Petrine Archer, 1956-2012: Scythed too soon

A note on the passing of Petrine Archer-Straw, British-Jamaican art historian.

petrine

The Caribbean is in mourning at the sudden passing of one its small group of art historians, Dr. Petrine Archer-Straw. Not many of us knew that she suffered from sickle cell disease which literally allowed the grim reaper to scythe her yesterday, on the eve of her 56th birthday. I didn’t know her closely, but we both wrote about art and sometimes found ourselves in the same forum, as in 2002 at the Documenta11 platform on Créolité and Creolization in St Lucia. Our views on art and culture often diverged but i will miss her meticulously kept blog which chronicled most art events worth recording in Jamaica. Her entries were brief, to the point and allowed you to get a quick sense of whatever it was she was documenting.

Interestingly in a recent posting she found herself confronted by the freewheeling  visual prodigy Peter Dean Rickards, who challenged her description of his recent excursion into the English art scene as a ‘claim’ on his part ‘to‘ fame. After a brief back and forth she was forced to alter the preposition ‘to’ to ‘about‘ which more accurately described his engagement with Banksy, and with LA Lewis whose tongue-in-cheek exhibition ‘Almost Famous’ was incorporated into the Nottingham show. Thus her final sentence read:

Rickard’s deliberate destruction of Banksy’s work and his ‘outing’ of the internationally enigmatic artist Banksy has solved a mystery, while also making an ironic statement about Rickard’s own claims about fame. View more works in the show.

One of her most recent projects was a collaboration with Claudia Hucke from the Edna Manley College of art in which they revisited  Jamaica’s first exhibition to tour Europe after gaining independence in 1962, Face of Jamaica, providing rich context and information about it:

 

Petrine was also responsible for creating a mural at the University of the West Indies’ Taylor Hall, a student dormitory. See image below courtesy Trevor McCain:

petrinetaylorhall

For more about Petrine or Pet as she was known to her close friends read this moving eulogy put out by the Art History Department at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts:

The Art History Department and the School of Visual Arts regret the passing of Dr Petrine Archer-Straw. Dr Archer-Straw passed away in the early morning of 5 December 2012 at UWI Hospital as a result of a sickle cell crisis.

Dr Archer-Straw was the first official Head of the Art History Department here at the College serving as a Consultant from 2002 till 2004. She was responsible for creating the Department, recruited three of the five current staff members and created a long term vision plan for a possible Art History/Visual Culture major.

Dr Archer-Straw has a strong publication and curatorial record including her monograph Negrophilia, the book Jamaican Art, which she co-authored with Kim Robinson, and her exhibitions New World Imagery, Back to Black and Photos and Phantasms. Most recently she co-curated with our member of Department, Dr Claudia Hucke, the online exhibition About Face: Revisiting Jamaica’s First Exhibition in Europe. At the National Gallery of Jamaica she was also directing a major project that would critically engage the visual culture of Rastafari, entitled Rasta! Dr Archer-Straw early on embraced the digital world, excitedly using technology in the classroom and creating and utilising internet resources for Caribbean art. Her blog PetrineArcher.com is especially noteworthy for its entries on Jamaican artists. Dr Archer-Straw has taught at Cornell University in the United States and worked in the Bahamas, helping to create a roadmap for the structure of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas.

Dr Archer-Straw was a gracious mentor and close friend to us all in the Department. She was a constant source of encouragement and guidance for our work. As a scholar she emphasised the importance of being focused, disciplined, and principled, but noted we should never lose the joy in our work. There was a formality to her demeanour emphasised by her English-Jamaican accent and her graceful poise from years of yoga. But she also knew how to laugh giddily with a girlish charm. Dr Archer-Straw was a model for us, never shying away from starting anew. She took up yoga training in her early forties and became a popular instructor; recently, she also became an art appraiser. Perhaps, because she suffered from sickle cell she emphasised a balanced life and found ways, whether through yoga, gardening or dancing to control her illness rather than having it control her.

 We will miss her dearly.

A visit to Rev Claudius Henry’s church, Sandy Bay, Jamaica

In which i visit a small church steeped in Jamaican history, which once attempted to mount the only modern-day guerilla activity in independent Jamaica

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On Saturday I accompanied my friend Deborah Thomas, author of Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica and Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica, to a church service in Sandy Bay, Clarendon. Deb is now researching the International Peacemakers’ Association of the African Reform Church which once ran one of the island’s black-owned bakeries, making their communities self-sufficient until political interference forced their closure. Although they don’t wear the customary locks and other outward symbols of Rastafari the roots of this Church are firmly entwined with the history of Rasta.

