“Big Bamboo” and the Politics of Space in Fern Gully

Here is a second excerpt, on a more controversial subject and with some minor edits, from my chapter on art and tourism in my doctoral dissertation “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (2011, Emory University). The first post can be found here. I have not been back to Fern Gully since the opening of the North-South Highway, which bypasses the area, but an update is long overdue since the site now probably attracts less traffic, as this must have affected the dynamics with the vendors, but I thought it was nonetheless still worthwhile to publish these observations from the 2000s. All rights reserved by the author (C).

One major illegal vending area is Fern Gully, a rare and delicate rainforest ecosystem that has served as a tourist attraction since the late 19th century and that is, controversially, also a busy traffic thoroughfare and part of the main road between Kingston and Ocho Rios. An attempt in 1997 to relocate the vendors, some of whom had occupied their spot for more than 20 years, to a nearby but less visible authorized vending site led to violent riots in which the road was blocked for an entire day and the vegetation and fixtures allegedly vandalized by protesters (Gleaner March 12, 1997, A3 & March 14, 1997, A2). While environmentally regrettable, this incident made a strong statement about the vendors’ sense of ownership of the site (Walsh 1997). Thus far, the various attempts to remove the vendors have not been successful: some were temporarily relocated but have since returned and several others have joined them. Fern Gully thus remains as a prime illegal craft vending site.

Among the most remarkable items seen in the Fern Gully stalls are life-size carvings of dreadlocksed, ganja-pipe smoking males with giant erect penis, which is often detachable, lest there be any doubt about the reference to the commodification of black male sexuality in tourism. Phallic carvings are fairly common among the exotic tourist arts but in Jamaica their life-size, publicly displayed and specifically Rastafarian incarnation seems to date from the late 1990s. While they have also appeared in other formal and informal craft markets, they seem to have occurred first and foremost in Fern Gully.[1] The carvings have been controversial in the local public sphere, much more so than the (admittedly more modest) sexy tourism posters from the early 1970s and 1980s. In 2002, the then Minister of Tourism Portia Simpson-Miller, expressed her outrage at the lewd statues when she visited various tourist sites and the journalist Barbara Gloudon waged a campaign against them on her radio call-in programme during 2003. The Fern Gully vendors have countered that tourists like the carvings and stop to have their photographs taken with the larger, less saleable examples – they can do so for a small fee – turning them into scandalous attractions that bring much-needed attention to the stalls.[2]

The carvings are in potential breach of Jamaica’s Obscene Publication (Suppression of) Act (1927) which prohibits the making, trading or public exhibition of “any obscene writings, drawings, prints, paintings, printed matter, pictures, posters, emblems, photographs, cinematograph films or any other obscene objects.” This law may seem stringent but does not define what constitutes obscenity and the punishment is a maximum of 40 Jamaican dollars fine, less than 50 US cents, or imprisonment for up to three months. Not surprisingly, the attempts at censoring the carvings have thus far been ineffective and, to my knowledge, nobody has been taken to court over them. Explicitly erotic art is regularly shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica, where it is sheltered from accusations of obscenity by its “high art” status. This does not mean that such work can readily be taken into the public domain, as was illustrated by the furore about the Emancipation monument in 2003. Several critics then made comparisons to the “Big Bamboo” or “Ready Freddy” carvings, as they are popularly known, and expressed concern that the monument would reinforce tourists’ already problematic perceptions about black and, specifically, black male sexuality. Interestingly, Gloudon was one of the defenders of the monument, which reflects the double standards that are typically applied to high and low culture, although the fact that Facey’s nudes were not actively sexual of course also played a role.

Obviously, the public and comical representation of black male sexuality for tourist consumption strikes a raw nerve with many Jamaicans but the controversy reveals several other interesting issues. It is noteworthy, for instance, that criticisms have mainly come from middle class commentators, which supports Peter Wilson’s (1969 & 1973) argument that the conflict in Jamaican popular culture between “respectability” and “reputation” is class- and gender-driven. To their critics, the “Big Bamboo” carvings also represent an affront to Rastafarian dignity – an example of the high moral burden imposed on the figure of the male Rastafarian in Jamaican society.

The least recognized aspect of the controversy is, however, that the objections are not so much about the production and sale of the carvings per se but about their public display, in a place where Jamaican audiences are confronted with them. Portia Simpson-Miller, for instance, plainly stated: “But I am saying that if, as they claim, they have a good market for it and people are buying (they can be allowed to sell in selected areas) but we are not supporting the public display” (Clarke C. 2002). A similar position was implied in a 2007 editorial in the industry weekly Hospitality Jamaica, a supplement of the Gleaner. It stated:

Whatever is in the minds of the merchants who peddle this type of ware, in my mind it is pornography being forced on the public, our innocent children and the people who take the route through this beautiful gully. It is sad that some of our so-called artisans cannot find more innovative ways to attract the lucrative tourist trade. Our Jamaican men and their supposed ‘big bamboos’ are already an attraction; we don’t need wood carvings on the streets. (Silvera 2007)

The carvings thus also represent a rare and, to many in Jamaica, unwelcome public admission that sex is an integral part of what is transacted in contemporary tourism.

The moralistic condemnation of these carvings, however, obscures other aspects of their significance as culturally expressive objects. The public, road-side display of the carvings can also be read as a carnivalesque gesture in service of the politics of informal vending: the “Big Bamboo” man, for all his obvious problems, forcefully claims space and visibility in a tourism industry that has marginalized his producers and vendors, and it is probably no coincidence that he has appeared primarily in the contested space of Fern Gully.

Endnotes

[1] In September 2008, I observed yet another variation on this theme: mass produced Rasta figurines with a giant, yellow banana-shaped phallus, in the gift shop of the Sunset Beach Resort, a family-oriented Montego Bay All-Inclusive.

