[January 8 2016]
I make land on the south coast, as had the original pirates of the Caribbean at nearby Port Royal, centuries before. They had come for bouts of feasting and fighting in the ‘Wickedest and Richest City on Earth’ before it was cast into the sea by multiple earthquakes. My venture was much more tranquil; a friend, the art advisor and curator Rachael Barrett, was opening a new Contemporary Art Museum, _space jamaica, to be inaugurated in June 2016 with a Jean-Michel Basquiat show. She had asked me to the preview weekend, which was designed as an encounter with both the culture and currently practicing fine artists of the Rock.
And so, after only an hour in the air from Miami, rather than six months at sea, the wide island of Jamaica lay lush before me for the first time. Driving from the airport, a promenade of huge rocks has been placed as if by boulder-hefting giant Polyphemous along the thin strip of land that is Palisadoes Road. The wind is up on this full-sun afternoon, and my clothes flap around me like a flag. Key tones of lime green, banana yellow, turquoise and bare concrete shine under a faultless vault of cerulean blue sky above.
After sunset, I’m standing in front of a bound-bamboo soundstage above the washing black waves of the night beach below. We were at the Wickie Wackie music festival, and reggae king Jesse Royal had just stepped off the stage after wooing the crowd. As if from the darkness itself, between sets, these words ring out:
Why when I am high
And all my sorrows run
Why when I light up the chalice
Babylon can’t find me in the forest
And Jesus is a Metaphor
King Selassie is the Christ…
Intoned by Evie Homeless Gene of reggae dub-poets No-Maddz, as fellow musician Sheldon “the Don” Shepherd adjusts a microphone, these lines effortlessly iterate the nation’s preoccupations: history, identity, weed, nature, culture, religion, salvation, oppression – and expression. They are a gateway harpoon into the many-layered psyche of the island, parts of which will be uncovered for me over these next days.
In the morning, the smooth new concrete ‘Highway 2000’ funnels us up into the mountainous jungle interior. We stop first at the Mt Plenty home and studio of artist Laura Facey, where she constructs and exhibits her monumental wood sculptures. Most of her materials come from the estate itself. A deep feeling for her inherently Jamaican ancestry – made up of both masters and slaves – comes through in her sensually carved, confrontational pieces. “De hanging of Phibbah and her Private Parts and de Bone Yard’ (2012) in which an elongated feminine form is bent over and suspended above phallic logs, or her ‘Man and Woman,’ (2011) in which two sundered stumps seem about to merge again.
Heading west from Ochos Rios, we slide under the arcs of the cathedral-like forest canopy of the Fern Gully road, like the river that previously ran there. Flashing past us are the hyper-phallic wooden carvings made in the area with their ‘poles’ jutting out, unmissable. Touching them is good luck but we do not stop. Instead we wind our way towards the grounds of Good Hope estate. Here, ceramic artist David Pinto has built his own studio right into nature, next to a bamboo grove which creaks and whinnies like horses and with the Martha Brae River running audibly below. He creates unique fine art ceramics using traditional techniques, from large-scale amorphic figures to abstract homewares, and his studio shelves are like a Bluebeard’s cave of (clay)heads.
Pinto leads us up to see the panoptic view from the Good Hope Great House. The injustice of slavery is today beyond recognition, but in the mists of Jamaica’s colonial past this lofty site reigned over a sugar plantation that was richly productive, even after emancipation. The manor house lies silent now. The old walls are being stealthily knocked down by the encroach of the jungle plants, whose creepers and lianas twist around to slowly crumble its stones to pebbles. Orchids ramble wildly and ponds of nymphaea spread out from this wet red earth as nature reclaims its place.
We sail down to the soft ivory-sand beaches of the North Coast where mysterious Cuba lies across the waters from the all-inclusive hotels and luxury hideaways. My eye is drawn to the strange houses perching up on the hills which appear devoid of occupants. Every room of these multi-storied mansions has its own pillars, gothic arches and balconies like one of H.R. Giger’s futuristic fantasy drawings. These, I am told, are asset-frozen drug-dealers self-designed follies which will now stand forever unfinished up there in the trees. Our soundtrack – endless loops of Vybz Kartel, the famously bleached-skin, tattooed lyrical gangster now imprisoned for murder – gives our ride an edgy, urban fluorescence as we are driven back down to Kingston Town.
Bright paint and bare cinderblocks are the raw materials available to the denizens of the inner city; I had already noticed how here, every flat surface has been hand-painted with bold pigments. Houses, walls, fences, all wear the faces of heroes and prophets, birds, bunches of fruit, hand-drawn lettering and brand logos. Even the cemetery posts are Rasta red-yellow-green-black. So when we shake hands with long-time mural artist Michael Robinson, we meet the author of many of the portraits up pon de walls here: self-taught, he has now had pieces shown in National Gallery of Jamaica. Pointing out his work, he walks with us from the blue-painted Denham Town police station through to Trench Town itself, where a deep ‘trench’ runs along flowing with dark red water, the same colour as the earth in the countryside.
Robinson also tells us which parties to go to – that night, every night, dere be bere bashment gwaan. When do end up down the Dancehall, I finally get to see physical expressiveness that goes along with the notoriously infectious music of Jamaica. Matching crews whose attire runs from a set of Santa hats through Hood By Air and Givenchy star-sewn sweats dance off as the Deejay mercilessly winds them up then shifts track just as they find their rydim. I find a crew whose colours I wear – red , white and blue – and try to match their tight routine with much spirit but not much sync. At one point, world’s fastest man and nationwide icon Usain Bolt hijacks the floor with some hi-nrg moves, causing extra hysteria.
Waking up from the til-dawn musical infusion is difficult, but completing Rachael Barrett‘s whirlwind art survey was a visit to the National Gallery of Jamaica itself. In it historic galleries, the gilt-framed traditional paintings and etchings illustrate the processes of colonialism, and the slavery that supported it. The dark glossed wooden forms of the self-taught ‘Intuitive’ sculptors such as Mallica ‘Kapo’ Reynolds are a revelation, harking back to African forms as well as into the fluidities of Futurism, and demonstrate the development of a true national ‘art’. The just-opened ‘Masculinities’ exhibition curated by O’Neil Lawrence exposes images of the Jamaican male from across the colonial, modern and current era, including both older mediums with contemporary drawing, video and photography from young artists. And here lies the future of Jamaican contemporary art, in this new generation; after just a few days on this eccentric isle, I see that walls of the future museums of the Rock will never have to worry about being bare, but rather bere.
Text and photo Hannah Bhuiya