From the Archives: Ken Abendana Spencer (1929-2005)

empty-art-gallery-in-museum

Here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011), which is taken from a section which explores how artists in Jamaica have marketed their work – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.

The post is not illustrated, as I was unable to get permissions from the Spencer estate in a timely manner at the time of submitting my dissertation and am not able to pursue this solely for the purpose of this impromptu post. Reproductions of Ken Spencer’s work are however widely available online and I encourage readers to search and peruse these.

[There are a number of] Jamaican artists who have devised effective individual marketing strategies and acquired significant wealth in the process. Barrington Watson, as we have seen, has controlled the promotion and pricing of his work by operating his own galleries. His friend and contemporary Ken [Abendana] Spencer (1929-2005), who peddled his works to locals, expatriates and tourists, was a more extreme example.[1]

Spencer started out selling his sketches on a street corner in Downtown Kingston. He joined Barrington Watson in London in 1952 but did not study art there, as Watson had hoped. Instead he started selling his works directly to Jamaican professionals who were hungry for reminders of home. (Greenland 2006) On returning to Jamaica, he continued this direct marketing strategy and Watson remembered that “he would go around the island in a car, and sell his work in Montego Bay and Negril. He would put a bunch of works into a car and his idea was to come back with none” (Ibid.). He personally visited potential buyers, many of them first-time art buyers, and often left the hesitant with a stack of paintings to ponder, to come back a few days later to an almost guaranteed sale (Moo Young 2006). His paintings can be seen in many hotel and bank lobbies, the offices of doctors, dentists and other professionals, and middle class homes.

Most of Spencer’s works represent “traditional” Jamaican subject matter, such as market women and mento musicians – reassuring images of “Old Time Jamaica,” as one contributor to his obituary put it (Greenland 2006). They are painted in a recognizable, confident gestural style: typically, the image is invoked by just a few broad brush or palette knife strokes and set against a monochrome background, often the white gesso undercoating of the canvas. [His large, prominently placed and curvilinear signature served as his trademark.] Spencer’s sketchy semi-abstract style – which in itself challenges the assumption that Jamaican audiences do not respond to abstraction – also reflected his goal to produce and sell as many works as possible. He reputedly worked on several canvases simultaneously, which were lined up so that he would not have to clean off his brushes to change colors, and thus saved time and paints. (Moo Young 2006) He also once told David Boxer that a painting was not economical if it took more than 30 minutes to complete – the sort of stories that horrified “knowing” art lovers in Jamaica.[2]

Spencer’s expansive, jovial personality played a crucial role in his sales and he cultivated his image as a notorious eccentric. He lived in Portland in a self-designed, six-storied castle and willingly entertained local and tourist visitors there, although it was implied that works would be bought. Spencer also frequented the New Kingston hotel bars in search of sales. The art dealer and framer Herman van Asbroeck tells a story that illustrates Spencer’s ingenious “traveling salesman” tactics:

A year ago a man came into the shop and put a Ken Spencer on the desk. He wanted to have it framed. I asked him: ‘You bought a Ken Spencer?’ And he replied: ‘No, I won it!’ Apparently, he had come to Kingston for a builder’s conference and a group of them had gone out for a drink. They ended up in the Hilton at 2:00 a.m. Suddenly a gentleman approached their table and asked if they wanted to play a game. He told them he had a number in his pocket and then he marked out cards 1 to 5. Everyone took a number and the customer in my shop was the winner. Then Ken Spencer introduced himself. By the end of the night, all the people at the table had bought paintings! (Greenland 2006)

These anecdotes, also, marked Spencer as one who was not a “serious” artist.

