Throwing Words at the Status Quo

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

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

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

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

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 I understand that this law, in its original form, dates from 1834 and, although there have been calls for it to be repealed, there has been no action on that to date.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But more importantly, we need to remember that Jamaican culture has captured the global imagination exactly because of its powerful, inspiring challenge of the status quo – a rebellious spirit which has become sadly jaded and attenuated in recent decades and for which there is insufficient tolerance and appreciation in Jamaica itself. For the local status quo is not amenable to any real, substantive threats to its ever more entrenched privileged position, which is now fueled and supported by the socially aspirational culture that has overtaken Jamaican society. If Jamaica’s rebel culture is accommodated in that context, it is merely in a cosmetic, co-opted and disempowered manner.

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

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The National Gallery and Public Scholarship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Ownership and the Cultural Sector

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At the opening of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Summer Exhibition, July 28, 2019

It’s a well-know dilemma: the support of the State is almost always needed to establish and maintain cultural institutions, irrespective of whether these are part of the public sector or privately initiated, and of whether they are publicly funded, in full or in part, or merely get in-principle support and blessings. In Jamaica, public cultural institutions such as the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and the National Gallery of Jamaica might not have existed if there had not been a timely intersection of the cultural sector with State politics and some of the personalities involved.

But this history of State involvement is also the Achilles heel of the Jamaican cultural sector, especially as we live in an era when the business of government appears to have been turned into an ongoing campaign in preparation for the next elections. And in which some politicians appear to be increasingly driven by ego and a desire for personal glory, in ways which stray far from the foundational principles of equitable and selfless public service.

The threat of inappropriate political interference is ongoing and cultural institutions in  Jamaica, by virtue of their inadequately protective legal statutes, are acutely exposed to this. But an equally detrimental threat is the ever-growing desire to establish political and personal ownership which is evident in the actions of certain politicians — of wanting to attach one’s name, image and legacy (and one’s next election victory) to any initiative that is likely to have significant public appeal and visibility. In the cultural sector, it is certainly evident in the commissioning, unveiling and signage of new public monuments, in which the political patrons get almost as much attention as the figure honored and certainly more than the artist. This is of course not unique to the cultural sector, or to Jamaica, but it sure illustrates what our politics have come to, and it represents a deep and fundamental failure.Read More »

The National Gallery of Jamaica: Some Notes on Governance and Institutional History

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Installation view of the central gallery during the Jamaica Biennial 2014, with work by Charles Campbell, Rex Dixon, Shoshanna Weinberger, and Kimani Beckford

It appears that sometime in June this year, there were two major staff appointments at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ): O’Neil Lawrence, who previously served as Senior Curator, was promoted to Chief Curator, and Dr Jonathan Greenland, who had been acting as Executive Director since shortly after I left, became Senior Director. This first came to light in an unrelated press release to the NGJ blog, on the visit of Epsy Campbell Barr, First Vice President of Costa Rica. A subsequent release by the NGJ, which appeared in the form of a blog post on June 30, confirmed that O’Neil Lawrence was appointed as Chief Curator and outlined his many achievements, including a truly astounding record of more than thirty-five curated exhibitions in what has been a curatorial career of just about ten years. This was followed on the next day with another post, which took the form of a short interview in which the new Chief Curator outlined some of his plans. My congratulations, and lots of luck, to both men on their new appointments.

There has however been no announcement from the NGJ regarding Dr Greenland’s appointment, now nearly three months after it presumably became effective. I have to wonder why there is this protracted silence on that subject, since such appointments have major repercussions for the outlook, development and operations of a cultural institution and are a matter of public interest, certainly to the Jamaican and Caribbean art world. And there needs to be an explanation as to why Dr Greenland was appointed as Senior Director, instead of as Executive Director, as this suggests a change in status. I also understand that Dr Greenland still has oversight of National Museum Jamaica, but this may be temporary until a new Director is recruited there.

In the absence of publicly available information, we can only speculate about the significance of Dr Greenland’s new job title. It presumably means that the Executive Director position no longer exists and that the NGJ is now headed by a Senior Director instead. What this suggests, however, is a closer administrative and oversight relationship with the Institute of Jamaica (IoJ), the NGJ’s parent organization, and, potentially, less de facto autonomy for the NGJ. To understand why this matters, we need to have a look a the NGJ’s history.

The NGJ was established in 1974, as it was recognized at that time that the art collecting and exhibiting activities of the IoJ were not sufficient to support the burgeoning Jamaican art movement and that a specialized institution, with specialized personnel and dedicated programs, was needed to exhibit, collect, document and promote Jamaican art more effectively and to take it to new and diverse audiences. While the net effect of the NGJ on the development and reception of art in Jamaica, forty-five years later, is still to be documented, and while there have been many contentions about the institution’s operations and relationship with the artistic community over the years, there is no doubt that its impact on the Jamaican art world has been tremendous and mostly positive.

