Plotting a Brief History of Seven Killings: An Exclusive Interview with Marlon James

Marlon James at Calabash Literary Festival, June 2014

Marlon James at Calabash Literary Festival, June 2014

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A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James’s new novel which will be released on October 2, 2014, has already attracted a series of rave reviews from all the top print media, not least from Michiko Kakutani, the redoubtable New York Times book reviewer. She called it a monumental novel “sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex” in scope.

Others have referred to it as epic, and that it certainly is with its theme of war and peace in the tropics. A multitudinous cast of phantasmagoric characters populates Brief History and through them we descend into the chaotic craziness that was Jamaica in the 1970s. Marlon exposes the multiple duplicities that underlie the constant chatter about ‘peace’, an elusive concept that haunts the saga like a fetish and continues to remain beyond reach today, almost 50 years later.

James was a Kingston-based graphic designer and wannabe writer when he encountered Kaylie Jones, the American writer and daughter of best-selling author James Jones,  at a writing workshop put on by the acclaimed Calabash Literary Festival. She persuaded him to resurrect a manuscript he had discarded after being rejected dozens of times and introduced him to her publisher, Johnny Temple of Akashic Books. Thus was born Marlon’s first novel, the critically acclaimed John Crow’s Devil (2005). The award-winning Night of Book Women followed in 2009 and now a mere five years later what looks set to be a blockbuster, the apocalyptic Brief History of Seven Killings.

I sent Marlon a list of questions, handicapped by the fact that I haven’t yet finished reading his novel (he had presented me a copy of the uncorrected proofs some months ago), and he sent back his replies by email.

Marlon your new novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, is a latter-day epic in my opinion. Did you set out to write the Great Jamaican Novel or did you just happen to write it? It illuminates the postcolonial nightmare many of us still inhabit in the 21st century by getting us inside the heads of a vast cast of characters, all of whom we get to know with some intimacy by the end of the book. Gul Panag (@gulpanag), an Indian celebrity I follow on Twitter recently said: “The trouble with reading Tolstoy (apart from keeping a glossary of royal titles handy) is keeping track of the myriad characters!! #War&Peace

Of course this immediately reminded me of your Brief History and ITS myriad characters. I once asked you how you kept track of all of these distinct voices when writing and you said you kept a timetable chart with a column for each character. Didn’t it make you feel schizoid or partitioned into all these characters I asked but you said not really, that it more made you feel like a teacher of an unruly class…or maybe a prefect. Could you tell us some more about this process, how you achieved what seems to me to be quite a feat?

I actually do use plot charts. Columns filled with characters and rows with time periods, whether years, days, or in the case of this book, hours. I think the fear people have is that this kills spontaneity; it kills story flowing in an organic way, or it just results in novels that are schematic. And yet this was my most free flowing and spontaneous novel ever. There is a nine page chapter in free verse, a six page sentence, and from pages 277 to 395 stream of consciousness monologue.

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Pages from Marlon’s notebook showing the elaborate chart he used to plot the novel.

I believe the reverse actually: that by not having a clue where you might want to go, you pick the route that’s safest, most familiar and most predictable — you just don’t realize that you’re doing it. It’s like the dog left wandering who ends up home anyway; or the poet who will never realize that it’s a lack of understanding of prosody that makes him formulaic. This is not to say that I follow the charts religiously—far from it but I need the base, just to keep track of what each character is doing at all times, and also to resist the urge to play favourites, which is a very easy thing to do. Especially when you have characters who clearly announce themselves, and characters who take a little more digging. Knowing that I had a plot point to come back to allowed me to fly all over the place with characters. And just because a plot is written down, doesn’t mean it’s not wild and crazy, resulting in an awful lot of trouble for the character. My writing day wasn’t done until I could say ‘well I didn’t see THAT coming.’

marlonjplotchart

The novel pivots on events and personalities surrounding the shooting of Bob Marley in 1976, the Smile Jamaica concert that followed two days later and the even more famous One Love Peace Concert of 1978 noted for that moment when Marley joins the hands of the 2 opposed political leaders, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga. This is passed off nowadays as a stroke of genius on Marley’s part without much awareness of the political machinations behind the concert, the alliances between the politicians and the dons or gang leaders who ran the impoverished, inner city vote bases for the two political parties. Also behind the scenes lurked the CIA and the realpolitik of the Cold War. When did it occur to you that all this was prime material to plumb for literary gold?

That took some time. At first I wasn’t aware that it was a bigger story. In fact, the first character I created was the Chicago Hitman, John-John K, for what was supposed to be a noir novella. That he was killing a Jamaican who was involved in an assassination attempt was a small but still important detail. The second character I created was Bam-Bam, who was a ghetto youth raised in such hopelessness and violence that it was inevitable that he became violent. But even then I thought it was a small novel without much scope, even as his story started to involve ‘the singer.’ It wasn’t until I kept running into dead ends writing these ‘novellas’ that a friend of mine pointed out that this was a bigger novel—she saw it first, not me. It also helps that I was reading James Ellroy’s American Tabloid at the time, a novel that more than any other taught me how to recognize the bigger story and then tell it on a big scale without becoming pompous or writerly. In many ways what I wrote was essentially crime fiction. I just got out of the way and let the characters do whatever they wanted. Even my plot charts are what they —not what I wanted to do. But paradoxically, the more these voices became individual the larger this novel stretched in scope. I actually cut 10,000 words from the final draft.

How to represent Jamaican language in a way that outsiders can grasp has always been a challenge you’ve enthusiastically embraced. In Night Women you experimented with reproducing 18th century enslaved speech, in Brief History you recreate the street patois of the 1970s which must have been much easier since it would have been something you grew up speaking right? Did you also research the way Americans spoke in the 70s?  For example the kind of language diFlorio uses–Holy fucking horseshit etc–cuss words and street lingo are so time bound. How did you research this? by watching films? by reading fiction from the period?

Everything, from watching films, the grittier ones such as Scorcese’s, (since even film has invented language), to documentaries (more authentic), song lyrics, slang dictionaries, websites and youtube videos. And getting an American accent wasn’t enough—Diflorio is older and far more conservative than Alex Pierce, who works for Rolling Stone. And black American speech is different from white, especially after hip-hop, so then you have a character like Romeo who sounds like nobody else. But bear in mind that my generation was the first not to be in any dialogue with the UK whatsoever. We don’t even understand it. We were in dialogue with the US. Our cross pollination came from RUN DMC, The Cosby show and Eddie Murphy, from American commercials and Miami Vice, LL Cool J, breakdancing, Prince, Michael Jackson and the occasional trip to Miami. The Samuel Selvon narrative is foreign to us.