While he occasionally produced more ambitious works, Spencer was not an artist who strove to produce “masterpieces” but one who deliberately produced generic paintings that were recognizably “a Ken Spencer.” [He] did not significantly pressure local cultural institutions for public recognition and never had an exhibition in a gallery.[3] When asked why, he claimed that he did not need such exposure because all of Jamaica was his gallery (Moo Young 2006). His sense of achievement thus came from the prevalence of his work in the Jamaican environment. Others, however, took up his cause and already during his lifetime there were heated arguments within the art community about Spencer’s artistic merits and the NGJ’s neglect of his work was cited as evidence of the elitism of the Jamaican art establishment.

Spencer was an undeniably gifted painter and the local popularity of his work is a cultural phenomenon that warrants its own recognition. The recent attempts at inserting him into the national canons, however, obscure that had he handled his work differently, he could certainly have been a recognized member of the post-Independence mainstream. Spencer was unapologetic about being primarily motivated by economic gain and opted to disregard the processes by which artistic worth is conventionally determined. He thus represents an instructive counterpart to those contemporary artists who resist the forces of the market and, despite the fact that he had far less to say, succeeded where they have failed by reaching deep into Jamaican society. Spencer’s choices also separate him from Barrington Watson, who used more conventional art sales methods and always asserted the “high art” status of his work. While Watson’s exact position in the local art hierarchies has been contentious, his inclusion in the national canons is quite secure, unlike Spencer whose chances at consecration as a “Jamaican master” will always be tenuous, because he broke the codes of “high art” in his pursuit of commercial success.

Endnotes

[1] He was commonly known as Ken Abendana Spencer during his lifetime but the lawyers responsible for his estate insist that his legal name was “Kenneth Abondarno Spencer” (Forth Blake 2006).

[2] Personal communication, David Boxer, January 11, 2006.

[3] The NGJ owns three Spencers but none are on permanent display. One of these works was transferred from the IoJ collection in 1974 and the other two were part of a major donation by the then Chairman of the NGJ Aaron Matalon in 1999, which sought to address lacunas in the NGJ’s collection. While there may have been other expressions of discontent on Spencer’s part, I know of only one incident, a year or two before he died, when he complained to the NGJ Registrar about not being adequately represented in the NGJ’s collection (personal communication, Roxanne Silent, Registrar, NGJ, March 12, 2008).

SOURCES

Greenland, Jonathan. “Remembering Ken Spencer.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1-2

Moo Young, Howard. “Jamaica Is My Gallery.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1

Advertisements

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

Eugene Hyde - Good Friday
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.

Read More »

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

450px-PaulBogle-MorantBay
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.

East street rasta murals
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.

Read More »

The End of an Era

Boxer - persistent themes catalogue cover 1988.JPG
Cover of Some Persistent Themes, the catalogue of a solo exhibition by David Boxer held a this home in 1988

This is a sad moment in Jamaica’s cultural and artistic history. I understand that the house of David Boxer, the late art historian, artist and collector, is slated for demolition, to make way for what will probably be another run-of-the-mill apartment complex, of which Kingston hardly needs any more. For those who did not know him, Boxer was the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Director/Curator from 1975 to 1991 and then its Chief Curator until 2012. His art collection was one of the most significant in the island, and indeed in the Caribbean, and covered the breadth and depth of Jamaican art and visual culture. His house was a must-visit for any overseas-based art researcher coming to Jamaica and he always welcomed such visitors. Many well-attended and memorable art-related receptions and exhibitions took place there. The house and collection have been featured in many art journals, most recently in Art+Auction in May 2017. Boxer’s own art was ground-breaking in the Jamaican context and deeply influenced the trajectory of many younger artists. He received the Order of Jamaica in 2016.

Boxer died nearly two years ago, after a long illness, but it had been his vision, expressed on many occasions, for his house and collection to be preserved as a museum. Setting up a museum like this requires significant start-up and operational funds, a workable legal framework and business plan, and specialist professional oversight and adequate staffing. Usually some form of state support is also needed for such initiatives to be sustainable. Perhaps Boxer’s plans were not realistic but his hopes for a museum represented an important implied recognition of his collection’s public cultural value, and he had actually established a foundation to this effect.