Other countries in the Anglophone Caribbean have followed the lead, and there are now also national galleries in Guyana, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, and the NGJ model has certainly been influential on these younger establishments, not only in terms of what to do, but also in terms of what not to do. The latter three have their own, defining legal status and operate on a quasi-governmental basis, which shelters them from the sort of political interference that is possible here in Jamaica.

Barbados has not yet established its own, although it has been planned for several decades now, and there is mounting agitation in the artistic community there about the delays. There has also been discussion in the Caribbean cultural sphere, recently, about whether the national gallery designation and model are really suitable for the postcolonial Caribbean, which is a legitimate question I will leave for another post, but there can be no doubt that a specialized public art institution, whatever form it takes and whatever name it gets, is of potentially tremendous benefit, as a catalyst, to the art communities in which it operates.

Devon House
Devon House

The NGJ was originally established as a limited liability company, which was an unusual legal statute for a public art museum, but this was apparently done to allow it to generate revenue to support its operations (and I understand that some of that revenue came from shop and restaurant spaces at Devon House, where the NGJ was originally located). While it inherited most of the art collection of the IoJ, it appears that the early NGJ operated autonomously from the IoJ, with Maurice Facey as the founding Chairman of the Board. David Boxer — a young artist and art historian with a recent PhD from the Johns Hopkins University, who was just short of thirty years old at that time and a close friend and protégé of Edna Manley — joined as Director/Curator in 1975 and set out to develop the NGJ’s curatorial and art-historical vision and program. The NGJ grew rapidly in scope and stature during those years.

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Parochialism or Inclusiveness? The Inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition – Part II

Katrina Coombs – Golden Flow

This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.

Taking a closer look at the NGJ Summer Exhibition reveals a few pleasant surprises but also pulls the exhibition’s weaknesses and failings into sharper perspective.

Perhaps the most outstanding work in the exhibition is Lucille Junkere’s The Yoruba Blues from Abeokuta Nigeria to Abeokuta Jamaica, which consists of a set of patterned embroidery stitch samples on handmade paper dyed with natural indigo. It is a sophisticated and visually stunning example of research-based artistic practice that delves sensitively but knowingly into the transatlantic cultural connections between Africa and the Caribbean. And I will agree with the curator’s essay that there is a triumph of textile and fiber arts of sorts, as another outstanding work in the exhibition is Katrina Coombs’ Golden Flow, a handwoven red and gold draped scarf form, which transforms the exhibition space allocated to it into a beautifully articulated, quasi-architectural form, making a simple but powerful statement.

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Lucille Junkere – Yoruba Blues…

Norma Rodney Harrack has contributed two exquisitely beautiful sculptural vase forms, which are among her most remarkable works in recent years. Laura Facey is another artist who understands that artists should only submit their best to a NGJ exhibition. There is debate about the politics of her continued engagement with the slavery and plantation history, and the imagery used in the process, but I will leave that for another time, as there is no doubt that Heart of a Man (Inspired by Henry Blake’s “Black Man Hung By the Ribs” and a seed from the Barringtonia Tree) is an exceptional work, formally and technically, but also because of its historical and art-historical references and powerful emotional impact.

Rani Carson
Rani Carson – Transfiguration

Noteworthy and interesting work was also contributed by Amy Laskin, Carol Crichton, Camille Chedda, Shoshanna Weinberger, Winston Patrick, Richard Nattoo, Rani Carson, Esther Chin, Claudia Porges Byer and Ania Freer – as the names I have mentioned thus far illustrate, women appear to have outperformed the men in this exhibition. And it was good to see recent graduates of the Edna Manley College such as Jordan Harrison, Tiana Anglin, and Nadine Hall, especially since younger, contemporary artists are not very well represented in the exhibition.

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Installation view, gallery 3 – Bernard Hoyes’ Silent Sparow is to the right. Laura Facey’s Heart of a Man is on the opposing side of that gallery.

On the other side of the spectrum, the photography entries are particularly disappointing and only a few transcend the club photography level, which is unfortunate since Jamaica has produced quite a few outstanding modern and contemporary photographers. I  have to ask what a box set with reproductions of photographs Albert Chong produced more than twenty years ago is doing in this exhibition and must conclude that he is simply taking his invited artist status for granted. I am also non-plussed by the two bizarre mixed-media heads by Hasani Claxton, as I fail to see any artistic merit or interest, or the patently amateurish textile collage by Bernard Hoyes, which is not consistent with the standard of work this quite well-established artist is known for. In both instances, it appears that it was the subject, rather than the quality of the work itself, that caused it to be selected by the judges: the issues of black female anger in Claxton’s work and the reference to Sparrow in Hoyes’. But in both instances, the work is simply not good enough.

