From the Archives: “Big Bamboo” and the Politics of Space in Fern Gully

 

Here is a second excerpt, on a more controversial subject and with some minor edits, from my chapter on art and tourism in my doctoral dissertation “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (2011, Emory University). The first post can be found here. I have not been back to Fern Gully since the opening of the North-South Highway, which bypasses the area, but an update is long overdue since the site now probably attracts less traffic, as this must have affected the dynamics with the vendors, but I thought it was nonetheless still worthwhile to publish these observations from the 2000s. All rights reserved by the author (C).

One major illegal vending area is Fern Gully, a rare and delicate rainforest ecosystem that has served as a tourist attraction since the late 19th century and that is, controversially, also a busy traffic thoroughfare and part of the main road between Kingston and Ocho Rios. An attempt in 1997 to relocate the vendors, some of whom had occupied their spot for more than 20 years, to a nearby but less visible authorized vending site led to violent riots in which the road was blocked for an entire day and the vegetation and fixtures allegedly vandalized by protesters (Gleaner March 12, 1997, A3 & March 14, 1997, A2). While environmentally regrettable, this incident made a strong statement about the vendors’ sense of ownership of the site (Walsh 1997). Thus far, the various attempts to remove the vendors have not been successful: some were temporarily relocated but have since returned and several others have joined them. Fern Gully thus remains as a prime illegal craft vending site.

Among the most remarkable items seen in the Fern Gully stalls are life-size carvings of dreadlocksed, ganja-pipe smoking males with giant erect penis, which is often detachable, lest there be any doubt about the reference to the commodification of black male sexuality in tourism. Phallic carvings are fairly common among the exotic tourist arts but in Jamaica their life-size, publicly displayed and specifically Rastafarian incarnation seems to date from the late 1990s. While they have also appeared in other formal and informal craft markets, they seem to have occurred first and foremost in Fern Gully.[1] The carvings have been controversial in the local public sphere, much more so than the (admittedly more modest) sexy tourism posters from the early 1970s and 1980s. In 2002, the then Minister of Tourism Portia Simpson-Miller, expressed her outrage at the lewd statues when she visited various tourist sites and the journalist Barbara Gloudon waged a campaign against them on her radio call-in programme during 2003. The Fern Gully vendors have countered that tourists like the carvings and stop to have their photographs taken with the larger, less saleable examples – they can do so for a small fee – turning them into scandalous attractions that bring much-needed attention to the stalls.[2]

The carvings are in potential breach of Jamaica’s Obscene Publication (Suppression of) Act (1927) which prohibits the making, trading or public exhibition of “any obscene writings, drawings, prints, paintings, printed matter, pictures, posters, emblems, photographs, cinematograph films or any other obscene objects.” This law may seem stringent but does not define what constitutes obscenity and the punishment is a maximum of 40 Jamaican dollars fine, less than 50 US cents, or imprisonment for up to three months. Not surprisingly, the attempts at censoring the carvings have thus far been ineffective and, to my knowledge, nobody has been taken to court over them. Explicitly erotic art is regularly shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica, where it is sheltered from accusations of obscenity by its “high art” status. This does not mean that such work can readily be taken into the public domain, as was illustrated by the furore about the Emancipation monument in 2003. Several critics then made comparisons to the “Big Bamboo” or “Ready Freddy” carvings, as they are popularly known, and expressed concern that the monument would reinforce tourists’ already problematic perceptions about black and, specifically, black male sexuality. Interestingly, Gloudon was one of the defenders of the monument, which reflects the double standards that are typically applied to high and low culture, although the fact that Facey’s nudes were not actively sexual of course also played a role.

Obviously, the public and comical representation of black male sexuality for tourist consumption strikes a raw nerve with many Jamaicans but the controversy reveals several other interesting issues. It is noteworthy, for instance, that criticisms have mainly come from middle class commentators, which supports Peter Wilson’s (1969 & 1973) argument that the conflict in Jamaican popular culture between “respectability” and “reputation” is class- and gender-driven. To their critics, the “Big Bamboo” carvings also represent an affront to Rastafarian dignity – an example of the high moral burden imposed on the figure of the male Rastafarian in Jamaican society.