The house itself has architectural and historical value, even though it had been significantly expanded while Boxer owned it (and mainly to accommodate his growing collection). It is a quite beautiful example of the Cuban-Spanish style in Jamaica, with some Art Deco influences, and with screen-printed floor tiles and other period details. Very few such dwellings remain in Kingston and if the current trend is anything to go by, they will soon all be gone. Other famous Jamaicans had also lived there. According to Brett Ashmeade-Hawkins, the house was built in the 1920s and originally owned by Douglas James Verity, who then sold it to Director of Tourism, John Pringle in 1961. Margaret Bernal recently told me that the Jamaican national anthem was actually written there (the Verity and Sherlock families were related by marriage). In other countries, such sites would have been proactively protected and preserved, or at least thoroughly documented. The Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera museums in Mexico City and the Frick Collection in NYC come to mind.

Part of the collection has already been dispersed. A number of works had been sold prior to and after Boxer’s passing and there was an auction some weeks ago, accompanied by an estate sale (which some have distressingly described as a flea market, with items lying on the floor). The auction appears to have been mainly of secondary works from the collection and also included a significant amount of Boxer’s own work — too much of it for a single auction in my estimation. According to a newspaper report, about half of what was on offer sold during and after the auction.

It is as yet unclear what has happened, or is to happen, to the most important works in the collection which included iconic examples of Jamaican art that surely ought to have been in public hands – major works by the likes of John Dunkley, Edna Manley, Ronald Moody, Carl Abrahams, Kapo, Everald Brown, David Miller Senior and Junior, Colin Garland, and Milton George, along with key examples of Boxer’s own work. A promotional Observer article just before the auction cryptically stated that certain works from the collection would be not be sold but would be exhibited “from time to time.” No specifics were provided, in terms of which works have been reserved for this purpose and how these will be kept and exhibited. Will these works be available to the public, students and researchers? Are they properly stored and conserved? More specifically, will they be available to or at the National Gallery? The house and collection may be private property, and what happens with private property is as such private business, but significant cultural property is a matter of public interest. A clear public statement from the Estate would be helpful to quell the current speculation and anxiety.

Read More »

The Wheels of History: Museums, Restitution and the Caribbean – Part 2

canopy figure
Jamaican Taino – Figure with canopy (facing left) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is the second of a two-part post on the restitution debate and its significance to the Caribbean. The first part explores the general context and this second part explores the implications for the Caribbean.

The Caribbean was one of the first world areas to be colonized by Europe, and was completely transformed in the process, with momentous changes in the population and culture. Inevitably, the Caribbean was also one of the early sources for European museums as these emerged, in tandem  with the colonial project. The objects and natural specimens that were acquired and documented in Jamaica by Hans Sloane, who served as the physician of the colonial governor from 1687 to 1689, for instance, became part of the foundational collections of  the British Museum. As I have discussed in another post, certain illustrations in Sloane’s book A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (2 vols., 1707-1725) are among the earliest sources on the material culture and arts of the enslaved Africans in the island.

Having been present at the birth of the modern museum, so to speak, we could expect the Caribbean to be strongly invested in the debates that surround the subject, including the question of postcolonial restitution. If what I have personally observed is anything to go by, however, most persons in the Caribbean who are aware of these debates are in agreement that restitution is necessary, but there does not seem to be a lot of passion or discussion about the subject. I assume that there is a prevailing sense that this is about “elsewhere,” mainly about Europe and Africa, and that this does not directly apply to the Caribbean. While there are indeed no high-profile restitution requests from or pertaining to the Caribbean at the present time, there are however significant Caribbean holdings in European and North American museums that were problematically acquired during the colonial era, and some of these could certainly be the subject of restitution requests on the part of Caribbean countries. And conversely, there are public and private collections in the Caribbean that could be the target of such requests, while regional practices with regards to acquisitions often fall short of international standards with regards to provenance. The subject is certainly worthy of a dissertation but I will discuss a few specific instances that have been the subject of some contention.

