it is an important one in an artistic community which is screaming for funding support and development opportunities. I, for one, would certainly have been more comfortable if the recent commission had been made through a public competition in which other artists were also given consideration.

The explanation given will probably be that Basil Watson is presently Jamaica’s most experienced monumental sculptor and that he is, because of his expertise and professional set-up, best placed to produce the sort of statues the Jamaican public seems to want, in a timely and efficient manner. That may be true, but there are others in and from Jamaica who also have such expertise. Channeling so many major commissions to the same artist furthermore goes counter to the need to build technical capacity regarding the design, production (and conservation!) of public art in Jamaica, especially among the younger artists. Mr Watson has a lot to offer with regards to the latter, so why not involve him in a capacity building programme, for the sake of succession planning and leaving a long term legacy? Setting up, and maintaining, a well-equipped commercial bronze foundry with expertly trained staff might, for instance, be economically feasible at this stage, also because of the demand for public statuary elsewhere in the Caribbean. It would be ideal if this could be done collaboration with the Edna Manley College, which already has some facilities.

My second point is an amused reflection rather than a major concern and pertains to the matter of likeness. I am myself not a part of the “likeness police” and prefer to see public statuary that captures the spirit of the person honoured rather than an “exact likeness,” especially since the latter is in any case a highly subjective matter. The brief for this statue was probably to produce a statue that was both a likeness and represented the spirit of Miss Lou. I have seen a myriad of opinions already and my personal view is that it is perhaps not a very realistic likeness, in terms of the details, but that it does capture her spirit and dramatic presence quite effectively.

Producing a realistic statue to a person the artist may never have known or met, or only fleetingly, and based only on photographic evidence is a daunting task for any artist. And let’s face it, most people who are presently commenting (myself included) are in the same position and have only seen the iconic photographs and film footage of Miss Lou that are in regular circulation (and readily accessible on the internet). This crucially includes the portrait of Miss Lou in her bandana costume that appears on the cover of (some editions of?) Jamaica Labrish.

This photograph, and a number of others with Miss Lou in comparable poses, in colour and in black and white, obviously served as the source of inspiration for the statue and most seem to represent Miss Lou in middle age, at the peak of her career as a poet and performer. Producing a sculpture of a living person, who can model for the statue, is already difficult enough, as it involves translating living flesh, fabric, pattern and characteristic movement into a still, hard, alien medium; shifts in scale; and the translation of colour into, usually, monochrome, as well as the simple fact of life that people change over time. This problem is amplified when photographs have to be used, since the artist has to imagine in 3D what he or she only knows in 2D form. And this gets worse when iconic 2D details such as bandana fabric are involved, which are very hard to represent in 3D form. Add to this that most people who are commenting on the statue have, thus far, also only seen it in photographs, and it is very difficult to comment with any credibility on whether or not the Miss Lou statue is in fact an “accurate likeness.”

But, things get a bit easier when the artist has an aesthetic that suits the subject. Basil Watson is best know for his depictions of lithe, athletic figures represented in technically daring acrobatic poses and this may account for the odd tension in Basil Watson’s representation of Miss Lou. Without disrespect, Miss Lou was neither lithe nor acrobatic. She was, at least by the time she reached middle age, a big woman and, from what I can see, she wore her “big-womanness” with total confidence, as a full part of her persona. As a big woman myself, I certainly appreciate that.  She might have been amused, had she still been with us, at the subtle “sculptural make-over” she received, which gives her decidedly more of an hourglass figure than I imaged her to have in middle age. Or to put it differently, it appears that Basil Watson tried to make Miss Lou’s statue conform a bit more to his preferred body aesthetic, perhaps also in an effort to make her look younger.

I am much more concerned, thirdly, about the plaque that currently accompanies the sculpture, although I do understand that the base and, hopefully also, the plaque are temporary and to be replaced with permanent structures. A plaque like this should never compete for attention with the monument it accompanies but this one sticks out like a sore thumb. It is not unusual for plaques of this nature to make note of when it was unveiled and by whom, or who commissioned or funded it and why, but the emphasis, in terms of wording and design, is always on the person honoured and the artist who produced it. In this case, as much as half of the layout of the plaque is dedicated to crediting the political figures who unveiled and commissioned the statue, and the high contrast, white-on-black design of the plaque gives further emphasis to this. I have to wonder why it was deemed necessary to claim the political “ownership” of this project in this emphatic manner (and trust me, this is a rhetorical question of which I do know the answer).

The sad result is that the reception of the statue is now heavily politicized, as can already be observed on social media. Miss Lou deserved better than that and I can only hope that the present plaque will soon be replaced by one which is more appropriate in wording and design. At the very least, there should be something about who Miss Lou was and why she is relevant to Gordon Town, and I would also have liked to see at least a verse from her poetry somewhere in the vicinity.

Finally, residents and others have expressed high hopes that the statue will serve as an attraction that will bring benefits to Gordon Town, for instance by attracting tourists. For that to happen in any sustained manner, however, the statue needs to be framed appropriately with other initiatives and events that reflect and build on Miss Lou’s work and significance to the community. Remodeling the square to become a more attractive town centre is one of them. An annual poetry and Jamaican language festival, would be another, as would a small museum to Miss Lou’s work and memory. I can only hope that this statue will be the first of several such initiatives and that the Gordon Town community will indeed benefit as it should.

 

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