One of the characters in BH is Nasser, a white Syrian politician based on former Prime Minister Edward Seaga. At one point Josey Wales I think says “Peter Nasser is just another ignorant as shit naigger…” which is interesting because a ‘naigger’ is not quite the same thing as a ‘nigger’ is it? Another Jamaican writer, Anthony Winkler, who happens to be white describes the confusion that ensues in the mind of his American companion when a fellow Jamaican greets him heartily saying “Wha’appen ole negar?” Can you articulate the difference between the two? What exactly is this concept of the ‘ole negar’ whose origins you make very clear by spelling it the way you do–‘naigger’? It’s nuances like this that you wonder if outsiders to Jamaican culture will get. How can a Syrian White in Jamaican terms be considered a ‘naigger’?

Well firstly Peter Nasser isn’t really based on Seaga, in fact Seaga appears in the novel. I resisted this easy character appropriation for several reasons, one being that it would be too easy for the novel to become nothing more than a spot-the-real-person exercise. Nasser is rather, a composite of several politicians, largely because I was looking for an archetype. He’s far more cynical, far less patient, and unlike Seaga has no ear for culture. As for naigger, the first issue was spelling and I always try to make my words very clear to the non-Jamaican, at the risk of so called authenticity. I wanted the reader to see the link between naigger and nigger so that he knows that the term can be equally loaded. And yet that tension comes from the American reader, not the character as Jamaicans rarely use it in any racial context. But on the other hand, Americans get the concept of one drop very well, so in a certain way it’s a joke they understand that Jamaicans won’t. That these Jamaican men, who are convinced that they are white, are really “niggers.”

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By the way a couple of random questions. Is it Stony Hill you refer to as White Man Hill in BH? What does ‘Me take the S off Superman chest and the B off Batman Belly’ mean? There’s more than one reference to Superman and Batman. And why does the song Ma Baker make Josey Wales laugh?

I can’t even remember. It could be Stony Hill, but I have a feeling it’s Jack’s Hill or Coopers, which used to be even whiter.  As for ‘Me take the S off Superman chest and the B off Batman Belly’ both Barrington Levy and Junior Tucker have used the lyric in songs, but it goes back even further as a children’s rhyme establishing playground badness.  As for Ma Baker, a certain lady of the night does a certain routine that ends with a highly improbably split, all to that song.

I really wanted to interview you after finishing the book but I’m still only on page 399 with another 300 or so to go with no desire to race through it, i’m savouring it so much. I just decided i needed to send you these questions sooner rather than later because once your book comes out on October 2 you’re going to be virtually lynched by major media. I wonder if you’ll end up on Oprah’s show or has she stopped doing books? It must be fun reading all the rave reviews you’ve been getting. I see you posted the one from Rolling Stonel today. One of the things people may not realize is what an audiophile you are and what an encyclopaedic knowledge of rock music you have. Brief History didn’t really give you a chance to expose that expertise or did it?

Marlon James

There’s still a lot of music in it, and not all just Marley. Or rather more about musicians, from Mick Jagger’s brief championing of Peter Tosh, to the rise of hip-hop and new wave, dance hall in the 80’s and 90’s and some insider info, from the very brief and quickly aborted plan to kidnap Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton’s infamous racist rant onstage. I like to think it’s rock and roll in attitude, if not always content.

You know I’m going to enjoy watching your Twitter account blow up after October 2 when the TV appearances begin. On  Sept 22 you 327 followers on the  26th 355; do you use social media much? You seem to use Facebook more than Twitter right?

I was just now trying to get with Twitter, only to hear that it’s all about Instagram now

Finally, do you think you might write a kind of sequel centred around the events of the 90s and noughties leading up to the extradition of Dudus, the Don of Tivoli Gardens, glossed as Copenhagen City in BH? A kind of ‘Brief History of 73 Killings’ perhaps in reference to the official number of civilians killed by the state in the process of capturing Dudus. I mean who else could tackle that saga? And wasn’t Jim Brown’s older son, Dudus’s brother Jah T, who was briefly the don before Dudus, actually a classmate of yours?

I was thinking a sequel actually. In fact a trilogy, each taking 5 time periods and a totally different cast of characters—some of them being minor ones in this book (maybe Peter Nasser and Kim-Marie Burgess). But this book took 4 years to write and I need a break. My next book is going back in the past, way before even the middle ages, actually.

Police Personnel Wanted: Humans Need Not Apply…

Video above features Mario Deane’s parents and Jasmine Rand,one of the lawyers representing the family of slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin, now on the legal team representing Mario Deane along with Michael Baden, an internationally known forensic pathologist who examined Michael Brown’s body in Ferguson.

On the 6th of August, Jamaica’s 52nd anniversary of independence, a young citizen named Mario Deane died while in the custody of Jamaican police. A Montego Bay construction worker, Deane had been detained by Jamaican police for possession of a Ganja spliff or joint on August 3rd. Despite a relative arriving to bail him within a few hours, the police, in what can only be interpreted as an act of malice, denied him bail–a decision that would cost the young man his life. Deane ‘s crime? Supposedly he had insulted the force by saying that he didn’t like the police.

Deane’s death by savage beating–exactly at whose hands is unclear since the first police report said he had died of injuries sustained from a fall from his bunk. This story was later amended with police now reporting that two mentally ill cellmates had administered the fatal beating. From Sunday to Wednesday Deane remained in hospital under heavy police guard, finally succumbing to his injuries on Independence Day.

Jamaican media carried shocking images of Mario lying in hospital with his face swollen beyond recognition and TV and radio interviews with his family members roused the country as no other death in police custody had done before. It wasn’t as if Mario Deane was the first person to lose his life due to the callousness or viciousness of the police, but he was the first to galvanize the nation into a loud and angry refusal to accept what the state was offering in the name of policing.

