“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.

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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

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

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From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 2

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Eugene Hyde – Good Friday, from the Casualties Series, 1978 (Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica)

Here is part two of a two-part excerpt from my PhD dissertation “Between National and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011). The excerpt is from the Introduction. Part one can be found here. (c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved

Partha Chatterjee has pointed out that the challenge facing anticolonial cultural nationalism was to “to fashion a ‘modern’ national culture that is nevertheless not Western” (1993, 6) and added that “the search for a postcolonial modernity has been tied, from its very birth, with its struggle against modernity” (75). Anticolonial and postcolonial Modernist art has indeed developed in a conflicted dialogue with Western Modernism, reinforced by the fact that many postcolonial artists and cultural scholars have studied or worked in the metropolitan West. Still today, it is one of the most charged questions in the postcolonial mimicry debate, as is illustrated by the Indian expatriate art critic Annie Paul’s argument that mainstream Jamaican artists and art narratives “parrot” Western, high Modernist models, with a particular predilection for abstraction (1997).

Paul’s position is, in itself, highly problematic. First of all, the relationship between non-Western cultural nationalism and Modernism cannot be understood if Modernism is conflated with the formalist, High Modernist notion of art as an autonomous aesthetic preoccupation. Modernism is a much broader, more multifaceted phenomenon and the aspects of Western Modernism that attracted anticolonial and postcolonial nationalists are those equally important ones that accommodated social and political content and intent, such as expressionism and realism. While there has been some experimentation with abstraction, as is illustrated by the Cuban propaganda posters and a few “formalist rebellions” among artists who felt confined by cultural nationalism, representation has been the norm in most anti- and postcolonial art and this has certainly been the case in Jamaica, where art has always had a strong figurative focus.

Furthermore, the tendency to concede the authorship and rightful ownership of Modernism entirely to the metropolitan West needs to be challenged (Stam & Shohat 1998, 40). Modernism was a fundamentally transnational phenomenon, in which non-Western artists and intellectuals such as Wifredo Lam and Aimé Césaire and their international travels played a defining role. Latin American Modernism, in particular, has developed simultaneously with and sometimes ahead of European and US-American Modernism (Ades 1989, 125-149). While these contributions need to be reclaimed, the effects of Western metropolitan dominance in Modernism should not be downplayed either. There is an unresolved tension in anticolonial nationalist art movements between the desire to satisfy the cultural requirements of nationalism and those of the Western-focused “aesthetic internationalism” of Modernism (Shohat & Stam 1998, 40).

The primary means to make Jamaican Modernism “not Western” has been, to use Chatterjee’s term, the “appropriation of the popular” (1993, 72) but it has been a selective, vertical appropriation that relegates popular culture to being a “low culture” source for “high art” rather than a full-fledged part of the national culture. Norman Manley’s 1939 speech suggests that the artists – and he called them “our best young men,” in a remarkable, gender-biased failure to acknowledge the role of female artists such as his own wife in the nationalist movement – belonged to a separate category from “the people” whose culture they embraced and ennobled in their work, although several of the young members of the nationalist Jamaican art movement they mentored originally came from poor rural and urban backgrounds. Such views about the exceptional status of the artist are also evident in the work of C.L.R. James, who wrote in The Artist in the Caribbean: “A supreme artist exercises an influence on the national consciousness which is incalculable. He is created by it but he himself illuminates and amplifies it, bringing the past up to date and charting the future” (1977, 185).  The underlying issue is that nationalist art movements such as Jamaica’s have, in spite of the populist rhetoric and aversion to formalism, not fundamentally challenged the notion of “high culture” itself. The Jamaican nationalist movement may have originated in a genuine desire to transform society but it generated what was ultimately a new elite culture.

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From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 1

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Edna Manley – Paul Bogle (1965), ciment fondu, Morant Bay Courthouse, now removed (photo source:Wikimedia, Flickr: Dubdem Sound System :: Jamaican Tour 2009)

While I work on some urgent publication deadlines and some new blog posts (and mark papers!), here is another text from my personal archives: the first of a two-part excerpt from my PhD dissertation “Between National and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011). The excerpt is from the Introduction. Part two can be found here.

