Creative Iconoclasm: What To Do With Those Colonial Monuments? – Part 2

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Gabriel -Vital Dubray – statue of Empress Josephine (1859), La Savanne, Fort-de-France, Martinique (decapitated in 1991) (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

This is the second part of a two-part post. Part 1 can be found here.

The Caribbean is replete with statues that represent similar ideas about White Supremacy and Colonialism. Some of these statues date from the Plantation era but others, such as the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo, which was unveiled in 1992, are of more recent dates and are associated with oppressive political regimes in the postcolonial era. Calls are mounting, as the present upheaval inevitably and necessarily resonates in the Caribbean, to remove several of those.

There is a long-standing campaign, in Barbados, for instance, to remove the statue of Lord Nelson, which stands on what is now called National Heroes Square (formerly Trafalgar Square) in front of the Parliament building and more recently there have also been calls to remove the Queen Victoria and Columbus statues in Jamaica and the Bahamas. Some are of the view, however, that such statues are part of the region’s history and should therefore remain, while others suggest that they should be moved to museums, where they can be more easily contextualized and interpreted. For the latter is one of the problems with public art, in that it is more difficult, without significant interventions, to present such works in a frame that provides a critical context which counters their original, and often still quite effective, propagandist messages.

Errol Ross Brewster - Queen Victoria
Errol Ross Brewster – Exploring Victoria’s Secrets (1981) – all rights reserved by the Artist

There is a fairly long history of protest actions against such statues in the Caribbean, including removal and defacement, which has usually occurred at times of socio-political upheaval. In Georgetown, Guyana, the Queen Victoria statue was dynamited in 1954. As Nigel Westmaas has documented, its head was subsequently re-attached and the statue remained in place until 1970 when Guyana became a Corporate Republic (the country had become independent in 1966). The statue was moved to the Georgetown Botanical Gardens, where it remained for many years. A 1981 photograph by the Guyanese artist Errol Ross Brewster captured a group of children playing and clambering on the statue, with one girl quite irreverently seated on its head, in what was surely an inadvertent but potent anti-colonial statement in and of itself, as it suggests that the Empire the statue once represented had lost its hold over them.

The dynamiting, which only partially damaged the statue – blowing of its head and left arm, along with the scepter and orb – was a protest action against colonial rule, at a time when Guyana was going through a period of leftist political radicalization which was countered with active repression by the colonial authorities (the specific trigger was the 1953 election victory of the radical, anti-colonial People’s Progressive Party). The marble statue, which dates from 1894 and was made by the English artist Henry Richard Hope-Pinker, was restored and reinstalled in 1990 in what may have been a way to suggest that Guyana had moved past its radical phase and was again “open for business” and foreign investment. Its re-installation generated its own debates, but the statue remains in place today, although it was, according to Westmaas, in 2018 splashed with red paint.

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Creative Iconoclasm: What To Do With Those Colonial Monuments? – Part 1

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Edward Colston’s statue being tossed into the River Avon , Bristol, June 7, 2020 (Image source: Wikimedia)

This is the first of the two-part post. Part 2, which can be found here, examines the implications for the Caribbean.

As an art historian and curator, I am supposed to be beholden to the preservation of art and my response to any incident whereby an art work is deliberately damaged or destroyed is expected to be abhorrence and denouncement, with appeals for more conservative approaches such as removal to a museum. There are, however, moments when the destruction, alteration or violent take-down of a work of art has significant symbolic potency, particularly when it involves public art, and may in fact be called for. And in some cases, such interventions become symbolically powerful, performative creative acts in and of themselves, which is the main reason why I am interested in them.

Public monuments, because of their collective symbolic value, their fundamentally propagandist nature and association with power, and their visibility and accessibility in the public domain, often serve as a lightning rod for the social and political frictions that trouble the societies in which they stand. And, irrespective of their historical value and artistic merit (which varies significantly as public statues are often among the most uninspired and conservative works of art), many are indeed very problematic representations that publicly propagate oppressive and obsolete ideas, historical narratives, and power structures. Such monuments are a form of symbolic and representational violence, that is met with retaliatory counter-violence when they are defaced or torn down.