What makes a particular case pivotal in inciting public protest is always somewhat of a mystery. In India the boiling point was reached in December 2012 with the gruesome gang rape of young Jyoti Singh. The fury with which the public reacted, with middle and upper class women flooding the streets with placards and processions, took everyone by surprise. Foreign commentators mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that the victim must have been middle class, hence the unprecedented public rage. But she was nothing of the sort. What infuriated urban women was the fact that they identified with her, they all had taken buses at one time or another, nothing could have been more innocent than a young woman’s desire to get home safely and her violation hit home like no other case did. It reminded women of how fundamentally unsafe they were, of what a savage and uncaring society they lived in.

Similarly I think the Mario Deane case is one that resonates deeply with many Jamaicans who are moved to think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. Two decades of campaigning by Jamaicans for Justice, an NGO that militates on behalf of human rights, had never achieved such a unified response although they must be given credit for having prepared the ground by their systematic highlighting of police abuses.

In the public’s view Mario Deane was no criminal, never mind that ganja possession is a crime on the books here. It is so much a part of Jamaican culture that no one views it as a serious infraction. In fact the government is about to decriminalize possession of small amounts such as the spliff Mario was carrying. Identification with Deane was therefore high, he was merely a hard-working construction worker going about his business whose life had been rudely, and permanently, interrupted by the police.

Mario Deane died on August 6. On August 9 an American teenager named Michael Brown was shot down by police in Ferguson, Mississippi.  He was black. The city erupted in fury and for days US news channels focused on little else but the teenager’s death. The fallout from the Mario Deane case was now reinforced by this surprising evidence of virtually identical police brutality in the land of the free and the brave. As Kellie Magnus @kelliemagnus tweeted “sad and odd that this case and mike brown case in US happening same time. Black in US = poor in ja.”

For once the USA found itself on the back foot, promoting human rights globally, but practicing the opposite at home. Critics such as Amnesty International were quick to point this out tweeting that the US couldn’t tell countries to improve their records on policing and peaceful assembly if it didn’t clean up its own human rights record. “Your work has saved far fewer lives than American interventions” shot back The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) which was soon forced to withdraw its snarky retort. “Our sincerest apologies to @amnesty & our followers. Our last tweet was sent in error. We’re reviewing internal policies for social media,” it tweeted.

The discomfiture of the Americans resonated in Jamaica where only a few weeks ago the Police Commissioner had been forced to step down, it was widely believed at the behest of the USA. How could the Americans tell Jamaica how its police force should be staffed without putting their own house in order?

Meanwhile on Facebook a friend, Olu Oguibe, wrote a punchy update, pointing out the comparatively similar behaviour of police everywhere. “…cops are a united nation unto themselves,” he said:

A Murder in Ferguson

One of my favorite movie moments of all time is in Shrek 2 when police pull over Donkey and Puss in Boots, played by Antonio Banderas, and a police officer puts his hand in Puss’s pocket and comes up with drugs. Realizing he’s just been framed, Puss moans helplessly. “That’s not mine, officer”, he begs, “I swear it, that’s not mine.” You never can win against the police, can you? It’s a policeman’s world.

No sooner it became clear that the officer who choked Eric Garner to death in New York last month might be charged than the guy who recorded the incriminating viral video was suddenly arrested for drug dealing and his girlfriend booked for possession. Now, as Ferguson police reluctantly name the cop who shot young Mr. Brown, under obvious pressure from Washington, they simultaneously tell us the youth was recorded a short while earlier robbing a Deli. He isn’t that nice, innocent lad y’all are shouting about, Police Chief Jackson seems to be saying: he’s just a common criminal and that gives us the right to murder him in cold blood. Sure!
It doesn’t matter what country you’re in, cops are a united nation unto themselves. You never win against cops.
8.15.14

New York Mayor de Blasio’s stipulation following Eric Garner’s death “When a police officer comes to the decision that it’s time to arrest someone, that individual is obligated to submit to arrest,” gave rise to derisive responses such as this one from writer Marlon James:

I think he should go further and give a live demonstration on how a black person, whether it be a robbery suspect or a female University professor should not resist arrest, because clearly the original model, dropping to your knees, holding your hands up, and/or screaming “I’m not resisting,” isn’t working so hot. Perhaps his wife can volunteer to demonstrate it.

Regarding Michael Brown’s murder Marlon James had the following to say:

And yet we all know how this is going to play out, or are we waiting for The Onion story to confirm it? It worked before and will work again and again. Put the black kid on trial for his own murder.

Meanwhile back home in Jamaica the Sunday Gleaner published an expose on what exactly goes on in police detention centres. The description seems to lend credence to police claims that Mario Deane was beaten to death by inmates. Which inmates though? After reading the following account it seems highly unlikely that two mentally challenged inmates would’ve undertaken to beat a fellow inmate to death. And of course it still doesn’t exonerate the police and the country’s justice system. Why are Jamaican citizens being made to risk their lives in such death traps? Why is the police looking the other way while such brutal behaviour goes on under its nose? Whatever happened to the notion of restorative justice?

Detained in a death trap
Gary Spaulding, Aug 31, 2014
According to Brown, the obvious ‘Don’ in the cell instructed the other inmates to, “show dem how we welcome visitors in here”.
“What took place was known as ‘feathering’ or a beating. A horrendous activity any first-timer must face,” said Brown.
“The feathering beating continued throughout the night, but there was no police personnel coming to my rescue. After the welcome, the don instructed the others to give us time to settle in as ‘we ago try dem case lata’,” recalled the still-shaken Brown.
“We – the other newcomers and I – stood there for another 35 minutes hoping that the awful experience would end, but no such luck,” said Brown as he noted that the respite was because the don was on his ‘bird’ or telephone with his girlfriend.
$10,000 to sneak in a phone
Brown said he later learnt that it had cost $10,000 to have the phone sneaked into the cell, one cigarette cost $100 while a small bag of ganja which would sell for $50 on the streets was sold for $300 in the cell.
“With the telephone conversation done, we were asked why we were in jail … the first guy scuffled his way up to the front of the cell and explained, he was feathered to the point of tears. He was later kicked, slapped in the face, and beaten by the cellmates for showing emotions.” All that time, there was no response from the police who are mandated to keep prisoners safe.
Then it was Brown’s turn to ‘take the stand’ and the first question from the don was if he had ever killed anybody. “I said no and was asked why are you here then”.
As Brown explained why he was behind bars, he was instructed to stand before being hit in the chest. Six pairs of hands then started to beat him before they were ordered to stop by the don.
Attention turned to another of the newcomers who told the inmates that he was involved with guns and knives during a robbery in his area.
“He immediately gained some amount of respect and was not feathered during my time there,” said Brown.
“There were 19 of us at the rear of the cell where we slept. It was like an organisational chart in a workplace and you had to work our way to the top.”

