Decoding Veerle Poupeye’s Laments

A response to a series of critiques of the National Gallery of Jamaica

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Philip Thomas, Pimpers Paradise, The Terra Nova edition, Beyond Fashion, National Gallery of Jamaica

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In a post titled “Too Close for Comfort” dated September 22, 2018, former executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, Veerle Poupeye, has publicly censured the institution she used to head, for the fifth or sixth time since the start of the year when she demitted office. The gist of these critiques is that the Gallery can get little or nothing right since her departure, and now, minus her vigilance and guidance, is in danger of violating museum ethics as the Board, by implication, is unaware of the high standards that must be maintained.

Please note that this response to Poupeye’s latest ‘warning’ is made in my private capacity as a writer and critic and not as a representative of the NGJ Board, on which I’ve served since mid-2016. Since September 22, 2018, Poupeye has reposted the article mentioned above at least 4 times, apparently dissatisfied with the scant attention it was receiving from those she sought to voice her concerns to.

In the preceding months Poupeye has focused an acerbic gaze at every single exhibition mounted by the NGJ since her departure and—not surprisingly—found them wanting. She freely offers her opinions and judgments on her personal blog and on her Facebook page where among other things she scolds the new PR team for allegedly failing to put out a press release before rather than after the exhibition, chides her former curatorial team for various alleged imperfections, and raises ‘concerns’ about the rights and wrongs of a board member who is also an art impresario somehow ‘benefiting’ from two of the artists she represents being in a micro-show at National Gallery West even though it is the Senior Curator who would have made the selection and not the board member in question.  It remains unclear how artists or their agents might benefit from exposure at National Gallery West, a tiny space not on the radar of most people in Jamaica, let alone the wider art world. In fact the premise of the exhibition was the opposite, to mount the work of interesting artists with connections to Western Jamaica for the benefit of audiences in that region–not to burnish the artists’ already healthy reputations.

In the screed under discussion Poupeye’s tone is lofty as she dwells on the shortcomings of the institution she has spent more than 30 years at, in one capacity or another. The subject of the former ED’s admonitions and cautionary statements is Susanne Fredricks, whose family owns HiQo Gallery, and who has recently set up an online platform called Suzie Wong Presents (SWP), designed to showcase and promote the work of Jamaican artists at international art fairs and other similar fora. Like myself Fredricks has been on the Board of the National Gallery since 2016, and has privately represented the same artists during Poupeye’s tenure as ED, although no alarm was raised at the time about this, even though the same artists were featured in National Gallery shows during that period.

The ambit and scope of what Fredricks is attempting to do with SWP is commendable, a much needed innovation that ought to be applauded rather than sneered at and disparaged as the former ED has done. Despite Poupeye’s facade of civility and feigned moral superiority her repeated attempts to try her case on social media a few days before the launching of SWP in London at 1-54, the relatively new African Art Fair held in conjunction with Frieze Art Fair, raise concerns about her motives. While Poupeye is careful to appear objective and impartial in her statements she cunningly allows her gullible followers to do the heavy lifting, generating snarky, derisive comments that verge on the libelous, and do little to show Jamaican art in a good light, as seen in the Facebook exchange below:

Veerle Poupeye Natalie D. A. Bennett Let me first say that I am delighted that these artists are getting this exposure opportunity. The required reading appears to make reference to Stuart Hall, who is referenced in the press material. Here is the other information I have: 198 is a charitable, non-profit gallery and organization in Brixton and the special projects at 1-54, to which they were invited to contribute, are not-for-profit, although the rest of the fair of course is. Suzie Wong Presents is, to my understanding, an online commercial gallery. Several works by both artists are being offered for sale through that gallery’s Artsy page. Four works by these artists that are presented as for sale on that page are presently on view in the I Shall Return Again exhibition at National Gallery West exhibition in Montego Bay. Susanne Fredricks, who operates Suzie Wong Presents, and who curated Required Reading as a collaboration with 198, is also a member of the National Gallery of Jamaica Board and the Chair of its exhibition committee.I am not familiar with the content of the display at 1-54.

Natalie D. A. Bennett what is that mi jus read…? the sed person who runs the commercial gallery that is charged with selling the works also sits on the public board of NGJ and used their position of access to put those works in a public exhibition suh more people can see it and thus buy it so dem can personally reap the benefits? so the public exhibition, while it’s bringing important and necessary visibility to the artists themselves, is actually enriching the person who put it on display in the public gallery? Suh ef it sell ah di individual an dem commercial gallery and not the public institution a get di money and then dish out fi dem portion to the artists? Suh fi dem commercial gallery nevva good enough an naa draw enough attention?

