Word of mouth (September/October 2013)

Discover a new crop of Jamaican artists, experience J’Ouvert Brooklyn style, and jam to Dominica’s World Creole Music Festival

  • White Palm Painting (2013), by Deborah Anzinger; acrylic on palm, dimensions variable. Photograph courtesy the National Gallery Of Jamaica
  • Illustration by Darren Cheewah
  • Illustration by Darren Cheewah

The art of hope

Curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson of the National Gallery of Jamaica explains why an exhibition of work by younger Jamaican artists fills her with hope

For me, the New Roots exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica — which opened on 28 July and runs until 30 September — is a small miracle. Two months before its opening date, the exhibition originally scheduled for the summer was postponed. Suddenly there was a three-month hole in the National Gallery exhibition programme. Then word came that the Mutual Gallery was closing. It was sad enough to have one less art space in Kingston, but all the more since Mutual hosted the annual Super Plus Under 40 competition — one of the few opportunities for young Jamaican artists to show their work. Spirits were low all around.

We decided an exhibition focused on emerging artists was the way to go. We began searching for promising artists under forty years old with limited exhibition histories. At first, prospects seemed dim. Few were prepared to pull together a body of exhibition-quality work in less than ten weeks. But after much nail-biting and cajoling, ten artists representing all of the major media were identified. We found three distinct approaches to painting in Gisele Gardner, Camille Chedda, and Deborah Anzinger, photography from Varun Baker, film from Nile Saulter, animation from Ikem Smith, digital art from Astro Saulter, sculptural jewellery from the Girl and the Magpie, and installation pieces from Olivia McGilchrist and Matthew McCarthy.

We decided to liberate the exhibition from any thematic requirement, giving the artists free rein to indulge their varied fascinations. We envisioned it as a demonstration of the new routes (pun intended) that Jamaican art is taking, not an exploration of any subject. Yet, sitting in the National Gallery a few days before opening, I couldn’t deny the presence of strong resonances across this disparate group of ten. There is definitely a focus on all things “street”: from McCarthy’s grafitti-inspired mural to Nile Saulter and Varun Baker’s character studies of recognisable figures from the streets of Kingston. Social responsibility is also a theme, with Ikem Smith and the Girl and the Magpie being the best examples. Spontaneous conversations like Anzinger’s unstretched canvas in the same gallery as McCarthy’s stretched tarpaulin are also a joy to observe.

The real party-crasher though, is hope. I don’t mean hope for the continued development of Jamaican art, though there is that too. I am talking about an absence of sadness or despair. These artists articulate an energy and lightness in their approach, a seeming determination to make good of what is. They engage with politics, identity, injustice, but with remarkable joie de vivre. Walking through the exhibition, what you see is play and a youthful exhuberance that challenges gloom-and-doom narratives, even as it acknowledges the difficulties.

And so it was that an exhibition that came out of disappointment and recession became an example of the continued currency of good intentions and sweat equity. All I can say is: here’s to that.


Parkway J’Ouvert

Visiting New York, Sonja Dumas discovers that Brooklyn’s Labour Day Carnival opens with a J’Ouvert that’s close enough to the real thing

There I was, liming in the subway station until the train came. It was a little more than nippy. Not my regular J’Ouvert weather. But when in Rome — or Brooklyn during Labour Day Carnival in September — love the J’Ouvert you’re with.

I’m connected to J’Ouvert in Trinidad on an umbilical level. For me, the navel string of Trinidad Carnival lies there. The rhythm, the charmed darkness, and the mystical break of dawn forging into licensed abandon are just what I need to feel the power and beauty of my island nation.

It was easy to feel the spirit of the thing even in that Brooklyn subway station, where my Tobagonian cousins and I waited for the Number 2 or 3 train to take us to Eastern Parkway. The buzz of the pre-dawn moment was unmistakable. Young second-generation Trinidadians proudly displayed their red, white, and black, and you could see that even if they never visited Trinidad for Carnival, they understood it — the perusal of the streets before dawn with the collective intention of communing with each other through revelry. They understood the power of tradition.

