Weeping or wailing?

Jamaica Journal's latest issue devoted to popular music had a special launch at the Devonshire recently to welcome a donation of music memorabilia to the Jamaica Music Museum from the radio personality Dermot Hussey. Included in the launch was a small historical exhibition that offered a historical overview of the development of Jamaican music forms from its earliest Taino beginnings with a crudely hewn wooden drum to Sly Dunbar's technically sophisticated drum machine that revolutionised the sound of reggae.The display gave viewers a taste of what they can expect when Jamaica's Music Museum is established downtown under the direction of Herbie Miller, reggae music expert and one time manager of the singer Peter Tosh. Also on show were album covers, gold discs, photographs, poster and ephemera that tracked the rise to international popularity of music forms such as ska, reggae and dance hall since Jamaica's Independence. Already a location near Kingston's waterfront has been identified for the museum and there is much excitement about this new museum being the catalyst for urban renewal and tourism regeneration for the old city. Certainly, it would be good to hear the sounds of Marley, the Abbysinians, Dennis Brown and Black Uhuru resonating again in these crime threatened neigbourhoods but will the dons who effectively control these areas be persuaded to dance to a different tune?  

Raising the dead

The winning mas band for this year's carnival in Trinidad is Brian MacFarlane's Resurrection. It's his third consecutive win suggesting that he has taken up the mantle successfully from that other genius mas-maker Peter Minshall. This year's sixteen section band as usual distinguished itself from other large bands obsessed with hedonism and tinsel. MacFarlane's approach was to remind us mas costumes before they dwindled to bikinis and bling by reviving devilish characters such as Jab-Jab, Bat, Suck Me Nose Sailor and Mad Cow clothed from head to toe in papier-mache masks and burlap.Inspired by Melton Prior's eighteenth century engraving, MacFarlane meticulously reproduced many of its ghoulish and comical characters now ritualised in Trinidad's ol mas, hence the title Resurrection that signals a return to tradition. With his fancy clowns and minstrels one could easily draw parallels between MacFarlane and the modern artist Picasso who made a similar return to tradition or rappel a l'ordre in his designs for Jean Cocteau's musical Paradeafter the chaos of the First World War. But, sticking to a handful of earth tones embellished with bronze, copper and gold MacFarlane brings his own imaginative narrative to these players by suggesting that their costumes took their gilt and burnished colours from their rebirth on Tobago's coastal Bucoo Reef. Thus MacFarlane's mas is more deeply rooted in the region and his players such as Soumayree and Red and Black Indians reflect the way that Europe's festival traditions have merged with African, Indian and other celebrations creating creolized characters filled with greater optimism and an exuberance that is uniquely Caribbean.

Substance and style....

The Meaning of Style is an exhibition now showing at the New Art Exchange in Nottingham, England Jan 16 – 10 April, 2010. The exhibition explores the presence of African-Caribbean men in Britain over the past forty years and takes its name from cultural theorist Dick Hebdige's classic text Subculture: The Meaning of Style that would transform the way that we view youth and their modes of resistance today. In much the same way that Hebdige explored the fashion of that time including Rastafari, Mods, Rockers, Skinheads and Punks, this exhibition shows how Black-British youths through the dissonance of their dress, hair and gesture use popular culture styles from sources such as Jamaican dance hall and American hip-hop styling to give themselves agency and visibility. Artists included in the exhibition are Vanley Burke, Clement Cooper, Micheal Forbes, Gerard Hanson, and Barbara Walker who working in different media present a bold statement about the influence of black culture on contemporary Britain. But as challenging as these portraits are it is tempting to consider how they might match up against the works of other Black Diaspora artists such as Ebony Patterson, O'Neil Lawrence and Lawrence Graham Brown whose works also search for substance within style.

