Iconoclasm in Babylon: Jamaican Police vs the Murals

Jamaican Police’s war against murals and memorials exemplified by the destruction of the Glenford ‘Early Bird’ Phipps murals at his brother, Zeke’s bar in Matthews Lane.

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A policeman paints out the mural of Glenford ‘Early Bird’ Phipps which was on a building at the intersection of Beeston Street and Matthews Lane in west Kingston in February.-Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer, The Gleaner
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The mural of Glenford ‘Early Bird’ Phipps, seen being painted out above, photographed in 2004

In a bizarre twist on community policing lawmen in Jamaica have embraced iconoclasm–the erasure of painted memorials in this case–as a strategy. The photograph accompanying Honor Ford-Smith’s article in the Gleaner today (see above) pleading for the Police to be more sensitive to the social role images play in the communities that produce them is a case in point. What its caption doesn’t tell you is WHO Glenford ‘Early Bird’ Phipps was, or his relationship to Western Kingston and Matthews Lane in particular. It’s just another example of how Jamaican media occludes rather than reveals information.

“For some years now, the Jamaican police have been painting out murals in working-class communities in a symbolic battle with residents,” begins Honor’s article, a longer version of which she had sent me a week ago:

Judging by the public silence, many agree that destroying the murals will somehow help to obliterate donmanship. Perhaps this is understandable, given the fact that we’re all tired of living in fear and we’re tired of the global media marketing the idea that all Jamaicans are pathologically violent. It is hard then to ask what other meanings the police ‘clean-up operation’ might carry, or to suggest that we have much to learn from the murals themselves.

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The destruction of the murals is an act of violent censorship of a popular street-art movement in Kingston in the guise of law enforcement. It is a violation of the right to freedom of expression that is guaranteed in the Jamaican Constitution. We may not like the murals. We don’t have to. That is not the point. Not liking them is not the same as denying the right of self-representation.

Just how much history is packed into murals and images produced by street artists can be seen by looking at the history of the very image the policeman is painting out in the Gleaner photograph  above.

It happens to be a mural that I photographed a bit in 2004 during a close encounter with Zekes, the notorious Don of Matthews Lane, who brought Kingston to a standstill in 1997 when the police briefly arrested him. Glenford ‘Early Bird’ Phipps was Zekes’s beloved brother, brutally murdered in 1990 and memorialized by Zekes in an extensive series of murals on the walls outside and inside his bar (see below).

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In this photo you can dimly see Zekes behind his bar. He actually tended the bar himself and poured me a portion of John Crow Batty, a powerful white rum the likes of which i’ve never encountered since.
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Inside the bar there were more images of Early Bird, flanked by humming birds. You can also get a better look at Zekes with one of his lieutenants. On the left behind his camera is Julian Henriques, film-maker and lecturer at Goldsmith College in London.
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Zekes was initially hostile, incensed at my taking photographs without his permission, though he soon became very friendly, even posing for photos and sending his lieutenant, who had previously ripped the film from my camera, to accompany me while i took photos outside.

But even better than this, Early Bird was memorialized by none other than the famous poet Kamau Brathwaite in his long poem Trenchtown Rock. I’ve taken the liberty of photographing and reproducing below relevant portions from that poem so that you get a better sense of who Glenford Phipps was (“was a young Dreadlocks, [later I was to learn that he was known as “Early Bird”/catching his first too early worm of death that early All Souls Morning] his beautiful long hair like curled around his body making snakes like dance“), his sensational slaying outside the very building Brathwaite lived in, in which Phipps had also been resident, and his importance to the community he came from, to whom those murals would have been of great significance.

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This magnificent painting of Early Bird was on the outer wall of the bar.IMG_8969

Many will say the murals are merely ‘a glorification of criminals’ and should be defaced for fear of their ‘grave effects’ on ‘poor Jamaicans’ etc. I quote from a Facebook response to my posting of Honor’s article. Frankly I’m always amazed at how many Jamaicans talk as if everything is black or white, easily distinguishable, devoid of ambiguity or nuance. Many of Jamaica’s national heroes were on the most wanted list of the colonial government in power at the time. How does a profoundly corrupt state determine criminality? If/When so many police personnel behave like criminals and in effect ARE criminals how do they determine whom to punish? And should the public support them in this? These are hypothetical questions but ones worth pondering. One of the interesting things brought out in Honor’s article on censorship is the fact that also memorialized in many of these communities are the fallen policemen belonging to them:

Some of the murals can be read as covert statements against police impunity and against police methods. But this doesn’t mean communities are against the police per se. If this were true, police from inner-city communities would not be memorialised. But they are. They, too, are mourned and remembered. Nevertheless, it is well known that Jamaica has a high rate of police violence that undermines public confidence in law enforcement.

Do we really have a right to erase the social history of communities in the name of hard policing? Really? What next?

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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?