None of the above is true but Bennett has correctly decoded what was implicit in Poupeye’s statements. Alarmed by these insinuations Lucy Davies, director of 198, the non-profit, London-based gallery mentioned by VP responded to the same post pointing out there was little basis for the claims being made of conflict of interest. She also corrected Poupeye’s misconceptions about what constitutes a non-profit in the British context:

Lucy Davies It is most unfortunate that you have chosen to try and undermine our involvement in 1-54 with your posts suggesting that our partner Suzie Wong Presents is gaining financially from their participation . We in London have worked hard to achieve this opportunity for Jamaican artists and invited SWP to participate. You might be surprised to learn than no actual artworks are on display. Both partners invested considerable funds in creating a bespoke multi media installation (which has been really well received btw) without external sponsorship.

Even if works had been sold it is unlikely that any commission due to partners would have covered the costs incurred in providing this opportunity to two great artists. Also non profit does not mean you cannot sell works. We do this at 198 quite often. It simply means that any funds raised are reinvested in further work to support artistic endeavours.

You are welcome to post this comment on the Caribbean Artist network page as 198 would like there to be complete clarity on this. Also I’d like to suggest that any grievances you might have with SWP be approached via appropriate channels as calling people out on social media is not exactly a professional look.

In the back and forth that ensued on Facebook  (see screenshots below) the former ED does what she does all too often; she climbs on her moral high horse and rides it for all its worth, accusing Davies of personal hostility and animosity although no one reading Davies’ calm and measured comments would come to the same conclusion. In fact a glance at her comments in the screenshots pasted below show that Davies is the one accusing VP of personal motives in the timing and nature of her attack on SWP but in a classic instance of gaslighting VP throws the accusations back at her with absolutely no evidence offered!

“The comments by you I have read since then ARE personally hostile and it is clear that you bear animosity towards me for reasons only you can clarify. I believe that it is your professional conduct that is inappropriate here and I will write the governing body of the organization you represent with a complaint about same. Enough is enough!”

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It has become commonplace for any criticism of the ex-ED to be routinely dismissed as “highly inappropriate” or “distasteful” and the critique characterized as a personal  attack. Quite often in her lengthy jeremiads Poupeye moralizes on Jamaican society beyond the art world. Her statements are oracular, and “delivered like Holy Writ, without sourcing or self-reflection or doubt”, a quote from Mark Judge’s article, “Are You Guilty of ‘Virtue-Signaling?’”  in which he discusses the phenomenon of less than virtuous individuals going out of their way to signal their superiority and integrity by frequent expressions of moral outrage. According to Judge “Virtue signaling is the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favor for certain political ideas, cultural happenings, or even the weather.”

It’s something one cannot help but notice in Veerle Poupeye’s Facebook utterances: her vigorous, indeed, aggressive virtue signaling. The following are examples of what I’m talking about.

Veerle Poupeye
29 September at 20:44

 If you sell works of art, in a space or online, you operate a commercial gallery, and you are a dealer; no matter how many times you call your operation a “platform.” or yourself a “curator”. Nothing wrong with selling art, dealers and commercial galleries are very important and the good ones fulfill many other roles, but at least be clear, and honest, about the fundamental nature and purpose of your operation and do not try to masquerade as a non-profit operation.

This statement indirectly references SWP, the fledgling art platform that for reasons best known to herself, VP seems determined to scuttle. Yet SWP has never masqueraded as a non-profit operation as suggested in the above Facebook post, and further it is an incorrect assumption on Poupeye’s part that non-profits can’t sell work, so what is all the alarmist talk and concern about? Let’s throw mud, some of it is bound to stick, seems to be the rationale behind it. In the following Facebook update, Poupeye tries a different tack, laying on her moralism with a trowel and introducing the victim card:

Veerle Poupeye
3 October at 10:59 ·

 Why do some people attack the messenger in very personal and disparaging way when an issue they do not want to hear or acknowledge goes into the open, especially when they are directly or indirectly compromised in the matter. Should we just ignore things that are plainly wrong out of fear for those reprisals? What message are we giving to people who speak up for what they believe in, that they will not be supported and should keep quiet? That it is “all good” even when what is happening is clearly wrong, merely because it benefits them? And why is this happening in an era which is full of rhetoric about “speak truth to power” and “me too”. Very, very disappointing, especially when it comes from someone who should know better, but chooses to act otherwise out of self-interest. Whatever happened to integrity and principle? Is it just optional when it is convenient?

Veerle Poupeye
8 October at 15:53 ·

 Earn your position through hard work, carried out with integrity, and through ability and achievement, and you’ll have my respect, no matter who you are or how I otherwise feel about you and what you represent. Earn it through opportunistic, talentless hustling (or with the hustle being your only real talent), and through dishonesty, disregard for others, and taking credit for other people’s work and vision, and I can only offer total contempt, no matter how far you get.

What is all this frantic virtue signaling about? James Bartholomew, the man who invented the term, gives us a clue:

“It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandizement would be obvious. . . . Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.”

In general Veerle Poupeye poses as a moral exemplar and has set herself up as the ‘conscience’ and gatekeeper of Jamaican art. But how reliable is she as an objective commentator on Jamaican art or anything else?