Pioneer Passes

Jamaica is saddened by the loss of another of its stalwart artists Albert Huie who died over the weekend at age 89. Born in 1920, Huie developed his skills at the informal classes offered by the Institute of Jamaica during the late 1930s working alongside artists such as Edna Manley and Koren der Harootian. His art from this period reflects their pre-occupation with images that Jamaicans could better identify with as the country moved towards political independence. Street scenes, market vendors, landscapes and portraits such as the National Gallery of Jamaica's Vendor and Noontime that highlighted the dignity of working class people reflected Huie's developing sense of nationalism.His portraits especially reflect a pride in blackness even before the black art's movement had come to prominence in the United States. Huie was a prodigious artist who went on to further his skills in Britain and develop a characteristic style indebted to Impressionism  but tempered by his use of Caribbean light, forms and subject matter. The study of his work has been furthered by its inclusion in local and Caribbean high school syllabi and he has been the subject of a monograph by Edward Lucie Smith Albert Huie: Father of Jamaican Painting (2001). For more on his work see Masterpieces from the National Collection and Huie in Caribbean Artists A-Z.

Ebony's Plea for Haiti

At almost 5 pm (ET) on Tuesday. I was wrapping up another day at my computer when the house started to sway. I knew immediately that it was a tremor and after the usual panic and dash for safety in the doorway, I laughed with relief that Jamaica had been spared a disaster it could ill-afford. Later I heard the news about Haiti.  Now the full horror of Haiti's plight is being painfully played out by the media. Our thoughts and prayers go to our neighbours there and especially to the artist community who have always been a vital part of the Caribbean's expression despite their hardships. Just last month, we were celebrating Haiti's Ghetto Bienniale when it seemed that again Haiti had overcome great setbacks to keep its art moving forward and to demonstrate its strength as a survivor and as a Salon des Refuses for the 21st Century.No doubt, the country will overcome this too but it will take time and support from all of us. A aid effort on the part of artists and organisers related to the Biennale has been established and Ebony G. Patterson who has just returned from showing her work in the show is asking us all to do whatever we can. To give your support follow this link http://www.foundry.tv/haiti/ and remember '..there but for the grace of God go I.... '

Sweet and sour

The New Year starts with a bang for the black diaspora when TATE Liverpool mounts Afro-Modern - Journey's Through the Black Atlantic this month (29 January – 25 April 2010). It's an ambitious exhibition that looks at art from both sides of the Atlantic between 1909 and the present day,  using as its starting point Paul Gilroy’s view that the African Diaspora’s experience of trans-shipment and relocation was an entirely modern one that transformed them. The contingency of their New World lives shaped their formation of imagined communities and identities based on transposed cultural forms and a forced consciousness of race and its restrictions. This is potentially contentious exhibition for the TATE that is still coming to terms with its own origins within the slave trade. So it is important that their telling of this history of the Black Atlantic is not about the African Diaspora alone since it was the European slave trade that set in motion this scattering of African peoples and their subsequent cultural dislocation and hybridization. The Diaspora’s restless migratory patterns since their removal from Africa, has left its communities in constant motion, a people of the sea, forever looping back to points of entanglement rather than their origins. As ‘black westerners’ their movement into the metropolis of their long-time masters has meant that their host cultures too have absorbed, and been absorbed by, this process of syncretism. In this sense, Malcolm Bailey’s Hold, Separate but Equal; created in 1969 is poignant. Fashioned after abolitionist illustrations, the diagrammatic bare bones of a slave ship float against a stark glossy polymer azure blue sea. Deep inside the womb of this vessel, black and white bodies crouch. Although separated, both groups are equally bent low under the weight of slavery, suggesting that we are all implicated in this history of the middle passage and in turn we must all bear the burden of its consequences.

The right mix?

Jackie is  the English grandmother of my son's mixed-race schoolmate, Stefan. She's knows a lot about the lives of the British aristocracy because for many years she cooked for an English Lord and she prides herself on the food she prepares. Over the years she's gathered many recipes, although recently she's gotten lazy and buys ubiquitous 'marks and sparks ready meals'. But at Xmas she pulls out all stops, basting and baking and providing the trimmings that her daughter and grandson have come to love and take for granted.  When Stefan was young, Jackie would relish the Jamaican meals I prepared because she liked him having food that his other Grenadian grandmother might have made. Stefan liked plantains, chicken and rice and peas and regularly he and my son Dane would tuck into an after-school supper while Jackie and I chatted over a cup of tea.  Dane and Stefan are now adults who have gone their own way in life but Jackie and I remain friends. I check in with her as soon as I return from my travels, and she waters my plants while I am away.  Recently Jackie phoned me in New York for my Christmas pudding recipe, the ingredients being a long standing joke between us since she claims it's a family secret. The fact is that there is no such thing as 'a family recipe' in my household. The annual preparation of seasonal cakes is a decidedly 'hit and miss' affair dependent on which scrap of paper my mother, sister or I retrieve, in addition to the mood or work pressure we might by experiencing. Another variable would be the amount of rum or wine imbibed while preparing a cake, since this could result in more generous amounts of said liquor or other alcoholic additives. Inevitably, the more rum, and less attention we gave to the process, the more surprised we were when the end product actually tasted good. For this reason and superstitiously, we rarely wrote things down, but proceeded with the same ad hoc approach in the hope that each year would bring similar success. This serendipity is why Jackie's recipe requests would always catch me off guard. It is difficult to explain this magical mix that has little bearing on an original recipe. 

