To the World from Jamaica! Patwa Power Bolts the Stables


Yes, we can…be worldbeaters! That’s the message from Jamaica’s relentlessly resilient and resourceful underclass who have proven yet again their ability to dominate global competition in the arenas where their lack of English doesn’t hold them back. This is Patwa power (patois or creole, the much reviled and disdained oral language spoken by the majority of Jamaicans) at its most potent: a lithe and flexible force–honed by adversity–flaunting its mastery of the universe of athletics.

To underscore its point Patwa hurled its most powerful lightning bolt at distant Beijing. Named Usain, this young and irrepressible son of Jamaican soil then re-inscribed forever the significance of the word Bolt. Both English-speaking and Patwa-speaking Jamaicans united in celebrating Usain Bolt’s extraordinary exploits (Gold and world records in Men’s 100m, 200m and the 4×100) and those of the nimble, determined young Jamaican team accompanying him. Over the two weeks of the 29th Olympiad they enthralled global audiences over and over again with their worldbeating skills.

Portia Simpson-Miller, considered by many patwa-speakers to be their spokesperson, nailed it when she said on radio that the achievements of Jamaican athletes at Beijing made her proud because “what people call ‘ordinary people’ have produced such extraordinary results”. Prime Minister of Jamaica briefly from 2006 to 2007 Simpson-Miller has faced enormous hostility from the English-speaking elites here who would like to continue their hegemonic rule over this small island state in the Caribbean. President of the Opposition People’s National Party she is currently being challenged for leadership by Dr. Peter Phillips, seen by many as representing the highly educated but numerically small middle class and a state of mind known as Drumblair, the equivalent in Jamaica of WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) culture or status in the United States.

Watching the athletic meet at the Olympics unfold from the vantage point of Kingston, Jamaica was an incredible experience. Raw, naked nationalism at its very best: First we rallied around Samantha Albert, Jamaica’s only entrant in the equestrienne events. Samantha is a white Englishwoman with a Jamaican mother who was born and lived here in her early years. She didn’t stand a chance of medaling, merely hoping to make it to the top 25, yet Jamaicans cheered her on, proud to see their flag in this never before contested event.

Then there was the first big race, the men’s 100 metres, in which both Bolt and Asafa Powell were gold medal contenders. Alas Powell disintegrated under the pressure; he still came in fifth but his fans were inconsolable. Bolt’s sensational streak to victory helped but by and large Jamaicans were grieving for Powell. He holds a special place in their hearts. It is as if they identify with him. Whereas in the past they used to cuss off Merlene Ottey when she only managed a bronze medal this time the public concern shown for Powell’s morale and well-being in the aftermath of his disastrous run was quite remarkable. When he finally anchored the 4×100 team to victory in fine form, thundering down the closing stretch like Nemesis herself, he had completely redeemed the favoured son spot he had never really lost.

If Jamaican success at the men’s 100m was tempered with disappointment at not pulling off a trifecta (or even a bifecta) the female athletes delivered perfection by winning gold, silver and silver at the women’s 100 metres. This was an unexpected bonanza. Till now no one had really focused on the female runners or races other than the women’s 200m where Veronica Campbell-Brown was expected to deliver gold. Now the women had successfully grabbed the spotlight and kept it on themselves winning gold or silver in most of their events. In the end, of Jamaica’s 11 medals (six of which were gold) 8 were from women as TVJ’s commentator Bruce James usefully pointed out. One of the sweetest was Melaine Walker’s virtually effortless 400m hurdles gold medal.

Shelley Ann Fraser (women’s 100m winner), the pocket rocket who shot out of the starting blocks and into our hearts wasn’t even considered a medal contender to begin with. Earlier in the year when Veronica, the defending Olympic 200m winner didn’t qualify for the Jamaican 100m team because she came fourth in the qualifying trials (this shows you how competitive athletics is in Jamaica) there were many who thought one of the unknowns who had beaten her should have stepped down in favour of Campbell-Brown out of deference to her seniority and past distinctions. Fraser was the one many thought should have been eliminated from the Jamaican team to make way for Veronica.

Maybe that’s what made her run like a cheetah and spring like a moko jumbie but from now on everytime anyone in the world wants to illustrate the concept of delight they should simply replay Fraser’s girlish leaps and bounds when she realized she had won Olympic gold. If the whole world fell in love with that ecstatic brace-filled smile and the spontaneous, unadulterated joy Shelley-Ann Fraser expressed on the track you can imagine how we in Jamdown felt.

