Gleaner column, Nov 23, 2017
How to “make life in and through violence” in Jamaica is the problem an exhibition at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia ponders. Titled “Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston” the exhibition is constructed around a film called Four Days in May by Deborah Thomas, musician Junior Wedderburn and Deanne Bell, a Jamaican psychologist based at University of East London. Thomas who is a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania initiated research for the film in 2012. The Penn Museum exhibition, unveiled on November 17th, 2017, marked the formal launch of the completed project.
Thomas is known for her books Modern Blackness and Exceptional Violence as well as her first film, Bad Friday, which chronicles the state-sponsored repression and victimization of Rastafari in the wake of events at Coral Gardens in 1963. Both films are examples of the thrust of anthropology in the digital age, visual practices attempting “to witness and to archive state violence, and to give some sense of how the practices and performances of state sovereignty have changed over time.”
Beautifully designed story boards provide details of the timeline of the 2010 Tivoli incursion mounted by heavily armed security forces in Jamaica to restore law and order in the garrison community and to arrest its leader, Dudus, wanted in the United States for drug running and other crimes. A (Very) Brief History of Jamaica provides historical background while below, a series of numbers are provided, amplifying what took place during the dramatic period of the incursion.
The series starts by presenting an interesting connection to Jamaica. 1682: The year Pennsylvania was founded after William Penn was given a land grant from the British Crown due to his father’s role in winning Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. Then it shifts to Tivoli in West Kingston. 75: The number of civilians the state acknowledged were killed. 200: Roughly the number of people the community says were killed 4: The number of days citizens were locked down in their homes unable to leave. 18: The total number of guns found in Tivoli Gardens by security forces. 36: The number of spent casings that were recovered and presented for analysis. 1,516: The number of rounds of ammunition expended by the Jamaica Constabulary Force. 4000: The approximate number of people detained of whom only 148 were not released. 6.5: The number of years it took to produce an official report on the incursion.
The project is intended as a platform for inhabitants of Tivoli Gardens and surrounding communities to talk about what they experienced during the incursion and to publicly name and memorialize the loved ones they lost. 30 oral histories were collected and portraits created which are displayed in the exhibition. Each life size portrait, expertly and empathetically shot by photographer Varun Baker, is accompanied by a recording of the person portrayed speaking, which visitors can listen to through headphones. The direct, unembellished testimony is moving, sometimes shocking. Many who listened were moved to tears.
One such portrait is that of Marjorie Williams and her daughters, Diane and Diana Barnes. The text accompanying it says: Marjorie was born in KIngston, on November 14, 1961, her twins were born at Jubilee Hospital in 1997. Marjorie moved to the area that is now Tivoli Gardens at age three. She attended St. Alban’s Primary School, and then graduated from Tivoli Gardens High School. When her kids were younger she worked seasonally in Cayman doing housekeeping work in hotels. Her two sons were killed, execution-style, outside her house on the second day of the incursion. Since that time, the twins have been living in central Jamaica, as they didn’t feel they could stay in Tivoli Gardens.
Similar texts accompany the other portraits. Also featured is a life-sized model of a Revival Table, and a display of different kinds of drums used in Revival, Kumina and Nyabinghi, “three musical traditions integral to the formation of West Kingston.” At the launch Jamaican musicians and exemplars of each tradition drummed and danced bringing the still, silent museum to life. We joked that the old African skulls and bones displayed in vitrines in a neighboring exhibition “Is There Such a Thing Called Race in Humans?” must have felt invigorated by the rousing African-inspired rhythms and songs filling the air.
Also on display is a copy of the Report of the West Kingston Commission of Inquiry. An innovative part of the exhibition posed different outcomes depending on what actions were or were not taken. What would have happened if the security forces had never gone into Tivoli? What if the Government had not signed the extradition order? What if Dudus had turned himself in?
Bearing Witness culminates in a screening of an eight-minute excerpt from the documentary Four Days in May projected onto three screens. The excerpt starts with footage from the American ‘spy plane’ showing aerial images of the community, with what appear to be gunmen staking out rooftops. The exhibition will remain at the Penn Museum till July 2018.