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.

Calabashing Naipaul?

…in many ways our Nobel laureates hold irreconcilable views of the Caribbean and the world. While Walcott has acknowledged the dark colonial past that begets so much of Naipaul’s pessimism, he has also dared to hope, epically, that we may somehow climb clear of our wrong beginnings. Naipaul, by contrast, has built a career around making our darkness visible. At different times the Caribbean itself seems to take different sides in the matter. Election season in Guyana is pure Naipaul, as is much of Trinidadian politics; but the West Indies team at its best, Marley’s prophetic lyricism or Minshall’s extravagant imagination all fit with Walcott’s vision. Who among us can confidently dismiss Naipaul, or dispense with Walcott’s hopes? And who, having read either man carefully, would wish to?

From the Staebrok News in Georgetown, Guyana, ladies and gentlemen–Brendan de Caires– with a great take on Walcott’s Mongoose. Read the rest of “Calabashing Naipaul” here…

Meanwhile the bashing (as some people see it) continues…The MG Smith conference opened at UWI, Mona, day before yesterday with a no-holds barred address by Professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard University. Stand by for a blow-by-blow account of the conference in a day or two…

On Fareed Zakaria and Salman Rushdie

I returned from San Andres a week ago, turned on CNN to catch up with the democratic race in the US and found myself tuned into a fast-paced international current affairs program hosted by Fareed Zakaria. For some reason this filled me with immense pride, especially as the show turned out to be sharp, humorous and acutely insightful—It’s called GPS, Global Public Square, and airs on Sunday at noon in these parts—refreshingly different from most such programs on the channel. What a relief too to finally have someone on American TV who can pronounce ‘Mohammed’ and ‘Muslim’ the right way.

Described as “the best in the world at boiling down – without dumbing down – complex issues” Bombay-born Zakaria was formerly managing editor of Foreign Affairs and is currently editor of Newsweek International. In GPS Zakaria manages to come across as a brain without being nerdy and displays a certain hipness when he tosses off statements such as “…and because history is cool” when introducing a videoclip on CNN’s humble beginnings however many years ago.

I can just hear my left-wing friends chiding me for bigging up a ‘”rightwinger” (which Zakaria is perceived to be) but hey if there’s one lesson we should have learnt from the last few years it is that its time we started listening to each other, no matter what party, faction, sect, subcaste or global group we align ourselves with. No one side has the privileged vantage point or all the answers and with a book called The Post-American World how could what Zakaria has to say be irrelevant? He speaks for many of us whose views thus far have been inaudible and invisible in international fora.

If Zakaria is the most recent example of a subcontinental/Asian/person from the global South to gain international visibility in a highly competitive field, Salman Rushdie–also Bombay-born–was perhaps the first, in the Anglophone world at any rate. So my curiousity was piqued when I read a harsh review of Rushdie’s latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, in the New York Times. The reviewer, an obscure American writer named David Gates, freely admitted to being afflicted by a ‘philistine cussedness’ saying “I’m probably not Rushdie’s target audience: in literature, at least, I find the marvelous tedious, and the tedious — as rendered by a Beckett or a Raymond Carver or even a Kafka — marvelous.”

Perhaps the New York Times should have asked someone more competent to review Enchantress. Or at least someone with a nodding acquaintance of and sympathy for the literary mode of magical realism. The latter does little for my gladbag either but Gates seems to use the review as an opportunity to take the mickey out of a great writer, dismissing Rushdie as a “multicultural dream weaver” whose fiction “revels in writerly self-congratulation”.

I’m hardly a great Rushdie fan myself (I don’t consider people’s sacred beliefs to be fair game for caricature; cows are sacred in my opinion and should be handled with care and respect even when they’re obstructing traffic) but Gates’ hostility moved me to read the first chapter of Enchantress the NYT made available along with the review. What, i wondered, was Gates fussing like a walrus with a sore tusk about? For what it’s worth I’ve decided on the basis of the first chapter to buy this book though I haven’t read any of Rushdie’s novels since the first three. So thanks Mr. Gates for inadvertently leading me to rediscover why Salman Rushdie has the reputation he has. Let’s hope you get there someday.

In the meantime here are two interesting quotes by the author of Midnight’s Children. As Rushdie poignantly observed in another recent NYT article on him (Now He’s Only Hunted by Cameras, May 25, 2008):

“There’s a writing self which is not quite your ordinary social self and which you don’t really have access to except at the moment when you’re writing, and certainly in my view, I think of that as my best self,” he said. “To be able to be that person feels good; it feels better than anything else.”