Bird man
Jamaican Taino – The Bird Man (800-1500) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum holds three Taino wood sculptures of Zemis (deities) from Jamaica, which are among the best known examples of Taino art. They were found in 1792 by a surveyor in a cave in Carpenter’s Mountain in what was then the Parish of Vere, now southern Manchester. They were in 1799 shown and reviewed at the Society of Antiquaries in London and subsequently entered the British Museum collection. None of them are on view at the present time, although they have been exhibited regularly, at the British Museum and elsewhere, and they have also been studied, written about and reproduced with regular frequency. The canopy figure, which is the smallest of the three sculptures, is the most recently exhibited: it was shown in 2015-2016 at the National Museum of Singapore in the exhibition Treasures of the World’s Cultures, a touring exhibition of works from the British Museum collection.

None of the Carpenter’s Mountain carvings have however been exhibited in Jamaica or, for that matter, elsewhere in the Caribbean. Plaster casts were sent to the Institute of Jamaica in 1939 and there has been some speculation that this may have been in response to an early restitution request, although there is no such record (Ostapkowicz 2015, Part I). These plaster casts were part of the permanent exhibits at the Taino Museum (formerly known Arawak Museum), that opened in 1965 at White Marl, a major Taino settlement and midden site in St Catherine. That museum has been closed for several years (with some plans for it to be relocated to Twin Sisters Cave in Hellshire) and the casts are at the National Museum Jamaica. This situation, too, requires some attention.

The National Gallery of Jamaica requested the loan of these carvings on two occasions.  The first was when David Boxer was preparing his inaugural exhibition for the recently established National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), which was to be a first survey of Jamaican art history. According to what he repeatedly told me, the loan was declined or not even responded to, and he therefore decided to survey the art from the start of the colonial period onward. The resulting exhibition was Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1975) and was a seminal effort in how Jamaica’s art history was articulated. The second attempt was for the Arawak Vibrations exhibition in 1994, which was presented on the occasion of Jamaica’s quincentennial, but apparently the NGJ was, ironically, unable to meet the British Museum’s stringent loan requirements.

AN00242103_001_l
Jamaican Taino – Male figure (Boinayel?), 15th century © The Trustees of the British Museum

Read More »

In the Trenches: On Being the Subject of Hostile Art Works

350px-Michelangelo,_Giudizio_Universale_29
Michelangelo – King Minos in The Last Judgement (1535-1541) , Sistine Chapel, Vatican

There is a long and not always auspicious history of artists using their work to retaliate against critics and other personal enemies. One famous example is the King Minos figure in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (1535-1541) fresco in the Sistine Chapel, which was very controversial at the time of its creation (and on several occasions after), because of the frontal (male and female) nudity and the orgiastic quality of the composition. (There is a fascinating TEDx talk art historian Elizabeth Lev on the scandal caused by the Last Judgment – I highly recommend viewing it.) King Minos, who is in the bottom of the hell section of the painting, donkey-eared and besieged by demons and serpents, is actually a portrait of Biagio da Cesena, the master of ceremonies at the Vatican, who had questioned the fresco’s suitability for the Sistine Chapel and notoriously exclaimed it would be more suitable for a tavern or a public bath. De Cesena had objected to Michelangelo’s artistic retaliation to Pope Paul III but the Pope refused to intervene, quipping that he had no jurisdiction in hell, and the Last Judgement remained as it had been completed.