In the post under discussion Poupeye mischievously uses a bee metaphor to introduce her latest bee(f). The reference is to an essay by Kei Miller in the inaugural issue of PREE, a new online platform of writing on, from and of the Caribbean, that I am associated with. Titled The White Women and the Language of Bees, the essay prompted Poupeye to pen an open letter to Miller on her blog. Her blog has a ‘commentary facility’ she says to Lucy Davies. However Kei’s response to her open letter remains unpublished, for undisclosed reasons. Did it contradict Poupeye’s assertions perhaps? Was it an inconvenient counter to her narrative? Whatever the reason, to voice a strong critique of a writer, then decline to publish his response, is an act of bad faith and does not demonstrate a commitment to the fostering of critical discussion in the region, a claim often made by Poupeye.

Miller’s essay provoked quite a reaction in certain quarters, which caused us to temporarily take it down until the firestorm, in which Poupeye was a vociferous participant, subsided. When the essay was subsequently restored to the PREE website Poupeye immediately added a note to her post stating authoritatively that Kei’s essay had been “replaced by a  substantially revised version.” This is patently untrue and I challenge Poupeye to provide evidence of these substantial revisions (WordPress keeps scrupulous track of edits so this is easy to do). I am the one who uploaded the new version and I struggled to identify the minor changes Kei had made to his essay long before PREE came out. We had published an earlier version and he asked us to put up the most recent version which he had neglected to give us at the time of publication. There were no changes made to the parts that caused the fuss, and the objecting parties continued to campaign against it, so it’s unclear why Poupeye felt the gratuitous lie was necessary. But lie she did, making one wonder how many of her sweeping truth claims are fabricated and how many or how few are accurate and true.

Finally, in her post “Too Close for Comfort” Poupeye quotes from a 2009 essay of mine in which I drew attention to the conflict of interest in one person, then curator David Boxer, simultaneously being Chief Curator, a practicing artist whose work was shown in almost every show the NGJ curated, as well as one of the biggest private collectors in the country. Poupeye rightly observed that “Any attempt to critique these issues was construed as a dismissal of the otherwise indeed valuable and pioneering work done by the NGJ and Boxer” but neglects to mention that she was very much part and parcel of this construal. I had been trying to draw attention to this problem long before 2009, but never received support from Veerle Poupeye who was then very much Dr. Boxer’s right hand woman, having been his protégé since the 80s. Mine was a voice in the wilderness, except for Roberta Stoddart, who in the 90s demanded a meeting with the then Board to insist that something be done about this conflict of interest.

Was Poupeye unaware then of the ICOM Code of Ethics she so frequently waves in our faces nowadays? Had she not found her moral compass yet? There is no published work I’m aware of in which Poupeye raised the alarm about the state of affairs at the National Gallery in the days when she was part of the inner circle. Her 2011 thesis Between Nation and Market certainly doesn’t mention the conflict of interest although David Boxer figures prominently in it. Incidentally my critiques of the incestuous Jamaican art world Poupeye is very much a product of, were disruptive in the true sense of the word. I take it she’s in agreement with my views now though there was never any indication of it back in the day when she could have done something about it.

One notes with amusement the former ED positioning herself as the lone disruptive voice today and generally posturing as a daring art crusader who will ‘tell it like it is’ whether Jamaicans like it or not. “I will continue throwing stones in the pond and to act as a “disruptor,” to use fashionable management speak, for as long as I can and as long as I am convinced that it is important to do so. I believe that it is needed for the health of the Caribbean art ecology.” Good! Better late than never, welcome to the stone-throwing club! But beware: if you live in a glass house don’t throw stones.

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Quilt performing

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Crowd waiting outside the National Gallery of Jamaica

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My writings about the insular curatoriat of the NGJ, of the fraught and problematic concept of the ‘intuitives’, of the importance of contemporary art, preceded Poupeye’s  belated critiques by more than a decade, something rarely acknowledged today. What is curious is that Poupeye is suggesting that the non-issue of Susanne Fredricks’ online platform Suzie Wong Presents is equivalent to the conflict of interest involving Boxer’s triple role in his time. This is a false equivalence Madame Poupeye and you would be hard put to prove otherwise. If you actually believe this then it’s a clear sign that you’re dangerously out of touch with reality.

Let me close by relating an anecdote. A few years ago my friend Elsie was returning to Jamaica for the first time after retiring as Executive Director of an institution she had helmed here for about 15 years. Are you looking forward to visiting your old haunt and catching up with your former employees I asked? Elsie looked at me in horror, “Oh no! I would never do that,” she said, shaking her head vigorously. “It’s considered infra dig to appear at a company you used to head, I might be accused of interfering. As former head, best international practice dictates that I maintain a distance, allowing the new head to find his feet and develop relationships with the staff, without my casting a shadow over them. So no, I don’t intend to go anywhere near my former office.”