What was hard to imagine even down so (admittedly from uptown down so) was how the parents of these individuals must have felt. Especially when the TV cameras took you to the homes of Shelley-Ann and Sherieka Williams and Sherone Simpson and Melaine Walker and you realized with shock how very poor these people who had produced such champions were. Most of them had watched their sons and daughters winning Olympic silver and gold on very small TV screens, in very humble living quarters, in this ghetto or that one.

Waterhouse. Slaughterhouse. Powerhouse. That’s what young Shelley-Ann from Waterhouse has reiterated for us in case we didn’t know this already from the abnormal number of successful musicians her community has produced. Virtually 80% of Jamaica’s biggest names in music have come from Waterhouse, one of the poorest ghettoes in Kingston, including the young singer I mentioned in my last blog, Terry Lynn. The area should be declared some sort of national patrimony or Talent Park with free education up to any level for all.

When asked if she herself had ever displayed any running talent Shelley Ann’s mother said that indeed she had quite a bit of experience sprinting from the police, with the goods she tried to sell as an unlicensed street vendor. She was an experienced runner she said so her daughter’s performance was not that surprising.

The Ministry of Transport hastened to announce that it was going to upgrade the roadways in all the communities whose athletes had produced Olympic gold. Why? Not so much to elevate these depressed communities as to give them an instant facelift so that when the international media arrived their impoverishment would be less apparent and less of a blight on the brand name of Jamaica! The politics of sports in Jamaica! Or just the politics of politics…

On a more amusing note page two of the Observer, the social page, suddenly underwent a population transfusion, the beige and white socialites who normally monopolize it abruptly displaced by the almost uniformly dark-skinned athletes. Sigh! If only Jamaica’s business and social elite were one hundredth as nimble and competitive as the country’s athletes! If only they too were worldbeaters!

Personally I think that the phenomenal performance of Jamaican athletes is also due to the cultural self-confidence they feel; a confidence expressed by Usain Bolt in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium when he spontaneously broke into the Nuh Linga and the Gully Creeper, the latest dance moves innovative Jamaican dancehall music has produced (actually Usain’s trademark gesture of pulling back an imaginary bow and arrow like Orion is now the latest dancehall move here).

This is not a confidence manufactured by the abjectly self-conscious, respectability-seeking, hymn-singing English-speaking middle classes but one bred out of the flamboyant, boisterous, in-your-face Patwa-speaking population. In the forty years since Jamaica’s independence it is the latter who have proved both through their athletic and musical prowess that they are ready to take on the world. The Beijing Olympics have shown that the world is more than ready for them (minus the prissy IOC head Jacques Rogge who sounds for all the world as if he had been formed in the bowels of Upper St. Andrew). To the World Ja!

Photo credits, captions
(L-R) Asafa Powell, Nesta Carter, Usain Bolt and Michael Frater of Jamaica celebrate the gold medal after the Men’s 4 x 100m Relay Final at the National Stadium on Day 14 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 22, 2008 in Beijing, China.
(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images AsiaPac)

(L-R) Joint silver medalist Sherone Simpson of Jamaica, gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser of Jamaica and Joint silver medalist Kerron Stewart of Jamaica stand on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women’s 100m Final at the National Stadium on Day 10 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 18, 2008 in Beijing, China.
(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Masters of the Universe?

Remember how former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller was chided and ridiculed for wanting to hold elections on July 7 last year? 7-7-7 I did try and point out at the time that in countries like India and China it’s quite normal to schedule things on auspicious dates at auspicious times. Numbers are nothing after all if not symbolic!

Like many others I ritualistically seated myself in front of my TV screen at 8.08 pm Chinese time on August 8, 2008 to catch the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. What a stupendous show! To have pulled off such a stunning feat live, with the entire world watching, without a glitch or stutter—hats, tams and solar topees off to the mighty Chinese!

I gushed about it to all and sundry for two whole days till my cousin Susan sent me a tart email from Delhi saying: Dear Annie, I’ve been supporting the Tibet group in India, so the Beijing opening seemed stylistic and opaque, also 95,000 people were evacuated from Eastern China because of flash floods same day as the opening…and I’m not even a political person really, so Tiananmen square is always dedicated in my mind to those students.

Stick a pin.

For me it was the East showing the West what the marriage of technology, art and people can do. A show of power but one far more sophisticated than the nationalistic military parades normally on offer. With this synthesis of China’s penchant for the military, their mastery of technology and ancient flair for the artistic the mightiest nation of the east was signaling that it has reached; it has arrived. China has dramatically proven its prowess, displaying complete mastery over the universe on the very terms that capitalism uses to assess success.