A number of racist and colonialist public statues have been forcibly removed or defaced in recent days during the increasingly widespread Black Lives Matter uprising. Initially, the protests were limited to the US, where several Confederate and colonialist statues have been targeted, but the take-down of such statues has spread to other parts of the globe along with the unrest. Along with the forcible removals, there are also numerous new and revived campaigns and petitions to have certain problematic statues removed and replaced. This widespread iconoclastic fervor — and I do not see that in a negative light — suggests that we are presently dealing with epochal, potentially revolutionary changes. In such contexts, symbolic actions matter a great deal and careful attention has to be paid to what is being said and negotiated in the process.

By far the most publicized and visually eloquent of these take-downs has been the dramatic removal, on June 7, of the statue of the pioneer slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, England, which was taken down from its base, splashed with blood red paint,  rolled down the streets, and dumped into the River Avon by a group of protesters — as several observers have noted, this hauntingly paralleled the manner in which ill or rebellious enslaved persons were thrown overboard on slave-ships, resulting in a kind of symbolic justice.

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Follow up: My April 24, 2018 Letter to Kei Miller

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Two years ago, on April 28, 2018, I posted to this blog an open letter to Kei Miller (it is linked here for easy reference). The letter was written as my critical response to an essay by Kei, “The White Women and the Language of Bees”, which had been published a few days earlier in the inaugural issue of the online Pree Lit Magazine. Kei Miller’s essay caused quite a furor on social media, with sometimes heated discussions in which Kei and myself both participated, and in various other forums (Bocas Lit Fest was in progress). The controversy reached the Guardian newspaper (linked here), in which my letter to him was referenced and quoted. The essay was withdrawn from Pree Lit, at Kei’s request, and subsequently republished but in a revised from (linked here). My response was to the original version. I understand that the essay will also be published in Kei Miller’s forthcoming book of essays, as he recently announced.

Yesterday morning, Kei Miller made a long post on Facebook (which is linked here) in which he reflects on the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations and their implications in Jamaica. He also comments on the lessons he claims he learnt from the debate about his “The White Women and the Language of Bees” essay. He itemizes those “lessons” in a list of ten points. My letter and I are the subject three of those ten points, point 3, 4 and 5. Although I am, curiously, not mentioned by name, most people who read his post would have known perfectly well that he was referring to me, given the public attention my letter had received.

Under point 3 of his list, Kei accuses me of not having published his response to my blog. He writes:

3) I learnt, fortunately or unfortunately, to be less trusting. When one particular white woman living in Jamaica wrote a public letter to me, I decided to engage. No – she wasn’t at all on my side, but I don’t expect everyone to be. That is arrogance. I still appreciated the attempt at some form of dialogue. I took the time to write out a response to that public letter, but she chose not to publish it. For weeks I checked and my response just withered there on her blog, hidden, ‘waiting approval’, even though she approved other supporting comments that came after. Eventually I just gave up and never even called her out on it. I learnt from that what every writer should learn: to be careful about whose hands we put our voices in. And I’m sure I’m mixing metaphors now – but the very hands that profess they are opening a door for you, would sometimes prefer, given half a chance, to put those hands over your mouth instead – to stifle you or just shut you up.

To be absolutely clear: I am the “white woman living in Jamaica” and I would have preferred to be referenced by name, instead of being alluded to, as I had also called for him to do with the white female writers he similarly alluded to in his “Bees” essay. And for the record, I did not personally know any of these women writers when I wrote my open letter to him, although two were distant acquaintances, and I was speaking solely on my own behalf.

Yesterday morning, when I became aware of Kei Miller’s Facebook post, I sent him the following note via FB Messenger, which speaks for itself (I have corrected one typo for the sake of clarity):

“Dear Kei,

I just read what you wrote about me on Facebook, without mentioning my name although my identity must be clear to a lot of your respondents, as they would have been aware of my letter. If I would have received the response to which you make reference, I would most certainly have published it, and if you were concerned that I was trying to suppress or ignore you in any way, you knew where to find me, on Facebook and via email. I am generally speaking very easy to reach and responsive. I did not in fact receive any comments to that post — what I published are links to other publications where my letter to you was referenced. It is unfortunate that you should represent me in this manner, two years later and without any verification with me, as this matter could have been easily have been cleared up and dealt with in its time.

