My Gleaner column of February 8, 2017. Reactions to it ranged from amusing to predictable to baffling.
You are the head of a self-appointed coalition to foster a ‘healthy society’ in Jamaica. You are also a medical doctor. Or you are the head of an assembly of churches, a Reverend. No, not one of those going around molesting young girls. No, no not one of those. You are both dedicated to the policing of gender boundaries in Jamaica. Men are men and women are women and there shall be nothing betwixt or between.
You are duty-bound to police the borders of Jamaica against interlopers and unwanted immigrants. Why, even Donald Trump is taking a leaf out of your book! Those who ignore or show lack of respect for gender boundaries are not welcome in Jamaica. It is your solemn duty to make this clear to every citizen. You have to be particularly vigilant against the Gay Agenda, a global conspiracy involving institutions at the highest levels—the UN, the World Bank, the EU—whose goal is to destroy the world (and inter alia the Jamaican family) by legalizing gay marriage.
If, God forbid, gay marriage is legalized in Jamaica it will be the beginning of the end. For all and sundry will take up with their own gender, setting up same sex households all over the country, and soon procreation will grind to a halt. There are no examples, as yet, of this happening in countries where gay marriage has been legalized but so what? Reality is not a shackle. Keep stressing the following point. How can we have a healthy society without children?
As for feminists. They too must be kept from invading Jamaica where we like to do things in old, time-honored ways. It is a pity that slavery was officially abolished two centuries ago. What is wrong with slavery? Nothing at all. Slaves are essential to healthy families. Women are meant to cook, clean, raise children and provide sex for heads of households at no pay. Also the sex part is non-negotiable, women must deliver when the subject is broached. Shop must remain open 24/7. Think Open Access is a new sumpn?
It’s just that slavery must be gender-based. This is why it’s so important to distinguish between the sexes. There can be no ambiguity about this. Men and women who break these rules must be enslaved by our cultural rules. Either they conform to these or they leave. It is for the benefit of the nation. Our good name is at stake.
Also, it is to be noted that rape is a crime that can only be inflicted on women for Jamaican law defines sexual intercourse under the Sexual Offences Act as “penetration of the vagina of one person by the penis of another person”. Rape occurs when there is sexual intercourse without the consent of the woman. That is, for rape to happen, there has to be penetration of a vagina. By a penis. If a man buggers a boy or man that is not rape; if a man thrusts his penis into your daughter’s mouth without her consent that is not rape either; nor is penetration of one’s orifices, vaginal or not, by the forced intrusion of an object, considered rape.
This actually means that homosexual men who bugger other men or boys get away with a lesser charge of grievous sexual assault, with much milder punishment compared to rape but so what? “Anal penetration is wrong in 2017 and anal penetration will still be wrong in the year 3000.” We can’t let ourselves be fooled by such tactics. Sometimes the truth is inconvenient…but let that not stand in your way. Redefinition of rape is a Trojan horse to bring in gay marriage. The Gay Agenda must be stopped at all costs. It’s the Al Quaeda of the god-fearing world, the ISIS of virtuous, law-abiding countries such as Jamaica.
What about all those women who keep turning up murdered, you ask? Like the one in the barrel in St Thomas? Ignore them man. More than likely they were asking for it. Its just the work of feminists. That is why we have to oust them too. There is too much sensationalizing of crimes against women, the media gives them too much space. “Men die everyday . Boys are molested and sexually assaulted in every community. But what? No one cries out, protests, chastises government or prays about it. Male lives matter too.”
Hat tip to the brilliant Nigerian satirist, Elnathan John.
Correction: This teach in was on Feb 17 which was last week. No wonder the Gleaner removed the information. Mea culpa…have made the necessary adjustments to tense.
It’s time to resurrect Active Voice. My column in the Gleaner today was pruned of most of the last 2 paragraphs which talk about the planned Teach-in at UWI this Friday concerning the review of the Sexual Offences Act (#SOAReview). Since this is a very important example of the kind of citizen participation I’m talking about, I thought it important to carry the unexpurgated version on my blog.