The least recognized aspect of the controversy is, however, that the objections are not so much about the production and sale of the carvings per se but about their public display, in a place where Jamaican audiences are confronted with them. Portia Simpson-Miller, for instance, plainly stated: “But I am saying that if, as they claim, they have a good market for it and people are buying (they can be allowed to sell in selected areas) but we are not supporting the public display” (Clarke C. 2002). A similar position was implied in a 2007 editorial in the industry weekly Hospitality Jamaica, a supplement of the Gleaner. It stated:

Whatever is in the minds of the merchants who peddle this type of ware, in my mind it is pornography being forced on the public, our innocent children and the people who take the route through this beautiful gully. It is sad that some of our so-called artisans cannot find more innovative ways to attract the lucrative tourist trade. Our Jamaican men and their supposed ‘big bamboos’ are already an attraction; we don’t need wood carvings on the streets. (Silvera 2007)

The carvings thus also represent a rare and, to many in Jamaica, unwelcome public admission that sex is an integral part of what is transacted in contemporary tourism.

The moralistic condemnation of these carvings, however, obscures other aspects of their significance as culturally expressive objects. The public, road-side display of the carvings can also be read as a carnivalesque gesture in service of the politics of informal vending: the “Big Bamboo” man, for all his obvious problems, forcefully claims space and visibility in a tourism industry that has marginalized his producers and vendors, and it is probably no coincidence that he has appeared primarily in the contested space of Fern Gully.

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Notes on Jamaica’s Art Histories # 2: African-Derived Sculpture from the Colonial Period

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Cowrie Shell Skull Cap, late 17th century?, found in Port Royal, Collection: National Museum Jamaica (photograph courtesy of the Institute of Jamaica)

My previous post in this series, which can be read here, was aimed at rekindling the critical discussion on Jamaica’s art histories. As I argued then, the problematic of Jamaica’s main art historical narrative cannot be addressed by merely identifying and correcting the obvious gaps and oversights, or simply updating it to the present day by adding recent developments. More fundamental rethinking is necessary to address the disciplinary biases and ideological interests that have informed it and to develop productive alternatives. It is nonetheless useful to take a closer look at some of the obvious omissions from what has been the dominant narrative, since those shed revealing light on the logic of this narrative, and since this also helps to set the agenda for further research and scholarship development.

This second post begins to examine whether any African-derived visual art was practiced during the Plantation era and its immediate aftermath and what, if anything, has survived to the present day, which is inevitably an ideologically charged and contentious question. The focus of this post is on sculptural traditions related to spiritual practices, for the reasons I outline below. This post is, again, adapted from sections from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011 – Chapter 5), updated with more recent research that is still in progress. So please regard this post as “work in progress” rather than as any definitive statement.

(I wish to thank National Museum Jamaica for assistance with images and information regarding objects in its collection.)

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Louisa Jones “Ma Lou” – yabba, c1985, private collection

Introduction

As we have seen in the previous post in this series, David Boxer, in his Jamaican Art 1922-1982 essay, which was first published in 1982 and remains as the standard text on Jamaican art history, controversially claimed that:

It is one of the tragedies of slavery that so drastic was the deculturation of Africans, so harsh the prohibitions against the manufacture of ritual objects, that with the exception of undecorated ceramic vessels not one object exists as evidence of the African artistic traditions in Jamaica. (1998, 13)

There are several ways in which this statement can be read. One is that such visual art forms did not exist in Jamaica during the Plantation era, which is quite easily disproved, and it is this reading to which most of Boxer’s critics have objected. Another, more charitable way to read the statement is that no such historical objects have survived to the present, although that too is debatable. In the 1998 edition of this essay, which included some slight revisions, Boxer moderated his position somewhat, no doubt in response to the criticisms, and recognized that there is in fact some historical evidence, but he did so only in a footnote. He obviously did not feel that this evidence was significant enough to be mentioned in the body of the text or to challenge his overall narrative (1998, 27, fn 9).

To understand Boxer’s position, we need to understand that it is fundamentally related to how he defined “art,” focusing on the conventional “art object.” More specifically, it stems from his conceptions about what is of value and warrants consecration as “art” in Africa’s traditional material culture. It is of note that he prefaced his statement by arguing that the Africans who were brought to Jamaica as slaves came from societies that had well-established sculptural traditions [my emphasis], most of them related to magico-religious practices, and that it could be assumed that the enslaved brought some of these art forms with them (1998, 13).

Boxer’s assumption that any African-derived art forms worth including in his narrative necessarily had to consist of sculpture significantly narrows the scope of discussion and is biased by the Western consecration of magico-religious figural sculpture as the pinnacle of African artistic achievement—the sort of narrow, selective and decontextualized interpretation of the African visual arts that influenced modernist European artists such as Picasso and the German Expressionists and initially informed its inclusion in art museums and private art collections. African art in other forms and media has, conventionally, not received the same level of Western recognition, although this has changed recently, and there is in any case not much room in mainstream European art history for utilitarian art forms of any kind or origin, unless the utilitarian function is “transcended” by what are considered to be outstanding decorative or design qualities—Boxer’s summary dismissal of Jamaica’s African-derived ceramics, even though there is a substantial and fairly well-documented tradition in Jamaica (and elsewhere in the Caribbean), is consistent with that bias.

