Throwing Words at the Status Quo

Waldane Walker, 2019 Valedictorian, Edna Manley College
One night, an evil spirit held me down
I could not make one single sound
Jah told me, 'Son, use the word'
And now I'm as free as a bird

- Peter Tosh - Oh B@&#o k$&%t (1981)

Every culture, and every language has its expletives and some are, well, more potent than others. The standard Jamaican expletives – lets call them The Cloth Collection – are of the most potent variety and make certain people very uneasy, as they are surrounded by strong social taboos and ideas about propriety. In fact, the public use of indecent language is prohibited under section 9C of The Town and Communities Act, which states, somewhat comically, that:

Any person who shall make on any fence, wall or other building, any obscene figure, drawing, painting, or representation, or sing any profane, indecent, or obscene song or ballad, or write or draw any indecent or obscene word, figure or representation, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language publicly can be subject to a fine not exceeding $1,500 or to imprisonment with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding thirty days.

It is an example of the sort of colonial, socially oppressive laws, designed at controlling and civilizing the “unruly masses,” that entered Jamaica’s law books in the years around and after Emancipation. I understand that this law, in its original form, dates from 1834 and, although there have been calls for it to be repealed, there has been no action on that to date.

Despite these taboos and prohibitions, expletives are omnipresent in Jamaican life, in ways that cut across class and circumstance. I pride myself that I can curse in six languages, Jamaican included, and that is a facility I use liberally and unapologetically when I spar with the rogue taxis and coaster buses on the Red Hills and Constant Spring roads. And I understand that tirades of expletives are regularly heard in certain government ministries and other halls of power.

Yet the Jamaican creole expletives are seen by many as the ultimately assault on propriety and they rank up there with unruly hairstyles and spaghetti strap tops in public buildings as the sort of social infractions Jamaica’s increasingly strident “moral majority” seeks to curtail, with a sense that all will be lost if their desperate containment efforts fail. I picture the legendary Dutch boy with his finger in the hole in the dike, heroically holding the threatening flood at bay.

What we have to ask, though, is what is perceived to be at stake in a society which, for arguably quite different reasons, already tethers on the brink of anarchy. And if such petty social control efforts effectively quell or fuel the fire. The responses are, at times, extreme and destructive: in 2012, a highly pregnant woman, Kayann Lamont, was shot and killed by a Police officer in Yallahs, St Thomas, during an altercation when he tried to arrest her after she let loose a string of expletives about a stolen phone – a tragic fate that would almost certainly not have befallen an Upper St Andrew denizen involved in a similar incident. For Jamaica’s efforts at social control are, invariably, targeted at the lower classes, whose supposedly inherent “unruly” conduct is regarded as a perennial threat to the established social order.

One thing is sure, most of these social rules are not based on any broad social consensus, as they really should be, but they are articulated and imposed by what is still, for all intents and purposes, a privileged minority which, hypocritically, does not always apply the same standards to itself. The contradictions of Carnival of course come to mind. At the same time, notions about respectability are also internalized by many of those it seeks to corral, and thus produces some of its most strident and missionary advocates, initiated and propagated through the channels of church and school, which only helps to consolidate the social status quo.

I am not suggesting that there should be no social rules, or standards of civility, and that there should be no public order, but that the prevailing laws and rules need to held up to critical scrutiny to ensure that they are fair, reasonable, culturally attuned and socially inclusive, and devoid of needlessly oppressive social agendas. I see no reason, for instance, why the use of expletives should be of any concern to the Law and the security forces, or why there should be such a hysterical and largely irrelevant insistence on “proper” hairstyles and dress codes, at the expense of practicality, in a tropical environment, and of well-established cultural practices, such as the wearing of locks.

There has been heated debate about the origins and significance of Jamaica’s creole expletives, and their references to the female body and menstruation. The most common argument is that they are demeaning of women – and perhaps they do reflect the undeniable misogynistic tendencies in Jamaican culture and the strong taboos that surround female sexuality and bodily functions – but there are also other ways to look at them. One is to ask whether these references are, in fact, necessarily demeaning, and to question why they are regarded that way, and whether these perceptions can be turned on their heads to challenge those perceptions (to borrow Ebony G. Patterson’s admonition in her keynote address at the 2015 Edna Manley College graduation). Carolyn Cooper, in a 2013 Gleaner column entitled Divine Jamaican Bad Words, argued a similar case, that the Jamaica’s creole expletives should be regarded as a provocative celebration of the female fertility, rooted in African religions and cultural traditions.

The defiant, spiritual power of Jamaica’s “cloth” words was celebrated in song by the great Peter Tosh, who fully grasped their poetic, socially subversive, and indeed revolutionary potential. And they are, for all sorts of reasons, including this very same defiance, a common occurrence in contemporary dance hall music, with endless controversies, calls for parental guidance ratings, fines, and Police interventions resulting.