Screaming popes

David Boxer, one of Jamaica's most renowned artists, has a history of in situ exhibitions, that are all the more successful because of the elegance of his personal space and his curator skills which ensure that his art is always displayed to advantage. These shows short-circuit Kingston's commercial galleries and allow Boxer to speak directly to his visitors in ways that are persuasive. Such intimacy also provides insulation from public critique but with his latest private show Bacon as Icon, one senses the artist's desire for engagement and feedback. In his choice of image for the exhibition's invitation that echoes Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893); the anxious nurse's panic in Sergei Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin (1925) and most importantly, Francis Bacon's gaping-mouth iconography, Boxer urgently expresses his own call for attention and recognition in a lineage of distinguished modern artists.Homage: Bacon/Eisenstein (1974-c.1990) as a centre piece of Boxer's display is a key to much of the work in the rest of his oeuvre as well as the myriad pathways of this artist's mind with its exhausting outpourings of pain and parody. Its art-historical referencing, mixed media; montage and collage effects; combination of found-object and photocopied materials; abused surface; obsession with portraiture and terror ridden content, summarize themes and approaches obsessively repeated in other works. Missing perhaps are Boxer's predilection for wordplay, and his later middle-passage pre-occupations, but this image with its visual punning and beautiful goldfish and zoomorphic forms might still be viewed as a precursor to later themes. The image is also Boxer's little piece of the famed British-Irish artist Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992) who Boxer researched extensively for his doctoral thesis and whom he has referenced consistently throughout his career as an artist. Homage: Bacon/Eisenstein like so much of Boxer's work, reflects his compositional desire for what the musician Wagner called gesamtkunstwerk or a total art experience, and demonstrates how a single portrait can be both an homage to others, and a highly personal statement of the self: at once surreal, layered and multivalent.    

Your country needs you!

I recently created an entry for wikipedia about Jamaican art. I did this because it concerns me that there is insufficient information about our diaspora cultures online, even as the web is expanding rapidly. It was an interesting interlude that absorbed my energies completely for a couple of days, especially because writing for wikipedia is not easy. It is, after all, an encyclopedia and the Wikipedians who volunteer their services are exacting with their writers and protective of its standards. Some six drafts later and after much angst about my expertise and neutrality, the piece has finally been accepted as a stub – that is - the beginning of an entry that will require additional support and citations. So I'm calling on readers who have some knowledge and the stamina to withstand withering criticism to support the stub. Do it for art, and the good of your country...

Hard road to travel...

Rockstone and Boot Heel, is an exhibition of Contemporary West Indian Art at Real Art Ways in Connecticut, USA. The show's title suggests “arduous travel” and the complex social terrain that so many of its art works tackle, as well as its artist's difficult journey from the marginalized Caribbean to mainstream visibility. The exhibition is a welcome event in a landscape where international presentations of this scale and nature are so few. This ambitious project owes its success to curators Yona Backer and past Edna Manley College student, Kristina Newman-Scott who envisaged the exhibition as being a 'mash-up' of artists and styles that could speak to the region's artistic diversity. One work, held up in customs, failed to make the journey because of its controversial inclusion of miniscule marujuana seeds sealed in resin. Its aborted trip raises many issues related to art and the law, and institutional sensitivity to the practice of art in Jamaica. That our artists are creating art work desired by the rest of the world is laudable, but the risk of arrest for taking artistic license, demonstrates that we still have a long way to go...