My first visit to the United States since Donald Trump became president of the country was uneventful. New York City was bustling with activity as usual, as was the conference I attended. The College Arts Association is the largest association of art professionals in the US–including artists, art historians, critics, curators, art writers and publishers. Their annual conference attracts 4000 attendees and each of 5 time slots a day might have up to 18 concurrent panels. The mammoth conference runs for four days.
Landing at John F Kennedy airport in the afternoon there were no lines at immigration. In fact everyone had to scan their passports at kiosks, then photograph and press their fingers on screens themselves before proceeding to an actual agent who engaged minimally to retake fingerprints and photographs. Kiosks are always unnerving, even for someone as technologically literate as I am so i wondered how others with less experience were faring.
Then I was off to my airbnb room in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, by public transport, the air train to–where else–Jamaica, in Queens, and then the E train which took me within a block of my accommodation. Unlike hotels, airbnb accommodation in the city might often be in 3-or 4-storied buildings without elevators so packing lightly is a must. My room turned out to be very comfortable though i never fail to be amazed at how constrained for space many New Yorkers are. I had never seen such a tiny bathroom till then. My hosts were incredibly thoughtful and pleasant which more than made up for the cramped quarters.
On the up side i was in the middle of an avenue of good restaurants, a block away from Broadway with all its glitz and glitter and a healthy walk from the Hilton where the conference was. What are conferences and why do people go to them? Those who pooh pooh them disregard the exchange of knowledge, ideas and concepts that occur at such events. The world is not a mechanical place: beneath the technology, the geopolitics and the surface of the societies we inhabit, lie webs of ideas, theories, and hypotheses.
Knowledge is a communal enterprise, not the product of individuals sitting cocooned in their castles. The cross-fertilization that occurs simply by listening to new points of view on the same subject you might be researching is invaluable. The arc of the scholarly enterprise may be long but it bends towards insight. And insight is essential in these dark times.
An unusual addition to this conference was a wall of protest for people to display posters and slogans on behalf of their cause, whatever that might be. Quite a few of them addressed the Trump presidency. Jostling a sign for the Society of Contemporary Art Historians was one saying, “Trump is the symptom, capitalism is the disease.” “Germans against walls and white nationalism” announced another. “NOT MY PRESIDENT”. “This is not normal”. “Make American kind again.”
One of my favorites just said TRUST WOMEN. On the eve of possibly having a female police commissioner for the first time, and a few weeks before March 11 when the Tambourine Army plans to mobilize women onto Kingston’s streets to protest the unremitting violence they face this is a good slogan for all of us.
The Tambourine Army is asking people to wear purple on March 11 and join the protest. “Bring your friends, your family, your colleagues, your neighbours and let’s march in solidarity as one Jamaica against sexual abuse, against rape, against all forms of sexual violence against our women and girls.”
Also on Friday, February 17, the I’m Glad I’m A Girl Foundation partnered with UN Women and the Tambourine Army to host a full day teach-in on the Sexual Offences Act. A presentation on the Act and related Acts was made by Tracy Robinson (Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UWI Mona) in the morning, and discussions with advocates about how folks can contribute to the current review of the Act followed in the afternoon.
Citizen participation is the name of the game, WE have to become the change we want to see. Purple is the colour of power, let’s put it on and take to the streets come. To all the men out there come show your support for us, with or without tambourines, on March 11 and we’ll reciprocate by joining the one for violence against men whenever you choose to organize it. Deal?
A mountain has died and words are inadequate to describe the loss, the Fidel-shaped hole in the universe we must live with now, but Jamaican songwriter and singer Tanya Stephens has written the most thoughtful, eloquent, hard-hitting tribute you can imagine and it deserves to be read far and wide–
I still remember the almighty roar that went up from the crowd outside the Holy Trinity Cathedral on North Street in Kingston when Fidel Castro alighted from his car and made his way into the Cathedral where the funeral service for Michael Manley was being held. It was 1997. I was in the street outside with the hoi polloi but i heard that even inside the Cathedral, full of VIPs, diplomats and other elites the entire congregation arose applauding when he walked in. Fidel was an inspiration as Tanya explains so eloquently…
He was good or bad depending on who you speak to. I fell in love with the romantic portrayal of the Cuban revolution in high school History class. I couldn’t express that at home. I later took more details into consideration and lost some of my love for the man while exercising empathy for the many refugees who fled the country to seek more favorable socioeconomic conditions elsewhere. Then I went to Cuba and my love was renewed. There’s no human on this planet who gets a perfect score from every other human. What I saw was an education system which works. Healthcare which works. National security which works. We stayed in a rooming house in a ‘ghetto’ in Havana although we could have easily afforded a room in the best hotel, but we wanted to be among the people. I went walking in this ‘ghetto’ after midnight, and the only interactions from locals we attracted were offers to (literally) break bread with us and invitations to come into homes and hang out with them. I dream of a Jamaica close to this.