At the same time the spectacular display was premised on teamwork, on large numbers of people working together, not on individual idiosyncracy so highly prized in the West. There were of course cameo concessions to the valued place of the modern individual for instance when two singers stood on top of a globe, looking like for all the world like one of those plastic couples used to decorate wedding cakes; dressed in Western clothes they theatrically lip-synched the haunting theme song You and Me, ingeniously combining Western pop and Chinese song (someone I read somewhere dismissed this as kitschy tripe).

Is this the same China that impassively stood by and allowed Tiananman Square to happen? I’m not sure but this Olympics also signals China’s opening up to the values of the West, including the notion of individual human rights I would imagine. Yet in this opening ceremony it was showing the splendour and vastness of imagination its people are capable of; the achievements of its civilization from the invention of paper and gunpowder to outer space exploration; its ability to command the heights of tradition as well as the most contemporary technology. There was something extraordinary in that display ( It’s cyberfeudalism growled Melinda Brown as we watched thousands of elegantly begowned, bewigged Mandarins juggling neon laserbeams).

Having so memorably flexed its creative muscles will China now be more willing to negotiate with the rest of the world? Will it feel more gracious toward the demands made on it by Tibet- and Darfur-watchers? We’ll find out in the sweet by and by, won’t we?

Meanwhile back home the excitement is building as Jamaica’s cassava-fed athletes get ready to hit their stride when the Olympic Track and Field events kick off tomorrow. Will Asafa finally deliver? Or will there be a repeat of the World Championships some years back when both Asafa and Usain Bolt were pipped by Tyson Gay; the best excuse I heard after that debacle was a radio announcer claiming that this was because “Jamaican men nah like Gay running after dem so dem just a let him pass”.

Some of the funniest commentary on the impending Olympic events is to be heard on my all-time favourite radio programme, Left, Right and Centre (LRC), part of the Nationwide Radio network here (Digital AM 770). For weeks now they’ve been carrying spoof ads on The Farcical News Network for products such as ‘ANDRALONE’. Here’s an example–

Intro: Bob Marley’s song “You’re running and you’re running and you’re running away…” Music fades.

Brooks: “Are you coming last in every race you run? Do you have dreams of placing 6th or 7th but can’t afford the high end drugs your friends are using? Well boost your performance with ANDRALONE, the fast-acting, low-end, generic drug designed especially for athletes who can’t seem to dig themselves out of obscurity. Build those muscles! Grow that chest hair! Get out of the blocks faster than you ever have before with ANDRALONE!

Last night the show lampooned Jamaican athletes in Beijing, imagining them upsetting Olympic Village officials by nonchalantly (Ja-style) calling all of them Mr. Chin. Missa Chin beg yu two slice a bread! Missa Chin which part di pattyshop deh? I tell you the hosts of LRC, Messrs Dennis Brooks and Damion Blake, rank right up there with Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert. Unfortunately Damion is leaving to do his PhD at Virginia Tech; he’ll be badly missed . Virginia’s gain, Ja’s loss.

Well, it’s been an intense few weeks for me lurching from deadline to deadline and trying to find a moment in between to blog when not being terrorized by my good friend Peter Dean Rickards. PD has been assaulting me at regular intervals with outtakes from his maiden music video, The System, featuring an amazing new female singer called Terry Lyn. I’m still traumatized by the first cut (trust me this is the most appropriate metaphor to use here) he sent me which involved a gory sequence of a pig being slaughtered to an unbearably cheery rendition of Fire of Eternal Glory (in her song, The System, Terry Lyn rhymes Waterhouse with Slaughterhouse).

“But I identify with the pig!” I squealed via sms.

“Pig nah die in vain! Him get videolight!” PD texted back callously.

Obviously all of this is a little premature considering that what PD refers to as the Pig Opera has yet to be released. But when it is trust me it’s going to create a sensation. Remember you heard o’ it here first!

Jamaica’s most successful products: Athletes and music. Both occupied the mainstream media in New York this past week first with Baz Dreisinger’s thought-provoking article in the Village Voice How Jamaica’s Volatile Dancehall Scene Can Avoid a Biggie vs. Tupac Tragedy; featured in this sharp critique which should be required reading for all the pontificating pundits in Jamaica who love to chant down dancehall is an in-depth profile of and interview with top DJ Mavado. With epigrammatic precision Mavado sums up the situation: “They are trying to blame a problem that they put we in on us. They are turning dancehall into a scapegoat.”

And weighing in on Jamaica’s runners, in the Wall Street Journal no less, was Colin Channer with the memorable line “Jamaica’s love of speed seems at odds with its hard-nosed commitment to nonchalance”: See ‘Cool Runnings’ Are Heating Up.