On the eve of a new police commissioner being appointed in Jamaica the public must ask if he or she will put a stop to such barbaric behaviour at precincts under control of  the police. Do police personnel here and elsewhere realize what human rights are? Nix that, do they even know what it means to be human?

 

 

When life gives you LIME…make LIMEade

Between Digicel and LIME, Jamaica’s two cellular phone providers are systematically letting us down. While this post focuses on LIME–Digi is no better, i have several friends who left Digicel and fled to LIME only to discover that they’d jumped out of the frying pan into the fire–

Rumour has it that LIME’s woes are temporary due to a major upgrade they’re in the middle of. But WTH at least give your customers rebates for the last few months when service has been so spotty! Anyway, thank the various gods for social media where we can vent and let non-performing corporations know exactly how we feel…

 

  1.  
     
    Why is #LIMEJamaica charging me for mobile data when for the past few weeks their service hardly works??? Internet & data over WIFI only WTH
     
  2.  
    Anywhere in KGN I’ve been recently … from Manor Park to Downtown to Port Royal, #LIMEJamaica data DOES NOT (cont)  http://tl.gd/n_1s6k1t0 
     
    Here’s the full text of Sandor’s tweet: Anywhere in KGN I’ve been recently … from Manor Park to Downtown to Port Royal, #LIMEJamaica data DOES NOT WORK! What’s the point, what are we paying for???
    The only place it barely works is in New Kingston!
  3.  
    Having to use Skype to make local calls….#LIMEFAIL
     
  4.  
    @CindysDaughter EVERY SINGLE RAHTID DAY! No call goes through on the first second or third try! #LIMEWOES
  5.  
    @CindysDaughter I’ve given up complaining! And the only reason I’m still a customer is they’re cheaper, but maybe cos calls dont get thru!

     

  6.  
    @CindysDaughter and you know me get it dbl bad because both work and personal phones are on LIME network! ALL THE SIGHS!

     

  7.  
    @jahmekyagyal @CindysDaughter same so!! lime is a disgrace, fullstop! @LIMEJamaica @LimeHelp They don’t care about customers


     

  8. @CindysDaughter all 8 o’ clock ah night we get circuits busy message yuh nuh! One night the phone & the wall nearly had a forcefilled intro!

     

  9.  
    @CindysDaughter @wincee5 @LIMEJamaica @LimeHelp all ah guh happen is dem ah guh DM we ah ask what our issues & then ask fi # fi check it out
     

     and on cue…

  10.  
    @anniepaul Please can you follow us and DM us your service number + area code and include location where you are trying to make the calls

     

  11.  
    @LimeHelp @anniepaul lol, don’t do it Annie! they ask everyone the same things then do absolutely NOTHING!!!

     

  12.  
    @jahmekyagyal @CindysDaughter @LIMEJamaica @LimeHelp EXACTLY!!! That’s ALL they do, I want a refund for my DATA! i say we sue them, teef!!!!
     
  13.  
    @jahmekyagyal @CindysDaughter @LIMEJamaica @LimeHelp Plus people call you, no sign of missed call, no voicemessg till DAYS later #EPICFAIL
     
  14.  
    @CindysDaughter @jahmekyagyal @LIMEJamaica @LimeHelp doesn’t work! they can do nothing, tired of going there, i want my monies back

     

  15.  
    @CindysDaughter @jahmekyagyal @LIMEJamaica @LimeHelp exactly this is why i want refund,they ignore,there’s proof i had no data! @Garry4LIME

     

  16.  
    I wonder if #LIME ah pree dem tweet yah! So many of your customers can’t be complaining! Calls nah guh thru, cyaah get data we pay fah
     

    Ok seriously I know LIME Jamaica is updating their platform..but it is becoming increasingly hard to stay loyal when all of their circuits are busy and you have important calls to make…Plus is MONTHS this going on

“The Last Conjuncture”–David Scott’s moving tribute to Stuart Hall

 

 

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David Scott with Stuart Hall in New Kingston, 1996

It’s about six months since the world-renowned intellectual Stuart Hall passed away in London after years of ill health. In Jamaica where he was born and brought up Hall remains largely unknown so that it took local media a few days to register the fact of his passing. It was scandalous then and remains scandalous today that the highly acclaimed film about his life and work, The Stuart Hall Project, has yet to be shown in Jamaica. A friend who attended the recent Global Art Forum at Art Dubai 2014 remarked that she had seen busloads of people going to view the film which was a highlight of the programming there. I excerpt below a question Ibraaz Editor-in-Chief Anthony Downey asked the director of the film, John Akomfrah, at the forum.  It will give a sense of how the film and its subject, so little valued in Jamaica, are viewed by the rest of the world:

AD: …You mentioned Stuart Hall and the pivotal, seminal importance of Stuart Hall for your generation. Certainly for my generation, coming to England in the late 80s, Stuart Hall’s work opened my eyes to the potentiality not only of theory but of thinking, clear thinking; how you could assess a situation in a manner in which it had never been considered before.

I’m thinking now as well of your most recent film The Unfinished Conversation (2012), also known as The Stuart Hall Project. I’m wondering – this must have been a labour of love, this could not have been an easy film for anyone to make, because, in effect, one is dealing with the father figure; one is dealing with the person who made a lot of what we do today possible. He is, effectively, the father of multicultural studies, but equally he transcends that.

Could you talk a little bit about how that film came into being, and what you see it as? Because it’s taking on a life of its own now; it’s transcending you. It’s being shown worldwide, it has garnered awards, and it will be shown tomorrow here in Sharjah. Can you talk a little bit about how it came into being and the importance of that, and where you see it going, or indeed, if you can?

For the full interview go here.

Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004

Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004

Perhaps the most moving elegy to Hall was written by Columbia University-based David Scott, also Jamaican, editor and founder of the journal Small Axe, who is working, among other things, on a biography of the acclaimed cultural theorist. I excerpt below from his posthumous letter to Stuart and ask that we reflect on how and why a country that takes such pride in its triumphal culture is incapable of celebrating a son–widely acknowledged as having put culture on the curricula globally as an object of study–who was as much a trailblazer as Usain Bolt.