If we are looking in Jamaica for sculptural traditions that are consistent with these biases, then it may indeed seem, certainly at first glance, that little or nothing has survived from the Plantation era and its aftermath. As Boxer himself later acknowledged, however, there is some historical evidence, and there are several surviving or otherwise documented sculptural objects that may also challenge this claim. None of this evidence is well-known, or well-studied, and none of it has yet been recognized as representative of key moments in Jamaica’s artistic or material culture history.

The question arises why Boxer ignored this evidence in his initial art-historical narrative or failed to integrate it in any significant way in its subsequent revisions, if it is that he had somehow overlooked it initially. As I argued in my previous blog post on this subject, the answer may be that this was instrumental to the way Boxer sought to establish the significance of the Nationalist school, especially Edna Manley, and of the self-taught artists he canonized as Intuitives. Simply put, he argued that these artists undid the cultural injustices of colonialism to create new art that was fundamentally Jamaican, even though rooted in Jamaica’s cultural origins, and that this artistic re-awakening emerged in tandem with the political awakening of Jamaica as a postcolonial nation. The omission thus goes to the heart of how his argument was strategized.

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Some Thoughts on the Miss Lou Statue

 

Jamaica has been on a statue frenzy recently and that is, in itself, a good thing. Late last year there was the unveiling of the Usain Bolt statue at National Stadium and this will soon be followed, I gather, by the statue to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (we were initially told this would take place some time this summer but, unless I missed something while traveling, only the maquette has thus far been unveiled.) Statues for Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown are also being planned, all of them as part of the Jamaica 55 legacy projects. Earlier this summer, a group of National Heroes busts was unveiled at Emancipation Park, which was organized and funded by the Rotary Club with the blessings of government, and last year there was also the very contentious unveiling of a Garvey bust, the original of which replaced by another version, at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. (I have written another blog post on Jamaica’s public statue issues recently, and it can be read here.)

Most recently, on Friday, September 9, or the 89th birthday of the subject, a statue to Miss Lou was unveiled on Gordon Town Square.  Let me first say how happy I am that this long-overdue project has finally  come to fruition, and how excited I am that the statue was placed in the community where Miss Lou lived for most of her time in Jamaica, as her rootedness in community needed to be part of the recognition process. The placement of the statue in the middle of the square is fortuitous, although there are a few practical and aesthetic problems arising, and it is quite appropriate that Miss Lou is the one to welcome visitors to her community. So congrats and thanks (or should I say “tenky”?) to all who made it happen, the private and public individuals and the artist, and the many efforts that were made over the years.

As is now customary with any new public statue in Jamaica, the debate about its merits and failings almost immediately started and when we visited the statue to photograph it yesterday, several other persons were also seen taking pictures. So the statue is already making its mark and public opinion appears to be divided between those who absolutely love it, those who have a few reservations, and those who totally hate it. Most of it revolves, as usual, around whether the statue is an appropriate likeness but there are also concerns about the location (some would have preferred Emancipation Park), and about the politics that have surrounded its production and unveiling. It is not a major controversy at this time but there are definitely rumblings. I have a few reservations myself and thought I should share them here.

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Those Public Statues

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Alvin Marriott – The Athlete (1962), aluminium, National Stadium, Kingston, Jamaica (photo: Marc Rammelaere)

Jamaica has a very contentious history with public art and, particularly, with some of the official monuments to key historical moments and public figures that have been erected since Independence. As I write this post, there are rumblings about the recently unveiled maquette for a statue to the popular Olympian track athlete Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and, as seems to be the norm with such statues in Jamaica, the issue at hand is whether the maquette represents an adequate likeness. The completed statue, which was commissioned by government from the Jamaican artist Basil Watson, is slated for unveiling later this year, at a date to be announced.

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Basil Watson – Merlene Ottey (2005), bronze, National Stadium, Kingston, Jamaica (photo: Veerle Poupeye)

The Fraser-Pryce statue will be located at what has, quite unimaginatively, been christened Statue Park, in front of the National Stadium at Independence Park. There it will join Alvin Marriott’s imposing Athlete (1962), which was unveiled by Princess Margaret as a part of Jamaica’s Independence ceremonies, and various later statues dedicated to specific Jamaican track and field Olympians, such as Merlene Ottey, the first female athlete to be so honoured. Most later additions are by Basil Watson, who was also the artist of the statue to Usain Bolt that was successfully unveiled at the same location last year, after similar public anxieties about the maquette and the question of likeness. Additional statues, of Veronica Campbell-Brown and Asafa Powell and presumably also by Basil Watson, are being planned.