Poupeye, who is fond of reminding us of international best practice in relation to art and aesthetics should take a leaf out of Elsie’s book and stop haunting the National Gallery. It’s not international best practice for former executive directors to appear at every event and exhibition mounted by their former institution, haranguing staff and dominating q and a sessions. Stop policing your former employees, Board and institution unless you’re vying for a Provincial Best Practice medal. Your former position as head of the NGJ renders you unsuitable to provide meaningful critique on a subject that is much too close for comfort to your own personal history. Now there’s a true conflict of interest we can and ought to discuss.

It would be advisable also for Poupeye to pay attention to the reception of her posts. When you post an article on social media four times and still get the cold shoulder while a post about the possibility of starting an online art journal receives an enthusiastic response, your social media ‘friends’ are trying to tell you something. Drop the accusatory, finger-pointing mode and embrace the ‘building new platforms’ mode, something as I said you are uniquely well-placed to do. Of course to accomplish this you might want to park the high horse, rest the Voice from Above and ditch the Veerle Knows Best approach to art and life. It doesn’t sit well in this era of decolonial aesthetics. If possible bring back the Veerle Poupeye who wrote Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica, a magisterial study that I highly recommend to anyone interested in Caribbean art or just art, period.

 

If there was ever any doubt that the NGJ is undergoing a resurgence since Poupeye’s   departure it was manifest at the opening of ‘Beyond Fashion’, the exhibition that has put her former protégé O’Neil Lawrence on the map. A record-breaking crowd of young folk descended on the Gallery on September 30, 2018, showing that there is indeed life and art after Veerle Poupeye. It’s a tough truth to swallow but take consolation in the fact that your protégé has done you proud. You deserve some of the acclaim for his success just as you deserve some of the blame for the many faults you continue to find with the Gallery, for you were in charge of this institution for at least 10 years, and associated with it for 30.

PS: As I get ready to post this Veerle Poupeye has just posted a review of Beyond Fashion in which she’s refreshingly self-reflexive about being too close for comfort to the subject at hand. She goes on nevertheless to level critiques against the curation of the show, the text panels, their placement, their content, “the thematic considerations that shape Beyond Fashion, and the underlying scholarship and critical engagement,” proving her point that she’s too close to the subject matter she’s discussing. We predict that Veerle Poupeye will continue to review every show presented at the NGJ and find them all wanting, in one respect or another.

Just to add that the unprecedented crowd at the opening of Beyond Fashion cannot simply be attributed to the Kingston Art and Architecture Walk (which had about 100 people) or the performance group Quilt both of which have happened there before  without attracting such a large crowd. A lot of credit must go to the curator, O’Neil Lawrence and his team, the curator who according to Veerle Poupeye, can’t get anything right anymore. Yet this is the same curator Poupeye relentlessly tried to have appointed as Chief Curator some months ago, angrily vilifying those who suggested he might not be ready. Did you get it wrong then Veerle, or is your current judgment off? You were wrong then, or wrong now, proving that your judgement is not infallible. Time to stand down?

‘Uptown’ Crimes: “Messado–weh mi money deh?”

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Real Estate Attorney Jennifer Messado

If you were to go by the social status of criminals languishing in Jamaica’s jails you’d have to conclude that crime here is an occupation exclusively reserved for the have-nots. At least 95% of those convicted by Jamaican courts fall neatly into the lowest social classes in this society.

For the first time however, things appear to be changing. In the last few days news broke that prominent uptown real estate lawyer Jennifer Messado and an accomplice, had been arrested and charged with fraud among other things. In Messado’s case the charges ranged from property deals to forgery and money laundering.

In a separate case another prominent uptown lawyer Patrick Bailey was again questioned about the September 30, 2016 death of Jermaine Junior, a 51-year-old construction worker whose body was found with several stab wounds in Bailey’s living room. Rumour has it that Junior was a returning resident who had paid the attorney to buy property for him with nothing to show for it in the end. In June 2017 in another case Bailey was accused of defrauding St. Catherine businessman and land developer Stafford Dixon in a land deal.

It seems land theft and property fraud is rife amongst the legal fraternity in Jamaica although you wouldn’t know it judging by the cases brought to court and convictions. What is finally causing the police to take action in these new cases? While we ponder that question let’s look at some interesting tidbits from Jennifer Messado’s background.

Born Jennifer FitzRitsen, Messado went to a prominent high school in Kingston but was suspended in third form and sent to finish her studies in England, according to a classmate who claimed to have taught Messado her first bad word. The classmate couldn’t remember the reason for the suspension but recalled that Messado’s brother, also a lawyer, was murdered in a high profile case in the 70s.

That case was written up in the Jamaica Observer in 2013 (“Paul FitzRitson knew that he was marked for death” by Sybil E Hibbert) and the details are fascinating. On March 16, 1974 Paul FitzRitson, then executive chairman of National Sports Ltd  (now INSPORT the Jamaica institute of Sports ) and a popular Kingston lawyer, was killed by two armed robbers in the Norwood area of Montego Bay, St James.

