“It’s All Broken” – or, Why the Imagination Needs to Rule

“It’s all broken,” the child said to his mother. And right he was, as there is very little that remains intact and functional at the once bustling Kingston railway terminus on Pechon Street in downtown Kingston. The occasion was a recent guided tour, facilitated by Kingston Creative, and guided by the Jamaican architect Patrick Stanigar. It was my second visit to the station (the first one was many years ago) and my most comprehensive to date, as I was able to visit the freight section, which I had not seen before. There is still a functional, air-conditioned office in the main building and a fair amount of staff, including a resident caretaker. Like most of the visitors present, I was however shocked at the deterioration, which is taking parts of the complex to the point where rehabilitation may become very costly and even impossible.

While I do no share his extraordinary photographic eye and technical skills, and can only contribute amateur photos taken with my phone camera, I was inevitably taken back to the Guyanese artist Errol Ross Brewster’s haunting photo-essay Beware the Promise Today, which was published on this blog in October of last year. In this photo-essay, Brewster used the demise of Guyana’s train system in the early 1980s as a metaphor for the failings of that country’s political culture and the detrimental effect this had not only on the abstracted, depersonalized national economic plane, but also on a human level, deeply affecting the most vulnerable and disenfranchised, while benefiting undeserving and corrupt interests. I had to ask what the neglect of Jamaica’s railway system says about Jamaica, and its own political culture, which may be different from Guyana’s but nonetheless has much in common, and what this says on a more general level about the postcolonial Caribbean.

The opening of the Kingston terminus and the Western Jamaica Connecting Railway in 1845 (source: Wikipedia)

The history of Jamaica’s railway system starts in 1845, with the inauguration of the Kingston terminus and the first part of the Western Jamaica Connecting Railway, from Kingston to Angels in St Catherine, a 14.5 mile track. It was among the earliest such ventures in the Western Hemisphere, along with the railway system in Guyana, which opened a year later. The very first was actually the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the USA, which transported freight and passengers, and which was inaugurated in 1827 with a 13 mile long track. Initially, the main impetus to introduce trains to Jamaica was the modernization of the sugar cane industry, in the wake of Emancipation, and it was driven by the economic interests of the plantocracy rather than the transport needs of the common person. The railway system was however steadily expanded during the 19th century, and gradually became focused on passenger transport as well as freight. By 1895, it was possible to travel from Kingston to Montego Bay by train. This opened up previously inaccessible parts of the island and allowed for efficient and affordable travel between the country’s cities, towns, and other centres of economic activity. Trains also played a major role in the inland postal service and in getting produce from the country to the urban markets.

Below is an archival video from 1913, part of which was filmed from a train leaving Montego Bay (scene starts at 1.20″).

With the start of bauxite mining in the 1940s, the train system was further expanded and acquired an additional role, the transport of bauxite and alumina to the ports, and of the chemicals used to process the bauxite to the plants. What is left of Jamaica’s railway system still fulfills that function today. Lack of maintenance and investment, and the impact of several major hurricanes, however caused Jamaica’s railway infrastructure to deteriorate and the Jamaica Railway Corporation, which had been established as a government corporation in 1960, began to accrue major losses. Several trajectories stopped operating and public railway transport ceased in 1992, save for a brief revival of the May Pen to Linstead line in 2011-2012.

Jamaica’s train routes c1945, before the addition of the bauxite lines (source: Wikipedia)

The vision and mission statement of the Jamaica Railway Corporation board (there must, of course, be a politically appointed board for what is largely a defunct organization) reads as follows:

Restore………….. Modernize………… Expand…………

To recommence a safe, reliable and affordable freight and passenger rail service throughout Jamaica, to synchronize with other modes of transportation, with emphasis on the cost effective movement, while meeting the needs of the JRC, its customers and stakeholders in an environmentally friendly atmosphere, always striving to develop the communities served.