Meanwhile fingers crossed that both Asafa and Bolt prove on the global stage once and for all that they ARE, like the Chinese, masters of the universe.

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?

The MG Smith Conference etc

Well, the ACS 2008 Crossroads conference has finally come and gone like a tsunami that rolled ashore, lifting us off our feet and depositing us back on terra firma gasping for air as it eventually receded this Monday. At its peak the Cultural Studies conference featured 20 concurrent panels or sessions, and you had to be the most dedicated, strategic, panel surfer to experience more than a smidgeon of the entire programme.

The packed few days of the conference, from July 3-7, brought more than 400 academics from all over the world to the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI). And UWI, caught like a matron in the middle of an elaborate facial while preparing for her main event–the university’s 60th anniversary celebrations that kick off on July 12th—was her charming, gracious self, wowing visitors with her flamboyant natural beauty now enhanced by the brilliant new colours the buildings are being painted.

I view the repainting of the campus as a significant step in the repositioning of the University in the 21st century. Perhaps I’m oversensitive to colours, perhaps its my coolietude, but I don’t see why we should be so committed to what I think of as boring, institutional colours like off-white, beige and gray. UWI Press was the first to buck this trend a few years ago when it painted its new building burnt sienna. I’m told the University Buildings Committee had a collective apoplectic fit but was effectively faced down by Linda Speth, the no-nonsense director of the Press.

The Buildings Committee must have undergone a transfusion of new members since then because the Main Library has just been painted shades of turquoise. I absolutely love it but seem to be in the minority—I’m told that one colleague who otherwise champions the people dem culture demanded to know why the library was being painted “inner city blue”. I sincerely hope those responsible will remain steadfast and not water down the new colour scheme; the turquoise library nestled in the lap of the green hills beyond it looks like a gem. Look at this picture and decide for yourselves.

CARIBBEAN MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE

Back to the theme of this blog which is conferences. Academic conferences to be precise. I’ve been on a conference rollercoaster since February this year. The most memorable one was the collaboration between the University of Technology (UTech) and the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in producing a conference on “Caribbean Modernist Architecture”. Held at the magnificent Jamaica Conference Centre downtown the symposium brought together architects, curators and historians of architecture from fourteen countries. The fees were steep and I wasn’t able to attend more than one or two sessions but it was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended locally.

To hear architects from the region talking about the trajectory modern architecture took in their respective countries was stimulating. In Venezuela interdisciplinary design and research were important and modern art—the work of artists such as Vassarely, Calder and Jean Arp—was used to complement the built environment. In Mexico architects were preoccupied with a series of responses to the question of how to come up with a Mexican nationalist architecture. In Puerto Rico there was “no history but a monumental void” and so military bases became the first sites of modernist architecture and aesthetic advancement.

THE MG SMITH CONFERENCE

In June the Centre for Caribbean Thought organized a small conference in honour of MG Smith, which started off with a no-holds barred address by Professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard University. MG was an eminent Jamaican sociologist and poet who taught at UWI, Yale University, UCLA and University College in London during the course of his lifetime. Smith gained a reputation for his work on corporation theory, pluralism and plural societies (of which he thought Jamaica was one). As a poet Smith was a member of the ‘Drumblair’ group of writers, poets and dramatists who revolved around the Manley household. Smith was particularly close to Edna Manley who ran what amounted to a ‘salon’ in pre-independence Jamaica.

Patterson, who had worked at UWI with MG in the early days openly stated his differences with Smith declaring that as a social theorist he had been a failure. There was he recalled “endless bickering” over pluralism and the taxonomy Smith employed was patently inadequate. In any case according to Patterson “West Indian societies are clearly heterogeneous,” something that would not have been obvious to Smith whose problem was that he viewed West Indian society from an “upper class perspective.”

According to Patterson Smith “should have checked out more carefully those of us who were upwardly mobile…25 years after being born in the bush I was teaching at the London School of Economics. Thirty years later I was offered a position at Harvard.” So “it simply wasn’t true that there were core institutional divisions” between Blacks, Whites and Browns as Smith’s plural society thesis posited.

Incidentally there are scholars who disagree with this view; In an article titled “The Permanence of Pluralism” Columbia University-based postcolonial theorist David Scott (also Jamaican) argued in the wake of the 1998 Zekes Riots that “the ghost of MG Smith is haunting the landscape of the Jamaican political modern”. Meaning that the total breakdown of any pretence at social cohesion, leading to the profound crisis Jamaican society finds itself in today, could have been predicted by MG Smith with his thesis that the population of Jamaica “constituted a plural society, that is a society divided into sections, each of which practiced different cultures.”