FitzRitson’s murder followed other prominent killings in an unprecedented crime wave in 1974 that resulted in then Prime Minister Michael Manley instituting the infamous Gun Court. According to the Observer:

“The nation during this period was in turmoil. Especially after it was reported that the hard-working and dedicated FitzRitson — who resided at the time in Copacabana near Bull Bay, St Andrew, a quiet, middle-class community overlooking the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea — had reportedly left Kingston for Montego Bay the previous Friday in order to finalise plans for the telecast of the March 26 heavyweight fight between George Foreman and Ken Norton. This was scheduled to take place at the Palladium Theatre in the western city.

“And that very afternoon, prior to the fatal shooting, FitzRitson was reported to have dined at Ironshore with his good friend, the then Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism P J Patterson (later prime minister of Jamaica); the late executive chairman of the JIDC, Wesley Wainwright and Hopeton Caven, his colleague of the TUC, of which he (FitzRitson) was the legal advisor.”

But why was FitzRitsen killed? The case remains unsolved. According to the Observer:

“Speculation turned to the fact that quite two years prior, Paul FitzRitson had been the person — along with well-known producer Buddy Pouyatt and Beverley Anderson — who had proposed to then Opposition Leader Michael Manley that a Bandwagon show of Jamaican entertainers including the late Bob Marley and Peter Tosh; Alton Ellis, Judy Mowatt, Clancy Eccles, Delroy Morgan, Hopeton Lewis and Max Romeo, be used by campaign manager, Patterson, in mounting the programme for the 1972 general election on behalf of the PNP.

“By the following year, FitzRitson had been active in bringing to Jamaica, the still talked-about championship bout between boxing legend George Foreman and Joe Fraser o/c “Smoking Joe.” He was indeed a community organiser, with a particular interest in music and sports promotion, heavy accent on boxing.”

To return to the present it would be interesting to find out what has led to Messado’s arrest. Nationwide News’s Abka Fitz-Henley who was present in court when charges were pressed tweeted that ‘when #JenniferMessado was handcuffed & was being led out of the dock, an Attorney, Tamika Harris, said to her – “Messado a want mi money – weh mi money deh!?”. Messado had a wry smile but didn’t comment. She was then led away by Police to await bail processing.’

Apparently Harris was told to join the line, as the number of people with similar claims is growing by the minute. The charges against Messado appear to have been carefully constructed, down to a video released on social media less than a month ago showing the lawyer turned bailiff gleefully turfing tenants off their property.

The video below, capturing a situation rarely associated with uptown or with light-skinned people in Jamaica, already had tongues wagging. But Messado’s arrest a mere few weeks later has created a sensation that has Jamaicans agog. What can we expect next?

Letter from the Editor

It gives me such pleasure to make PREE’s first issue ‘Crossroads’ available for feedback and reactions in advance of its official launch in June…

Pree

ANNIE PAUL

annieAs the note on our theme says, the Caribbean has always existed at a crossroads of one kind or another, and nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century, the Caribbean remains at a crossroads. The artist Christopher Cozier once said, after a residency in Johannesburg, that he often felt like someone standing at an intersection with a sign, rewriting and reorganizing its message, wondering if it was being understood or engaged.

There’s a similar feeling as we put out the first issue of PREE, an online portal to relay high-grade writing from, on or about the Caribbean. Will PREE be read as widely as we hope? Who will PREE’s audience be and how will they engage us? Will this kind of writing appeal to the younger generations growing up in an era when books have virtually become an endangered species? Will youngsters still yearn…

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The Herero Holocaust

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Herero prisoners of war, around 1900. Wikipedia.

Gleaner column 31/1/18

Germany was sued in a New York Federal court on January 5, 2018, over what some claim was the twentieth century’s first case of genocide—the slaughter of members of the Herero and Nama groups in Namibia between 1904 and 1908. 65,000 Hereros and 10,000 Nama were murdered by Imperial German troops after they rebelled against German rule and occupation of their land, now part of Namibia.

The lawsuit was initiated by descendants of these two groups who were excluded from talks held by Germany with Namibia regarding the genocide. Germany has publicly said any settlement will not include reparations directly to the descendants of victims, even if compensation is awarded to Namibia itself. The problem is that the Namibian government is not sufficiently representative of the minority indigenous communities in question and there is no guarantee that the proposed remuneration in the form of aid will reach the descendants of the Nama and Herero.

It would be similar to a hypothetical situation in which reparation for damages inflicted on the Rastafari community during the Coral Gardens Rebellion were disbursed to all of Jamaica instead of the injured group. According to a Reuters article the proposed class-action lawsuit seeks unspecified sums for thousands of descendants of the victims, for the “incalculable damages” that were caused.