So here then is Scott’s letter:

Dear Stuart,

There remains, as you may well imagine, a lot to say. That is why I have, once more, taken refuge in writing you a letter, selfishly perhaps, foolishly, yes, but it is for the sake of my own belated clarification, and to sustain the dialogue (henceforth, alas, a fictive one) we have been engaged in these past many years—and all without heed, I apologize in advance, of your undoubted desire to be done with the bother and burden of all this.

But there are now so many conversations left stranded in the middle, Stuart, by your lamented departure, cut off without ending, without prospect of an ending. Death does that, though, doesn’t it, in an uncanny, unforgiving sort of way. Death is the sharp knife-edge of our finitude, the moment (however it comes, timely or untimely) when we are overtaken by the irreversible—and the ineluctable—fact of our mortal being. It is the last conjuncture, isn’t it? As you once said to me, somewhat gravely, ruefully, apropos of what I can’t now remember: Life unfolds in one direction only. It does. I take that to be an existential truth, with tragic implications. Whatever the Augustinian distensions of temporality we are inclined to imagine, whatever our hermeneutic desire to refute or refuse the linearity of time’s arrow, we all round the corner on this particular crossroads—Papa Legba’s—where we find ourselves summoned to render up what is owed for what we have spent. The one thing we are guaranteed: death is simply the price we pay for time. As we made our way behind you through Highgate Cemetery that bright and private Friday morning this past February, with strains of Marley’s great elegy, “Redemption Song,” still plaintively resonant, we all, I think, noticed Marx pause his ruminations and nod his fraternal welcome, and, just next to him, our own Claudia Jones whispered a dread chant of greeting; and as I watched you being lowered caringly into the ground’s reluctant embrace, I almost cried out with Derek Walcott, “O earth, the number of friends you keep / exceeds those left to be loved.”1

But it is finitude, Stuart, about which I want to talk to you on this occasion, the strange, haunting sense of a last conjuncture. Because this is something we talked about a good deal in the last years—sometimes directly, mostly obliquely—as talk about your life and your work (an admitted obsession on my part) came to be shadowed by talk about the immediacy of pain, the permanence of discomfort, the long, difficult nights without sleep, the creeping anxieties, the dispiriting experience of a body less and less under your command. We spoke, too, occasionally, about death—not only its frank imminence but also its peculiar immanence, how it comes from within as much as from without. And yet, even so, Stuart, finitude is not exactly a word many would readily associate with your name. Too lugubriously Heideggerian in feel, maybe; too complicit in a fatalistic sense of limits, constraints; too redolent of a realm of necessity. So much of your life was committed to the construction of new possibilities out of seeming dead ends, new times and new identities out of old, beleaguered, frozen ones, that there is undoubtedly something perversely paradoxical in this image of you face to face with your finitude, not a philosophic abstraction now, but face to face with what you might have called, with a slow, sardonic smile, the final play of contingency. So, I wonder whether finitude isn’t precisely a word that bears reflection in relation to you because of what it illuminates about the tension between what you are given and what you can make.

I want to talk specifically about finitude and writing, more specifically, about my impression that the growing awareness of the coming end increasingly shaped the exercise of writing, especially the uncertain, or anyway not-so-straightforward, exercise of composing your memoirs—the last, definitive, story of yourself. What do I mean? I know you would have asked me that, Stuart, leaning slightly forward in your chair and regarding me with a resigned but skeptical air, trying to discern whether on this occasion our conceptual languages were overlapping, or at odds. I don’t mean anything very mysterious, of course. You already know that it has always seemed to me that for you writing was a way of moving on, of not standing still; it was a way of not being the same, of occasionally changing yourself, of saying the next thing rather than the last thing. Indeed, there was never for you a plausible “last” thing to say. This was deeply a matter of the politics as well as the poetics of writing. For you, therefore, writing was always to have an orientation toward futurity. I don’t think that the past as such ever much enchanted you; you certainly never reified it. The challenge of writing, then, was to subject the present to a form of redescription—what you famously called “reading the conjuncture”—that aimed to loosen its bondage to the past, to release it from its congealed assumptions so as to make possible a contingent practice of reinvention.

This is why, as I keep repeating, the essay-form so appealed to you as a genre of writing. The thing about the essay-form, it seems to me, is its embodiment of a mobile temporality so conducive to your temperament and the general ethos of your style. The essay is always, precisely, moving on. It has, in this sense, an active more so than a contemplative character; or rather, however meditative it may be, it always suffers an internal restlessness, an agitation of spirit that drives it in one direction or another—or in one direction after another. This is what enables the essay to evade closure and to defer its rendezvous with finitude. The essay is a thinking form—thinking that is inherently situational, occasional, embodied. One might say that the essay-form is a mode of presencing, of being present, of voicing presence, within writing. In this sense it is as close as nonfictive writing can get to the uneven grain of an audibly speaking voice.

Scott’s poetic tone and the probing register of his elegiacal missive are not ones we often come across in intellectual work here where public debate and discussion seem frozen at certain basic levels. Building Brand Jamaica. Attaining sustainable growth. Poverty alleviation. Reducing risk perceptions. The buzzwords trip off our tongue and down the drain. Gleaner columnist and Nationwide broadcaster George Davis rightly questions the quality of education available to Jamaican youth lamenting the fact that “An essay in university is like honour in the Jamaican Parliament; it’s almost disappeared.”

For the rest of Scott’s letter go here.

 

 

From #Gaza with Love #Ferguson

  • WesleyLowery
    But the residents have not been “rioting.” It just isn’t true. Protesting: yes. Outraged: yes. Clashing with police: yes. Rioting: No
     
There are Americans who think a black teenager reached for a cop’s gun, from 35 feet away, but demand further proof for global warming.
 
When @KristinFisher approached our protest, she immediately went to the white woman for details. Ignoring the Black faces who organized.
 
This is the WaPo piece @WesleyLowery filed not long before he was arrested in Ferguson.  http://wapo.st/1nQtysv 
 
 
People in #Gaza are tweeting information on how to handle tear gas to the citizens of #Ferguson. Mind blown. #MikeBrown
 
Crowd in #ferguson now chanting “End the occupation from Gaza to St Louis!!!”
 
