Astro, the Morning Star, shines his light on us in Kingston…

A note on Astro Saulter’s exhibition at Studio 174




Astro, the Morning Star…, a set on Flickr.

Thoroughly enjoyed the opening of Astro’s show at Studio 174 last night…Born with cerebral palsy into the talented Saulter family (brother Storm Saulter is the acclaimed director of the film Better Mus Come and responsible for injecting new life into the filmmaking circuits in Jamaica and the Caribbean), Astro is a poster boy for the cause of creative development and nurturing for everyone no matter the physical challenges they’re saddled with. The artworks he’s produced using a computer and his head to direct digital tools are at once graphically sophisticated and chromatically intense, products of a refreshingly unjaded, ingenuous eye. Spotted at the opening in addition to many other notables was evening star Chris Blackwell; Blackwell Rum lubricated the occasion and the inimitable Nomadzz graced it with their rhymes, chants, curses and drums…

Check out the exhibition which will be up till January 19, Wednesday to Saturday 10:30am-4pm. Studio 174 is at the intersection of Harbour Street and West Street in downtown Kingston, an atmospheric space worth visiting in its own right. For more details and information on Astro’s ‘process’–how he actually makes his art–visit Kate Chappell’s blog here.

Making sense of the Mayhem in Mumbai


Dec 3, Cartoonscape, The Hindu

I was always more of a Dilliwalli (Delhi woman) than a Mumbaikar though Bombay was just an overnight train ride from the city I grew up in—Ahmedabad—and we frequently visited my cousins who lived in that monstrous metropolis. Today all Indian cities seem equally monstrous to me sprawling over the landscape spewing noxious fumes and toxic trash, dwarfing the insect-like citizens who inhabit them.

For the last twenty years I’ve lived in Kingston, Jamaica, another monstrous city, a miniature one in proportion to its Indian counterparts of course. Still there were many things about the mayhem in Mumbai that I could relate to as being part of a common trend we find ourselves in as citizens of postcolonial nations that haven’t exactly distinguished themselves in independence. Where were the safeguards one expects the authorities to put in place in cities threatened by warring gangs or ‘terrorists’?

For instance exactly two weeks ago there were 3-4 attempted break-ins/robberies in my Kingston neighbourhood. Ever since a colleague and resident of the area was murdered in his house last year there’s been an increase in security guards on the compound. Unfortunately this hasn’t significantly deterred robbers and thieves from plaguing the area.

If I hadn’t heard about the incidents via my helper and a passer-by on the evening of the attacks I wouldn’t have known that anything had happened. Neither the security company to whom we pay millions every year nor the University from whom we rent these premises considered it necessary to send out a bulletin informing all residents of what had happened, exactly where and under what circumstances, so the rest of us could take all necessary precautions.

I was glad then to be invited to a ‘security meeting’ on December 2nd where I thought I could express my concern and find out more about what exactly had happened. The session was also to discuss putting together some kind of neighbourhood watch to thwart/repel any further such attempts to part us from our earthly possessions.

The meeting turned out to be a farce; apparently I knew more (via the yamvine) about the various attempted burglaries than most people there, including the President of our Association. When people started turning to me for information and the campus police started giving us inane advice on keeping our handbags and jewellery out of sight of windows and doors I suddenly found myself thinking: I wonder if this is how and why the terror attacks in Mumbai happened?

I mean here we are living in Kingston (not Lausanne or Dubai), with an escalating crime rate and Christmas approaching and no one seems seized with a sense of urgency about how to organize and protect ourselves in the face of utter apathy and inertia on the part of the authorities concerned.

Officials in Mumbai it turns out were warned of impending attacks and suspicious activities by everyone from local fishermen to the US government. In spite of this security measures at both hotels and the main train station in Mumbai were downgraded the week before the attacks. Three very senior police officers were killed in the first few hours of what turned out to be an almost three-day siege. According to news reports corruption in the tendering process for police equipment resulted in faulty and substandard ‘bullet-proof’ vests being issued to police personnel; the vests were incapable of repelling bullets even from a hand gun much less an automatic weapon like an AK 47.

‘Mumbaikars’, or residents of Mumbai, reacted with anger and disbelief in the wake of the attacks. Politicians have come in for heavy criticism especially after the Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, toured the Taj in the company of prominent Bollywood director, Ram Gopal Verma. A number of political leaders including Deshmukh, his Deputy, the Home Minister and the Head of Security have since been forced to resign.