And this detail from the first chapter of Enchantress sheds light on the use of the word ‘coolie’ in the Indian context where it is often a synonym for ‘porter’:

“Turbaned coolies in red shirts and dhotis ran ceaselessly hither and yon with bundles of improbable size and weight upon their heads.”

As discussed at length in an earlier post the term ‘coolie’ is as overloaded and burdened as the porters signified by it who often carry baggage two or three times their weight at Indian railway stations.

There is much else to talk about; San Andres was a trip and a half and I didn’t get to blog much about Calabash, which was outstanding this year. Nicholas Laughlin gives a good account of it though in his UK Guardian blog “The distraction of Walcott vs Naipaul“. Suffice it to say for now that I think the Calabash team should invite Salman Rushdie to Treasure Beach next May. More on San Andres and the Raizales in a few days.

Walcott on Naipaul

“A mongoose charges dry grass and fades through a fence faster than an afterthought”. A beautiful line from pre-Calabash Walcott– Calabash 2008 will always be remembered for Walcott’s stunning denouement: the reading in public for the first time of his poem, The Mongoose, written specifically with V.S. Naipaul in mind.

The audience was left waiting to exhale, an inaudible gasp hovering under the tent as the Poet laureate dissed and dismissed his fellow laureate and literary giant, V.S. Naipaul in a series of the most poetically crafted insults. Aspiring DJs might want to take note–this is the stuff of great clashes—

As Channer said at Jack Sprat afterwards “A Beenie and Bounti u know”. Then who’s Kamau Brathwaite, I asked. “Capleton” said Colin without missing a beat.

“The anti-hero is a prick named Willy” intoned the Laureate, going on to describe Naipaul’s “exhausted works” as “predictable, unfunny”.

I wrote as furiously as I could, managing to capture a line here and a line there, all of them memorable if somewhat random. “The mongoose keeps its class act as a clown”; “…just as if a corpse took pride in its decay”; “small, grey and beady-eyed”; “the mongoose takes its orders from the Raj”; “the mutter from a maniacal, bitter mongoose”; “reward them with the spit of benediction”; “he told me once sex was just friction”; “now it was time to bite whatever hands had helped him.”

Coming in the wake of an interview of Walcott by Kwame Dawes, a founding director of Calabash and a poet himself, “The Mongoose” was payback for a recent Naipaul essay called “Caribbean Odyssey” in which he casts aspersions on Walcott’s talent. You can read more about this at Geoffrey Philp’s blog: Moral vs. Ethical Writing: Naipaul and Walcott

Meanwhile down here at Treasure Beach we give thanks for sunny skies and prickly poets. Willing conscripts in the enactment of a first-class literary feud we await the unfolding of Day 3 at Calabash with some relish. A mongoose will never just be a mongoose again. More anon.

Calabash Ho! (single entendre please–)

This is the time of year I like best. One week before Calabash Literary Festival and about 10 days before the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) conference, which is in San Andres, Colombia, this year. The lineup at this Calabash, though stellar, could have been more exciting as far as I’m concerned; after all living in these parts who hasn’t heard Derek Walcott and Lorna Goodison, live and in living colour, over and over again? Last year’s was a more lustrous list of literary stars, Caryl Phillips, Michael Ondaatje and Maryse Conde amongst them.

But then again I don’t go to Calabash to listen to authors and poets reading aloud so much as for the sheer delight of lingering in the vibe-rant environment created by Colin, Justine and Kwame. I happen to know that singer and poet Dingo has been sharpening his latest poem and who knows if we’re lucky he might perform it there. The open mic segment is bound to have its share of great performances bursting through the thicket of paltry, mediocre rhymesters who will insist on abusing the audience with purported poetry.

Speculation is rife as to whether Walcott will behave himself or be spectacularly rude on stage; whether he will outcuss that indomitable cusser Bounty Killa and be carted off to bad wud jail; or if the balmy St. Bess air will temporarily render him tame and pleasant (incidentally Dingo has a poem, Jamaica Land We Love, that starts like this:

I woulda cuss some claat if it coulda draw attention
to Jamaica land we love

An if dem neva start charge artiste fe it….
I woulda cuss some claat if it coulda draw attention
to Jamaica land we love.

Jamaica land we love hobbling along on three flats and de-spair).

Walcott’s main rival in the race for Curmudgeon of the Year is of course, V.S. Naipaul, about whom the New York Times wrote only today.

