Ivanhoe Martin and the Hotel

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View of the restaurant section, AC Marriott Hotel. Work by Laura Facey on the left and middle, Andre Woolery at the back. The étagère at the front has work by Laura Facey on the fourth shelf from the bottom.

I had lunch with a friend at the new AC Marriott Hotel today, because I wanted to see the art that was acquired for and installed in the lobby, which has received enthusiastic coverage in the local press. I had initially planned to write about it in the context of a more general post about art and hotels in Jamaica, which I may still do at a later date as it is an interesting subject in and of itself. After viewing the work by Laura Facey, Leasho Johnson, Katrina Coombs, Andre Woolery, David Pinto, Shoshanna Weinberger, Jag Mehta, Cosmo Whyte and a few others as installed in the space, however, I was compelled to change my subject.

Let me first say that I like the building, at least its exterior. It could have been yet another cookie-cutter contemporary high rise, but the quirky, asymmetrical placement of the balconies is genius, and gives the facades a simple but distinctive quality. I am far less taken with the lobby, which has far too much marble and mirrors for my taste (I have a strong aversion for the grandiose), but which also has a curious, interior design magazine, aspirational “living room” quality, which is waging a fierce battle with its clean, large spatial volumes.

The art selected is by artists I greatly admire and, although there is nothing that really pushes the envelope, in terms of being exceptional works by these artists, it is generally of a high quality. I applaud the hotel for acquiring and exhibiting these works of art and for supporting Jamaican contemporary art in the process, as local market support for such art is still lagging, and Susanne Fredricks for curating the selection.

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General view of the lobby, with Laura Facey work at front

What bothered me, though, is the manner in which the art is contextualized with the omnipresent “tchotchkes” that seem to have come from a hotel décor catalogue – utterly generic metal, marble, ceramic and wood decorative objects, along with the fore-mentioned books – that can be seen on practically every table and counter across the space as well as on the rather curious, bottom-lit étagère in the restaurant section. If the intention was to “warm up” the space and to make it more inviting, it does no such thing, at least not in my view. But more important, the presence of these non-descript decorative items does the art no favors at all and seems to pull everything down to the level of décor. It appears that interior design considerations, and not particularly good ones, took precedence over installing the art in a way that would have allowed it to speak for itself and that would have been much more effective, aesthetically, in bringing a local character and distinctiveness to the space.

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View of the entrance lobby with work by Laura Facey at the front, and Cosmo Whyte’s Shotta at the back.

But my eye fell on the work by Cosmo Whyte, titled Shotta, a large collage and drawing on paper which confronts those who enter via the main entrance and I could not help but to ponder the ironies of its presence there. It is one of a number of works by Cosmo in which he interprets the famous photo-shoot scene in The Harder They Come: the scene in which the lead character, the notorious but elusive rebel-gunman Ivanhoe Martin had himself photographed, cowboy-style and with guns in both hands, and sent the photos to the press to taunt the authorities. In one of the earlier scenes in the film, Ivanhoe had been chased from the same sort of luxury hotel in which his image now hangs.

The photo-shoot stills of Ivanhoe Martin are among the most iconic images in Jamaica’s modern cultural history. They embody the defiance of Jamaica’s poor, their challenge to social and economic power and hierarchy, and they represent the cultural energy that has emanated from this defiance, the very same, truly remarkable energy that has given Jamaica its global cultural visibility. By virtue of its presence in the hotel lobby, this icon of resistance is now being repositioned, sanitized and co-opted as an icon of urban chic, without any hint of redeeming irony or subversion. (I could make a similar argument about the dissonance between content and intent, and the context in which the work is presented, for Leasho Johnson’s or even Shoshanna Weinberger’s work, but let me focus on the most obvious example.)

The tensions arising from Cosmo Whyte’s work in the AC Marriott lobby inadvertently tell us a lot about where Jamaican society is at. The AC Marriott is, for all intents and purposes, an uptown place and has quickly become an intensely aspirational site, as the lobby décor strongly signals. It is already a meeting place of choice for those who are, or wish to be “somebody” in Jamaican society, and a place to see and be seen. For a country that was once an influential hotbed of socially radical thought, a place where local and global hierarchies were courageously challenged, it never ceases to amaze me how uncritical, socially aspirational values appear to have overtaken the minds of so many, including some of those who see themselves as racially and politically conscious (and who may even wear the occasional “Down with Babylon” T-shirt), in a way that re-inscribes those very same values and hierarchies that were once questioned. It is a remarkable sight, for sure, to see ambitious young black men and women enthusiastically go to polo matches, dressed in their finest designer outfits, without questioning this sport’s colonial roots and its association with social hierarchies that continue to exclude them where it really matters. And the engagement with art, particularly the collecting and patronage of art, is inevitably entangled with these aspirations.

