Kingston: Creative City Not?

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Kingston on the Edge (KOTE), an urban art festival held every June, will not celebrate its tenth anniversary this year due mainly to dwindling support from corporate Jamaica. The email press release from the organizers of the festival said simply:
“The staging of KOTE is a large undertaking and can be difficult given that it is a 10 day studio and performing art festival held at over 26 venues throughout Kingston with hundreds of artists participating.”

“This year KOTE Milestones would have been our 10th anniversary however unfortunately given a combination of factors and unforeseen circumstances including not least of all the financial strain of the festival, we have been forced to cancel KOTE 2017.”

The cancelling of KOTE is a blow to Kingston’s cultural calendar as it was a showcase for artists, writers, musicians, poets, dancers and others involved in the expressive arts. Typically KOTE events catered to aficionados of alternative music (alternative to Reggae and Dancehall that is), modern dance, poetry, theatre, architecture, pottery and visual art, bringing a wide range of patrons, young and old, out of their closets for this rich cultural immersion.

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David Marchand (photo: Chloe Walters-Wallace)

For example at KOTE 2015, David Marchand, the fantastically eccentric and reclusive visual artist found dead in his Runaway Bay home last week, had his first solo exhibition in 23 years featuring 55 of his art works. Titled “Tsunami Scarecrow: A David Marchand Retrospective” the launch of the exhibition featured opening words by Maxine Walters, a dedicated patron of his work, jazz compositions by Seretse Small and a preview of a documentary on Marchand by Chloe Walters Wallace. Marchand liked to think of himself as “a visual Bob Marley”, but I think Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry offers a better comparison.

Another year the highlight of KOTE was a guided bus trip starting at Wolmer’s Boys’ School, the site of the 1891 World Fair and stopping at different locations in Kingston that once were tourist sites. Conducted by architect Evon Williams, the tour extended from the site of the now defunct Myrtle Bank Hotel downtown to Immaculate Conception Convent in uptown Kingston once better known as the Constant Spring Hotel. To visit its beautiful lobby and environs is to take a step back in time, for the nuns have changed the buildings very little and done a good job of maintaining its serene ambiance.

KOTE also pioneered what has become a regular feature of the National Gallery of Jamaica, its Last Sundays programme, when the Gallery is open to the public for free with performative offerings in addition to the art exhibtions. Hard to believe that sponsors were not forthcoming for such a beautifully curated series of events showcasing Kingston as the creative hub it is.

Trinidad and Tobago, on the other hand, even with a depressed economy due to plummeting oil prices was able to find the resources to continue hosting their excellent little literary showcase, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. Aside from their title sponsor, the Trinidad and Tobago Gas Company, Bocas has 30 or more other sponsors including One Caribbean Media willing to support and celebrate Caribbean talent.

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Ishion Hutchinson (2nd from left), Safiya Sinclair at Bocas Lit Fest. At mike Nicholas Laughlin

Jamaica dominated the festival this year, leading people to refer to it as the Jamaican Bocas, which culminated in Kei Miller winning the overall Bocas Award for his consummate novel, Augustown. Also in the running was another Jamaican, Safiya Sinclair, for her book of poetry, Cannibal. Safiya was the Bocas winner for poetry this year and is the latest wunderkid of Jamaican poetry to hit the international circuits, winning several mainstream fellowships and awards.

Another headliner at Bocas Lit Fest this year was Ishion Hutchinson, the Portland prodigy, the shearing of whose locks as a schoolboy inspired Kei Miller’s novel, Augustown. Hutchinson’s many honors include the American National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, a Whiting Writers Award and the Larry Levis Prize from the Academy of American Poets; he is also a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize in poetry. Like Sinclair, Ishion grew up in a Rasta household, she in Montego Bay and he in Port Antonio.

Festivals such as KOTE and Bocas are also about developing a ground for home-grown talent to thrive in…for how much longer can we expect our best and brightest to live in their heads? Safiya Sinclair pinpoints the sense of ‘unbelonging’ quite eloquently:

“Home was not my island, which never belonged to us Jamaicans, though it’s all we’ve known, and home was not my family’s house, which we’ve always rented, all of us acutely aware of the fact that we were living in borrowed space, that we could never truly be ourselves there. Home was not the body. Never the body—grown too tall and gangly too quickly, grown toward womanhood too late. Like a city built for myself, home was a place I carved out in my head, where the words were always the right words, where I could speak in English or patois, could formulate a song or a self. Home for me has always been poetry.”