A book-lover’s paradise, Calabash is a boutique festival if there ever was one. Hordes of would-be writers rub shoulders with would-be readers and actual writers at different stages of their careers. The main venue was succinctly described in a recent article: “At the far end is a small stage with a podium. The backdrop is the long curve of Calabash Bay. The village mongrels often have the best seat in the house, downstage. In Treasure Beach, even the strays enjoy a good poetry reading.”

Although Dominicano Junot Diaz, the celebrated author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, couldn’t make it this year, touring the Far East as he is after winning the Pulitzer and a clutch of other awards, Calabash die-hards will remember him as one of the up and coming authors featured at an earlier Calabash—2003? 2004? See? So you never know, someone you consider a no-name author this year could well turn out to be tomorrow’s literary lion. Incidentally a recent issue of the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB) carried a great interview with Diaz by Marlon James, author of John Crow’s Devil.

Another big draw will be Beverley Manley, whose hot memoirs, briefly serialized in the Gleaner, have set the country on fire. Naturally i have an advance copy, a review copy, which i shall devour over the weekend. Hey being a critic does have its occasional advantages.

But more on Calabash after the event. I will be ensconced at a seafront villa with a small cartel of Caribbean writers and publishing mates for the duration of the festival. A description of this delightful spot is to be found in the current issue of Caribbean Beat where Nicholas Laughlin, editor of CRB, recalls an evening spent there the year before during Calabash:

“…If you are in possession of a villa, you might consider throwing your own private party. The kind that starts when someone shows up with a bottle of wine and ends, well, whenever. Perhaps your housekeeper has cooked lobsters for dinner. Perhaps two up-and-coming Jamaican novelists will start a raucous discussion of the supernatural coolie duppy, egged on by an art critic, to the scandal of a young American poet. A couple of literary journalists huddle by the pool, exchanging hot gossip. Someone slips down to the beach for a midnight skinny-dip A hotshot online media producer captures it all on a hidden mike…”

See you in Treasure Beach!

Stepping Through Sweden

When you’ve been born and brought up in the global South and continue to live there as I do you appreciate visiting places where things work the way they’re supposed to and resources are never a problem; where Plan A is what prevails (instead of constant compromises with Plan B or C); and where human chaos is ordered and contained in artful ways.

I found myself in Gothenburg, Sweden, the other day attending a two-day meeting at the Museum of World Cultures. After arriving with a swollen leg and no luggage I still had a great time — a tribute to this unusual country and its friendly people.

I’m a real sucker for sophisticated design, whether graphic or interior, and Scandinavian design is outstanding. So despite the forbidding exteriors of most buildings I found myself in a succession of beautifully designed interiors and luxuriated in them while I could. The colour schemes were as rich and unorthodox as Kanjeevaram saris—a bright orange auditorium, a magenta and pink bathroom, the most elegant fixtures—leading me to radically revise the colours of my blogsite as soon as I got back.


The Museum of World Cultures itself was a trip. Our conference room was screened off with a unique, superbly designed grill or screen consisting of human figures with outstretched arms and legs balanced on one another. The screen is an artwork created by a Korean artist named Do Ho Suh .

An exhibition called Fair Fashion drew attention to the costs associated with clothing and keeping up with the latest styles. Although wearing cotton may make us feel virtuous (it’s natural! It’s cool! It’s cheap!) the cost of keeping the world clothed in cotton is actually quite expensive, harmful and unfair to cottonpickers. Some of the facts the exhibition highlighted with the use of imaginatively dressed mannequins were as follows:

  • Cotton is the most water-intensive crop around. In order to grow a kilo of cotton, you need something like 10,000 to 30,000 litres of water.
  • A whole kilo of chemicals and toxins are employed in the production of every single kilo of conventionally grown cotton.
  • Every year 12 million pairs of jeans are sold in Sweden. Each pair weighs approximately 0.6 kg, and consists of 95 % cotton.
  • You need 0.6 k of che­micals and toxins and 12,000 litres of water to manufacture a single pair of jeans.
  • Cotton is grown in over 100 countries. The major producers—China, India, Pakistan, Brazil and Uzbekistan—are responsible for more than 80 % of the world’s cotton production. The global market price has remained rock steady at 60 cents per pound ever since the 1950s. This is mainly due to the fact that cotton-producing countries in the West, along with China and the EU, provide their domestic cotton farmers with various subsidies. As a result of this practice, cotton farmers in other parts of the world are forced to accept the low international market price.