At least there is hope, it appears, but it is hard not to be cynical. While we toured the train station, a fellow visitor spotted a water-damaged file folder which had been casually left among the debris in the freight terminal. Its header was “Rehab Plan” and the folder appeared to date from 1989, when the passenger train system was on its last legs. The folder says it all in a way, as there have been many such plans since then, and even more political announcements, none of which have thus far come to fruition

“Rehab Plan” c1989, Photo: Veerle Poupeye, January 26, 2020

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Talking Back: Visual Conversations about Sexual Abuse

Nicola Ricketts (3rd year BFA Sculpture) – as shown in Manifestations, the 2019 SVA student exhibition at the CAG[]e] gallery in 2019

The Edna Manley College, where I teach, has been in the news recently with allegations of sexual harassment. Here is not the place to comment on that particular instance but it is widely recognized that it is part of a much bigger problem in Jamaica, that affects many, if not all public and private sector organizations, including the education sector, and also the social interactions in communities and families and on the streets. Several recent incidents in different parts of the country whereby young girls were raped and murdered had already set the stage for intensified public attention to those most brutal, violent and devastating forms of sexual predation and violence that are also all too common in this country.

If there is a positive side to any of this, it is that it generates new opportunities for public agitation and sensitization about the high incidence of sexual abuse and harassment in Jamaican society, along with the culture of silence and acceptance that still surrounds this, and its devastating social and individual effects, on women and also on men. And perhaps most important, it creates opportunity to talk frankly about what is needed to change the toxic gender dynamics that are at the roots of sexually predatory behavior. Even though none of this is new, as there is a long history of such issues, there is a mounting sense of crisis and a sense of public urgency that there needs to be prompt and decisive action to change the culture that produces this and to put in place more appropriate and effective preventative and remedial frameworks, at the level of law and policy, of the reporting and investigation protocols, and of education and social intervention.

The arts have a vital role to play in this, by providing expressive opportunities for victims to reclaim their voice, by generating public awareness about the prevalence, causes and effects of such abuses, and by sensitizing all parties involved to their rights and responsibilities. Examples of this can be found in recent Jamaican literature, theater and music (Queen Ifrica’s haunting Daddy Don’t Touch Me There of course comes to mind), as well as in the visual arts. One recent activist campaign, the Tambourine Army, utilized provocative but engaging performative strategies that were part of the reasons why this “name and shame” campaign appealed to the public imagination. More attention needs to be paid to what creative interventions can achieve for such social problems and how these can best be deployed in the present moment in Jamaica. This post seeks to contribute to that discussion with a brief look at how certain female (and one male) Jamaican artists have engaged with these issues, including work that has been featured in recent and current exhibitions at the Edna Manley College itself (and the College indeed has a major role to play in this conversation).

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Avagay Osborne (BFA Painting) – Untitled (2015), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

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The Wheels of History: Museums, Restitution and the Caribbean – Part 1


This is the first of a two-part post on the restitution debate and its significance to the Caribbean. This first part explores the general context and the second part  specifically looks at the Caribbean.

It is a time of reckoning for museums: museums are increasingly pressured to come to terms with their historical origins, their past and present ideological foundations, the manner in which they have acquired their collections, and the cultural and social politics in which they are embedded. There has been intensified debate recently about the association between museums and colonialism, and about the manner in which they are governed and funded. Such challenges have come at the state-political level, such as the high-profile, country-to-country restitution negotiations that have captured the attention of the international media recently, and from activist groups such as Decolonize This Place. My earlier post about the renovation of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, Belgium, also speaks to some of these issues.

Over the last few months, I have posted a significant number of recent articles and essays on the restitution, decolonization, and museums debate to a Facebook site I manage, the Critical.Caribbean.Art page, using the #restitution hashtag. I will not seek to retrace the entire argument here – you can read more about that via the Facebook site, if you have not already done so — but I do want to focus on a few issues that have, at least in my view, received insufficient attention with regards to the restitution requests between the former colonizing states and their former colonies. Passionate debates, and the manner in which these are reported in the media, along with the instant “call-out” culture that prevails on social media, do not always leave much room for nuance or for the careful consideration of contrary positions, even though this is a necessary part of the conversation on issues such as restitution.

The current media frenzy may create the impression that the restitution debate is new and that it is being fiercely and universally resisted by North American and European museums (although this latter perception has not been helped by the ill-conceived public pronouncements of certain high profile museum professionals such as the British Museum Director who recently defended Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon sculptures from Greece, which took place in the early 19th century, as a creative act).

