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 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.

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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.”

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From the Archives: “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.

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From the Archives: Dangerously Close to Tourist Art

I have not posted as often as I’d like recently, even though I have several new posts working on, as I have been bogged down with project and publication deadlines (and a nasty bout of flu) – not complaining about anything, except for the latter. So instead of a new post, I am presenting another piece from my archives, a slightly edited  excerpt from the chapter on art and tourism in my doctoral dissertation, Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica (2011, Emory University), as it involves a subject that has been central to my practice as an art historian and cultural researcher. The chapter is based on research I conducted in the early to late 2000s and also presented when I served as visiting faculty at New York University (2003) and, subsequently, as Research Fellow at the Edna Manley College (2006-2009).  More such excerpts will follow, as well as,  in due time, new research on the subject. All rights reserved by the author (C)

While the popular, despite the ambivalence and contention that surround it, is generally recognized as the source of cultural truth and authenticity in Jamaican culture, tourism is seen as its negation. Phrases such as “this is dangerously close to tourist art” have been part and parcel of the critical discourse about Jamaican art, as if “tourist art” were some dreadful disease from which true Jamaican culture had to be quarantined. Much of what is discussed in this chapter is “airport art” and emphatically “for sale” and thus challenges my own prior assumptions about cultural authenticity, aesthetic value, the ideological role of art, and good taste – moralized judgments which are shared by many core players in the mainstream art world and which have caused tourist art not to be recognized as a part of modern Jamaican art production. Scholarly attention has been paid, recently, to early Caribbean tourist imagery (e.g. Thompson 2006), and there are now a few collectors of early Jamaican tourist art and imagery, aided by the eBay internet auction craze. While these vintage items have been consecrated as “Jamaicana” – an effect of their rarity and age – tourist art as such remains virtually unstudied, save for a few criticisms of its often racist and sexist content. There can be no credible analysis of the dynamics of the Jamaican art world without considering tourist art on its own merits, however, and for this purpose, preconceptions have to be put aside.

The term tourist art covers a wide range of possibilities, from cheap, mass-produced souvenir trinkets – much of which is now imported from East Asia or Haiti and only tenuously customized for the Jamaican market – to works that conform to the norms of mainstream art but are marketed to tourists, usually because the subject matter and formal characteristics match the expectations of that market. Somewhere in the middle are handmade but standardized items such as the Rasta-themed woodcarvings that are currently the most “typical” locally made tourist art. Not all of what I have listed here as tourist art would be defined as “art” by their makers, sellers or buyers but I regard them as such because they have, as Ruth Phillips and Christopher Steiner have argued, “all the communicative and signifying qualities of ‘legitimate’ or ‘authentic’ works of art” (1999, 15) and generally employ the same media and techniques.

Tourism is a quintessentially capitalist and, in postcolonies such as Jamaica, neo-colonial endeavor, of which tourist art has been an integral part. To quote Phillips and Steiner again: “The inscription of Western modes of commodity production has been one of the most important aspects of the global extension of Western colonial power. Moreover, the role of this process in transforming indigenous constructions of the object has intensified rather than diminished in many parts of the world since the formal demise of colonial rule” (1999, 4). I am therefore skeptical of the celebratory tone of some of the literature on tourism, cultural commodification and cultural agency (e.g. Appadurai 1986; Carcía Canclini 1995). Too often, it is implied that commodification is inherently empowering for all involved and that the global spread of capitalism into every aspect of human life is as desirable as it has been inevitable. I believe that the jury is still out on both counts. As Jamaica Kincaid has powerfully argued in A Small Place (1988), tourism and economic need make an unwholesome combination in poor postcolonial societies, especially those that were shaped by the experience of slavery, the ultimate form of human commodification. Tourism poses serious social and cultural challenges in such countries and any critical appraisal of tourist art must be regarded in that context.

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