The socially aspirational culture that has overtaken Jamaica is so strong right now that it may even have won elections – is that not, after all, what the traction of the “prosperity” slogan is really all about? One of my theories for the PNP’s loss of the 2016 general elections, is that its principals did not recognize the powerful draw of this culture, and that by questioning the magnificent house that was being built on the hill as part of their campaign rhetoric, they seemed to question, begrudge and devalue what is presently the ultimate aspiration of many.

But for all this aspirational drive, the underlying socio-economic inequalities of this country have changed very little. The cast of characters at the top of the totem pole may have changed, and has become a bit more diverse, but the truth is that the Ivanhoe Martins of today would still not be welcome at Jamaica’s upscale hotels. Their anger and frustration continue to grow and their rage is expressed in the waves of crime and violence that mercilessly batter this country, all the more because they know that the aspirational prosperity that is dangled in front of them on a daily basis will never reach them, unless they force the issue. The staggering number of Porsches, high-end Audis, Range Rovers, and Jaguars that are now on our roads alone will do that. It is something for which Jamaica may eventually pay dearly, for its current veneer of socio-political stability is most tenuous.

But to return to art, I believe that it is crucially important for artists in and from Jamaica today to consider very carefully where they stand on these issues, including the questions of co-optation that arise here, and how they see their role in the current socio-cultural dynamic. I would certainly love to hear from Cosmo Whyte about how he sees his work in this context. And I would certainly like to see more artists who engage actively and knowingly with the social dilemmas of today, for there are very few who do, especially among the established artists. Phillip Thomas is one very interesting exception and there will be more on that in my upcoming interview with him.

As those around me are aware, I work a lot with younger artists and art students and thankfully, there are signs of change there, of a return to a more critical, questioning mentality, a new, more self-reflexive radicalism, a commitment to social justice, and, mercifully, a new willingness to talk back to power. Much of their work is very political, and thus far without concessions to the social dynamics of patronage and without the stifling baggage of the 1970s and 80s. And I see very little of the blindly aspirational mentality that is so evident among the generation before them. So perhaps there is hope. The future is, after all, in the hands of the young.

5 thoughts on “Ivanhoe Martin and the Hotel

  1. In the interest of time (lol) I would like to just highlight one small statement you made and how that statement can be recontextualized in different ways. The statement was “Paying dearly”. That was a sentiment that was also said some years ago about the issue of crime in Jamaica and it was uttered by none other than Reneto Adams, a former police officer in the JCf and a figure of much controversy in the history of our policing.

    In that statement Mr. Adams was saying that if he is not at the helm of our anti-crime front Jamaica will “pay dearly” for his absence because of what he has seen on the ground and what he expects to come in the not too distant future. He was the first police officer I have ever heard suggesting that their are Russian and Chinese gangs in Jamaica. He was the first officer to suggest, publicly, that the helm of the crime networks does not “look like” the foot soldiers that are often killed in our pursuit. In another rare feat, the musician Protoje produced a song titled “blood money” wherein the first line states “a nuff drugs money deh a cherry garden”. These very rear moments in the canon of Jamaican history are but mere droplets of water in the Sahara desert.

    Now, what responsibility does the image makers have? And what responsibility does the writers and curators that support/supported their work have? If the narrative has been sanctioned by the history makers then there could be culpability for all to share….be it if the Jamaican art narrative has been fixed this way for years or not. It is our responsibility to present everyone in the discussion on Jamaican art. Let me say without equivocation, many of us in the art game have been playing a dirty game of camouflaging our skins unto the subject of Jamaican art, knowing full well that there is an unbending chasm between the depicted subjects of Jamaican art and its artificers as well as it’s collectors. Things will continue in this way because the getting is too good to change…I have said on your blog many times before that there is something very wrong in how we have set up the narrative in this country and we cannot continue to put some people on the examination table while others pretend to be doctors, that’s not what art is supposed to be about.