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Parochialism or Inclusiveness? The Inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition – Part I

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Laura Facey – Heart of a Man…

This is the first of a two-part post on the National Gallery of Jamaica Summer Exhibition. Part 2, which takes a closer look at the exhibition itself, can be found here.

Having worked in curatorial positions in a museum context, at the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), for the better part of my thirty-five years in Jamaica, I understand all too well how protective curators tend to be of the projects they work on, as I have been there myself on many occasions. The NGJ staff works very hard, and is highly committed, and that has always been one of the institution’s greatest assets. What they do involves long hours of challenging work, sacrificing personal time and work-life balance, and engaging deeply with the material on view. The resulting protectiveness is not unlike how most artists feel about their own work and that certainly deserves our respect.

So when I read the curatorial essay by the lead curator, Monique Barnett-Davidson, of the inaugural NGJ Summer Exhibition, which opened on July 28, I know perfectly well where she is coming from. Her determination to serve as an advocate for the art works and the artists in the exhibition she curated is commendable and shared by most curators, and is in fact part of the professional ethics attached to the field. Nonetheless, I also have reason to be concerned about the overly defensive, legitimizing tone of the essay, which appears to leave no room for any critical engagement. The coyly dismissive references to “vitriol” and the “big, bad critic” and cryptic declarations such as “I do not believe that this is the moment for maintaining demarcations based on opinions of achievement” do not bode well in that regard. If a curatorial project is to be successful, there must be room for healthy and diverse critical engagement, from within and without, and this should be welcomed and even solicited rather than feared, resisted or dismissed.

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NGJ Summer Exhibition – installation view of central gallery, with work, from left to right, by Jordan Harrison, Bryan McFarlane and Esther Chin

Perhaps the defensiveness of the essay is unconsciously pre-emptive, and really an implied acknowledgement that there are, in fact, serious problems with the exhibition, for the Summer Exhibition is not even close to the level that we ought to expect from the NGJ, as Jamaica’s national art museum. My expectations were admittedly not very high, given the self-limiting manner in which the exhibition was framed, but I am still shocked at its plodding, uninspiring, and dramatically uneven quality. There are some outstanding and interesting works, but the bulk of the exhibition ranges from disappointingly average to, in several instances, totally inappropriate for the NGJ. And I am not the only one to have these views, which are shared by far more observers than the NGJ may care to acknowledge.

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Ivanhoe Martin and the Hotel

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View of the restaurant section, AC Marriott Hotel. Work by Laura Facey on the left and middle, Andre Woolery at the back. The étagère at the front has work by Laura Facey on the fourth shelf from the bottom.

I had lunch with a friend at the new AC Marriott Hotel today, because I wanted to see the art that was acquired for and installed in the lobby, which has received enthusiastic coverage in the local press. I had initially planned to write about it in the context of a more general post about art and hotels in Jamaica, which I may still do at a later date as it is an interesting subject in and of itself. After viewing the work by Laura Facey, Leasho Johnson, Katrina Coombs, Andre Woolery, David Pinto, Shoshanna Weinberger, Jag Mehta, Cosmo Whyte and a few others as installed in the space, however, I was compelled to change my subject.

Let me first say that I like the building, at least its exterior. It could have been yet another cookie-cutter contemporary high rise, but the quirky, asymmetrical placement of the balconies is genius, and gives the facades a simple but distinctive quality. I am far less taken with the lobby, which has far too much marble and mirrors for my taste (I have a strong aversion for the grandiose), but which also has a curious, interior design magazine, aspirational “living room” quality, which is waging a fierce battle with its clean, large spatial volumes.

The art selected is by artists I greatly admire and, although there is nothing that really pushes the envelope, in terms of being exceptional works by these artists, it is generally of a high quality. I applaud the hotel for acquiring and exhibiting these works of art and for supporting Jamaican contemporary art in the process, as local market support for such art is still lagging, and Susanne Fredricks for curating the selection.

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General view of the lobby, with Laura Facey work at front

What bothered me, though, is the manner in which the art is contextualized with the omnipresent “tchotchkes” that seem to have come from a hotel décor catalogue – utterly generic metal, marble, ceramic and wood decorative objects, along with the fore-mentioned books – that can be seen on practically every table and counter across the space as well as on the rather curious, bottom-lit étagère in the restaurant section. If the intention was to “warm up” the space and to make it more inviting, it does no such thing, at least not in my view. But more important, the presence of these non-descript decorative items does the art no favors at all and seems to pull everything down to the level of décor. It appears that interior design considerations, and not particularly good ones, took precedence over installing the art in a way that would have allowed it to speak for itself and that would have been much more effective, aesthetically, in bringing a local character and distinctiveness to the space.