I could also see that it was a synthetic kind of safety born of fear, but I would pick someone being afraid of the repercussions from committing a crime over everyone being afraid of criminals ANY day.
To all the people whose lives he touched negatively, I hope they and their descendants can somehow find the peace he is now incapable of giving them.
To all the people from all over the world who have benefited from the world leading education and health care industries he sculpted, I hope their gratitude will never wane and it will influence somehow their decisions when electing their own officials.
To all the other Caribbean Government heads, please take a page from his book. One of the good pages. Craft our education and health systems like you ACTUALLY have our interest somewhere in your corrupt hearts.
To those in the Jamaica tourist industry, Cuba has comparable and even better beaches, more points of interest, a more romantic tourism product. Get off your butt and start rebuilding your sector. The sky is not falling but your appeal and worth is!
To my 5th form history teacher Miss Blisseth (hope I spelled correctly) I thank you with all my heart for introducing me to the ONLY living Caribbean legend of my childhood. Shaping young minds is a tough job. We didn’t agree on everything, sometimes we even disagreed aggressively, but I’m grateful for every illusion you shattered and every new thought you introduced.
In Jamaica it should be #Poorlivesmatter not #blacklivesmatter coz some black lives do matter here and the police doing the killing and maiming are just as black as their victims…
The column below from a couple of weeks ago about the need for a #poorlivesmatter campaign in Jamaica has been getting some attention. #Blacklivesmatter as a rallying call has little traction in Jamaica where if you’re black but middle class or upper class you’re–for all intents and purposes–an honorary white. Social blackness is reserved for those who are black and poor, not just those who may be dark-skinned, regardless of class.
I thought as much when I saw Fabian Thomas’s ‘Black Bodies’ almost a year ago–a play that aimed to “tell the stories and honour the memories of four Jamaicans (Vanessa Kirkland, Jhaneel Goulbourne, Michael Gayle, and Mario Deane) killed by the police or while in police custody” while attempting to draw a somewhat facile connection with the US’s #blacklivesmatter campaign which was then just beginning to gain momentum.
And in a move to rival the truth in strangeness, a very bougie, uptown Kingston nightclub named Fiction invited patrons to come and show their support for #Blacklivesmatter by partying the night away. Fittingly they aroused the wrath of social media with tweeters like Matthew McNaughton @mamcnaughton saying “Never been more disgusted with Jamaica UPT Culture than when I saw this @FictionJamaica flier.” The flier is at the top of this post, my column is below:
Gleaner, July 13, 2016
The #BlackLivesMatter campaign has rightfully been hogging media attention worldwide with American Police being shown up as less respectful of human rights than you would expect from a nation that regularly monitors and penalizes other countries for their alleged violations of these universally agreed on rights. Superficially there appears to be a resemblance to the way Jamaican police behave except for a crucial difference.
Here it’s the intersection of class with race that arouses the savagery of the Police and seemingly gives them the right to detain, imprison and on far too many occasions murder a ‘suspect’ whereas in the US the detention and deaths in question seem to be largely racially focused. In 2009 for instance the very distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was detained and imprisoned by police after forcing open the stuck door to his own house. A neighbour, misconstruing the scene, reported a robbery in progress, the police arrived, and despite the erudite Professor’s explanations he was carted off to jail.
This would never happen In Jamaica. Here you might be black and suspect until you display your rightful ownership of certain markers of privilege—and therefore legitimacy–of which the ability to speak English fluently is one. This is another stark example of how Patwa-speakers are discriminated against in their own country. Many parents tell their sons that when stopped by police they are to speak perfect English, and mention that they ‘come from somewhere’—that is, an uptown community rather than a downtown or inner city one. Almost instantaneously this frees them from suspicion.
