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!