An SMS text addressed to film directors made the rounds saying “A humble appeal to Mahesh Bhatt, Ram Gopal Verma, Sanjay Gupta, Rahul Dholakia and Apoorva Lakhia, Sirs, what’s happening in our beloved Bombay is terrifying and sad. Don’t insult us by thinking of making a ‘realistic’ film glorifying or capitalising on this situation. God please save our country from such terrorism and such filmmakers.”

Further South the Chief Minister of Kerala, V S Achutanandan, belatedly tried to pay a condolence call on the Bangalore home of the parents of one of the heroes of the Mumbai attacks, slain National Security Guard (NSG) commando Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan. The Major’s grief-stricken father refused to let the CM enter his residence prompting the Minister to make the gratuitously callous comment that had it not been the home of Major Unnikrishnan not even a dog would have wanted to enter it. Public outrage was so great that after initially refusing to apologize the Chief Minister lost face when he was forced to do so to pacify the citizenry.

The Mumbai siege uncovered unexpected heroes such as the seven South African bodyguards who were at the Taj providing protection for cricketers playing in the Indian Premier League tournament. They helped lead 120 hostages to safety armed only with knives and meat cleavers, even carrying a traumatised 80-year-old woman in a chair down 25 flights of stairs.

As Shobha De, Mumbai’s celebrity writer and blogger commented:

“The grand, old Taj could not provide the Marcos (’Marcos’ is short for “Marine Commandos, an elite special operations unit of the Indian Navy,) with a map of the premises – they were sent in cold – while the terrorists possessed a detailed floor plan all along…There was also a spectacular lack of co- ordination during the entire operation, especially during the first few crucial hours, when all the people involved seemed to be bumbling along without clear directions from one central body. We still don’t know whose orders were being followed, nor who was in command throughout. It became equally obvious that neither the city, nor the hotels have a crisis management programme in place that provides an immediate plan of action in an emergency. Look at how efficiently and swiftly the South African body guards swung into action … and saved so many lives. There was discipline and arduous training behind the drill they followed. Our brave men used their hearts, when minds were needed far more.”

Meanwhile the Hindustan Times reported that the government had “threatened action against television channels repeatedly broadcasting scenes of the Mumbai terror attack saying it may evoke strong sentiments among those affected by it.” The directive ordered that ‘Gory scenes should not shown, tragedy should not be replayed’ for fear of “the terrorists feeling that their operation was successful”.

According to the Hindustan Times the advisory stipulated that “News coverage pertaining to the event should project that India is not demoralised and has risen despite all terrorist attacks as normalcy has been restored. News coverage should project that India is a global power which has full support of the international community”.

Why is it that nations always try to save face before saving lives? Why do politicians instinctively do the wrong thing in the face of disaster, trying to maximize photo ops and free publicity rather than provide meaningful intervention? Why do the authorities always wait for disaster to strike before putting in place the necessary safeguards? These questions are as relevant in Kingston as they were in Mumbai…

Kingston on the Edge etc

If there’s any good news to report from Kingston its from the cultural scene which has been galvanized into action for the second year in a row by KOTE (Kingston on the Edge), an ‘urban art festival’. Titled ‘This is Art’ and dedicated to Chaos, a founding member who checked out prematurely last December, KOTE delivered “visual art shows, movie showings, plays, concerts, an art auction, open houses, digital/multimedia shows and anything else anyone can think of”.

Curiously ‘Galvanize’ was the name of a similar venture in Trinidad and Tobago which took place almost two years ago. Built around a core of nine artists’ projects titled “Visibly Absent”, Galvanize debuted in late 2006 with the aim of becoming an annual or biennial festival. “The ultimate aim of Galvanize is the establishment of a regular (annual or biennial?) series of arts programmes based in Port of Spain…bringing artists, critics, and audiences into fruitful conversations. The presence of several hundred artists and arts administrators in Trinidad in September 2006 for Carifesta IX is the stimulus for starting this project–you could say we’ve been galvanised into action by the resurrection of Carifesta–but this project is best thought of as an independent effort aimed at addressing precisely those questions that Carifesta, with its ‘Independence moment’ origins, seems blind to.”