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View of the entrance lobby with work by Laura Facey at the front, and Cosmo Whyte’s Shotta at the back.

But my eye fell on the work by Cosmo Whyte, titled Shotta, a large collage and drawing on paper which confronts those who enter via the main entrance and I could not help but to ponder the ironies of its presence there. It is one of a number of works by Cosmo in which he interprets the famous photo-shoot scene in The Harder They Come: the scene in which the lead character, the notorious but elusive rebel-gunman Ivanhoe Martin had himself photographed, cowboy-style and with guns in both hands, and sent the photos to the press to taunt the authorities. In one of the earlier scenes in the film, Ivanhoe had been chased from the same sort of luxury hotel in which his image now hangs.

The photo-shoot stills of Ivanhoe Martin are among the most iconic images in Jamaica’s modern cultural history. They embody the defiance of Jamaica’s poor, their challenge to social and economic power and hierarchy, and they represent the cultural energy that has emanated from this defiance, the very same, truly remarkable energy that has given Jamaica its global cultural visibility. By virtue of its presence in the hotel lobby, this icon of resistance is now being repositioned, sanitized and co-opted as an icon of urban chic, without any hint of redeeming irony or subversion. (I could make a similar argument about the dissonance between content and intent, and the context in which the work is presented, for Leasho Johnson’s or even Shoshanna Weinberger’s work, but let me focus on the most obvious example.)

The tensions arising from Cosmo Whyte’s work in the AC Marriott lobby inadvertently tell us a lot about where Jamaican society is at. The AC Marriott is, for all intents and purposes, an uptown place and has quickly become an intensely aspirational site, as the lobby décor strongly signals. It is already a meeting place of choice for those who are, or wish to be “somebody” in Jamaican society, and a place to see and be seen. For a country that was once an influential hotbed of socially radical thought, a place where local and global hierarchies were courageously challenged, it never ceases to amaze me how uncritical, socially aspirational values appear to have overtaken the minds of so many, including some of those who see themselves as racially and politically conscious (and who may even wear the occasional “Down with Babylon” T-shirt), in a way that re-inscribes those very same values and hierarchies that were once questioned. It is a remarkable sight, for sure, to see ambitious young black men and women enthusiastically go to polo matches, dressed in their finest designer outfits, without questioning this sport’s colonial roots and its association with social hierarchies that continue to exclude them where it really matters. And the engagement with art, particularly the collecting and patronage of art, is inevitably entangled with these aspirations.

The socially aspirational culture that has overtaken Jamaica is so strong right now that it may even have won elections – is that not, after all, what the traction of the “prosperity” slogan is really all about? One of my theories for the PNP’s loss of the 2016 general elections, is that its principals did not recognize the powerful draw of this culture, and that by questioning the magnificent house that was being built on the hill as part of their campaign rhetoric, they seemed to question, begrudge and devalue what is presently the ultimate aspiration of many.

But for all this aspirational drive, the underlying socio-economic inequalities of this country have changed very little. The cast of characters at the top of the totem pole may have changed, and has become a bit more diverse, but the truth is that the Ivanhoe Martins of today would still not be welcome at Jamaica’s upscale hotels. Their anger and frustration continue to grow and their rage is expressed in the waves of crime and violence that mercilessly batter this country, all the more because they know that the aspirational prosperity that is dangled in front of them on a daily basis will never reach them, unless they force the issue. The staggering number of Porsches, high-end Audis, Range Rovers, and Jaguars that are now on our roads alone will do that. It is something for which Jamaica may eventually pay dearly, for its current veneer of socio-political stability is most tenuous.

But to return to art, I believe that it is crucially important for artists in and from Jamaica today to consider very carefully where they stand on these issues, including the questions of co-optation that arise here, and how they see their role in the current socio-cultural dynamic. I would certainly love to hear from Cosmo Whyte about how he sees his work in this context. And I would certainly like to see more artists who engage actively and knowingly with the social dilemmas of today, for there are very few who do, especially among the established artists. Phillip Thomas is one very interesting exception and there will be more on that in my upcoming interview with him.

As those around me are aware, I work a lot with younger artists and art students and thankfully, there are signs of change there, of a return to a more critical, questioning mentality, a new, more self-reflexive radicalism, a commitment to social justice, and, mercifully, a new willingness to talk back to power. Much of their work is very political, and thus far without concessions to the social dynamics of patronage and without the stifling baggage of the 1970s and 80s. And I see very little of the blindly aspirational mentality that is so evident among the generation before them. So perhaps there is hope. The future is, after all, in the hands of the young.