The Signs are on the Walls

Ahmedabad. Bangalore. Two Indian cities rocked by bombs in the last two days. Two cities I’m intimately connected with. The former was where I grew up, where my father worked for many years at the Indian Institute of Management, at once the most avant-garde of Indian cities as well as the most retrograde. Ahmedabad, named after Sultan Ahmad Shah who founded it in 1411: Home of Mahatma Gandhi whose ashram nestled on the banks of the River Sabarmati; ISRO—the space research organization where India’s first rockets and satellites were developed; PRL—the Physical Research Laboratory; NID–the National Institute of Design; the aforementioned IIMA set up in collaboration with the Harvard Business School and ATIRA—the Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association for this was the Manchester of the East, with textile mills galore.

For years Gujaratis (Ahmedabad is in Gujarat state) enjoyed the reputation of being the most non-violent people in India, if not the planet. Mahatma Gandhi veritably personified the spirit of gentle, unagressive yet enterprising Gujarati-ness. That image was forever changed in 1969 when the worst Hindu-Muslim riots erupted in Ahmedabad with dozens of Muslims raped and killed in the most brutal way. Schoolmates who lived in the old part of the city where most of the Muslim population was concentrated witnessed atrocities they couldn’t forget for years. Since then the word Ahmedabad has practically become synonymous with ‘communal riots’ (as such periodic bloodlettings are termed) so it is not surprising that the city has been targeted by an avenging Muslim group setting bombs off in BJP-dominated cities.

This may explain why “the quaint and sleepy town of Bangalore” where my parents now live, the polar opposite of Ahmedabad in terms of communal relations, has also been targeted. The BJP, a political coalition of aggressive right-wing Hindu groups, has recently won state power in Karnataka where Bangalore is located. Karnataka is also one of six Indian states in which the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) is active. SIMI is widely suspected to be the organization behind the multiple bombings in Ahmedabad and Bangalore.

The word SIMI stirred up a memory. Seven years ago in Trivandrum, Kerala, I had been photographing the plethora of writing on the walls of that city. Local government elections were in the offing and i was fascinated by the symbols used by political parties. I distinctly remembered one piece of graffiti by a Muslim group that had struck me with the simple force and stridency of its message. Curious I rummaged through my old albums and found the photograph, taken in 2001. It was indeed a message from the self-same SIMI– Shahadat, by the way, means martyrdom.

Needless to say this is not what I had planned to blog about. But those distant explosions were too close to home in a manner of speaking for me to overlook. One can only hope that Kerala, the state my family is from and where most of my aunts and uncles live is not next on the list of the avenging Jehadis.

It’s not really that hard to segue to what I had planned to write about because uncannily I had meant to focus on the murals all over Kingston memorializing the many “fallen soldiers” De Marco sang about so poignantly last year. It’s a subject I touch upon tangentially in a recent article titled “’No Grave Cannot Hold My Body Down’: Rituals of Death and Burial in Postcolonial Jamaica” so when Honor Ford-Smith asked if I wanted to accompany her on an expedition to view the work of one of the muralists I jumped at it.

The muralist in question was Ricky Culture who lives in Three Miles where most of his work is to be found. On Tuesday afternoon I met Honor and Ricky at Sistren from where we set out. On our way to Three Miles I found myself driving along a series of roads that zigged and zagged in and out of so-called inner city communities under Ricky’s expert guidance . He knew these byroads from having walked them as a child on his way to school.

Ricky was incredibly lean and gentle. He had started out as a musician but times got so hard that he turned his hand to painting. With the frequent deaths in communities there was a high demand for the services of mural painters. Judging by his slender frame the living was still hard even though Ricky has produced any number of murals, including some stunning ones of Emperor Haile Selassie and his Empress at an ital restaurant called Food For Life at the Three Miles roundabout. These were the only portraits done entirely from his imagination. The rest were all produced from photographs.

His Imperial Majesty is somewhat of an obsession with Ricky as you can see. A number of his works are to be found in Majesty Gardens, home to “the poorest people in Jamaica” according to today’s Observer. At Roots Community FM the studio has a large mural of Bob Marley with locks flowing all around him like roots. Occasionally Ricky paints himself into a mural as an advertisement of his skills. What spooked me was how similar Ricky’s stance and posture was in a photo i took of him to the autoportrait.

Interestingly Ricky wasn’t familiar with the magnificent murals dedicated to Glenford Phipps or ‘Early Bird’ at Matthews Lane outside Father Zekes’ bar. Early Bird was Zekes’ brother and the Don of Matches Lane before Zekes. He was brutally killed in the early 90s and the poet Kamau Brathwaite immortalized his death in his long poem, Trenchtown Rock. A couple of years ago I produced a montage using images of this mural and fragments of Kamau’s poem (the image that is the frontispiece of this blog). The fact that Ricky had not come across the Early Bird wall painting or some others I had seen in Rosetown made me realize how territorially bound all these initiatives are. Someone should undertake to conduct a survey of just how many memorial murals there are in communities divided by conflicting loyalties all over Kingston. On our way home we stopped at Black Roses Corner to look at the memorials to Willie Haggart and ‘International dancer’ Bogle. A more complete selection of the photos i took of the murals we saw on Tuesday is available on my Flickr page.

And as if all that weren’t enough internationally notorious British graffiti artist, Banksy, whose identity has been kept a strict secret all these years was ‘outed’ by none other than photographer Peter Dean Rickards, the editor of First Magazine. Is the writing on the walls or what?

Author: Annie Paul

writer, editor and avid tweeter anniepaulose@gmail.com

5 thoughts on “The Signs are on the Walls”

  1. Annie,a very interestingpost.Enjoyed it immensely.The glimpse or insight into your ancestral cities Ahmedabad and Bangalore was/is extremely instructive,with respect to your background and heritage.Unfortunately,like many other cities and places across this troubled world, the spectre of violence has reared its ugly head in both these cities.The segue into the murals of Kingston was/is perfect.Brother Ricky Culture’s murals are incredible.I am extremely impressed with his art work and talent.Hopefully,he will be rewarded handsomely for his talent.WhatI find extremely interestingin your post,albeitdepressing,is the level of Balkanization within the city, that even someone like Brother Culture would not be cognizant of the murals of Early Bird in Zeke’s community,although not spatially far from the Three Miles area.Apparently,political tribalism is the constraining and confining factor. NUFF RESPECT!! ESTEBAN AGOSTO REID

  2. Thanks Esteban and Yardedge. yes, it is sad that these skills are being put to such a morbid use.by the way Ricky’s number which is to be found on almost all the murals is 885 9576 in case you can send any other work his way.yes, i was taken aback by the effects of the balkanization too. there must be literally hundreds if not thousands of such murals all over the city.

  3. I really liked this piece…very interesting. It’s just ashame many people don’t pay attention to these stuff…many just think of it as graffiti and the creators aren’t artistes they just a ‘menace to society’. it’s good to know people actually give credit to them too.

  4. Annie,I really enjoyed reading this, first, because of the wonderful segue from the country of your ancestry to your current land – wonderful juxtaposition of how death’s shadow looms on both. Second, I have been having a growing fascination with these murals of death which seem to share an ancestry with the murals from the skyjuice carts of yesteryear. Additionally, the artistry involved, and how much they have become a part of the communities to m highlights the separation between the “arts” community and the average man.

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