How at least one Jamaican man sees Mugabe…

An unflattering depiction of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe by Jamaican painter Michael ‘Flyn’ Elliott

The Trillionaire by Michael ‘Flyn’ Elliott (click to enlarge)

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has annoyed Jamaicans by airing his views on Jamaican culture and Jamaican men in a rather cavalier manner. He was speaking at a research exposition in Harare according to the UK Telegraph which quoted from his 3-hour speech:

“In Jamaica, they have freedom to smoke cannabis, the men are always high and universities are full of women”…

“The men want to sing and do not go to colleges, some of them twist their hair. Let us not go there.”

In his 2010 painting The Trillionaire Jamaican painter Flyn depicted Mugabe in even more unflattering terms; as a delusional despot stubbornly clinging to his throne in the midst of rotting debris, a heap of skulls and a ruined shell of a building symbolizing the state of the state he has presided over for far too long.

I had to wonder if Mugabe’s outburst wasn’t a case of delayed post-Olympic penis envy…I mean Bolt, Blake, Weir, Hansle Parchment and the rest of the Olympic men’s team represent Jamaican masculinity at its world-beating best. Had they escaped Muggy’s notice? Is his memory failing?

Connecting the dots…when artists’ paths cross

Phantom 54: Michael ‘Flyn’ Eliott

It’s Shouter Baptist day here in Trinidad. Have been away from Ja since the 22nd, first in Barbados where i attended a work retreat and conference at UWI–but more on that later; since i was so close to TnT (Trinidad and Tobago) i decided to hop across for a few days to feed my ‘doubles’ fix and check in with close friends and collaborators whom i haven’t seen in a while.

Ataklan and his friend Rabbit picked me up at the airport and of course first stop: doubles vendor at Long Circular Mall. That evening i caught up with Christopher Cozier, an artist whom i’ve frequently collaborated with, over a bottle of wine. I’ve written about his artworks in the past and we work together closely on the art aspect of Small Axe and other projects. The last two years have found each of us so busy that this was the first time in a couple of years that i was able to show him the various visual works coming out of Jamaica recently that i find exciting.

One of these is an eloquent, trenchant commentary on the situation in Zimbabwe by young Jamaican artist, Michael ‘Flyn’ Eliott. Flyn who recently recieved a lot of flack from the powers-that-be of the Jamaican artscene, has proved with this painting that he is capable of the kind of imaginative leaps that his customary photorealism often left one craving for. Titled ‘The Trillionaire’ the painting depicts a self-absorbed and abstracted Mugabe sitting amidst the ruins and debris of a burnt out building. He is seated on a patch of red velvet, drinking wine and surrounded by piles of Zimbabwe dollars. On the left is a heap of bleached out skulls. The painting is testament to the power of an image to convey what a trillion words could not.

The Trillionaire: Michael ‘Flyn’ Eliott

What had motivated such a departure from his usual subject matter i asked young Flyn. Well, said he, he had been in Suriname recently, visiting fellow graduates of the Edna Manley College of Visual Arts there and had come across the ruined building. While photographing it, the image of Mugabe sitting in the ruined interior suddenly came to him. Normally he would have simply reproduced the interior, brick by brick, in loving detail, but this time something had clearly jostled his imagination. Whatever the reason, i thought the resulting painting was an exciting departure and leap forward for Eliott.

Chris found ‘The Trillionaire’ intriguing, particularly when i mentioned that it was inspired by Eliott’s recent Suriname trip. Hmmmm, said he, it seems to be dealing with the theme of genocide. The painting reminde him of the work of Surinamese artists such as Marcel Pinas. Pinas graduated from the Edna Manley School of Visual Art (located in Kingston, Jamaica) in 1999 at the top of his class. Cozier pulled up a Pinas image called ‘Wakaman’ from a recent exhibit of his to show me what he was getting at (As Usha Marhe informed me Wakaman is a Sranantongo (Surinamese lingua) word literally meaning ‘walking man’. It expresses somebody who has cut himself loose from everything and everybody, going here and going there, with no obligations). The work, part of an installation, clearly hinted at what might have nudged Eliott’s imagination and provoked the devastating image of Mugabe he subsequently produced. Pinas’s work often references the destruction of the N’dyuka culture in Suriname. The N’dyuka is the Maroon community Pinas was born into, whose way of life is gradually vanishing.