An assembly line of festivals…

A drought of festivals in Jamaica, as one after the other the best ones dry up…Calabash, Kingston on the Edge…

Seen en route to Treasure Beach...

It’s been over four weeks since I updated this blog. This has never happened before; its not that I’ve lost interest, I just didn’t feel an overwhelming urge to say anything in this space. Part of it is that with two weekly radio programmes to produce in addition to all the things i normally do (The Silo and Double Standards on Newstalk 93FM, Jamaica) I have less spare time than i (n)ever had before.

Also, the time of year when you start the slide into summer came earlier this year. It used to start with going to Calabash Literary Festival in Treasure Beach towards the end of May, followed by the Caribbean Studies Association Conference, wherever it happened to be–this year in Curacao–and then various other conferences, symposia and events at UWI in June, capped by my fave “urban fringe festival” Kingston on the Edge (KOTE), and before you knew it it was July.

Lyric, lovely Lyric...

Instead this year it all started with Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad which was the stuff of my last two posts and then the first May in ten years without Calabash. Although several pretenders jumped with indecent haste into the void left by the sudden absence of this rollickingly good literary festival none could hold even a tenth of a candle to it. Having made our bookings a year in advance my friend Faith Smith and I spent Calabash week ensconced at Lyric, the cottage i always stay at year after year, and took a proper vacation–nothing like being served breakfast by the seaside–and then doing nothing but read, write and talk. Great break.

Breakfast at Lyric, Faith in background...
Batter fried bacon!

My problem with the replacement festivals was their lack of ambition, which was the very thing about Calabash that was so remarkable. Calabash aimed to bring together a group of GREAT writers, local and foreign, or newsworthy writers at the very least, in a setting that was at once international and local in scope. It was an exemplar of good timing and organization especially after the teething pains of the early years. Oh yes, there were things you could disagree with them on, but Calabash was a case study in successful festival staging year after year, elements permitting.

Its been a blow that on the heels of the retirement of Calabash from the annual calendar another great little festival–KOTE–has also suspended activity for the year. Held in the third week of June for the last 3-4 years KOTE was an exciting addition to Kingston’s cultural life. Organized by a few enterprising thirty-somethings, of whom Enola Williams and Omar Francis stand out, KOTE was for me an innovative intervention by the younger generation into the aging, creaky almost bureaucratic cultural landscape in place these last few decades.

I had always been struck by the mutually exclusive, colour-coded enclaves of aesthetic expression in Kingston where the literary crowd rarely went to art events, artists were rarely seen at literary affairs, musicians remained in their own circle, as did dancers, actors and all the other cultural actors as if there were walls preventing them from moving back and forth. KOTE tore down those walls, mixing dance with art, theatre with music, poetry with song, film with food and bringing the young out in droves. Their Theatre on the Edge evening with its 8 x 10, 8 ten minute plays was something to queue up for, as was their Dance on the Edge where i first came across the incredibly talented Neila Ebanks (having heard about her for years).

This was made entirely from cardboard. EMSVA grad show.
from Edna Manley Graduation Show

KOTE creatively wove the End of the Year graduation show at Edna Manley College each year into the programme, and shows at several of Kingston’s sleepy art galleries. The graduation show this year has a couple of must-sees by the way–I was particularly impressed by the student who produced a really sharp shoe coffin, and a series of ‘death bins’. Deighton Abbott I think his name was. His studies for the project were outstanding as well.

Shoe Coffin

KOTE is a local festival in the best sense of the word…I look forward to its return as and when it decides to reappear. Trying to replace Calabash with the rash of pseudo-festivals that clamoured for our attention was like trying to replace the Havana Biennale with the Liguanea Art Festival, or Reggae Sumfest with the August Town Independence Day Bash…Don’t assume that because i’ll go out of my way to go to Calabash or Bocas or KOTE that i’ll happily accept anything that proclaims itself a literary festival but seems to include everything but exceptional writers.

Finally you may be interested in going to see the documentary “Bad Friday” which chronicles the traumatic Coral Gardens ‘Incident’ of 1963 during and after which Rastas were persecuted in the most violent manner by the State. The premiere is June 23, Thursday at the Bob Marley Museum. See you there!