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Basil Watson – Usain Bolt (2017), bronze, National Stadium, Kingston, Jamaica (photo: Veerle Poupeye)

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A Perspective on “The Art of Jamaican Sculpture” at National Gallery West

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Installation view – The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, National Gallery West (left to right: work by Alvin Marriott, David Miller Junior, Kay Sullivan and Alvin Marriott)

Art museums have been under pressure recently. Not a week goes by without some high-profile protest action or controversy and it appears that no major art museum is exempt. This has involved protests against certain exhibitions and against certain artists and artworks, such as the contentions about Chuck Close, after allegations surfaced about a history of sexual harassment of his models, or the protests against a painting in last year’s Whitney Biennial, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), which depicted the corpse of Emmett Till, a black 14-year old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, and which was deemed exploitative. There have also been contentions about how art museums are governed and funded, such as the recent protest at the Metropolitan Museum led by artist Nan Goldin against the role in the opioid painkiller addiction crisis of the Sackler family, who made their fortune in the pharmaceutical industry and who are major donors to the Met. On a more foundational level, these contentions have pertained to the ideological premises on which art museums operate, particularly their role in perpetuating dominant social, political and cultural interests and the manner in which this is reflected in the canons and narratives that such museums have produced and presented.

This is of course not, as such, new, since the canonical functions of art museums have been regularly questioned since the 1960s (and earlier, if we count in the advent of modernism and movements such as Dadaism). One such example is the Puerto Rican artist Rafael Ferrer, who dumped autumn leaves and other debris in the lobby of MoMA in the late 1960s, as a performative intervention that questioned the exclusion of artists like himself from the canons of modernism. Another example is the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of feminist artists that was established in 1985 and that has questioned, through various pointed and witty public interventions, the role of art museums in perpetuating (white) male patriarchy. The frequency and intensity of such controversies have however increased exponentially in recent years, as has the intensity and immediacy of the coverage of such actions in the conventional and social media.

While the increasingly contentious relationship with stakeholders has made the leadership positions in museums far more demanding than they used to be, the effects on how museums operate have been generally beneficial, as it has forced museums to become more self-reflexive and to re-examine their ideological foundations. This has, to varying degrees, resulted in more thoughtful and innovative approaches to exhibitions and programmes, which interrogate and challenge the very same canons and grand narratives such museums have historically produced and which invite conversation about them, rather than to impose them unilaterally and unquestioningly. The Victoria and Albert in London comes to mind as a museum that has made interesting strides in interrogating its colonial foundations through its recent exhibitions and projects.

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Installation view – The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, National Gallery West (left to right: Laura Facey – foreground and background – and Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds)

For us here in Caribbean, the question arises where this leaves public cultural institutions such as the National Gallery of Jamaica, Jamaica’s national art museum. I need to acknowledge at this point that I am the immediate past Executive Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica and have played a key role in its exhibitions and programmes up to three months ago. The debates and new expectations that surround museums elsewhere in the world also apply here, however, and there needs to be frank critical discussion about the present moment in the Caribbean art world, at a time where criticality seems to have all but disappeared from the region. I believe that I have a contribution to make to these conversations and so I am offering my perspective, while acknowledging my potential biases and personal interests, and my readers can decide whether I have risen to the occasion.

The National Gallery of Jamaica has been the fulcrum of the local culture wars since it was established in 1974 and it has always held an ambivalent position with regards to the production and promotion of art-historical canons. On one hand, it has made some interesting, if conflicted and at times controversial counter-canonical moves, such as the validation of aspects of self-taught, popular art under the Intuitive label (which has its own problems, but that is another story) and its more general role of claiming Jamaica’s place vis-à-vis the canons and grand narratives of the metropolitan West. On the other hand, it is Jamaica’s very own canonical institution, which has been centrally preoccupied with articulating Jamaica’s national canons from the mid-1970s, albeit always  heavily contested ones, and which until quite recently did not question its canonical role or ideological premises. I am not knocking the National Gallery’s early efforts, as these were necessary in their time, but in the present context, these canons and underlying interests need to be unpacked and critiqued, and this ideally needs to be part of the scholarly and curatorial practice of the organization itself. And this takes me to The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, an exhibition which has been on view at National Gallery West, the Montego Bay branch of the National Gallery of Jamaica, since March 7.