The Herero were pastoral herdsmen and women who migrated from Eastern Africa to what is now Namibia in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Nama came from South Africa in the early 19th century. Initially competitors the two groups banded together in the late 19th century against an influx of German settlers  who acquired land from the Herero in order to establish farms. The territory became a German colony called German Southwest Africa (later under a provision of the League of Nations charter the region came under the administration of the white South African government.) Apartheid was practiced with the Herero and Nama herded into smaller and smaller areas with little access to land and water.

According to a Wikipedia article, between 1893 and 1903, the Herero and Nama people’s land as well as their cattle were systematically appropriated by German colonists. In 1903, the Herero heard that in a further land grab the Germans planned to place them on reservations. On January 12, 1904 Samuel Maharero, the Supreme Chief of the Herero, led his people in a large-scale uprising, against the Germans.

The German government sent Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha to take over as colonial governor, “and with his arrival, the rhetoric of forceful negotiations gave way to the rhetoric of racial extermination”. Von Trotha declared that “no war may be conducted humanely against non-humans” and issued an infamous order called the Vernichtungsbefehl—an extermination order.

“The Herero are no longer German subjects,” read von Trotha’s order. “The Herero people will have to leave the country. If the people refuse I will force them with cannons to do so. Within the German boundaries, every Herero, with or without firearms, with or without cattle, will be shot. I won’t accommodate women and children anymore. I shall drive them back to their people or I shall give the order to shoot at them.”

In the slaughter that followed the Germans drove the Herero into the vast desert adjoining their territory, poisoning their water supplies and limiting access to water and food. Many were held  in concentration camps where experiments were conducted on their bodies. German researchers treated Africans as fodder for scientific experiments. Papers published in German medical journals used skull measurements to justify calling Africans Untermenschen—subhumans.

Was all this an advance trial of the tactics Germans would unleash on Jews forty years later? At any rate of approximately 80,000 Herero who lived in German South West Africa at the beginning of Germany’s colonial rule only 15,000 were alive by 1908. A1985 United Nations report has said the “massacre” of Hereros qualified as a genocide.

A recent New Yorker article documents the presence of the remains of eight Hereros at the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan, and the attempts of Herero descendants to have these remains repatriated. In 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or nagpra, was passed requiring institutions to inventory and repatriate human remains although nagpra applies only to museums that receive federal funding, and does not cover human remains taken from outside the United States. Researchers at prominent museums such as the Smithsonian and the American Natural History Museum opposed the Act arguing that their museums owned the human remains. Those proposing the law had to invoke the precedence of human rights over property rights before the Act began to gain traction!

The history of science certainly has its share of skeletons in the closet, a good number of them  African, apparently.

Who’s paying the watchdog?

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DPP Paula Llewellyn arguing for regulation of media in Jamaica at PAJ forum “Who’s watching the watchdog? Media regulation in Jamaica and elsewhere”

Gleaner column, Dec 20, 2017

Some weeks ago the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) held a public forum on whether there was a need for a Press Council in Jamaica to oversee or deal with complaints against journalists and media entities. Titled “Who’s watching the watchdog? Media regulation in Jamaica and elsewhere” participants in the panel discussion included Janet Steele, a George Washington University journalism professor and writer based in Washington, D.C. and Jakarta; Dionne Jackson-Miller, broadcast journalist and President of the PAJ; Claire Grant, Vice Chairman of the Media Association of Jamaica and General Manager of TV Jamaica; and Robert Nesta Morgan, Director of Communication in the Office of the Prime Minister. The discussion was ably moderated by Archibald Keane Gordon.

Dionne Jackson-Miller who went first was decidedly against government regulation, believing that it might be used to muzzle the media rather than allow it to perform its function as one of the guardians of free speech and democracy. She like many others in media here preferred self-regulation by media entities. Steele who followed her, said that in the US they tended to do without press councils. Her opening lines had the audience cracking up when she thanked the US Embassy for inviting her but said that she wanted to make it clear she was not representing the American Government, merely expressing her own views. “Hopefully I won’t embarrass the US Government…but at this point that would be hard to do, wouldn’t it?” said Steele, as the room dissolved in laughter.

Steele went on to say that she was glad to be in a room full of journalists who were universally agreed that they should regulate themselves. How best to do this was the question. Could it be left to a journalistic code of ethics? What happens if a person feels they’ve been insulted, defamed or libeled by a media house? Whereas in the US they had dispensed with press councils, Steele had been part of setting one up in Indonesia which worked very well in dealing with such complaints.

Consisting of three members of the press, three members representing media owners and three members elected by the public from people knowledgeable about the field the Indonesian Press Council has been extraordinarily successful in mediating disputes and holding the media accountable, said Steele. It also has a public education function, educating the public on the advantages of a free and fair media.

Claire Grant who followed Steele, mentioned her transition from print journalist to marketing and sales and then to media management. She then presented some interesting statistics. Jamaica can pat itself on the back for ranking 8th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index though at the same time it ranks 83rd  of 176 countries in the World Corruption Perception Index. Norway which tops the press freedom index has a corruption perception index of 6 while Nigeria which ranked 122nd in press freedom ranked 136 in corruption perception.