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 and disempowered manner.

And this takes me to what provoked this impromptu blog post: the 2019 valedictory speech by the Edna Manley College graduate Waldane Walker, who is an actor, which has been the source of intense debate and controversy because he ended his presentation with the words: “Big up unno b#@&&%$t selves.” I was not present at the function (I admittedly avoid public functions in Jamaica because of the routine insistence on endless, ponderous and pointless protocols that turns such events into hostage situations – another exponent of this oppressive “propriety syndrome” I am alluding to). Like many in Jamaica, I first saw the video clip with the final words, which had gone viral on social media before the function was even concluded. It was immediately clear that there would be controversy but it was also clear that Waldane Walker had the support of most, if not all of his fellow graduates, who spontaneously rose from their chairs to applaud and cheer him. It was obvious that he had in fact spoken for them, as a valedictory speech is supposed to do.

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Caribbean Conversations – Errol Ross Brewster – Part II

Errol Ross Brewster – Stop Death from Malnutrition (1984)

Here is part II of my conversation with Errol Ross Brewster. Part I can be found here.

Veerle Poupeye:- You were born and raised at a time when Guyana was entering a period of political and ideological radicalism, which significantly impacted the course of the country itself but which were also connected to and influenced developments elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Africa. What was your position towards/in these early developments, as a young man, and how did this influence your work and general outlook at that time?

Errol Ross Brewster:- Oppositional elements in Guyana’s long struggle for free and fair elections, understood the duplicitous nature of the State’s stance on the international stage with regard to liberation struggles. Leaping forward many, many years, more than a generation in fact, so that the foregoing statement could be better understood, I draw your attention to the leading Guyanese, and Caribbean intellectuals and political activist, whose collective response to the South African Government’s announcement of its intention to confer, posthumously, on President Burnham a high honour for his generous contributions to their liberation struggles was to object. South Africa was made to withdraw their intention to confer this honour under pressure from this group. Charity begins at home and the President was much less than charitable, warning of his “sharper steel,” with dissent in his own country. He could not at the same time be a champion of liberation struggles.

“Until the ignoble and unhappy regime that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique, South Africa, in sub-human bondage, has been toppled, totally downstroyed…well, EVERYWHERE IS WAR!”, such as that galvanised our understanding of the world. The Guyana government, were not enthused about Rasta messaging. But Count Ossie, and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari were shown the royal treatment because it suited their duplicitous international objectives to appear to be compatible with progressives. It was the time of the Non-Aligned Conference and CARIFESTA. As youngsters, we were not fooled, we understood that President Burnham was not the North Star of solidarity with international liberation struggles. Marley was!

Errol Ross Brewster – The Abdication (1981)

I was of a mind that the visual signification which art afforded was to be used for social transformation. “The Abdication” is one such work. It characterises the crab in a barrel mentality which was at the heart of the fight for scarce resources on the political plane, so the Parliament building is in the background. And in the foreground is the extent to which this abdication of civility and good communal sense would make itself felt. Even the old and poor were not safe! This government had let fall in on itself the home for the aged and indigent – they met it as a grand Colonial mansion which had stood for decades and let it literally fall in on itself of neglect. Any of this is sounding familiar? Does a certain political culture seem to be at work here? Might it be prudent to warn about it?

Errol Ross Brewster – The Immaculate Deception (1981-2019)

I thought so, and so the work I made was not what people wished to put on their walls. They’re not in the National Gallery of Guyana collection, despite having being bought by Dr Williams years earlier. And they did not match people’s drapes, nor did they match with the draping of consciousness that people had to engage in to preserve their livelihood in that time. You did not have, actively, to oppose the government to be targeted. You could lose your job for who you associated with; For not attending events at which numbers, drawn from the ranks of teachers and civil servants, were required to. Increasingly, the Garden City became over run by garbage. People fell through the cracks and bedraggled beggars appeared everywhere. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception attracted beggars by day and prostitutes by night. They could not be ignored. School children became active in anti-government protest and some took to purposeful vandalism.

Errol Ross Brewster – Exploring Victoria’s Secrets (1981-2019)

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The National Gallery and Public Scholarship

Pat Byer’s work (left) in the book “What Kind of Mirror Image: Art in Barbados” (1999) by Alissandra Cummins, Allison Thompson and Nick Whittle

Update: the NGJ has this morning, November 16, 2019, corrected its obituary and it now includes accurate family information.