Wakaman: Marcel Pinas

How interesting, i thought to myself, listening to Chris Cozier and noting the pile of skulls in Pinas’s installation. This is why it’s important for collaborations to take place in every sphere–between critics and commentators, between artists, between thinkers– in different parts of the Caribbean and elsewhere. For cultural criticism is partly detective work and you can’t read all the clues sitting marooned on an island. Eliott’s recent work also demonstrates the invaluable element that traveling outside one’s culture and linking with other artists in other places can contribute to an artist’s practice. As elegiac and moving as some of Eliott’s work has been in the past–for he is also lamenting the passing of a way of life, just look at the painting he recently produced of the last steam engine used in Jamaica, Phantom 54 (top of this post)–there is no question that his Suriname visit has made this talented Jamaican painter grow in ways that could not have been foretold.

Fasting for Zimbabwe: Update on Kumi Naidoo etc

: Kumi Naidoo says his 21- day hunger strike was prompted by a 14-year-old Zimbabwean boy who had not eaten in 11 days. Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND from The Times

I had a call from Kumi this morning. It’s the 12th day of his hunger strike to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe . He has drunk only water since Jan. 21 but his voice sounded normal and even strong. He was calling to thank those of us from Jamaica who participated in the one-day hunger fast yesterday. And let me clear up a misconception up front–Kumi Naidoo is not an Indian, he is South African, and this strike is being conducted from Johannesburg and not from some corner of India. Kumi has been an ANC activist since the age of 15.

I’m sure it was a tremendous boost for all those coordinating this hunger strike to have 35,000 people from around the world join in, if only for a day. It’s also a test case of what can be achieved in terms of mobilizing people around the world to rally around a cause. For the latest information on this strike read Hungry For Change in Zimbabwe.

Conflicting reactions to the strike
Cynics are questioning how all these actions will ultimately benefit people in Zim. The starving people there would have been happy to eat the food all of us renounced for a day and so on. While that is true it overlooks the spiritual effects of such a fast on each of us individually and on citizens of Zimbabwe assuming they were aware of the worldwide fast yesterday. It must be of some comfort to know that people outside your country are aware of the hardships you’re undergoing and willing to try and draw attention to it in the hopes of improving your plight.

And then again there are people like my friend C. who argued against the strike on the following grounds:

“Against whom/what are these hunger strikes directed? Many people were un/critical supporters of Mugabe when others (me included) were critiquing the particular form of his neo-colonial regime, which is actually fundamentally similar to many in Africa and elsewhere, including ANC-Led South Africa.

My political response to Mugabe/ZANU-PF remains constant. I cannot, however, at all understand those who are blaming that leader and his regime for the current state of mass starvation, mass dislocation, health challenges and inflation, there. These are all, beyond a peradventure, the intended product of racist imperialism’s decision to punish the Zimbabwe people for having a leadership that challenged it on the African land question and to teach Southern African peoples (in South Africa and Namibia especially) not to try to restore African land to the African masses, excepting on terms agreed by international racism and imperialism.

This is their way of driving ‘regime change’: How many people in Iraq died and migrated because of the means they chose there? Or in Gaza, more recently – incomplete as yet in the latter instance? In my view, anyone who does not understand this and who lines up with the leader of the opposition (personally selected by the white farmers and funded by them and prepared to rely on the increasing suffering of the people of his own country as his ladder to state power) understands neither the race nor the class issues in Southern Africa.