Another concurrent exhibition “Wild Style” told “the story of how hip-hop came to conquer the world”.

This was rather fortuitous for me because the reason I was at the Museum of World Cultures to begin with was to attend a meeting of authors and editors of a text titled Creativity, Cultural Expression and Globalization. Volume 3 of the Cultures and Globalization Series published by Sage, London, the Series editors had invited twenty writers and scholars from around the world to participate in the project by contributing chapters highlighting new forms of creativity thrown up by the forces of globalization.

My chapter, titled “The Turn of the Native: Vernacular Creativity in the Caribbean” discusses the phenomenon of Jamaican music, in particular its current avatar, Dancehall. When my turn came to present my thesis it gave me great pleasure to be able to introduce the subject by citing the Wild Style exhibition that started its documentation of the story of hip hop with the following words: “It all began in August 1973, when a young girl named Cindy Campbell hosted a party at the legendary address 1520 Sedgewick Avenue in West Bronx, New York.”

As I explained, although the words Jamaica and Jamaican never appear anywhere in this narrative, the party mentioned was at the home of Jamaican migrants and Cindy’s brother, Clive, borrowed the sound system from their father, a Jamaican, to play Jamaican music at the party. Clive is better known today by his DJ moniker, Kool Herc. Everyone knows the rest. The African-Americans at the party were not receptive to dancehall music so Kool Herc started playing soul and funk hits while talking and shouting over the music in the style of Jamaican DJs. Now the party was hopping and voila, hip hop was born.

As easily as that I had made my case for focusing exclusively on the phenomenon of Jamaican music. As I went on to explain there are not many places in the world where “the masses who have been silent for two thirds of a century” have found their voice(s) as volubly and effectively as in the Caribbean; here, using the medium of music, “low-budget” people persistently neglected by both state and society, have creatively married oral traditions with the most advanced technological innovation to create a highly mobile, popular, indeed, trend-setting, product that is competitive internationally with similar products from the most advanced societies in the world.

Unfortunately in the society it was created Dancehall has still barely acquired legitimacy although there are signs that this is beginning to change. Last night on the CVM TV current affairs programme ‘Direct’ that usually deals exclusively with political and economic issues, the subject was a recent poll conducted on the subject of Dancehall. The poll conducted by Don Anderson had purported to come up with some amazing findings such as that only a minuscule segment of the population listened to or liked Dancehall compared to Reggae, and that most people thought that dancehall DJs could and ought to do something about the spiraling violence in the country.

Fortunately Garfield Burford, the host of the programme, then brought on Donna Hope and Ragashanti Stewart, two scholars who have researched the subject of dancehall quite thoroughly and by the time they had disaggregated and queried the questions asked by the Poll you realized how little the pollsters knew about the subject they were claiming to collect information on and how much their ignorance impacted on the quality of the data they had so triumphantly produced. What for example was the distinction being made between Reggae and Dancehall? If another category had been substituted for DJs, say teachers, media stars, politicians or pastors would the answers have been any different? Anderson admitted that the question could have been more precisely framed so that respondents indicated which of these categories they considered most able to influence patterns of violence in Jamaica. Kudos to Burford and Direct for focusing on a subject that is at least as important as tourism and the practically non-existent formal economy.

Well, there’s much more to say about Sweden. I was only there for four days but when you’ve had a chance to test out the medical system of a country, go shopping there (stores close at 5 pm and one isn’t bombarded with commercials and subliminal messages to shop, shop, shop) and also do the opposite, spend significant time in its premier museum (shops and museums are spaces that are fundamentally opposed I think) you do get a sense of the place and its people. The clinic was fabulously designed with its red brick and tiled lobby, with sculpted walls covered with the most fascinating, provocative three dimensional imagery.

The system was streamlined and user-friendly, the doctor was kind, what more do you want. And fortunately for me it wasn’t that expensive (I’m still trying unsuccessfully to collect from the expensive health insurance plan I was required to buy in order to get a Swedish visa). I’m much indebted to Anna Thelin, programme coordinator of the Museum, for taking me there.

The other thing that impressed me was the size of the sidewalks which were as wide as country roads in Jamaica with a lane for bicycles and a separate one for pedestrians, clearly marked. I loved the image of the father and daughter used to indicate the pedestrian lane. Sweden struck me as a place with the resources to live humanely and the imagination and good sense to do so without the bombast and waste we’re used to in this hemisphere. Skol!