My dissertation director at Emory University, the late Ivan Karp – one of the leading voices in the debates about museums and representation, liked to describe museums a “institutions of public scholarship.” And indeed, museums are, or should be, institutions where knowledge is produced, shared, critiqued and debated, and which are in the front-line of knowledge-production in their respective disciplinary and specialist fields. And it speaks for itself that the knowledge produced needs to be of the highest quality and, while not immune to critical challenge, must be sound and credible. That is part of a museum’s pact with the public.

To do this, museums are led by persons who are eminent scholars and curators in their field, and who also have the capacity to translate this expert knowledge into expert curatorial form that can be engaged with by the public, through the objects they exhibit and the manner in which these are presented and contextualized. That is so for all museums, and no less for art museums.

In the Caribbean, all of this is no less important. In fact, I’d say that the stakes are higher, because there is so much pioneering work to do in writing and documenting the art histories in a way that produces innovative, relevant and credible scholarship, in ensuring that there is a healthy and well-informed critical climate, and in building a curatorial and audience engagement practice that is innovative and relevant to the context – all of this in a setting where specialist art historical and museum skills are scarce and resources even scarcer. But perhaps the biggest threat in the Caribbean is that there is so little regard for such specialist scholarship, and even less understanding as to why sound, in depth expert scholarship matters so much in museums. And unfortunately, this is evident in how some of our cultural institutions are managed.

Last week, Hugh Dunphy, the proprietor of the storied Bolivar gallery and book shop, passed away. He had been ailing for some time and Bolivar had closed in 2016, which marked the end of a gallery which had been a major player in the Jamaican art world for several decades and one of several such losses in recent years. The National Gallery of Jamaica, on November 7, 2019 published an obituary on its blog and I must admit that I did not pay a lot of attention to it initially, as I feared it was yet another example of the sort of loosely stitched-together obituaries the Gallery tends to issue these days. When I finally read it, however, I realized that the obituary, which goes into great detail about certain aspects of Dunphy’s life, was also curiously silent about major other parts of it, such as his first two marriages. In fact, his first wife was a well-known artist and jeweler who was active in Barbados and Trinidad, Pat Byer – something the curatorial leadership should have know – and they had a son together, Damian Dunphy, who now lives in Australia. It was clear that whoever wrote the obituary did not know much about Hugh Dunphy and had not researched his life and work with any kind of care. And that whoever approved it for release clearly did not know any better.

Not surprisingly, a few persons who did knew Dunphy well, started to comment on social media and questioned why the National Gallery had issued such a poorly researched obituary which misrepresented Hugh Dunphy’s life and which may have caused distress to his family. I cannot disagree with them – the omissions in the obituary are embarrassing. I am not suggesting that the National Gallery staff should have in depth knowledge on the lives of all major figures in the art world, but merely that its staff should do its homework when such a document is prepared and that there should be the sort of oversight that is necessary to prevent such embarrassing blunders from being published. Or that, if the National Gallery was for any reason not able to produce a sensible and sensitive obituary for Mr Dunply, somebody else who is better equipped to do so should have been invited to guest-author one.

The National Gallery has historically been the main producer of art-historical knowledge in Jamaica. Agree with his perspectives or not, David Boxer was an eminent scholar of Jamaican art and culture. And other senior staff members such as Rosalie Smith-McCrea, Petrine Archer-Straw, myself and more recently Nicole Smythe-Johnson, have also contributed original and pioneering scholarship. The National Gallery used to be the go-to place for cutting edge, expert knowledge on Jamaican art, as it indeed ought to be. The question arises whether that is still so today, and whether that is even recognized as a problem by the current powers-that-be.

This unfortunate obituary raises serious questions about where the National Gallery is at, in terms of the quality of its scholarship, research, critical engagement and writing. I have also seen text panels and catalogue essays recently that were seriously deficient in research, analytical depth and sound argumentation, to the point of incoherence, or that merely regurgitated old and dated research and ideas. Lapses in basic scholarship and research, such as those that are evident in the Hugh Dunphy obituary, are not minor mistakes, that can just be glossed over, but suggest serious deficiencies. The current leadership must be held to account for this sad state of affairs. Quality does matter in museums, and is in fact a very big deal.

If it turns out that the National Gallery of Jamaica is no longer a leading institution of public scholarship in the Caribbean art world, if it is no longer driven by sound intellectual and critical underpinnings, by passionate, in-depth and responsible scholarship and ongoing research about Jamaican art, and by a relevant, innovative and well-informed curatorial vision, then its future, purpose and relevance would be seriously in doubt.

Caribbean Conversations: Errol Ross Brewster – Part I

The Brewsters, 1956, Kitty, Georgetown

Here is the first part of a two part conversation with Errol Ross Brewster. Part II can be found here.