The forces that are causing (and at the same time complaining about the ‘humanitarian’ crisis in Zimbabwe )are also exactly the ones that have caused more or less similarly ones in Palestine (Gaza, Now:asjustmentioned) and in Somalia. In respect of the latter place their media would have us discussing ‘international piracy’. They always have local allies. They are there in Darfur as well: causing the continuation of that ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ while using it to blame China and to allow the Christian right to make Anti-Muslim hay.

Why has the West not give military supplies to the African Union force in Darfur? It has no air cover whatsoever! Why has the humanitarian West not imposed a ‘no-fly Zone’ over the relevant part of The Sudan? Clearly only their allies like the Iraqi Kurds deserve that kind of protection. Not Africans, whose deaths are one of the ends desired and enjoyed by racist, imperialist Euro-Americans. Please don’t join in misleading people by giving publicity miss-directed hunger strikes that operate objectively in the interest of racist imperialism (White Power, as the Nationalists call it.) “

I think C. raises many valid questions about the treatment of Zim and other African countries by the West. I don’t agree with his labelling of the hunger strike as mis-directed. Another blogger ( who participated in the one-day fast yesterday from Bulgaria wrote an interesting post, Fasted For 2 Days & Why Fasting Works in which he said:

“No action exists by itself and any action’s vibrations will spread. I hope through fasting, I have encouraged others or at least informed others. Secondly, fasting is an important spiritual practice. I’ve never fasted and decided that now that the call for a fast was there, why not. Thirdly, I’ve always been curious what Muslims have to go through during their holy month of Ramadan (or Ramazan in some languages). I cannot imagine what it’s like to do this for a full month, but at least I got closer to understanding – and I have a lot more respect for it now. Finally, unlike the critical commenter, I do believe these small acts make a difference. How about you?”

i couldn’t agree with more. My own reasons for joining in the fast were manifold. I had never fasted before, not for a whole day although i too grew up amidst Muslims and Hindus who did so regularly. I also grew up in Ahmedabad, the city where Mahatma Gandhi had his Ashram, so it was very much part of the zeitgeist i grew up with. Yet i had never done it.

Also in the last two years i’ve come to believe more and more strongly that all or each of us has to take more and more radical steps to contribute to changing what we all agree is a completely untenable situation in almost all our countries. how can we justify starving children? how can we participate in systems that routinely condemn poor children to lives of sordid misery? how can poverty be tolerated or rationalized?

One of the things i realized after going through the fast yesterday is that we are all eating much more food than we need to–those of us who eat three square meals a day that is. I went for 20 hours with only water without any great discomfort and my body showed little stress from the sudden deprivation of food. Kumi too remarked on the resilience of the human body, saying that after 12 days his main complaint was dryness of the mouth. i definitely couldn’t do what Kumi is doing–fasting for 21 days with only water. but i’m really glad that I did what i did yesterday.

The change must begin with us. That is the only way to change the world.

Here’s a wonderful video of a Zimbabwe vendor selling carrots with a sales patter that sounds like it could be a riddim from here:

Fasting for Zimbabwe

STARVING FOR A CAUSE: Activist Kumi Naidoo is on a hunger strike to highlight the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe.
from The Sunday Times.

On the 21st of December I got a text saying “Security situation now much worse and very tense. Leaving BYO for Gweru and Harare tomorrow. Poverty situation more desperate than we thought.” It took me a moment to realize it was from my friend Kumi Naidoo, a South African activist and head of Civicus—a non-governmental organisation that champions human rights .

Kumi had gone into Zimbabwe with an undercover team to film Time 2 Act, “a series of personal appeals from the Zimbabwean people for the government of South Africa and the SADC to alleviate their suffering.” Just about 10 days before that Kumi had published a piece in the Huffington Post called Time for global civil disobedience?: Five things to Advance the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In it he suggested that:

Petitioning, pleading, talking to our leaders, holding mass awareness events such as music concerts and so on are clearly not having the kind of impact that the current situation of tens of millions of men, women and children in rich and poor countries today urgently calls for. Assertive but disciplined peaceful passive resistance and civil disobedience, backed by a deep sense of moral outrage by the broadest possible coalition of civil society across the world is probably what it will take to ensure that these changes stand a chance to be realised.