The restitution debate in actuality emerged in the period after World War II and there were two major triggers.  One was the end of European colonialism and the emergence of postcolonial cultural nationalism, which resulted in postcolonial nation-states seeking greater control of their cultural heritage. The other was the Nazi looting of European museums (and Jewish-owned private collections) during the war. Curtailing the illicit trade in cultural property, which was and still is a problem, became a major preoccupation of UNESCO, which was established in 1945, and its various treaties and conventions on the subject have provided a regulatory framework and offer legal and ethical guidance in such matters (although these are not universally signed and adopted by member states).

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

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.

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 the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, 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.

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.”

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Art Museums and Social Hierarchy – Part II

Last Sundays at the National Gallery of Jamaica, December 31, 2017, feat. Nexus Performing Arts Company (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

This is the second part of a two-part blog post. The first part can be read here.

How can [art] participate in networks of power that its content willfully 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

When I moved to Jamaica in 1984, I encountered a very different situation, where colonialism and its aftermath had put into question the sort of cultural ownership I had taken for granted when going to museums while I was growing up. There has been some progress with that since then but museums are still faraway institutions in the lives of most in Jamaica, visited only in the event of a compulsory school trip or heard about on the news, if at all. That is the hard reality everybody who works in this field should face, and seek to address. There is no glossing it over.

This question of cultural ownership and identification, of articulating a cultural “us,” no matter how complex and fraught this process may be, has been a driving force in the development of postcolonial Jamaica’s cultural production, including the visual arts. It certainly explains the immense popularity of works of art such as Barrington Watson’s painting Mother and Child (1958), a very relatable, intimate representation of a black mother and her young child, or the ceramic and bronze head sculptures of Gene Pearson, which represent a classical, aestheticized vision of blackness with which Jamaicans identify as readily as my family and I did with the Petrus Christus portrait of a young girl.

Gene Pearson – untitled ceramic head (c2000), Private Collection

But perhaps even with these very popular art works, the sense of identification is often too unquestioning, and it is not appreciated sufficiently how this is mediated by other factors, such as the ability to own such works of art, or to have comfortable access to them by feeling “at home” in the museums that own them. And such affirmative, collective artistic images have, historically, also proven to be problematic for other reasons, because they leave no space for otherness, for minorities that do not fit the image projected, and because they promote a static, often even reductive sense of self, that leaves little or no room for change, complexity and critical engagement.

One of the oldest and most basic criticisms of postcolonial cultural nationalism—of which postcolonial public museums are typically both products and agents—is that this ideology has served the interests of postcolonial elites under the guise of cultural populism, that it promotes an ostensibly seamless, consensual cultural identity that is appropriated from the popular but fails to empower the popular masses or to recognize the complex, dynamic and often oppositional nature of the popular culture. Museums in the postcolonial Caribbean are, far more so than in my native Belgium, regarded as organizations that serve the interests of the privileged few (or serve as attractions for the tourists, but I’ll leave that for another post). This perception is particularly strong for art museums, since art patronage, in its traditional form (and there are other options), is almost inevitably associated with wealth and social status.

It does not help that the museum concept itself is, historically, deeply rooted in the colonial enterprise, in the histories of conquest, empire, and exploitation, and the self-justifying, propagandist cultural narratives that have been spun around that. That is not only so for colonial museums such as the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, but also for the larger, well-known “universal survey” museums that were set established to celebrate the ascent and dominance of Western culture, such as the Louvre, the British Museum and, for that matter, the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Several major museums and cultural institutions in the Caribbean also have their origins in the colonial era and this casts long shadows, especially in terms of how these institutions are seen by the public and, arguably even, how some of them still operate. The Institute of Jamaica, for instance, was established in 1879 under the patronage of Governor Anthony Musgrave and initially served as the cultural arm of late colonial policy in Jamaica.

Central galleries, National Gallery of Jamaica (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

Caribbean museums of more recent vintage are, furthermore, often based on models that are derived from those histories. I have, for instance, always been fascinated by the rather uncritical adoption of the “National Gallery” concept and designation in the establishment of public art museums in the region, although this was obviously motivated by the sense of national prestige and validation that comes with that designation. While the actual practice of these art museums deviates in crucial ways from their models, I am left to wonder why there has been no greater effort to rethink the concept, and naming, of those public art museums, in ways which would have been more relevant to the postcolonial Caribbean and which would have come with less problematic ideological baggage.Read More »

Travel Notes While Rome is Burning – Part I


Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to New York City for a few days. I arrived in the city on the day of the Women’s March, January 20, too late to see anything, let alone to participate in the march, but still early enough to have to get out of my taxi to walk to my hotel, since the blocks around 6th Avenue were still closed for traffic—a minor inconvenience. What the Women’s March represented, or sought to represent, as a way to challenge current political developments however set the tone for what was on my mind during my visit, so here is part one of some of my preliminary musings. (I also did two studio visits, with Simon Benjamin and Shoshanna Weinberger, who will be the subjects of forthcoming blog posts.)