The leader of the church was one Reverend Claudius Henry, who also led the so-called Henry Rebellion in 1959, the only full-fledged guerilla movement to be found in independent Jamaica. Today a handful of his aged supporters keep the faith alive. According to one narrative:

“This religious group was linked with the First Africa Corps, a militant group from New York that got its weapons from bank robberies that were masterminded by a black policeman. The First Africa Corps and the ARC-militants joined forces in a guerrilla training camp in the Red Hills of Jamaica. Overcoming a preemptive police raid in which Claudius was arrested (based on intelligence from New York handed over to British authorities), Claudius’s son took over the movement. His armed group had one violent confrontation with the police, in which two British soldiers were killed.”

In his book about Walter Rodney’s intellectual and political thought Professor Rupert Lewis writes of accompanying Rodney on a visit to Henry’s church in 1968. By then according to Lewis Henry had  shifted his ‘Back to Africa’ position to one that emphasized ‘building Africa in Jamaica’. In this context the black nationalist evangelist leader (who had been released from prison in 1966) had turned his church into a religious and entrepreneurial centre with a blockmaking factory, a farm and a bakery. Lewis writes:

“Henry’s lieutenants gave Rodney a tour of the premises. The church was packed and the drumming was powerfu. Henry was not a moving speaker but he was held in respect and the fact that he had been to prison and been a target of political harassment gave him standing as a prophet among his followers. At that time Henry claimed some 4000 followers, of whom, 1000 were active members in his organisation.”

In a letter written after Rodney was exiled from Jamaica, he wrote:

“At Kemp’s Hill…Rev. Henry has gathered together a number of black brothers and sisters, and they have turned themselves into an independent black community. In less than a year they built themselves an attractive church and several dwelling houses, all of concrete for they make the concrete building blocks. They have proper plumbing and electricity and in case the local supplies are inadequate they have their own water tanks and electrical generator. They operated a fish shop from the outset and later they set up a bakery. In spite of massive persecution by the government, the police and the army, the Henry community has extended to several other parts of the island…”

Other scholars who’ve written about Claudius Henry are Brian Meeks in his book Narratives of Resistance and Anthony Bogues in Black Heretics, Black Prophets. The question is who will keep his memory alive once the small band of followers left in Sandy Bay are no more?

Caribbean Swagger!

A wonderful song by Trinidadian singer Ataklan exemplifies how the region feels after the London Olympics.

This great song by Ataklan, one of the best kept secrets of Trinidad and Tobago, truly captures the outcome of Olympics 2012 for the region. Especially sweet for me is the fact that I’ve known this song as its developed through its various stages. Enjoy it!

Is it time for a Caribbean Sports Academy asks Ronald Sanders in this op-ed article on Huntingtonnews.com:

The people of the English-speaking Caribbean have every reason to be proud of their athletes and of the impact they are making on the world, but this pride will not be sustained unless governments and the private sectors invest in the facilities these gifted athletes need. To ensure future champions, how about a single sports academy manned by outstanding coaches, located in Jamaica and funded by all the governments and private sectors of the Caribbean Community, for the region’s elite athletes?

Here also is my new Newsweek article on Usain Bolt and how he embodies Jamaica’s national character and spirit.

Most postcolonial countries have found it hard to overcome the handicaps they inherited at independence, and Jamaicans are rightly proud of their superb tradition in athletics and the country’s incomparable music, both of which have catapulted them onto the world stage on more than one occasion. For a nation this tiny, Jamaica has an ego and cultural wallop grander than most superpowers, punching way above its weight, as some here like to say.

For more click here.

I should add that this time my piece wasn’t touched by the editors at all, except for punctuation. I do wish they’d left the word ‘sly’ out of their title or used a different title altogether. The only consolation is that it might lure anti-Usain folk into reading it thinking its a critique 🙂

SALISES 50/50 Project

Sometimes I don’t write about the things that are closest to me…the preceding post is by Emma Caroline Lewis and is about a work project that i’m very involved in…spread the word and come out and attend! you’ve been give plenty of notice…also check the 5050 Project blogspot.