A few bouncy train stops later, we were at the Parkway, with the Brooklyn Public Library in the background and Grand Army Plaza in front, both magnificently lit up. Throngs of people hovered at the library steps or walked down Flatbush Avenue towards Empire Boulevard, energising themselves with soca music along the way. Pan on wheels was “beating sweet,” and the rhythm sections were in full swing. It was strange for me to perambulate a thoroughfare that feels like twice the width of Port of Spain’s Ariapita Avenue, with gargantuan deciduous trees bending towards me as pan music filled the air, and NYPD vehicles keeping vigil.

But there were the familiar sights too. There were versions of the Dame Lorraine, whose cross-dressing, subversive inversion of self and society is universally understood. There was the infamous Grenadian mud band whose reputation for immersion in mud, paint, madness, and mayhem precedes them — and they did not disappoint. In the midst of the action, island identity was most present. It is a parade of Caribbean pride as well as festivity. Vendors sold small, medium, and large Caribbean flags, and revellers and onlookers alike entered the night and exited the morning with representations of their native land draped around their bodies. For those second- and third-generation Caribbean-Americans, identity was wrapped around them, literally and figuratively.

Older Caribbean-Americans — mostly Trinbagonians, I wager — also kept tradition in the form of the Ole Mas competition, going strong with age-old picong on makeshift signs poking fun at local and national public figures. And just in case I was homesick, a Moko Jumbie, stiltwalker of the mas, loomed large above the crowd, looking very much like an overgrown Pierrot Grenade in his colourful, ragged splendour.

Pretty mas’ was due to come out later in the day. But by eightish, I was tired and sated, the way I am after any good J’Ouvert, so I took the trains back to my friend’s apartment, showered, and crashed on the nearest bed. The cat of the house, a friendly feline named Max, looked at me quizzically, but in mere minutes, in the middle of the morning, I was deep in slumber and oblivious to his curiosity. The only thing I had really missed was a little post-J’Ouvert dip in the sea. Maybe next time, after the fact, I’ll hop on a train headed for Coney Island.


Let the music flow

In Dominica, music flows like water, writes Natalie Clarke, previewing the 2013 World Creole Music Festival

Waitukubuli: the Kalinago name for the island resonated in my mind as the plane floated down between the verdant mountains of Dominica. In all my previous travels I’d never been greeted by such bubbling excitement and river-rushing wellness.

Three years after settling here, Dominica still beckons me to come away from the hustle and bustle of my work space and explore a hinterland full of wonderful colours, giant ferns, and cascading waterfalls. Waters flow everywhere — as does the music of the island, from every village. The Commonwealth of Dominica is full of natural rhythms, pulling you in, and it’s home to the famous World Creole Music Festival (WCMF), now in its seventeenth year.

WCMF — in 2013, running from 25 to 27 October, and marking Dominica’s thirty-fifth anniversary of Independence — is three nights of pulsating rhythms, made up of many Creole genres. Every year the Dominican diaspora, along with their posse, come home to celebrate all month long with family and friends. From the beginning, WCMF has hosted many of the major Creole music acts of Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Dominica itself — as well as musicians from Africa and from the Creole diasporas in Europe and North America. In recent years, many top reggae and dancehall acts have joined them.

Two legendary performances among many: the closing of the first-ever festival by Haitian kompas group Tabou Combo, and Kassav’s performance to mark the fifth anniversary in 2001. My own favourite memories include Jah Cure’s awesome early Sunday afternoon “rebound” performance in 2010, when a tropical storm caused this last-minute rescheduling to become a regular fixture. The Sunday “early” show has become a family affair, appreciated by all patrons. And last year Tarrus Riley got over five thousand fans to put their hands in the air and over their hearts in perfect mesmerised harmony, totally absorbed in the divine heights created by his musical design.

The WCMF’s main stage continues to engage great local musicians. This year the festival honours one of the creators of “cadence-lypso,” Fitzroy Williams, along with a galaxy of cadence stars. Dominica’s greatest cover band — Swingin’ Stars, featuring Daryl Bobb, Dice, Hunter, and Daddy Chess — will take us back in time, with thirty-five years of calypso hits. Other headliners include a mix of Creole and reggae superstars, including veterans Kassav’ — the zouk ensemble par excellence who invented the genre — Carimi and Nu Look from Haiti, international reggae act Busy Signal, and the legendary Tito Puente, Jr, bringing a Latin element of explosive percussion.
No wonder my love affair continues to grow, as I experience the joie de vivre of Dominica and its music.


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