An American army is attacking unarmed Americans. Who is willing to invade America to protect Americans? Isn’t that our logic when we invade?
 
Wow! People from Gaza are tweeting to the people in #Ferguson on how to protect themselves from tear gas. Think about that! #Maddow
 
 
Whole world is watching #Ferguson & every dictator who sets his police like attack dogs on protesters shrugs & says “See, the US does it.”
 
That sound cannon that the police is using in Ferguson was used in Iraq and Somalia and causes permanent hearing loss
 
So weird to see reporters covering the Midwest tweet tips on now to handle tear gas, police violence, etc. What is happening out there?
 
 
Stun grenades and tear gas in #Ferguson now. Police rioting in the streets against calm protesters.
 
 
Tip learned in Bil’in, Palestine on tear gas: use onion peels to breathe easier. #Ferguson
 
Do not expect Obama to travel to #Ferguson, unless it is to show solidarity with the police.
 
“@manofsteele: Wow...A man picks up burning tear gas can and throws it back at police. #ferguson  http://t.co/qiLwujczqr” @YourAnonNews
Wow…A man picks up burning tear gas can and throws it back at police  pic.twitter.com/qiLwujczqrwujYourAnonNews @YourAnonNews<Not just a man…a dread! Jah RASTAfari!!!!
 
Look at these black men be heroes RT @jonswaine: Police "This is your final warning." Protesters at front not nudging http://t.co/Kp2O4qEGWZ
Look at these black men be heroes RT @jonswaine: Police “This is your final warning.” Protesters at front nopic.twitter.com/Kp2O4qEGWZKp2O4qEGWZ
It’s like a law of nature. Marginalized people protest the senseless killing of one of their own. Face a brutal, militarized police machine.
 
WHERE IS ANDERSON COOPER?????
 
Oh Twitter. People in #Gaza following #Ferguson events tweeting like ‘Hope you’re OK, don’t stop resisting’

<p>

You know it’s a bad situation when the people of #Gaza are empathizing with you and seeing parallels #Ferguson
 
 
Got folks in #Gaza tweeting tips to help people during the #Ferguson protest...wild. http://t.co/HNH0nlAouk #mikebrown
Got folks in #Gaza tweeting tips to help people during the #Ferguson protest…wild. pic.twitter.com/HNH0nlAouk #mikebrown
The oppressed stands with the oppressed. #Palestine stands with #Ferguson. http://t.co/hxK94VqfsO
The oppressed stands with the oppressed. #Palestine stands with #Ferguson. pic.twitter.com/hxK94VqfsO
#MikeBrown shooting; 'War zone' in #Ferguson. Photos and story: http://t.co/ZUSuL3tLjr http://t.co/XhekatA2F6
#MikeBrown shooting; ‘War zone in #Ferguson. Photos and story ibt.uk/A00685n  http://pic.twitter.com/XhekatA2F6
MORE BREAKING PHOTOS: After Aljazeera crew was directly hit with tear gas, their cameras were disassembled: #Ferguson http://t.co/j1Xxk93CVU
MORE BREAKING PHOTOS: After Aljazeera crew was directly hit with tear gas, their cameras were disassembled: #Ferguson pic.twitter.com/j1Xxk93CVU
I respect law enforcement. I have issues with the political classes who use them. #Ferguson #Gaza
 
When the words “NEW CEASE FIRE TAKES HOLD” appear on the screen, one wonders if the report’s on #Iraq #Ukraine #Gaza or #Ferguson.

Mario Deane Is Only A Statistic, But What An Awful Statistic It Is!

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Annie Paul:

and a brilliant but bone chilling post from Kei on the numbers behind police killings in Jamaica “…divide the number of victims killed at the hands of police against the number of police who are in jail for such a crime and the answer is simple. Injustice.”

Originally posted on Under the Saltire Flag:

Mario-deane

The case of Mario Deane represents a very human and tragic story — a story that should make us all angry. As the cliche goes, he should not be reduced to a statistic. And yet, those statistics tell an important story, one that shouldn’t lessen our anger but should focus it. Here are those statistics:

statistics3

In the last 20 years in Jamaica, at least 200 people have been killed each year by police. This is not an average. 200 is the lowest number killed in any given year. In some years the figure is actually much higher than that.

To put this into another statistical context, let us consider the UK – a country with a population 23 times higher than Jamaica’s. The UK does not report police killings 23 times more than Jamaica’s. Over the last 20 years a total of 1433 people have died after having had some manner of…

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Development can’t happen so! – Columns – JamaicaObserver.com

An excellent column…thoroughly enjoyed it and thought my readers might like it as well…by Grace Virtue

A simple wreath-laying ceremony to complete my parents “tombing” was long over, but the people remained. Early on, I began noticing just how many children were showing up with parents whose features I can no longer connect with the families I used to know, and how many teenagers turned up on their own. Where do they gather to run and play and learn some of those lessons that an unimaginative classroom cannot teach, I wonder?

Seven of my parents’ 11 children are teachers, and those of the next generation are making their way in the world. When we sat on the verandah, the conversation quickly turned to education and the chatter about teacher quality, poverty, parenting, and patois. We laughed at much of it. My 12-year-old niece scored a 99.6 per cent overall average on the GSAT. She speaks in our native tongue, but in her hand she is holding a copy of Bel Canto. She is working through it. She reads at first-year college level. My other niece, a 2012 graduate of the University of the West Indies, warmed my heart with recollections of how much she learned by just reading the books I left behind. And she brought to my attention the plight of a young man from the community — an extraordinary visual artist. According to her, he entered the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s art competition with four entries and placed first, second and third, but his high school sent him up for only two CSEC exams. As a result, he is unable to matriculate for the Edna Manley School for the Arts and to fulfil his dream to develop as an artist.

For full column see link below…

Development can’t happen so! – Columns – JamaicaObserver.com.

And the war rages on in Gaza (that is – Gaza, Jamaica)

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Annie Paul:

Another great post from Kei–in which i get mentioned and cited :)

Originally posted on Under the Saltire Flag:

There is Gaza in the Middle East, and there is Gaza in Jamaica. A war is happening in both places.