Unlike Jamaica all the other countries ranked in the top 10 in press freedom rank very low in the corruption perception index. Singapore like Jamaica is an anomaly,  ranking very low in press freedom—151, but high in the corruption perception index—7. This made me wonder…was Jamaica’s poor ranking in corruption perception an indication that the Press in Jamaica is NOT using the freedom at its disposal to perform its watchdog function adequately?

This led to a brief discussion of the relative lack of investigative journalism in Jamaica with Dionne-Jackson Miller asserting that she would not be sending inexperienced rookies out to investigate risky or dangerous issues that required the attention of seasoned journalists who knew what they were doing and could protect themselves adequately. Jackson-Miller flagged the low salaries paid to journalists as a problem, ensuring that only relatively junior members of the profession could afford to work in Jamaican media houses for any length of time.

This means there is a dearth of senior journalists with the kind of backative and cojones needed to survive the perils of investigating high-level corruption.

The issue of insufficient remuneration was also brought up by international human rights attorney Jody Ann Quarrie who expressed concern that low salaries in conjunction with corruption would lead down a predictable path leaving poorly paid journalists vulnerable to blandishments by criminals and corrupt individuals and entities thus allowing ‘unsavoury practices’ to flourish rather than be curtailed.

To my mind this is a much more serious matter than the question of a press council. If our media houses are not willing to pay competitive industry salaries to ensure the highest quality of journalism why brag about ranking high on the press freedom index? Is Jamaican media’s bark worse than its bite? And what does this mean for democracy?

Art and Artifice

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Gleaner column, Dec 13, 2017

Art has been in the headlines globally, regionally and locally in the last few weeks. On the global stage Christie’s mid-November auction featuring a long-lost work by Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, was very much in the news especially after the much hyped painting sold for US$450.3 million. Created more than 500 years ago the painting depicts Christ as Salvator Mundi (Latin for Savior of the World).

According to Wikipedia “The painting shows Jesus, in Renaissance dress, giving a benediction with his right hand raised and two fingers extended, while holding a transparent rock crystal orb in his left hand, signaling his role as savior of the world and master of the cosmos, and representing the ‘crystalline sphere’ of the heavens.”

Before the auction Salvator Mundi was estimated to sell for approximately US$100 million. Christie’s elaborate marketing campaign toured the painting around the world attracting more than 27,000 people. A YouTube video showing mesmerized expressions on the faces of those who gazed upon the artwork was circulated virally by the auction house as well.

The clever campaign certainly delivered. On the day in question a mystery buyer paid four times the estimated value of the painting leaving everyone agog about their identity. CNBC speculated that the sheer price of the painting ruled out “most everyday billionaires”. Eventually the New York Times broke the news that the da Vinci had been purchased by an unknown Saudi Prince named Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud.

Within days this version of events was disputed by the Wall Street Journal which claimed that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the buyer, with Prince Badr acting as proxy, and that the painting was intended as a gift for the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAR). The Crown Prince has been in the news recently for abruptly arresting 159 other princes and powerful business and political rivals.

The latest news is that a statement has now been put out by Christie’s announcing that Salvator Mundi was actually acquired by Abu Dhabi’s department of culture and tourism once again contradicting the earlier story that the Saudi Crown Prince bought the rare painting as a diplomatic gift for the UAR. What remains certain is that the renowned artwork will be on display at the Louvre, Abu Dhabi.

Closer to home, speaking of diplomatic gifts, mystery surrounds rumours that a painting given by President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic to Prime Minister Andrew Holness on his recent state visit to Jamaica, is a fake. The painting by the Dominican master artist Guillo Perez, has become the subject of intense debate and disapproval in the Dominican art community. The country is apparently plagued by counterfeiters, with fake works having been sold to foreign collectors as well as institutional collections according to an article in the Diario Libre.

“I can give assurances that if the president of the Dominican Republic, Lic. Danilo Medina has presented a work of art by a Dominican artist, it is because he feels pride in our art and because he is interested in the world paying attention to our artists, especially when this happens in a regional market forum “said renowned gallerist Juan José Mesa to Loquesucede.com.

Back home the art world is expressing consternation over the refurbishing of Laura Facey’s emancipation monument, Redemption Song, during the course of which the large bronze was painted a startling jet black. Nothing inflames art purists more than unwarranted interference with a work of art; such horror and anguish has been expressed in the public sphere over the re-pigmentation of the emancipated couple that you would think they had been painted shocking pink.

In a Gleaner article the sculptor explained that the repainting occurred during an attempt to resolve the issues of calcium build-up on the fingers of the bronze sculptures and on the walls of the surrounding water pool. The National Housing Trust, which is in charge of the monument, consulted Facey on the best way to do this. Facey recommended an expert and the rest as they say, is history. Black history.