There is no direct way to relate the #BlackLivesMatter campaign to police abuse in Jamaica without acknowledging or starting a local “#PoorLivesMatter campaign. Less than two weeks ago policemen shot a schoolgirl in the head when they wantonly fired bullets at a taxi downtown. Do you think this would have happened in Liguanea or Manor Park? And then to add insult to injury the initial response of the Police was that they had no evidence to suggest that the shooters in question were police officers. What could be more alarming than a possible scenario involving five men disguised as policemen firing their weapons at taxis? Well, actually, duh, a scenario involving five POLICEMEN firing at a taxi which is what in the end it turned out to be.
These are the same police the Attorney-General, in the wake of Lotto-scam generated crime ramping up in Montego Bay, wishes to endow with more leeway to abuse citizens by insisting that “To successfully tackle the murder problem, some of the fundamental rights and freedoms which we have guaranteed to people may have to be abrogated, abridged or infringed.” In fact she forgot to mention that this has been the state of affairs for so-called downtown people forever; the outcry now is because the warning is addressed to English-speaking, uptown-dwelling, middle-class bodies.
I adapted the title of this column from Kei Miller’s novel The Last Warner Woman. “Every now have its before”, she warns, although few heed her. Police Commissioner Williams has rightly said that the problems in Montego Bay are not something harsher policing measures or a state of emergency can solve. They are systemic and need social intervention, for what gone bad a-morning, can’t come good a-evening. Imagine the scene in the United States if President Obama used the current crisis to give American police even more draconian powers than they already enjoy. Wrong move. Racism in the USA has a long and troubled history just as the virulent classism in Jamaica does. There’s no moving forward without addressing either.
We would do well to heed the words of social commentator Nadeen Althia Spence, who invoking the late great Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff, said:
If I could write this with fire I would set ablaze some ideas on this page. I would talk about the black boys in Montego Bay who no longer know the value of life. They don’t know because their black always needed to be qualified for it to become fully ‘smadditized’. It needed land, and money or an accent. When you grow up in communities that are built on captured land, what does it mean for the girls and boys who develop their personhood in a place where land and property and money helps to define your person.
Capture is a legitimate philosophy, because dem nuh own nutten. When Daddy Sharpe led his rebellion, when he set Kensington ablaze the white people in Montego Bay were angry, they punished, maimed and killed, and Daddy Sharpe gave his life in the middle of Sam Sharpe Square Downtown Montego Bay, right across from the Kerr Jarrett’s Town House.
How has Montego Bay changed? Who plans for the children of Sam Sharpe and his soldiers, the Christmas martyrs. Dem used to state of emergency, di blinking city was born in a state of emergency. What they are not used to is justice and equality and rights and development. Give them that Minister, give them justice and mek it stretch back to 1831 and remember Sam Sharpe. Start with the land…mek dem stop capture…because all lotto scam is another capture philosophy…
This was my latest column in the Jamaica Gleaner. Since a lot of people are complaining they cannot access it easily, i’m reposting it here.
I don’t know when I first started noticing it. Perhaps it was the time I went to clear some goods I’d shipped from India a couple of years ago at one of Kingston’s ports. After navigating the much improved process of recovering your possessions from the wharf you finally end up in a large waiting room with about fifty chairs and a TV mounted on the wall in its own personal grill.
It was lunchtime by then. Sitting in front of me occupying the front rows were 15 or so large, tough-looking men, the kind of individuals who lift up crates and literally manhandle them, along with a few wimpier looking folks there to claim their goods. All were glued to the TV screen on which a brilliantly coloured Indian soap-opera was playing. The men were watching the melodrama with the helpless concentration of snakes following a mongoose’s wily darts to and fro.
Some weeks later the Smith sisters came to visit me. When I mentioned serving some Indian sweets up jumped Sister No. 1 accompanying me to the kitchen saying she wanted to see if they were the kind of sweets Khushi makes. Khushi? A who dat I asked upon which Sister Smith informed me that Khushi was the star of Strange Love, one of two Indian soap operas CVM TV had started showing in their lunchtime slot, Monday to Friday from 1 to 1:30 and 1:30 to 2:00.
