Taming the Lion? A Few Thoughts on the International Reggae Poster Contest

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At the 2018 Reggae Poster Contest exhibition, National Gallery of Jamaica, February 2019 (photo Veerle Poupeye – all rights reserved)

The International Reggae Poster Contest, which was launched in 2011, was the brainchild of the Jamaican poster artist and designer Michael Thompson “Freestylee”. His vision was quite specific and went beyond his obvious desire to celebrate the international cultural impact of reggae through a poster competition. He saw it as a platform to promote the establishment of what he had named a Reggae Hall of Fame, a high-profile reggae museum on the Kingston Waterfront that would pay tribute to the greats of the genre and for which he had even envisaged the architect, Frank Gehry. It was a romantic vision, which was quite different from the more scholarly and didactic Jamaica Music Museum that was being development by the Jamaican government, and Thompson was obviously mindful of the immense cultural and urban renewal effect of Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. He also conceived the contest as a fundraiser to support the Alpha Boys School, in tribute to that school’s seminal role in the development of Jamaican music, and supported the school in various other ways, among others contributing its distinctive new logo.

The National Gallery of Jamaica, after the cancellation of the Jamaica 50 exhibition it had originally planned, agreed to show the 100 best of the inaugural competition, along with poster designs on the same subject by the jurors, under the title World-a-Reggae, which was held from September 30 to November 10, 2012. What better way to celebrate Jamaica 50 than to highlight the global impact of reggae culture, we thought? It was certainly remarkable that the competition had attracted a total of 1142 entries by 678 designers from 80 countries and included interesting designs. The exhibition was well received and concluded with a fundraising auction of the exhibited posters, with the proceeds going to Alpha.

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At the 2018 Reggae Poster Contest exhibition, National Gallery of Jamaica, February 2019 (photo Veerle Poupeye – all rights reserved)

Despite the spirit of goodwill that surrounded the project, there were some rumblings from the start and it was clear that the project did not resonate equally well with all, locally. Local designers appeared to be uninterested and there were very few Jamaican submissions of which only one made it in the top 100, by the illustrator Taj Francis, who took the fifth place. And some of the local architects were not amused at the idea that Frank Gehry might design a high-profile Jamaican museum, as this letter to the editor illustrates. The National Gallery of Jamaica, which I headed at the time, took the position that the project was worthwhile but declined to host the competition exhibition annually, as we were pressured to do; instead, we offered to include a smaller selection of the best posters in the Jamaica Biennial but this offer was not pursued by the organizers.

Since then, the contest has been held annually, although the organizers have recently announced that it will now become a biennial event, and the associated exhibitions have been shown in various parts of the world. Michael Thompson passed away unexpectedly in 2016 but the project was continued by his Greek business partner, Maria Papaefstathiou (the co-founder of the contest). The exhibition in 2017 returned to Jamaica, and the posters from the 2017 and 2018 contests were shown at Montego Bay International Airport, with which Papaefstathiou had developed an active working relationship (several Freestylee reggae posters are now featured as murals in the airport). The 2018 exhibition is now also on view at the National Gallery of Jamaica, where the exhibition has thus returned after five years and, if the last-moment notifications are anything to go by, this appears to have been arranged at short notice to coincide with Reggae Month. The exhibition will on view there until May 26, 2019.

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At the 2018 Reggae Poster Contest exhibition, National Gallery of Jamaica, February 2019 (photo Veerle Poupeye – all rights reserved)

In the local media, the International Reggae Poster Contest has been regularly covered by Richard Johnson of the Observer and most of these reports have included lamentations about the lack of Jamaican participation and success in the contest. On January 9, 2018, for instance, or three weeks before the deadline of the 2018 competition an article appeared under the header No Jamaican Entries: Local Participation Missing from Reggae Poster Contest. In it, Papaefstathiou is quoted as saying: “I am very disappointed with the lack of posters from Jamaica. I hope until the last minute there will be some submissions. Actually, I will take the opportunity of this article, and I will urge them to participate. This contest is about their country and their music. It’s a shame to see posters from all over the world and not from reggae’s own land.” The article concludes with similar wording as I had noted in previous articles by Johnson on the subject: “No Jamaican has ever won the contest. In the first two years Jamaican artists fared reasonably well. In year one (2012), Taj Francis placed fifth, with the eventual winner being Alon Braier from Israel. In year two, Rohan Mitchell copped fourth position to Balazs Pakodi of the United Kingdom who took the top spot. Since then, Jamaican artists have failed to fall within the top 100 entries to the competition.”

On May 17, 2018, the Observer announced the 2018 “grand winner” (Vinicio Sejas, a Bolivian designer) and this article, again by Johnson, starts with the following sentence: Jamaican graphic artists again failed to make an impact in the 2017/2018 staging of International Reggae Poster Contest.” A few paragraphs further, Johnson reveals that Jamaican designers did in fact place among the finalists this time around: “Of the top 60 posters in the professional category, Jamaica only secured two spots. Artist Andre Hutchinson’s two works secured the 19th and 52nd placings. Jamaicans fared better in 40 spots allotted in the student category. Entrants Anthony Smith, Kenneil Smith, and Roshane Taylor copped the 27th, 28th, and 29th spots, respectively, while Jodi-Ann Dyer captured 40th place.” He however makes sure to mention, once again, that no Jamaican has to date won the competition.