Best regards,

Veerle”

I am aware that Kei saw my message fairly soon after it was sent, but he has not reacted or responded to date, at least not to me. I then decided to post an earlier version of this blog post to Facebook, in which Kei was tagged. To that, too, there has been no response.

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From the Archives: Osmond Watson (1934-2005)

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Osmond Watson – Peace and Love (1960), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

While I work on several new blog posts, here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011) – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved. Osmond Watson was one of the key artists of the post-independence period in Jamaica.

The painter and sculptor Osmond Watson grew up in Jones Town, a West Kingston neighborhood, in a Garveyite working class environment. Africa had more concrete meaning for his family than most since his mother was born in Sierra Leone, as the daughter of a West India Legionnaire who was stationed there. After attending the [Institute of Jamaica’s] Junior Centre’s youth art classes, he received a scholarship to attend the Jamaica School of Art and Craft. He subsequently received a British Council scholarship to attend the St Martin’s School of Art in London (1962-1965) and returned to Jamaica in the late 1960s.

While his earliest work was in line with that of the earlier generation and mainly concerned with Kingston street life, it was during his stay in London that Osmond Watson developed a formal language and iconography that was uniquely his own and one of the most recognizable among Jamaican artists. Visits to the British Museum and other cultural institutions provided him a range of formal and iconographic sources, such as traditional African sculpture, cubism, Byzantine icons, stained glass windows and Early Flemish painting. Jazz and the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam were also important influences. His most important source, however, was Jamaican popular culture, not only in terms of his subjects but also in his bricolage aesthetic: he routinely combined conventional, meticulously executed oil painting and woodcarving with found objects such as decorated plastic mirrors and sparkly costume jewellery, thus lending dignity and value to these “low brow” tokens of local pop culture. Although he remained firmly committed to the art object and was perhaps the most skilled technician of his generation, Osmond Watson thus subtly undermined the “high art” pretensions that were promoted by contemporaries such as Barrington Watson (no relation). As David Boxer put it, Osmond Watson “strove to create works that could be understood and appreciated by all levels of society” (2004).

Osmond Watson - The Lawd is My Shepard (1969)
Enter a captionOsmond Watson – The Lawd is My Shepard (1960), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

Osmond Watson’s affectionate engagement with the popular culture is evident in the painting The Lawd is My Shepard (1969) which, like Eugene Hyde later did in Mask a Come, appropriates the Jamaican Creole language in its title. It is a striking, monumentalized image of a market woman seated in a typical stall made from recuperation materials, surrounded by her produce, all lovingly detailed, and with an open bible in her lap, at the very geometrical centre of the image. The work was obviously conceived as a social icon which comments on economic self-sufficiency and the defining role of religion in Jamaican society, but unlike Karl Parboosingh’s Jamaica Gothic, its tone is affirmative and celebratory rather than critical. The work exemplifies Osmond Watson’s style, which is characterized by ample, geometrically stylized forms influenced by cubism, a fondness for patterns, deep, glowing colours and heavy black outlines, which give many of his paintings a precious, stained glass appearance.

Like Hyde, Osmond Watson was attracted to the Jonkonnu masquerade as a defining African-Jamaican tradition, which he depicted in his Masquerade series of the late 1960s and 1970s. One such work is Masquerade No. 6 (1971), a depiction of a dancing “Horse head” masquerader. Most of Osmond Watson’s other images are static but the Masquerade series depicts dance movement, for which he uses a Cubist, or rather, Futurist faceting and repetition of the forms, especially the limbs of the figure, which gives these images a dynamic, filmic quality. His Jonkonnu paintings have nothing of the threatening, disorderly quality that gives Eugene Hyde’s 1938 – Mask A Come (1976) its political ambiguity but represent the masquerade in an aestheticized manner which is closer to Rex Nettleford’s National Dance Theater Company “high art” representations of Jamaican traditional culture than to the actual sources – a good example of what Partha Chatterjee has called the “classicization of tradition” in nationalist cultural products (1993, 73). While this may seem to contradict Osmond Watson’s anti-elitist agenda, it also reflects his resolve to represent Jamaican culture in an affirmative, dignified light.

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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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