“Whenever Khushi’s upset she retreats to the kitchen and starts making sweets,” declared Sister Smith as if she was talking about a bosom buddy.
Really? Indian soaps are melodramas of the sickly sweet variety, how on earth had they taken Jamaica by storm I wondered. Sister Smith assured me that they were such fun that not only she but her parents—the goodly Reverend Smith and her Mom—as well as her brother, a financial analyst in New Kingston, were all hooked to Strange Love. In fact at her brother’s workplace, office workers threw ‘Khushi parties’ after work and spent Saturdays binge-watching the serial while at home the goodly Reverend could be seen shouting at the Indian couple to just DO IT. Just kiss the girl no man, her father would yell in exasperation as Khushi’s admirer spent days and weeks gazing into her eyes, while the background music intensified in volume and sentimentality.
Strange Love or Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon as it’s called in Hindi, premiered in India in 2011. Comprising 398 half hour episodes the drama is the love story of an arrogant business tycoon, Arnav Singh Raizada and his middle-class secretary Khushi Kumari Gupta. Played by actors Barun Sobti and Sanaya Irani the series has propelled both to fame and stardom not only in India but around the world where the show is dubbed into the native language of the region it is shown in. After a few years when Barun left to pursue a career in Bollywood, the show’s fans went berserk demanding his return.
Ok fine. But what is the attraction such shows hold for Jamaicans? I mean a recording artiste named Tiana has even come out with a single named ‘Khushi’ that has reportedly been blowing up local radio.
“What fascinates us is the slowness of the story, the way the lovers look at each other. The music that comes up when they think of each other. Strange Love focuses on…feelings, how people view each other, how they love each other from their hearts, not their gonads,” vouchsafed a blogger named Lady Fingers.
Meanwhile according to Jodian Downs “These dramas are different, as the characters still maintain their pure innocence and for the viewers, this is extremely addicting. Imagine yourself watching the full 20 episodes of one show just to see the main characters at least get a small peck on the cheek from their love interest.”
Also, continues Downs “the level of loyalty portrayed by each female actress for their male superior is rather humorous and astonishing for the modern female.” Aha! perhaps this explains why Jamaican men are so fascinated by Strange Love. The docile Indian female is no doubt irresistibly attractive to them considering the independence of most Jamaican women?
Interestingly unlike Jamaica where Indian soap operas are appreciated as a step back to a time when love was innocent, in places like Afghanistan where they are also popular they are considered too liberal and therefore threatening to Afghan culture. According to a recent article “Afghan video editors must blur all objectionable content in the scenes, such as too much bare skin, Hindu ways of worship, alcohol and anything that could offend religious sentiments.”
In Jamaica on the other hand Indian dramas have generated much goodwill and love of Indian culture. Long may it last!
Well, it would appear that I’ve abandoned blogging and wandered back into the arms of traditional media. At least for the time being. It’s a month now since i started writing a weekly column at the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica’s premier newspaper, and in consequence Active Voice has become inactive. It’s an interesting zig-zag, from column writing to blogging to column writing once again. In a blog you address the big wide world, in a column you tend to address local issues for a local audience.
The movement is not unlike a lens zooming in or zooming out, manually of course, there is no autofocus available, only telephoto or wide angle and all the calibrations in between. As you zoom in small things get larger and more legible; as you zoom out the enlarged shrinks, allowing you to see the big picture and where you fit into it. Occasionally the view becomes panoramic, collapsing horizons and walls, a grand sweep from left to right.
In my second column I took on a group of what I termed ‘cultural nationalists’ who seemed more interested in protecting Jamaica’s image than in changing the dangerously lopsided society we live in, one designed for the middle class and the wealthy, to the detriment of those who have not/naught. A CNN anchor had described Jamaica as a ‘remarkably violent place’ after two North American missionaries were murdered here. Up rose the cultural nationalists claiming that the anchor was exaggerating wildly and there are only ‘pockets’ of violence here.