On returning to Johannesburg Kumi and other like-minded individuals spearheaded the Save Zimbabwe Now campaign. On Jan 21st he embarked on a 21-day hunger strike saying I won’t eat while Zimbabwe starves.
I am fasting in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe, who are being forced to fast involuntarily.

In Zimbabwe, we saw a people and a country ravaged by want, destitution, fear and terror. We do not wish to battle this cruel and apathetic regime with guns or weapons, but we will oppose them with our bodies and our consciences through fasting. We want the Zimbabwean people to know that we united our resolve to oppose the brutality they suffer with every bit of our beings.
On Monday, January 26th, I arranged for Kumi to be interviewed on Nationwide Radio’s This Morning programme by Emily Crooks. It was good to hear his voice on the 6th day of his fast sounding as strong as ever. He joked about looking forward to coming to Jamaica to eat Ackee and saltfish when the strike is over and the situation in Zimbabwe resolved. For Kumi the support from Jamaica was like a shot in the arm; for the Save Zimbabwe Now movement every little nod from the outside helps.
On January 26 the Southern African Development Community (SADC) held an Extraordinary Session to discuss the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. Naidoo, along with 500 concerned citizens hoped to present a memorandum calling on the SADC to step up political pressure, acknowledge the humanitarian crisis, stop abductions and torture, and to release detained activists in Zimbabwe. Unfortunately they were met with a stone wall.
Buoyed by the hopes of the people on the Union Building steps, seven of us – including my colleague and friend, Nomboniso Gasa- tried to peacefully and respectfully present a Memorandum to the Extraordinary Session called by SADC, to try to address the situation in Zimbabwe. The Memorandum is a document that has been jointly written by a broad range of civil society in Southern Africa, united in its call for an end to the needless suffering of the Zimbabwean people.

The manicured gardens of the Presidential guesthouse could not have been more starkly removed from the reality of the hardships that most face daily north of the border — or the reality of most within our own borders, for that matter. We waited patiently to present our Memorandum, but no SADC representative was forthcoming. We were instead asked to remove ourselves from the grounds and when we suggested an alternative arrangement — to be accompanied by police to present our memorandum, we were forcefully denied.

. . . As I was being bundled into the back of the police van after six days without food, my most overwhelming emotion was one of profound disappointment. Disappointment with SADC – its lofty ideals of civil society empowerment are clearly only paper promises. Disappointment with the South African government – a nation built on the foundations of a grassroots movement for freedom and justice. And ultimately, disappointment with the inertia surrounding the political process to ease the crisis in Zimbabwe, which represents an implicit acquiescence to the current impasse.

It is tragic that the SADC leaders were unwilling to receive an appeal from a broad cross-section of Southern African civil society which called for the end of human rights violations humanitarian intervention, and justice for the people of Zimbabwe. By not receiving this simple letter, they are undermining their own stated commitments on the role of civil society in building a strong Southern Africa.

. . .My fast will continue for more than another fortnight, and my hunger has been replaced with a thirst for change and justice. SADC leaders may have turned us away, but they cannot ignore the hopes and demands of their citizens.

Do people in Jamaica and the Caribbean care enough about events in Zimbabwe to lend their help to this call for moral action? How can we help? What can we do to contribute? As Kumi noted:
The fast will not end after 21 days. Nomboniso Gasa, the chairperson of the South African Commission on Gender Equality will take up the fast from February 11th. She too will go for 21 days with only water, and on March 4th, another individual will take the baton in our relay fast.

But this campaign is not just about a few relatively well-known personalities fasting for lengthy periods of time. It is about calling every individual to civic action. We are asking people to go to, and to show their solidarity. Other actions will follow – and every individual will be counted.

Can a group from here undertake to fast one day a week in solidarity with this South African initiative? I’m willing to do it but I need company. Any volunteers?
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