Likewise KOTE was designed to address: “The relative lack, in Kingston, of outlets for creative and innovative artists” which “combined with the huge surfeit of talent and ideas, means that this Festival is both necessary and inevitable.” Remarkable, isn’t it that two such cultural junctures have been reached in two different outposts of the Caribbean at roughly the same time? Clearly the younger generations have decided that its high time they stake their claim on the culture pie. In years to come its possible to imagine both these events collaborating, creating a chain of creative activity across the region.

Meanwhile Carifesta X is slated to take place in Georgetown, Guyana this August and it is feared will feature the usual, by now graying suspects, patting each other on the back and clapping vigorously at the all too familiar output. Yes, vintage stuff, but unlike wine culture doesn’t always age too well, particularly when it lacks new input.

I went to most of the visual-arts related events offered by KOTE; for a brief moment in time we were treated to the kind of vibrant effervescent atmosphere we ought legitimately to expect from a well-connected and functioning art scene. For years the norm has been for each aesthetic field to operate in mutually exclusive spheres hence you rarely see visual artists at musical, theatrical or literary events and the latter are also visibly absent from visual art events.

For a week KOTE changed all that. On Monday the 23rd there were openings of art shows accompanied by multimedia performances at four of Kingston’s galleries. A small but landmark exhibit at Gallery 128 featured the photographs of the Afflicted One or Peter Dean Rickards, the innovative writer, photographer and editor of First who set off a new wave in image-making some years ago. His former protégé, Observer photographer Marlon ‘Biggy Bigz’ Reid, showcased his award-deserving photograph of the moments after a patron was shot at the British Link Up dance at La Roose some months ago.

Sunday saw the soft opening of The Rock Tower Project with a show called Artists without Borders at the Old Red Stripe Brewery downtown, an awe-inspiringly ambitious venture proposed by sculptor Melinda Brown, who moved her studio from the meat-packing district of NYC to downtown Kingston about three years ago. Following the by now classic model of renovation and resuscitation of abandoned downtown and waterfront areas by visual artists Rock Tower has the potential to intervene creatively and sustainably into the chronic decay and systematic decline of historic downtown Kingston.

Brown, originally from Australia, worked with a group of potters from Rosetown (a community near Trenchtown, Tivoli and other such locations) to produce a host of what she calls ‘Guardians’—terracotta figures displaying a blend of African, Mayan, Chinese and even Etruscan influences—made with clay from Trenchtown and nearby areas. Previously these potters produced flowerpots, which are available by the roadside in various parts of uptown Kingston.

The Rock Tower Project involves the creation of an indoor (as well as outdoor) forest of indigenous medicinal plants as a living sculpture installation. Signaling organic methods of healing and renewal the proposed transformation of abandoned, decomposing spaces into vibrant, green living areas encapsulates one solution to the myriad problems facing Jamaica. The symbolism of literally taking the masses of organic waste from nearby Coronation Market and using it as mulch and compost for the medicinal forest cannot but graphically point in the direction of a much needed regeneration and renewal of society in general.

Showing alongside the Rosetown potters are artists Laura Facey-Cooper, Scheed and Sand who is possibly Jamaica’s newest ‘intuitive’ artist. For a rather grainy slideshow of images click here:

Thursday the 25th saw the launch at the Art Centre Gallery (formerly the Olympia art centre started by A.D. Scott) of a provocative show curated by Ebony Patterson called “Taboo Identities: Race, Sexuality and the Body—A Jamaican Context”. Featuring a number of younger artists such as Ainsworth Case, Camille Chedda, Sean Gyshen Fennell, Patterson herself and Andrene Lord, the exhibit signaled the arrival of a new generation of visual artists in Jamaica and not a moment too soon. Noteworthy were Fennell’s innovative sewn canvas portraits and Chedda’s playful two-dimensional revisions of Laura Facey’s Emancipation Monument. In one you gradually notice the presence of two penises instead of one, the figures’ heads almost touching each other in what seems like a kiss, a blasphemous idea, considering that this is Kingston, ground zero of homophobes as it were.

Well, i’m fast approaching my self-imposed outer limit of a thousand words so I must draw brakes now and curtail this blog. The next thing looming on the agenda like a veritable tsunami is the Crossroads 2008 conference taking place at the University of the West Indies, Mona, next week. Check it out. Till soon!