This seemed rather disingenuous to me when murder and violent acts dominate the news headlines here daily so that the nation seems equipped with an abnormally large number of violent ‘pockets’, if one must use such imagery. Yes, areas where uptown people live don’t suffer the same intensity of violence as poorer neighbourhoods, but surely to deny that the country has become remarkably violent is like thumbing your nose at those for whom this is a daily reality. Are they likely to disagree with the American anchor’s description of Jamaica?
These are people who live, as UWI scholar Norval Edwards pointed out in the 90s, in a permanent state of emergency. The rest of us tolerate this, some even demanding this routine abrogation of citizens’ rights. Not surprisingly when the violence then spills across the boundaries and news of it escapes into the international news circuits some of us start squealing about bias and exaggeration when actually what is being reported is the truth.
But of course the truth is dispensable. We prefer to think of ourselves as highly cultured, civilized, law-abiding, English-speaking citizens who do not curse or act violent. This is the image we want to project, let no foreign anchor tell you otherwise. The level of denial and self-delusion is all-pervasive. I spoke to a couple of individuals who don’t live in middle class enclaves and they too insisted that Jamaica could not be called a violent society. A banal nationalism trumps all.
What seems curious to me is that at the same time the cultural nationalists are busy pushing back at portrayals of Jamaica as a violent country by outsiders they have no problem with internal declarations that there is a ‘culture of violence’ here, sometimes even uncritically reproducing this canard themselves. In doing this they seem unaware of the ethnic profiling they are participating in, one that is made amply clear by the following tweet:
Stereo Williams @stereowilliams
Black guys fire shots at rap shows and u hear “culture of violence.” White guys fire shots at theaters/schools/offices and it’s “isolated.
In my third column I tried to elaborate on this weird incongruity between local commentators’ denial of the existence of violence on the one hand and their comfort level in denouncing the ‘culture of violence’ that allegedly exists here. Not all are guilty of this but far too many are and it makes you wonder what’s going on. The following is taken from my column The ‘Culture of Violence’ Thesis:
The ‘Culture of Violence’ Fallacy was the title of a book review by David Scott in 1997 in the second issue of the journal Small Axe. He was reviewing Lauri Gunst’s Born fi Dead and Geoff Small’s Ruthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies. Praising the books’ authors for being ‘thoughtful, perceptive and readerly’ while attempting to arrive at “theoretically informed understandings of the problem of organized violence in Jamaican society” Scott rued the reliance on ‘pop’ cultural psychology in their analysis. The books’ main weakness he said lay in their “unproblematic reproduction” of the view that there is in Jamaica something called a ‘culture of violence’.
Scott noted that while this view was a widely held one, much retailed by the press and others, he doubted its usefulness as a conceptual framework, fearing that it obscured problems rather than illuminating them. What Scott was objecting to–rightly in my opinion–was the proposition that Jamaicans have an inclination towards violence or a ‘constitutional aggressivity’ and that there is social acceptance towards violence in Jamaica. He also questioned the idea that violence was endemic to Jamaican culture or that the frequent episodes of violence here are due to ‘historically constituted behavioural patterns’.
In contrast to the way violence in Jamaica is portrayed countries like Sri Lanka, victim to decades of the most violent conflict and prolonged warfare, are rarely described as having a ‘culture of violence’, said Scott. He went on to clarify that his objection was not to culture being used as a conceptual tool in analysing violence but to the particularly narrow and limited concept of culture employed by analysts.
In her 2011 book Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica anthropologist Deborah Thomas highlights the same problem pointing out that the notion of Jamaica having a ‘culture of violence’ is so widespread that commentators within the country freely use it without questioning its validity. She cited a National Security Strategy green paper of 2005 that used the phrase unproblematically claiming, “It is now conceded that Jamaica has spawned a culture of violence in its most negative form which is abhorrent to its values and stands in the way of every kind of social progress.”
The problem with viewing violence as a cultural trait is that it presents the issue as one of an innate brutality and savagery, whose roots are in Jamaican culture rather than generated by the system itself. Thus it distracts attention from the socio-economic inequality and the lack of opportunities for decent work and living conditions in the country, the everlasting structural adjustment that has marooned the impoverished out on a rickety limb; the systemic problems that contribute to violent solutions to social problems and need urgent attention. For the violence that envelops Jamaica is not a symptom of its culture but the fallout of the ‘Babylon’ system the country’s numerous singers and DJs have raised their voices against.