[2] The large carvings were for sale and cost about 60,000 Jamaican dollars or about 700 US dollars (Observer, November 30, 2006). The same carvings have been seen in the stalls for several years, however, so they obviously do not sell very well, which is not surprising, given their size. Smaller versions are however also available, along with less provocative female nudes.

Sources

“Public Opinions: What Do You Think of the Tourist Trade in Connection with Jamaica.” Public Opinion, January 29, 1938, 3.

“The Caribbean: Tourism is Whorism.” Time, August 3, 1970.

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1996.

Appadurai, Arjun, ed. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Bender, Wolfgang, ed. Rastafarian Art. Kingston: Ian Randle, 2005.

Blake, Sir Henry. “The Jamaica Exhibition.” The North American Review 152, no. 411 (1891): 182-193.

Boxer, David, and Rex Nettleford. The Intuitive Eye. Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 1979.

Chapman, Esther. Pleasure Island: The Book of Jamaica. Kingston: Arawak, 1955.

Clarke, Charmaine. “Portia Offended by Lewd Woodcarvings.” Observer, January 25, 2002.

Cundall, Frank. Jamaica in 1928: A Handbook for Settlers and Others. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1928.

Errington, Shelly. The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Ettawageshik, Frank. “My Father’s Business.” In Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Post-Colonial Worlds, edited by Ruth Phillips and Christopher Steiner, 20-29. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Evans, Devon. “Tourism Threat: Minister Calls Urgent Meeting on Harassment.” Gleaner, June 20, 2005.

Dunn, Hopeton, and Leith Dunn. People and Tourism: Issues and Attitudes in the Jamaican Hospitality Industry. Kingston: Arawak, 2002.

Franck, Harry. Roaming through the West Indies. New York: The Century, 1921.

García Canclini, Néstor. Hybrid Cultures: Strategies of Entering and Leaving Modernity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986.

Graburn, Nelson. Ethnic and Tourist Arts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Gray, Obika. Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2004.

Kasfir, Sidney Littlefield. Contemporary African Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Kempadoo, Kamala, ed. Sun, Sex and Gold. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums and Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

La Gorce, John Oliver. “Jamaica, the Isle of Many Rivers.” National Geographic Magazine LI, no. 1 (1927): 1-44.

MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Schocken, 1976.

Manley, Norman. “National Culture and the Artist, 1939” In Manley and the New Jamaica, ed. Rex Nettleford, 108-09. London: Longman Caribbean, 1971.

Marcus, George and Fred Myers, eds. The Traffic in Art and Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Maxwell, John. “Vandalizing the Future.” Observer, June 11, 2006.

McGibbon, Anthea. “Tower Isle Murals Regain Beauty, Share History Again.” Gleaner, May 31, 2009.

Miranda, Joan. “Abe Issa: Father of Jamaican Tourism.” In A Tapestry of Jamaica: The Best of Skywritings, Air Jamaica’s Inflight Magazine, edited by Linda Gambrill, 221-222. Oxford: MacMillan, 2002.

Morrison, Dennis. “JTB Marks 50th Birthday.” Observer, April 6, 2005.

Naipaul, V.S. The Middle Passage. London: Picador, 2001.

Nelson, Barbara. “Aviation in Jamaica.” In A Tapestry of Jamaica: The Best of Skywritings, Air Jamaica’s Inflight Magazine, edited by Linda Gambrill. Oxford: MacMillan, 2002, 359-361.

Pattullo, Polly. Last Resorts: The Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean. Kingston: Ian Randle, 1996.

Phillips, Ruth, and Christopher Steiner, eds. Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Post-colonial Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Poupeye, Veerle. “Intuitive Art as a Canon.” Small Axe 24 (2007): 73-82.

Price, Sally. Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Pyle, Howard. “Jamaica, New and Old.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine LXXX: December 1889 to May 1890 (1890): 169-86, 378-96.

Rae, Norman. “Contemporary Jamaican Art.” In Ian Fleming Introduces Jamaica. London: Andre Deutsch, 1965.

Rodman, Selden. The Caribbean. New York: Hawthorn, 1968.

Samuels, James. “Integrating People and Tourism: The Prospects and Challenges.” In People and Tourism: Issues and Attitudes in the Jamaican Hospitality Industry, xv-xxiii. Kingston: Arawak, 2002.

Silvera, Janet. “JTB’s Poster Girl Still Turning Heads.” Gleaner, February 2, 2001.

———. “Posing Porn as Art.” Hospitality Jamaica, January 24, 2007.

Steiner, Christopher. “Authenticity, Repetition, and the Aesthetics of Seriality: The Work of Tourist Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Post-Colonial Worlds, edited by Ruth Phillips and Christopher Steiner, 87-103. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Taylor, Frank. To Hell with Paradise: A History of the Jamaican Tourist Industry. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993.

———.”To Hell with Paradise: A History of the Jamaican Tourist Industry.” In Caribbean Sociology: Introductory Readings, edited by Christine Barrow and Rhoda Rheddock, 909-28. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2001 (1993).

Thompson, Krista. An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Tortello, Rebecca. The Great Exhibition of 1891: Jamaica on Show. Gleaner On-Line, c. 2002. Accessed January 29 2002. Available from http://www.jamaicagleaner.com/The_Great_Exhibition_of_1891.htm.

Wingfield Digby, George. “Introduction.” In Exhibition of West Indian Painting. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1945.

Waugh, Elizabeth. “Emergent Art and National Identity in Jamaica, 1920s to the Present.” Ph D. Dissertation, The Queen’s University of Belfast, 1987.

Advertisements

One thought on ““Big Bamboo” and the Politics of Space in Fern Gully

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s