My new book – The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion – is, in parts, fascinated with Jamaica’s unusual place names, and the politics of naming generally – how we often imagine one place onto another place. Jamaica isn’t unique in this. In New Zealand, there is Dunedin, derived from the Gaelic word for Edinburgh, and the map of Edinburgh here is imposed onto the territory. But it doesn’t quite work. No place can ever be another place, no matter how hard we try to imagine it. In Dunedin, there are valleys where there should be hills, and water where there should be land. The landscape resists the imposed map of Edinburgh. And there are examples of this sort of thing all over the colonial world.

cartographerbooks

In Jamaica…

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Mismanagement, machinations and more at the National Gallery of Jamaica…

 

Charles Campbell, chairing session at the National Gallery with artists from Anything with Nothing.

Charles Campbell, chairing session at the National Gallery with artists from Anything with Nothing.

 

Yesterday morning I put up a post documenting some of the experiences of the former Chief Curator of the National Gallery, Charles Campbell, during his short stint at the Gallery (January to July 2014). I didn’t realize then that Campbell was in the middle of exit interviews with the Institute of Jamaica and that therefore the timing of the post was inconvenient for him. He asked if I would take down the post and I duly did so as I explained on my blog, out of concern for his well being and our continued friendship. This is the sole reason I made the original post unavailable and am now providing an updated version below which doesn’t focus as much on Campbell’s brief and unhappy tenure at the institution but still highlights the inefficient, autocratic and extremely problematic management style of the Executive Director.

I have since learnt that the Executive Director of the National Gallery, Veerle Poupeye, has been informing people that her lawyers made me take down my post. This is patently untrue and further underscores the problems I am trying to bring to the public’s attention. To the list of problematic behavior described below I now add a clear and blatant disregard for the truth.

No lawyer has contacted either me or my lawyers since or before my post went up yesterday. Let me repeat–no lawyer has been in touch with me about this or any other matter. This is simply one of the intimidatory tactics routinely and infamously used by the Executive Director of the National Gallery. It may have been an effective tool in the past, serving to silence others but it has only made me more determined to highlight the untenable situation at the National Gallery of Jamaica. This is a public institution and I am using this medium to raise questions that need to be asked about the management and credibility of its current directorate. I believe that it is in the public interest that I do so.

There is a deep malaise at the National Gallery of Jamaica, an institution I’ve taken an interest in since the mid-90s when my critiques of the Jamaican art scene were first published. In more recent times I’ve been closely involved with the Gallery, serving on its Exhibitions Committee for the last few years and before that its PR Committee. In these capacities I’ve been privy to some of the internal workings of the institution and have experienced at first hand some of the problems I will be detailing in this post.

The National Gallery of Jamaica was established in 1974 and celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Veerle Poupeye has been Executive Director (hereafter referred to as ED) of the Gallery since 2009, having worked there as a curator for many years under its previous head, David Boxer.  Credited with raising the Gallery to international standards, an achievement she certainly deserves some credit for, Poupeye is a talented art historian and curator. Where programming is concerned, choice of themes, raising the frequency of exhibitions, and maintaining a web presence the Executive Director (ED) deserves high marks. The Gallery has certainly become a more active player in the Jamaican and international cultural scene under her leadership.

I know of no international best practice, however, that recommends that Museum directors manage their human resources by intimidation, fear, bullying and general terror tactics: inappropriately berating members of staff for instance, imperiously ordering that they not meet with each other or have conversations without her permission, demanding that she be consulted before they post personal updates on their Facebook pages, and generally paralyzing them by constant micro-management. Things are so bad staff members at the Gallery have taken to walking down to the waterfront to have routine conversations for fear of rousing the ire of the ED.

 

Nicole Smythe-Johnson at recent KOTE event

Nicole Smythe-Johnson at recent KOTE event

It was this kind of abusive behaviour that caused the resignation of the former Senior Curator, Nicole Smythe-Johnson in 2013 (recently in the news for her very successful curation of the show Trajectories for the law firm Myers, Fletcher and Gordon), less than a year into her appointment. Earlier this month the newly appointed Chief Curator, Charles Campbell, walked, citing systemic management and leadership issues and a hostile working environment, a mere six months into his contract period of two years. In both cases the individuals concerned had been the ED’s preferred choice for the positions, sometimes against concerns raised by board members and members of the interview committee.

Urged by me and others to put his reasons for resigning in writing for the benefit of members of the board Campbell summarized the situation as follows:

“At issue is not a few small disagreements, it is about a fundamental breakdown in accountability, broken communication systems, unclear, random and constantly changing lines of authority, and what became for me — and is for many staff — a hostile work environment.

 

“…Many staff also suffer from the larger leadership issues that plague the Gallery, including: a disregard for reporting structures and lack of clear direction, authority and accountability; the inappropriate disciplining of staff; and the inability of the Executive Director to accept criticism or any responsibility when her actions contribute to delays or difficulties at the Gallery.”

Less than a year before this, as I mentioned earlier, the talented young curator and writer Nicole Smythe-Johnson, then Senior Curator, also abruptly resigned. During her curatorial stint she produced solid shows such as Natural Histories and New Roots, the latter co-curated with O’Neil Lawrence. The Gallery’s website benefited from a series of stellar essays authored by Smythe-Johnson, who has continued to write and curate shows since leaving the Gallery. As mentioned earlier, her most recent curatorial intervention at Myers, Fletcher and Gordon, which took place this last weekend has been hailed as a huge success. The opening was flocked by dozens of Kingston’s stylish young professionals, tomorrow’s art buyers thirsty for their taste buds to be tickled. This is a demographic the National Gallery should be cultivating, a missed opportunity they may have benefited from had they managed to retain Smythe-Johnson.

 

Smythe-Johnson being interviewed by Tanya Batson-Savage at the opening of Trajectories, Myers, Fletcher and Gordon.

Smythe-Johnson being interviewed by Tanya Batson-Savage at the opening of Trajectories, Myers, Fletcher and Gordon.

For me the first inkling there was something wrong with the ED’s management style was when Smythe-Johnson, a close associate of mine, started talking about the problems she was having at the Gallery. The former Senior Curator finally resigned because she got tired of the constant, unjustified surveillance, the quasi-hysterical accusations of holding secret meetings, claims that she wasn’t doing her job, interference in what she posted on her Facebook page and a host of complaints eerily similar to those Campbell would face less than a year later. Feeling that she really wasn’t being ALLOWED to do her job Smythe-Johnson tendered her resignation after explaining her reasons to the Chairman of the Board. Despite this, board members I spoke with represented her departure as being caused by her leaving to take up a better job with the magazine ARC, something I know to be blatantly untrue. The assistant editor job with ARC was a part-time one, would have taken 8 hours a week and only paid US$400 a month. Smythe-Johnson had applied for it as an additional job to gain experience and didn’t actually get the assignment until after she had resigned. Yet board members seem to have been told that this was the reason she left the gallery.