Though there were many who appreciated my use of cutting edge scholarship to make my argument on the subject of violence, there was a surprising pushback from the Gleaner. I was told that this particular column was considered “Too philosophical and not digestible by regular folk”.
A lot is claimed on behalf of ‘regular folk’ and it made me wonder whether the reason most public discussion here remains simplistic and one-dimensional is this insistence on dumbing down debate for the much maligned regular folk. I’m sure some folk object to exercising their minds even occasionally but there are many others who don’t. Which constituency is a columnist at the premier newspaper in the country to cater to? What is the role of an opinion columnist? To provide pap for the masses or to give them the benefit of some of the finest thinking on a subject of relevance to them?
Are we not guilty of fostering a culture of anti-intellectualism when we insist on insulating the public from complex ideas and arguments? Don’t Jamaicans deserve better? I don’t like running fast myself nor could I if I tried, and I’m sure there are many more like me, but I’m so glad that Usain Bolt, Shelly Ann, Asafa and the others weren’t told they had to slow down and keep pace with us so as not to hurt our feelings.
A run down of exciting new developments in Jamaica’s literary and art worlds.
As a new year hurtles towards us, the worlds of writing and visual art in Jamaica are poised to come into their own once again what with stars like Marlon James and Ebony G. Patterson blazing their way to global attention in 2015. You might say a strong current is buoying Jamaica right now and those equipped to swim with it are bound to soar. Can aquatic creatures soar? are we mashing metaphors here? No doubt…but methinks the situation warrants it.
James’s Booker win with his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has set off a maelstrom of praise and adulation but also concern from some Caribbean literary critics who maintain the work is needlessly violent. How to represent the internecine violence we live with in a seemly manner is a moot subject that will fuel many a literary conference to come; in the meantime Marlon James has adroitly dismantled the thatch ceiling that seems to veil the work of Caribbean writers from international visibility.
Kei Miller, James’s counterpart in the literary world, known more for his Forward Prize-winning poetry than his prose has just signed a six-figure deal with Knopf for a fictional work. Indeed his manuscript Augustown was the subject of a bidding war between publishing giants Penguin, Random House and Knopf, all offering six-figure deals. Miller’s agent chose Knopf, whose editor also works with Toni Morrison.
This is what I call the Marlon James effect. Doors have been flung open! as Kevin Jones remarked on Facebook. The success of Brief History has made publishers sit up and take notice of a culturally rich region they had somehow managed to overlook all these years.
To give some perspective–not even the much lauded Booker winner Marlon James himself was offered six figures by his publisher, River Head–but that was before the stir that his ambitious novel subsequently created. The bidding on his next novel will likely hit seven figures. Move over 7-Star General LA Lewis!
It must be added that Kei Miller’s Augustown was an excellent manuscript, and any really good writing coming out of the Caribbean in the next year or two is likely to arouse the interest of all major publishers. “Roland need to send out something,” remarked Marlon James colloquially, referring to Roland Watson-Grant, a third Jamaican writer whose brilliant novels have yet to get the attention they deserve.
_Space Jamaica and The Current
Meanwhile over in visual art the thatch ceiling is about to be blown away by a very ambitious project called _Space Jamaica, the brainchild of Sotheby-trained Rachael Barrett, who has recently returned to Jamaica with visions of starting an international museum of contemporary art in Kingston and other points in the region.
Located at premises owned by the Henzell family and run as a cultural space for many years _Space Jamaica will hold two shows a year, one in December timed to take advantage of traffic to Art Basel Miami and the other in June to coincide with Kingston on the Edge, a small but exciting series of activities curated by young Jamaican ‘creatives’ and led by Enola Williams. June 2016 will see _Space Jamaica launching its inaugural exhibition with a solo show of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, curated by Rachael Barrett. Titled I FEEL LIKE a CITIZEN, Barrett “will take a new approach to Basquiat’s oeuvre, examining his life, work and cultural legacy from the perspective of his Caribbean heritage.”