One of my key interests, as a curator and art historian, is the role of art in society, and particularly the role of art in social change and times of crisis—a big question in the Caribbean context and, for all its contradictions and contentions, one of the driving forces in the development of art in the region. The question of what art can do, or must do, in times of crisis is sharply posed today. Throughout the world, worst-case scenarios are playing out, politically, socially and environmentally, and a lot of the things many of us have taken for granted are under active threat. This includes the viability of our political and governmental systems, social injustices and tensions that seem to be worsening, despite the social justice activism and changes of recent decades, and even the very sustainability of human life on this planet.

Historically, the worst of times have often produced compelling art, and have caused artists, cultural institutions, and others in the art world to reflect on the role of art in such moments. In the late 1930s, as dark clouds were gathering over Nazi Germany, Bertold Brecht wrote his poem To Those Who Follow in our Wake and asked: “What times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many misdeeds?” Brecht’s poem confronted artists with their social responsibilities and the capacity of art to question things and to raise consciousness when the times call for it. I am not suggesting that other artistic choices have no legitimacy, even in times of crisis, but whether art, as a form symbolic intervention, can make a real, tangible and positive intervention into the socio-political dynamics of its time is an important and urgent question. And I added the word “positive,” because we also have to be mindful of the dangers of propaganda, which can be mobilized to promote the mindless acceptance of detrimental political ideas, as is illustrated by the tragically effective propaganda machine of Nazi Germany.

1024px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Massacre_of_the_Innocents_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe pitfalls and contradictions have been there from the moment art started asking social and political questions: the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel, who was active during the turbulent times of the Counter-Reformation, for instance, has conventionally been represented as a subversive critical voice who heroically risked his personal welfare to lambast the Spanish Habsburg rule of Flanders. His Massacre of the Innocents (c1565-67) places the biblical story in the context of 16th century Flanders and was overpainted extensively, presumably after the artist’s death, to soften some of its more gruesome and specific details. It is generally accepted that the painting makes reference to the Grand Duke of Alba, a Spanish diplomat and general who was sent to Flanders to quell religious and political dissent with harsh repressive actions, a rule of terror which resulted in about 18,000 executions. Yet representatives of Habsburg rule in Flanders, such as Cardinal Granvelle, were also among Bruegel’s main patrons and the question arises of whether artists who benefit from the power hierarchies of their time, in terms of patronage, can also legitimately and effectively talk back to power.

This question is not unimportant today, since the proliferation of high-profile art fairs and spectacular record auction results has reinforced the role of art as a luxury commodity, to be acquired by “high net worth” and “ultra-high net worth” individuals in a market that is controlled by powerful brokers, dealers and benefitted from by a few lucky artists. The hype and celebrity cult that presently surround the art market is an integral part of the current cultural climate and, despite its aspirational qualities, seems to be symptomatic of a world in which the socio-economic divide is widening rather than shrinking. While this suggests that the art world is fiddling while Rome is burning, art is also more politicized than ever.

Many artists are making powerful statements, implied or explicit, about our troubled world; cultural institutions are politicized as never before, in various ways and for better and for worse; and the critical reception of art, from critics and general audiences, is equally politicized, instantaneous, and increasingly contentious (as the responses to the recent unveiling of the Obama portraits perfectly illustrate). And, because of social media and other live online resources, art and the debates that surround it travel faster and more widely than ever, worlds beyond what would have been the reach of the likes of Pieter Bruegel, when access to art was almost exclusively moderated by ownership and high social status. Ironically, thus, the political side of today’s art world is mediated by the same mechanisms of circulation that produce and sustain the art celebrities and art market hype, and the manner in which those two worlds interface and collide raises new questions about whether and how art can be a catalyst for meaningful social change in the current context.

Part II of this blog post can be found here.