As mentioned earlier I serve on the Exhibitions Committee of the National Gallery and have witnessed at first hand the high-handed tactics of the Executive Director on more than one occasion. In fact the previous chair of the committee, Tina Spiro, resigned from that position complaining that she wasn’t interested in chairing a “rubber-stamp committee”. The lack of agency of the committee was manifested again at a recent emergency meeting of the Exhibitions Committee ostensibly to discuss the postponement of In Retrospect, an exhibition in celebration of the Gallery’s 40th anniversary.

Citing a list of problems topped by the unpreparedness of the catalogue for publication in time for the show the ED basically threw the Chief Curator, whose responsibility it was to curate this show, under the bus. She completely neglected to mention her own failure to deliver her catalogue essay by the deadline required in order to meet the publication date. In refuting the allegations made against his competence to deliver a “compelling exhibition” Campbell pointed out that his exhibition proposal had originally been presented to the ED and the committee on Feb 11. Despite ongoing meetings to update the ED and obtain her feedback which was provided over the next few months, without warning on May 28th the ED did an abrupt about turn and rejected the plans provided by the CC, now at a very advanced stage.

The plans were pulled apart and the CC ordered to go back to the drawing board, completely disempowering him as a curator and giving him less than two months to re-conceptualize and deliver the 40th anniversary show. Keep in mind that this was not the only show the CC was responsible for. He had successfully mounted the Japan: Kingdom of Characters show which opened on May 11 with its accompanying, groundbreaking Cosplay party and was in the process of curating the urban street art show Anything with Nothing which subsequently opened at the end of June. The CC was also working on selection of artists and plans for the upcoming Biennial scheduled for December. In the midst of all this he was now expected to produce a completely new proposal for a major 40th anniversary show, all of this in his first 6 months at the Gallery.

Was this a realistic expectation on the part of the ED I asked at the meeting. Surely sbe had miscalculated the amount of time needed to put on the kind of revamped 40th anniversary show she was now demanding from the CC? Surely she needed to acknowledge and take some of the blame for the delays rather than shoving it all onto the shoulders of the CC? My interrogation of the flimsy excuses provided by the ED was met with hostility by her supporters on the committee who rushed to her defense insisting that the CC was solely to blame for the postponement.

This is merely one example of the kind of tactics used by the ED to convince the board and committee members of the incompetence of the CC. Switching the goalpost on upcoming exhibitions, placing obstacles in the CC’s path by rejecting a proposal more than 3 months after it was submitted rather than in a timely manner, neglecting her own failure to deliver her essay by deadline, and the final nail in the coffin– the imperious announcement–“I am not satisfied that we have a compelling exhibition.”

The emergency meeting itself was simply a rubber stamp gesture for a decision the ED had already taken, a familiar modus operandi that had forced the previous chair of the committee to resign in protest. The example I have presented above and the numerous resignations of staff suggest that where staff management and executive direction is concerned the ED is completely out of her depth–not surprising considering that her skill sets are in curating and art history–not management of any sort.

In closing I would like to say that I have never been afraid to proffer trenchant criticism under my own name as and when it becomes apparent to me that I should do so. In this instance the fastidious refusal of the Jamaican media to investigate the quagmire at the National Gallery, a public institution funded by taxpayers money, has forced me to speak for I believe that it is in the public interest that such matters be brought to its attention.

I am forced to speak also because it has come to my attention that my name is being bandied about as the author of the anonymous letter to the editor that appeared in the Gleaner on July 19, titled Crisis at National Gallery of Jamaica. As my close friends know and my record shows I don’t do anonymous. That letter first brought many of these matters to light, highlighting, among other things, the fact of Veerle Poupeye’s Belgian birth and her current status as a Jamaican national. To me these are non-issues. If competent local talent can’t be found for a job, whether it be police chief or executive director or Chief Curator of the National Gallery, by all means hire a competent foreigner or naturalized non-native. But institute a proper search committee to identify qualified individuals instead of relying solely on advertising to fill such positions. Such a search committee should include top flight Jamaican art professionals in the diaspora like Head of the Curatorial Department at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam Wayne Modest, art consultant Rachael Barrett, curator and former director of Deitch Projects and Pace Gallery Nicola Vassal, Karen Harris of the Rhode Island School of Design and many other internationally connected and high level professionals of Caribbean or Jamaican origin who would be more than happy to help find the right person. Headhunting is the name of the game not passively waiting for people to apply.

The field of candidates should never be restricted to locally available talent; it’s a myth that the salary offered isn’t capable of attracting top talent from outside. Such individuals aren’t always drawn only by the money offered. The National Gallery of Jamaica is an institution with a rich history that many exciting talents looking for something off the beaten track would be attracted to. There are also qualified members of the Jamaican diaspora who ought to be considered.

Certainly in Jamaican visual art with the tragic, untimely death of Petrine Archer-Straw in 2012 the field of competent individuals locally available for such a job has been vastly reduced, making Poupeye a prime candidate for the post of Chief Curator. The position she occupies however, is a different one, that of Executive Director. To my mind the issue is not Poupeye’s nationality or race, but her incompetence at heading a national institution as evidenced by the resignations of the Senior Curator and Chief Curator in quick succession and the numerous other problems that have plagued the institution under her leadership. Due diligence will show that Poupeye also ran into trouble when she taught at the Edna Manley School in the 90s.  Her students actually took out a petition demanding her resignation because of numerous problematic interactions they had with her in her capacity as their instructor.

It seems then that questions can and should be raised about Veerle Poupeye’s ability to optimally discharge her functions as Executive Director. Should the public demand accountability from those the government puts in positions of such enormous responsibility? Should Boards be held accountable for not performing the oversight function that is their mandate? Doesn’t the long-suffering staff of the National Gallery deserve better management? Should the media continue to fastidiously avert its gaze from these issues? These are merely a few of the troubling questions raised by the recent management problems at the National Gallery of Jamaica.