In early December Barrett held a preview of what’s in store for the museum with an ambitious programme of activities, some of which fell through, due to funding and other delays. The highlight was a lunch for diplomats and others held at the Old Railway Station in downtown Kingston. The station is in disuse since the trains stopped running more than a decade ago.
This was followed by the welcome announcement on December 16 by mega-collector Francesca von Habsburg, founder of Thyssen–BornemiszaArtContemporary (TBA21) that TBA21 would be giving _Space Jamaica a significant US dollar contribution to be matched, she hoped, by local contributions.
In addition TBA21’s ground-breaking (or perhaps ocean-breaking would be a better term) The Current International Research Programme will hold its first ever ‘Convening’ (an inter-disciplinary conference) at _Space Jamaica from March 16-20, 2016. The Current which was launched at COP 21 in Paris instead of Art Basel Miami reflects von Habsburg and her partner Markus Reymann’s shift from pure art (for want of a better expression) to art that engages with environmental problems. According to Reymann the Foundation is interested in knowledge production, not just art production.
Thus The Current, “a three-year exploratory fellowship program taking place in the Pacific, will offer artists, curators, scientists, marine biologists, anthropologists, and other cultural producers a platform to generate interdisciplinary thought and knowledge.”
The curator leading the inaugural voyage is Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the recently opened Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, who curated the US entry to the Venice Biennale this year; she was also part of the curatorial team of Documenta 11. It will be exciting to see what she comes up with for the Current Convening in March.
As von Habsburg says:
In spite of the unprecedented wealth of scientific information available, global environmental woes are still largely underestimated and poorly communicated. Art can be a powerful weapon if used well, by challenging us to reconsider the way we think, feel, and live instead of just conforming to the rules of the growing art market. After all, the next 10 years are going to be the most important in the next 10,000.
At the dinner in Kingston celebrating the successful unfurling of The Current von Habsburg announced TBA21’s support of _Space Jamaica and explained why she was shifting her attention “to the environment, to climate change, to preserving our oceans”:
They are my priority for a very special reason–mainly because of Jamaica–because i came here as a baby. I learnt to swim here, i learnt to snorkel here, i learnt to dive here. I taught my children–my beautiful daughter Eleonore who just came in today–i taught her to swim here and to snorkel here and to dive here. So I’ve been on these reefs for over 55 years and I’ve seen a colossal difference and I’ve seen what has been happening to the oceans, not just the oceans here, but to oceans all around the world. So for me Portland is a big accent on my attention, and as a result of that I created a foundation called the Alligator Head Foundation, which will be registered shortly, because it takes a while to get things registered in Jamaica as you know. The Foundation is to follow a very important establishment of a fish sanctuary which will be called the East Portland Fish Sanctuary. It is two hectares in size and it’ll be the biggest fish sanctuary in Jamaica. I’m meeting with the Minister tomorrow and I hope to be able to establish the sanctuary by the end of the year, if not the very beginning of next year. And these two things come together, I’ve started to talk about it to many artists and musicians that i know and there’s a whole movement of the creative industries that are backing me up on this programme so much to say about that in the future. But when I got together with Rachel this week to talk about her project _Space that she has here in Kingston–she’s been working with a great architect I’ve known for many years called David Adjaye but in particular this design was done by Vidal Dowding, an architect who I have a lot of time for and a lot of admiration–and I thought this idea of taking over a previous cultural space and reactivating it is something that’s really caught my attention. And the contemporary art scene in Jamaica could do with this incredible boost and I think probably the best way to address it is to actually do that in an independent space. I think the National Gallery of Jamaica is of course very much focused on moving into the contemporary art scene and I understand that, but I thought it was time for Rachael to get some real support so, today I’m announcing a gift to the _Space of US$150,000.
These are exciting developments for the local art scene which has been far too insular for far too long. May local donors match Francesca von Habsburg’s generous injection of resources into local art and science in the way the University of the West Indies has collaborated with TBA21 on founding the Alligator Head Marine Laboratory, seconding Dr. Dane Buddo to oversea (a Freudian slip which i shall leave alone) it. May young Jamaicans finally get a chance to experience the best in art and science without having to leave these shores and may it galvanize the country into leaping forward this coming new year.