MIKE and EDNA

Patterson looked to Smith’s personal life for clues to the inadequacies of his social theory. Born to a white English-born father and a ‘coloured’ mother who died in childbirth (a pity, Patterson pointed out, as MG would have benefited from knowing her family and perhaps even produced different, better informed work) Smith was sent to JC as a child where he was subjected to ‘sadistic canings’. “Smith in fact was brought up by a corporation—I think this has major implications later on” said Patterson going on to talk of MG’s unusual relationship with Edna Manley, the mother of his schoolmate Michael, whom he was “immediately smitten by.”

This was the part where the prim and proper audience, completely unused to such candid disclosures, especially in the august enclave of UWI’s undercroft, started to squirm in its seats, as Patterson dwelt at length on the putative “consummation” of this unorthodox relationship between a young man and an older woman. If Mark (“In Praise of Younger Women”) Wignall thought that having a younger lover was a privilege reserved for older males he better think again. Many a woman could write paeans in praise of younger men too.

Having delivered himself of MG’s various shortcomings Patterson acknowledged that despite this there was a “great deal that was justifiable about this conference”. Smith had been a world-class historical sociologist whose early work on the Fulanis of Nigeria and his study of community organizations in rural Jamaica were timeless classics. MG was a meticulous fieldworker whose ethnohistories were “meticulous excavations”. His best work according to Patterson was done when he wasn’t obsessed with theorizing; the problem arose when he imposed corporatist theory on his findings.

Patterson’s thorough and honest examination of MG Smith’s work and life may have raised a few hackles but it set off several impassioned, contentious and useful conversations over the next couple of days among the social and cultural theorists gathered at Mona. The highlight though was Rachel Manley’s talk (at the opening of the library exhibit on MG Smith) called “The Mike Smith I Knew” which turned out in effect to be a gracefully executed rescue of her grandmother Edna (or Mardi as she called her) and Mike, someone who had nurtured in Rachel a love of poetry.

Consummation and consumption were preoccupations of the present said Rachel, but not of the 50s and 60s, when the friendship between her grandmother and Mike would have been at its height. She had no idea whether they had had an affair or not; if it had happened it was without her knowledge and frankly she didn’t care. What she did know was that that was “a time when you consummated independence for an island…that was the romance of the time.”

Mardi, she declared, was a magnetic woman. She flirted with everything, she flirted with Jamaica. All the young poets and artists of the Drumblair group were in love with her. But Mike’s poems and Mardi’s art—those were the consummations.

It was a consummate performance on Rachel’s part, casually delivered, without a hint of the agitation that must have been behind it. Her talk illuminated the enigmatic man in whose honour this conference was being held and brought him to life for us. The next day we went back to the tendentious business of dissecting the body of his work. One thing is for sure–whether MG Smith’s framework of social and cultural pluralism has any validity today or not, he was integrally involved in the labour of building theory, of developing conceptual frameworks, valuable academic tasks that alas, seem to have been jettisoned from the agenda of social sciences at UWI over the years.

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!

Introducing…The Diatribalist

His is the most arresting, momentuous, invaluable blog i think i’ve ever come across. Dwight Dunkley describes himself as “a highly opinionated alien, a Jamaican living in New York” with “a stated mission to improve Jamaican media”. Calling his blog “My View of Jamdown from Up So” Dunkley also goes by the name ‘Diatribalist’. He’s only been blogcasting since May this year but trust me he’s spot on–a sharp, analytical critique of the Jamaican media is just what we need–and Dunkley provides this in his penetrating, often devastating commentary reviewing the major news media here. So what if he lives in the diaspora and not here? The detailed scrutiny he offers is all the more remarkable for that. Dunkley’s questions are hard and probing and clamour for answers. Finally someone else has noticed how shambolic the Press in this country is and has figured out a way to intervene. Kali, Jesus and Allah be praised! Please read, this is how his latest blog begins:

This is an open letter to tell all editors, journalists, columnists and stenographers calling yourselves journalists:

This blog is not your enemy.

This blog is a fan, a friend. This blog wishes you well.

This blog follows your work closely, reads your lines and then between your lines. Can this blog not be forgiven for thereafter scribbling in the margins?

For standing up for those mostly marginalized by the pigmentocratic power you wield and challenging the kleptomaniac clique your silence shields.

This blog is not your enemy.

For more click here.

As a postscript i also want to note the passing of Tim Russert of NBC News. Described as adept at conducting “the prosecutorial interview without a sharp edge” he was definitely one of the better, more congenial American TV journalists/talking heads around and will be missed by many all over the world.