The process to remove the marine paint and restore the monument’s natural bronze patina will be expensive. Perhaps in future artists might voluntarily monitor renovations of their works to avoid the commission of this kind of costly error. If it’s any consolation Laura, questions were also raised internationally about the authenticity of da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi because it had been painted over and refurbished so many times. This didn’t prevent it, five hundred years later, from fetching 450 million dollars.

The Case of Judge Loya

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Gleaner column, Nov 30, 2017

In India, a case with potentially sinister undertones has divided media. The death of High Court Judge BH Loya in December 2014 is raising questions about the integrity of the judiciary and the political machinery of the country. If what is suspected is found to be true it implicates the Chief of the ruling party, BJP President, Amit Shah.

On November 26, 2005, a man in his thirties named Sohrabuddin Sheikh was gunned down by a team of police in Gujarat in what is known in India as an ‘encounter’ killing. Essentially a form of extra-judicial killing of people in their custody, Indian police are known to eliminate suspected criminals and gangsters in fake encounters, where they claim the suspect was shooting at the police while attempting to escape and “the gunfire is returned” killing them. Sound familiar?

It later emerged that contrary to the police version of events, Sheikh was travelling in a luxury bus with his wife, along with a friend when all three were abducted from the bus by Gujarat Police, who killed Sheikh on November 26, and his wife on November 29. According to an article in Scroll.In the police would later claim, as they are wont to do, that the individuals killed were dreaded terrorists, with plans to assassinate Modi and other senior leaders, or launch terror strikes, but rarely would there be any convincing evidence to confirm such allegations. No postmortem or statutory magisterial inquiry followed the killings.

The truth was much simpler. After pressure from Sheikh’s brother prompted a court case and a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry it emerged that Sohrabuddin Sheikh was a member of a criminal gang that had been in cahoots with some Gujarat police officers and political leaders, operating an extortion racket in neighbouring Rajasthan. After Sheikh’s gang threatened highly-connected marble businessmen in Udaipur his political and police bosses felt that Sheikh was getting beyond their control, and needed to be eliminated. They could not, however, risk charging him formally, for fear he would expose his powerful partners in crime.

The investigation that followed allegedly pointed at none other than Amit Shah, then Home Minister of Gujarat, as having given the orders to eliminate Sheikh. “According to the CBI charge-sheet, the killing was orchestrated by senior police officers on the orders of Gujarat Home Minister Amit Shah and former Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria, who was also a senior BJP leader.” A supplementary charge-sheet filed by CBI on May 6, 2013, alleged that the owner of RK Marbles and the Rajasthan Home Minister conspired to kill Sheikh as he was allegedly trying to extort money from RK Marbles. According to the article “The CBI further charged that the killing was outsourced to the Gujarat Police in consultation with Amit Shah, the Minister of State for Home of Gujarat.”

In May 2013 Amit Shah along with 10 or more other police officers was charged and jailed for the extra-judicial murders and involvement in criminal extortion activities. A year later, however, there was a change of government with Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP, sweeping to power. Suddenly everything changed. The trial continued but Amit Shah now refused to appear in court. The trial judge, JT Utpat, reprimanded Amit Shah on June 6, 2014, for failing to appear in person, ordering him to present himself in court on June 26, 2014.

Mysteriously on June 25, 2014, only a day before this scheduled hearing, Judge Utpat was transferred to a different court, and replaced by Judge BH Loya. When Amit Shah again failed to appear in person at the trial Judge Loya also expressed disapproval, ordering him to appear in court on December 15. In the early hours of December 1, 2014, in circumstances that his family claims were suspicious, Judge Loya, with no history of cardiac problems, suffered a sudden heart attack and died. Among other things, his sister claimed that Mohit Shah, then chief justice of the Bombay high court, had offered her brother Rs 100 crore (approx. US$15 million) to give a “favourable” judgment in the case.

“Within weeks of Judge Loya’s death, on December 30, 2014, the third judge to hear the case, MB Gosavi, discharged Amit Shah from the Sohrabudin Sheikh fake encounter case. Gosavi said he saw no evidence against Shah, and instead said he “found substance” in his main defence that the CBI had framed him “for political reasons”. In so doing, Gosavi ignored crucial pieces of evidence such as police officer Raiger’s categorical statement that Amit Shah had instructed obstruction of the investigation, and his phone records.”

Amit Shah was soon elevated to the post of President of the BJP. Perhaps because of this, despite the sensational nature of these events and their importance to the nation, mainstream media in India steered clear of reporting on or investigating Judge Loya’s untimely passing until a magazine called Caravan undertook to do so two weeks ago. Since then the Indian Express and certain key newspapers have published articles insisting there was nothing suspicious about Judge Loya’s death.

Influential journalists such as Arun Shourie, a former member of the BJP, disagree. “Every media house should have been running to develop that story,” he said a few days after the Caravan story emerged. “It is the end for conventional media—not only because it is being overtaken as a source of news by the new media, but because of its cowardice and greed…There is a Zulu proverb—a dog with a bone in its mouth can’t bark. That is the condition of the mainstream media today.”