The preceding National Gallery West exhibition—a smaller version of the Spiritual Yards exhibition which had previously been shown at the National Gallery in Kingston and which was the last exhibition I had overseen there—was slated to close on February 25 and I was, of course, interested to see what would come next. The first inkling of what would be the next exhibition was an Instagram story which appeared on the National Gallery’s timeline on February 27, which stated that an exhibition titled The Art of Jamaican Sculpture was coming soon. The post showed a snippet of video footage of sculptures that had clearly just arrived at the gallery for installation and I glimpsed work by Ronald Moody, Christopher Gonzalez, Lawrence Edwards, Osmond Watson, and David Miller Senior. There was also a closure notice on Facebook on that day, which stated that the gallery would be closed until March 6 to facilitate the installation of The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, with a note that further information on this exhibition would be coming soon.

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Installation view – The Art of Jamaican Sculpture, National Gallery West (Left to right: work by Ted Williams, Laura Facey and Fitz Harrack)

Piqued by the rather ambitious exhibition title and the curious lack of any explanatory context, I contacted National Gallery West for more information and was told that the exhibition would have a soft opening on March 7, with a reception at a later date to be announced, but that information on the exhibition itself was forthcoming. On the evening of March 10, three days into the run of the exhibition, an e-flyer which announced that the exhibition reception would be on March 18 was posted to social media, but again without any accompanying information on the exhibition itself. Since I had to be in Montego Bay on March 13 for other reasons, I decided to have a look at the exhibition, which was indeed mounted and open, although there was not as yet any text panel or signage, other than the usual identifying labels besides each work of art. I was again told that the supporting information was forthcoming but that the exhibition was organized around the themes of nationalism, spirituality and abstraction. It is only in late afternoon on March 14, one week after the exhibition had opened to the public, that a press release was finally published and circulated and further queries on March 15 revealed that the curator’s essay that would also serve as the main text panel was still being written and would be posted to the National Gallery West blog. The essay was eventually posted on the day of the reception, March 18, when the text panel was also mounted.

I belabor this sequence of events here because it is unusual, to say the least, that a National Gallery of Jamaica exhibition would have been up and running for a week without any published and shareable information about it. The standard practice is that there will be press and social media advisories at least a week before the exhibition opens for viewing, and ideally earlier than that, and that the public will be given a fair idea of what to expect in the exhibition, in terms of its scope and the artists featured. I do not wish to be too uncharitable about this unusual radio silence, which may well have been caused by unavoidable practical challenges, but the delay in publishing this information also suggests that there were other problems with this exhibition.

Let me return to why I was piqued by the exhibition title. For a museum exhibition, a title is a promissory note and a statement of intent, which creates certain expectations in terms of what will be presented in the exhibition and also signals how the exhibition is being framed. Titling this exhibition The Art of Jamaican Sculpture may seem innocuous but it implies a lot. It implies a certain position about what is meant with “art” and artistic merit, with “sculpture,” and with “Jamaican art” and “Jamaican sculpture.” Or to put it differently, the title suggests that the National Gallery of Jamaica is in full-throttle canonical mode, at a time when a more self-reflexive and questioning approach is expected. And the title also suggests that the exhibition will sample the full range of sculptural work that has been produced by artists who somehow qualify as “Jamaican” (which is another difficult issue).

Unfortunately, there is no evidence in the exhibition of any such breadth of range or any critical interrogation of its canonical underpinnings. The exhibition consists almost entirely of figurative sculpture—nineteen of the twenty-two sculptures on view are figurative, while three are abstract—and the majority of the sculptures are woodcarvings. One work is a stone carving (an alabaster carving by John “Doc” Williamson) and there are two bronzes, by Edna Manley (the 1982 version of her Negro Aroused, which was in its original, 1935 form a woodcarving) and by Kay Sullivan, as well as a plaster sculpture by Christopher Gonzalez. And only one work steps outside of the conventional formats of pedestal or relief sculpture, namely Laura Facey’s wall- and ground-based installation Goddess of Change (1993), although even this work involves, as its core element, a figurative woodcarving. Clearly, the operative definition of sculpture in this exhibition is a very narrow one and, on the technical front alone, it should be evident that there is a lot more to sculpture in Jamaica than carving and casting alone, especially in the contemporary practice, which is virtually absent from this exhibition. From a thematic, iconographic and stylistic point of view, the exhibition is equally conservative and reflects a very narrow, conventional and, frankly, dated conception of what is deemed legitimate as “Jamaican art.” The three themes of “nationalism, spirituality and abstraction” and the inclusion of self-taught, “Intuitive” artists are well within the range of how that has been conventionally conceived.

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