    The French, during the late 18th and 19th century decided to create a movement they called “Realism”. It is funny how the term now means “plasticity”, but the real meaning is, “the depiction of the proletariat, as opposed to the depiction of Napoleon and his ilk”. What we have here in Jamaica pretends, in a very clever way, to be a kind of “Neo-Realism”, but there are some marked differences and they are varied and too many to name now, but the most important difference would be the Revolution. Those subsequent 19th century images were weaponized against the bourgeoisie, they were made to give people dignity in manual labor in one sense, but more over, many of those images were made to present the rapacious nature of the bourgeoisie and their exploitive manner. No such luck here…

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    • Thanks, Phillip. Reneto Adams…I had not seen that one coming, but of course there is a point. For his Messiah complex, and questionable methods, he also spoke truths that others would not acknowledge, at least not publicly. As for the art world, yes, that is what I have been getting at in this and several other blog posts, the complicity of the art world to those social dynamics that keep in place what it appears to deny or critique. And the constant, unacknowledged co-optation of resistance, or what is presented as resistance. There is a need for a lot of soul-searching there, and for a level of frank self-reflexivity that is now sadly missing. Because that is the issue I have with the current social aspirational culture, that it does not foster social change, but reinforces social inequality, even though it lets a token few through the gate. But what is happening on the “other side” of the social divide is very real, and spills over already. What will happen when that dam breaks? We will all pay dearly.

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      • Just resharing a quote I had used in a previous post, as it is entirely relevant here:

        “How can [art] participate in networks of power that its content wilfully rejects? Often, so-called ‘political art’ simply aestheticises protest or resistance. Sometimes, it has the effect of moral licensing – instilling in its viewer a false sense of having accomplished something. Art and power have always been begrudging bedfellows.”

        – Annie Godfrey Larmon

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  2. Yes, I remember reading that. As you know, I have talked about the new strange moral, or more accurately, “virtue signaling” positions that art practitioners have been milking these past few years. With a kind of “bonfire of the vanities” hysteria and righteous fervor. Art’s new army of Girolamo Savonarolas, protesting museums and their affiliation to blood money all over the world. Anyone who has picked up a book on the Medici family knows the relationship art has to power, they often go hand in hand. Anyone simple enough to think that art hasn’t been weaponized since the Vally of the Kings is not seeing the enormity of the meaning of art outside of its aesthetic value. The question here is a simple one. Are art practitioners willing to include their patronage as part of their overall scrutiny? There is a reason the Second World War is referred to, in some circles, as a war in aesthetics and it is clear that both the Third Reich as well as the “Allied Froces”, who aren’t all that allied today, had to involve art as part of the war front. Today, we can clearly see that different states treat artists differently based on how they interpret the artist’s responsibility to the state in question. This is why, for example, the Taliban has been destroying works that are thousands of years old. Or, the Chinese government has set their sights on Ai Weiwei’s production. I promise you, it’s not because of their “taste” in art but more so their politics in art, and those societies fully understand the potential art holds. In the west, and in “democratic states” institutions have another way of editing artists….ignoring them, while promoting the other artists folks may want to weaponize. And Jamaica is no different.

    I’ll tell you something, whenever I produce a work of art such as “upper st. Andrew concubine”, I cannot tell you how many times people have asked me “who exactly are you talking about?”. And I have always found the question very curious and funny, here is why. We are so used to talking about a mass of people in our art discourse that we have grown accustom to “the nameless and faceless” in our art. When a model in any Jamaican work of art is a person that we all know and recognize, that model is often used to represents the “huddled masses”. Interestingly enough, if you change the direction of the gaze, and start to investigate upper middle classed life in Jamaica, then the most generic figure in a work of art comes across as specific, even personal, in some instances. This is why, it has to do with the intended audiences, and the institutions that attract them. The danger of Dawn Scott’s “A Cultural object” is that it runs the risk of fetishized nationalism, or at least the expectation of it. The expectation of “brand Jamaica”, in my estimation, is more powerful than any individual subject of Jamaican art across genre. When Robert Hughes said “the art economy is the most powerful subject in contemporary art”, he was talking about the very ways in which money dictates pace and taste. For us, “brand Jamaica” affects/infects all of our cultural expression. Now, while that is to be expected from an ethnographic point of view, we must take some responsibility for much of its one dimensionality and however the “market” responds to such nationalized products…..when one traffics in national brands one inadvertently suggests the power of authenticity. We must come to terms with the fact that authenticity begets homogeneity and that creates a whole other set of problems when one deals with our internal bigotries.

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  3. […] But more importantly, we need to remember that Jamaican culture has captured the global imagination exactly because of its powerful, inspiring challenge of the status quo – a rebellious spirit which has become sadly jaded and attenuated in recent decades and for which there is insufficient tolerance and appreciation in Jamaica itself. For the local status quo is not amenable to any real, substantive threats to its ever more entrenched privileged position, which is now fueled and supported by the socially aspirational culture that has overtaken Jamaican society. If Jamaica’s rebel culture is accommodated in that context, it is merely in a cosmetic, co-opted manner. […]

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