There was at least one more such reference to a critic in the fresco – to the satirist, critic (and pornographer) Pietro Aretino, who is depicted as the elderly St Bartholomew. And more oddly, the flayed skin held by St Bartholomew (who was flayed as part of his martyrdom) is believed to feature an anguished (or angry) self-portrait of Michelangelo himself. It is much harder to decipher what Michelangelo is saying in this particular instance, but it may well be that he is depicting himself as the target of an unfair attack. Aretino had written Michelangelo a letter about the Last Judgment in which he expressed similar concerns as de Cesena subsequently expressed and had, after being dismissed by the artist, lambasted Michelangelo for being gay and “godless,” which were potentially dangerous allegations even in Renaissance Italy. Ironically, Aretino was himself known to have had sexual relationships with men.

michelangelobuonarroti-thelastjudgmentdetail.jpg
Michelangelo – St Bartholomew in The Last Judgement (1535-1541) , Sistine Chapel, Vatican

Such art works make for good anecdotes and some are in fact quite entertaining – having our enemies dragged by demons into the burning pits of hell is something we all fantasize about at times. But while they were meant to “throw shade” at the person depicted, they also shed light on the personality and intentions of the artist, as the creation of such works sometimes reflects oversized and fragile egos, an unwillingness or inability to contend with criticism, petty vindictiveness, and even clear personal malice. Tellingly, very few are good works of art (OK, OK, I’ll make an exception for the Last Judgement).

This post is not focused on the satire to which public figures should expect to be subjected in the modern world, although even there the question arises about where where the line should be drawn between “acceptable satire,” subject to the principles of freedom of speech, and malicious, personally demeaning representations that may  shade into hate speech. Locally, the cartoons of the Jamaican politician and prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller by the Jamaica Observer cartoonist Clovis are a controversial example and I do believe that lines were often crossed there, with depictions of Mrs Simpson-Miller as an ignorant “ghetto” virago that were arguably sexist, classist and even racist.

Trump 2
One of the many Trump Cartoons that appear on the daily basis

But what to say about Trump? He is such a problematic public figure, and such a threat to important social, cultural and political values, that it is hard to feel sorry for how he is depicted in the many cartoons, memes, comedy routines and late night TV roasts that pop up constantly in the USA and elsewhere in the world (as well as the occasional work of art). Most are funny and, while politically pointed, not personally offensive, as the one above illustrates, although it is obviously hard to resist the lure of his crazy, self-inflicted hairdo. Normally, I get uncomfortable when public figures are depicted in a sexually demeaning fashion, as these may amount to unwarranted personal violations, and there have been a few such of Trump that focused on alleged penis size etcetera. But then again, his openly sexist attitudes towards women, his own appearance, which does not exactly qualify as the “perfect 10” standard to which he holds women, and the allegations of unwanted sexual approaches to various women, make it harder to object when he is so depicted.

not-dressed-conquering-juan-carols-sodomized
Ines Doujak – Not Dressed for Conquering/Haute Couture 04 Transport (2011)

But to return to art, a well-known instance of an art work that raised questions about the representation of public figures is Not Dressed for Conquering/Haute Couture 04 Transport (2011), a mixed media installation by the radical feminist Austrian artist Ines Doujak.  In this work the former Spanish King Juan Carlos I is sodomized by the late Bolivian labour leader and feminist Domitila Barrios de Chungara, who is in turn sodomized by a dog. It was included in 2015 in an exhibition at Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, which was temporarily closed by the museum director Bartomeu Marí, who also fired two of the exhibition curators — an act of censorship triggered by this particular work that outraged many in the international art world. Marí subsequently resigned and the work has since then been shown elsewhere in Europe and South America.

Most of the discussion was focused on the depiction of the Spanish monarch, but it appears to me that Domitila Barrios, who is in fact the central figure in the work, fared no better, and it is not clear to what end exactly, as there has been very little discussion of the actual content and intent of the work. To me, that is where Not Dressed for Conquering is problematic and a lot of Doujak’s work can in fact be construed as sensationalist and sexually exploitative, of the very women and feminist interests she claims to represent. So perhaps lines were crossed in Not Dressed for Conquering, and arguably not those that attracted the most public attention, but I do not think that censorship was the answer, as pointed critiques and careful analysis of the work would have been far more useful. Doujak has, ironically, been sheltered from any such critiques by being “martyred” as a victim of censorship.Read More »

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.

Read More »