Petchary's Blog

Jamaica’s fiftieth anniversary (Jamaica 50) celebration has not been a smooth, gentle glide to the August 6 finish line. In fact, it has been fraught with political niggling, confusing press statements and slick marketing jargon, (with the local media trying to make sense of it all) and apparently rising levels of frustration and irritation on the part of the Jamaican populace. Amidst the confusion, it seems we are all searching for meaning. Surely, we cry, Jamaica 50 is not just about signature songs and parties and Jamaica 50 sunglasses, cute as they may be. Recriminations have been heaped on the head of an overburdened Culture Minister who is valiantly seeking to create something coherent. According to a Gleaner article this week, the youth of Jamaica – those who will take over for the next half-century – believe that “the true essence of Jamaica 50 is lost on the masses.”…

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Calabash Ho! (single entendre please–)

This is the time of year I like best. One week before Calabash Literary Festival and about 10 days before the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) conference, which is in San Andres, Colombia, this year. The lineup at this Calabash, though stellar, could have been more exciting as far as I’m concerned; after all living in these parts who hasn’t heard Derek Walcott and Lorna Goodison, live and in living colour, over and over again? Last year’s was a more lustrous list of literary stars, Caryl Phillips, Michael Ondaatje and Maryse Conde amongst them.

But then again I don’t go to Calabash to listen to authors and poets reading aloud so much as for the sheer delight of lingering in the vibe-rant environment created by Colin, Justine and Kwame. I happen to know that singer and poet Dingo has been sharpening his latest poem and who knows if we’re lucky he might perform it there. The open mic segment is bound to have its share of great performances bursting through the thicket of paltry, mediocre rhymesters who will insist on abusing the audience with purported poetry.

Speculation is rife as to whether Walcott will behave himself or be spectacularly rude on stage; whether he will outcuss that indomitable cusser Bounty Killa and be carted off to bad wud jail; or if the balmy St. Bess air will temporarily render him tame and pleasant (incidentally Dingo has a poem, Jamaica Land We Love, that starts like this:

I woulda cuss some claat if it coulda draw attention
to Jamaica land we love

An if dem neva start charge artiste fe it….
I woulda cuss some claat if it coulda draw attention
to Jamaica land we love.

Jamaica land we love hobbling along on three flats and de-spair).

Walcott’s main rival in the race for Curmudgeon of the Year is of course, V.S. Naipaul, about whom the New York Times wrote only today.

A book-lover’s paradise, Calabash is a boutique festival if there ever was one. Hordes of would-be writers rub shoulders with would-be readers and actual writers at different stages of their careers. The main venue was succinctly described in a recent article: “At the far end is a small stage with a podium. The backdrop is the long curve of Calabash Bay. The village mongrels often have the best seat in the house, downstage. In Treasure Beach, even the strays enjoy a good poetry reading.”

Although Dominicano Junot Diaz, the celebrated author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, couldn’t make it this year, touring the Far East as he is after winning the Pulitzer and a clutch of other awards, Calabash die-hards will remember him as one of the up and coming authors featured at an earlier Calabash—2003? 2004? See? So you never know, someone you consider a no-name author this year could well turn out to be tomorrow’s literary lion. Incidentally a recent issue of the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB) carried a great interview with Diaz by Marlon James, author of John Crow’s Devil.

Another big draw will be Beverley Manley, whose hot memoirs, briefly serialized in the Gleaner, have set the country on fire. Naturally i have an advance copy, a review copy, which i shall devour over the weekend. Hey being a critic does have its occasional advantages.

But more on Calabash after the event. I will be ensconced at a seafront villa with a small cartel of Caribbean writers and publishing mates for the duration of the festival. A description of this delightful spot is to be found in the current issue of Caribbean Beat where Nicholas Laughlin, editor of CRB, recalls an evening spent there the year before during Calabash:

“…If you are in possession of a villa, you might consider throwing your own private party. The kind that starts when someone shows up with a bottle of wine and ends, well, whenever. Perhaps your housekeeper has cooked lobsters for dinner. Perhaps two up-and-coming Jamaican novelists will start a raucous discussion of the supernatural coolie duppy, egged on by an art critic, to the scandal of a young American poet. A couple of literary journalists huddle by the pool, exchanging hot gossip. Someone slips down to the beach for a midnight skinny-dip A hotshot online media producer captures it all on a hidden mike…”

See you in Treasure Beach!