I must admit to being mystified at what Johnson and, presumably, Papaefstathiou, could possibly hope to achieve with these articles, of which there have been about half a dozen to date. Their position seems to be that Jamaican designers somehow have a moral obligation to support this private initiative, merely because it is about reggae, and that it is a major professional failing on their part that they have not done “better” in the contest. It would seem obvious that such belittling rhetoric is more likely to alienate than to encourage Jamaican participation, and I think it would be far more productive for Johnson and Papaefstathiou to consider why exactly it is that Jamaican designers are not more interested in participating, and why the awards have been won by designers from places such as Bolivia, Israel, and Sweden. And the organizers would do well to consider whether it has something to do with how the competition is framed, handled, judged, and, indeed, promoted, instead of blaming it on the perceived failings of the Jamaican design community.

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At the 2018 Reggae Poster Contest exhibition, National Gallery of Jamaica, February 2019 (photo Veerle Poupeye – all rights reserved)

Jamaican designers, and the professional organizations that represent them, are more than capable of speaking for themselves on this but, as one who works in the same general industry, I can attest that it is certainly not for a lack of talent, vision or technical ability. Other factors are at play but the troubling subtext is that Jamaica is somehow deemed incapable of representing the culture it has birthed “properly.”

The visual culture of Jamaica’s music industry, and the internationally recognizable imaginary of reggae that has emerged from it, has of course never been exclusively developed in Jamaica or by Jamaicans. Reggae was, from early on, a transnational affair, mediated by migration, counter-cultural and resistance movements in various parts of the world, and the profit-making imperatives of the international music industry. And its visual expressions have also been negotiated between the formal world of graphic design and illustration, and a popular visual culture that is blissfully indifferent to established design principles and norms – the world of hand-painted dancehall signs and other informal visual expressions of the local music culture.

A lot of the best-known reggae album covers were not authored by Jamaicans, but by the English, American and other photographers and designers, most of them white, who were employed by the music industry, and who designed mainly for the Euro-American audiences to which the music was marketed. This does not mean that Jamaica has not produced any influential music industry designers: I am of course thinking of Neville Garrick, whose influence looms large over the posters in the successive International Reggae Poster Contests.

The point I wish to make here is that the visual imaginary of reggae, and more recently dancehall, has always been the product of a complex and contradictory dialogue between how Jamaica imagines itself, and how it is imagined by others – an endless loop of resistance and co-optation, and of all sorts of cross-cultural translations, within and beyond Jamaica itself. Co-optation and exoticism have always been part of these dialogues – that Bob Marley’s “One Love” should have become the anthem of the Jamaican tourism industry is one major example – but there has always been enough “push-back” in Jamaican culture to balance this and for Jamaica retain a dominant, resistant and authentic voice in this context, or at least until recently. At its best, the International Reggae Poster Contest reflects and celebrates these dialogues.

But there is a problem when the most artificial, saccharine, derivative and exoticized side of the reggae imaginary begins to lead a life of its own and takes over to become the dominant norm, and when the visual imaginary of reggae thus becomes disconnected from its roots and the cultural politics that birthed it. And such disconnect is a problem I increasingly see in the International Reggae Poster Contest exhibitions. Repetitiveness and predictability were already evident in the first exhibition (and the main reason why the National Gallery would not agree to a guaranteed annual exhibition at that time) but these have now become quite overwhelming, to the point of extreme déjà vu. Exactly how many more adorable (but tamed) Zion Lions, psychedelic red-green-and-gold guitars, or cutesy portraits of Lee “Scratch” Perry does the world need?

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The top entries in the 2018 Reggae Poster Contest exhibition (with left, the top entry by Vinicio Sejas from Bolivia), National Gallery of Jamaica, February 2019 (photo Veerle Poupeye – all rights reserved)

What we get is an increasingly shallow, sanitized, prettified and routine vision of reggae, and of Jamaican culture, awash with more exhortations for “One Love” and “world peace” than the average beauty queen pageant. The “Jamaican culture lite” which is now so disturbingly evident in the International Reggae Poster Contest, and which is surely not what Michael Thompson had in mind when he conceived this project, is part of a bigger representational problem to which Jamaica needs to pay more attention. A pointed opinion piece by Dotun Adebayo in the Guardian (December 1, 2018) cautioned that the UNESCO recognition of reggae as part of the intangible heritage of humanity could well be the nail in the coffin of Jamaica’s rebel music, because it involves co-optation by the very same establishment against which reggae culture originally rebelled.

It is ironic that all of this should happen at a time when there are such vigorous debates, in the international cultural arena, about cultural ownership and cultural appropriation. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that Jamaica, or anyone in or from Jamaica, should seek to own or police reggae and its representation, or that reggae should not receive official recognition. But it is time for Jamaica to talk back and to take the lead in some serious critical debate about the current direction of the global representation of reggae, and the sometimes very problematic understandings about Jamaican culture and Jamaicans that come with these representations.

What do these posters say and who created them? Who do these posters speak for, and to? Would they have been created if it were not for this contest? Why would the jurors have ranked the winning posters over the other submissions, including those submitted by those few Jamaican designers who agreed to participate? In addition to the design quality (which, along with the print and production quality, leaves much to be desired in the current exhibition, by the way), what are the assumptions about reggae and Jamaican culture that the jurors bring to the table? These are just some of the questions that need to be asked about the International Reggae Poster Contest and I hope that we will eventually get some answers.

It is a debate in which I would expect institutions such as the National Gallery of Jamaica to take a leading role—instead, we seem to get wholesale, uncritical endorsement from an organization which is increasingly conducting itself as a venue for third-party initiatives instead of as the cultural institution it is and ought to be, at the expense of its curatorial and critical autonomy. It is also a debate to which the organizers and jurors of the International Reggae Poster Contest should be more sensitive, and which they should take into consideration in how they frame the call for submissions and the judging process going forward. Doing so may in fact be the shot in the arm the contest needs to become more relevant and inclusive in the long run.

[Minor edits done on March 2 and 21, 2019 but no changes to substantive content]

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