(c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved

Nearly fifteen years have passed since I drafted this chapter and there have been significant changes in the context since then – it would be interesting to hear from my readers what these changes may be.

One central assumption in almost all the literature on postcolonial culture, even in the most strident critiques of cultural nationalism, is the view that the arts can be mobilized to effect, or prevent, social and political change. Such ideas were first put forward by pioneering anticolonial and racial activists from the late 19th to the mid 20th century. It became the foundation of cultural and educational policy for postcolonial states and a strategy for popular resistance and liberation movements alike.

The idea that art has socially transformative potential appears in two general, overlapping forms, which are by no means exclusive to the postcolonial world. The first is the propagandist view, which posits that the content, form and presentation of art can and must make a direct intervention in society, for instance by protesting injustice, by promoting a particular political, religious or ideological perspective, or by extolling or denigrating certain political leaders. This view has been influential in the postcolonial Caribbean although there has been resistance against the more doctrinarian forms of propaganda art on the part of many artists and intellectuals. C.L.R. James, for instance, scornfully dismisses “socialist realism” in What is Art? (1993, 200), an essay in Beyond a Boundary, his famous 1963 book on the politics of cricket, in which he argues for the “high art” status of cricket by appealing to universalist aesthetic concepts such as “beauty,” “structural perfection,” and “significant form.”

A similar reluctance to dismiss ideals of artistic freedom and aesthetic universality can be seen in the Cuban constitution of 1976, which states that “there is freedom of artistic creation as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution. There is freedom of artistic expression.”[1] With other words, the form of art is free but its content is subject to state interference. When exactly the content of art comes into conflict with the principles of the Revolution is, of course, subject to interpretation and this has varied significantly over time. Cuban government patronage has also actively interfered with artistic form, by rewarding artists who work in certain styles. There were times when it advocated a more dogmatic “socialist realism” – as happened briefly in the early 1960s and again during the 1970s, when Soviet influence was at its peak. Formalist trends, in contrast, have been tolerated but not encouraged and have, at times, been criticized for their association with American cultural imperialism. But generally, Cuban artists have enjoyed a fair degree of artistic freedom and this has made Cuban art more diverse and vibrant than in most other Communist countries. Cuban poster art from the 1960s and 70s, for instance, combined classic propagandist content with experimental form, including abstraction, and sophisticated visual caricature. Artists have occasionally challenged the Cuban government with overtly critical and satirical works, as could be seen in contemporary art from the 1980s and 1990s, but such episodes have usually been short-lived and subject to censorship. (Camnitzer 1994; Block & Mosquera 2001)

Propaganda art is nonetheless very common throughout the Caribbean and ranges from the crudest political propaganda to more subtle pedagogic approaches that advocate certain lifestyles or world views. Much of what can be classified as propaganda art has, naturally, been initiated by the colonial and postcolonial governments of the region, as is illustrated by the ubiquitous, and often controversial, official monuments, but a lot of popular art also qualifies as propaganda, as in Rastafarian street art which assertively promotes Rastafarian religious and political views.

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Mural paintings on the Monica Bernard Building, East Street, Kingston, photographed in 2011 (Photo copyright Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved)

The second cluster of ideas about the socially transformative potential of the arts is the more general and far less controversial view that expressive culture is essential to personhood and collective identity formation and that its production and consumption should therefore be encouraged and facilitated. It is for this reason that art is almost always included in school curricula and used for therapeutic purposes with the mentally and physically ill. The political and ideological implications of the belief that art is a fundamental human need rather than a luxury are wide-ranging and can, among others, be used to justify public expenditure on cultural programs and institutions, even to those who would be critical of obvious propaganda art. Notions of personhood and collective identity are, however, in themselves deeply political and the promotion of art for its edifying power therefore often amounts to indirect propaganda.

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