Errol Brewster is a Caribbean artist from Guyana, living in the United States. With more than four decades of a Caribbean-wide, multimedia imaging practice, he has participated in multiple CARIFESTA’s; the EU’s Centro Cultural Cariforo, “Between the Lines”, travelling exhibition, 2000; the First International Triennial of Caribbean Art, 2010; and the Inter-American Development Bank’s “Sidewalks of the Americas” installation, 2018.


Veerle Poupeye: – You were born and raised in Guyana. Tell me about your family background there and how your early years put you on track to become an artist. Was your decision to become an artist supported by your family? And do you have any other artists in your family, then or now?

Errol Ross Brewster: – I’m the last of 4 children, born in 1953, in Guyana, to a mixed-race family in which my eldest sibling was 17 years older than I, and the youngest 12 years older. They were early sent abroad for further studies, and I found myself as a  virtual only child by the time I was 5 or 6 years old and kept from playing with the neighbourhood children because of my father’s aspirational working class attitude that saw them as a possible  influence on me that should be avoided.

It may have heightened my interest in the life of the so-called lower classes, and that interest found expression in my art years later. At the time I simply turned inwards. I turned gleefully to routinely making an absolute mess of the drawing books and painting sets my elder siblings sent me gifts of. I would entertain myself with drawing what I saw out the window of the other children’s play, and I took a great delight in transferring the comics in the newspapers by coating then with candle wax and burnishing then onto my drawing books.

It was probably having to spend so much time alone that sparked my interest in making art.  In the doing, hours would go by unnoticed. And many years later, in 1974, I would leave my first job after two years to go to a Canadian art school. While I worked as a teller at Barclays Bank DCO, I would at every chance I got draw on my desk pad, those customers waiting to be attended by other tellers. I was not interested in banking, but it was the best paying job a high school graduate could have, and I saved my money with the intention of going away from this problematic country. We’d just experienced CARIFESTA’ 72 – the first ever, and it seemed that being an artist, in addition to being most interesting, was also a viable prospect. I ignored the cautions of my parents, who nevertheless supported me in my decision to go. I had no idea what long term challenges I’d opened myself up to. There were no other visual artists in my family before me, though, my father, it must be said, was a prolific writer of poems, and some were actually published in an American anthology of poetry. My niece, Susan Brewster Taylor is an award-winning architect in Jamaica, and one of my cousins Sandra Brewster, alumna of my old school the Ontario College of Art and Design, is an award-winning artist in Canada.

Errol Ross Brewster – Thirsty Boy (1972), ink on paper

VP:- Your biography mentions that you were already an exhibiting artist before you went to art school in Canada. Please tell me about your early work. What was your relationship to other emerging artists in and from Guyana at that time?

ERB:- Aa a teenager many of my friends had an interest in art and we would hang our paintings on the fences of public places in the city. We were following the example of other artists older than ourselves, who had loosely organised themselves into a group with a name which I’ve forgotten now, and had written a manifesto for one of their outdoors exhibitions – something unheard of in Guyana, at the time.

Carl Martin was one of the leading lights of that group. We had attended the same secondary school at different year levels, but had the same art teacher – a British expatriate – John Criswick. He remained in Guyana for many years, and was much interested in the folk traditions of the Guyanese people. He schooled a considerable number of Guyanese artists. Angold Thompson and Victor Davson are two others who readily come to mind. I was greatly impressed by all three of these artists. Criswick, was a great portraitist. The portrait he did of the first President of Guyana – Arthur Chung, hangs in the Legislature building. He was also a landscape painter, and his top students – Carl Martin and Angold Thompson also were. Unfortunately, Martin’s career had a premature, tragic end. He was, last I know, living in a men’s home in Georgetown, completely uninterested in art. Thompson, whose father Basil was also an artist, still paints in Georgetown, and Davson, went on to make an international name for himself in America as an artist of acclaim in the USA. 

Errol Ross Brewster – Queh Queh (1974), ink on paper

Georgetown, being a small community, was such that everybody knew everybody, and artists, though fiercely competitive, were highly sociable. This made for easy association with big name artists, and I knew Ron Savory, Stanley Greaves, and other leading artists quite well even though they were considerably older than I was.

My contemporaries, however, never really saw ourselves in the same vein. We were having fun, shocking the community, and going around painting murals on the walls of restaurants and discotheques that would engage us. A few did! This, and all the excitement surrounding CARIFESTA, led me to think, contrary to my parents’ understanding, that art could be a viable way of life. My father wished me to be an accountant. He, in fact, trained me in double entry accounting as a ten year old, and was encouraged by the fact that I had gotten in the School Leaving examination, a distinction in Math, as well as in English Literature The world was then in the grip of an oil crisis – OPEC having quadrupled the price of oil, at one stroke –  and my painting and drawing reflected the chaotic trajectory of the world’s eco-political system. For me then Dali was a god, as was M.C. Escher.

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