This post was originally published, in three parts, in the Monitor Tribune of September 17 and October 15 and 23,2022.
Freedom of expression is considered a basic human right, and is in fact enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a related UN document from 1966, states, in more detail, that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” It however adds: “The exercise of the[se] rights … carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order …, or of public health or morals.” And this qualifier is of course a major sticking point, as its provisions are subject to significant differences in interpretation, across different social and cultural contexts and historically.
Censorship is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.” In art, censorship can take the form of the removal, confiscation, alteration, or destruction of work that is on display or in performance. Censorship is usually carried out by authorities, based on legal provisions. Censorship can also take softer, more indirect forms, such as the threat of withdrawal of funding support or sponsorship, which is an issue that cultural institutions have had to contend with. While the official definitions focus on the acts of “controlling bodies”, public opinion can also be a powerful source, and trigger, of censorship. Public opinion is particularly difficult to deal with in the arts, as it involves balancing the rights of artists and their audiences.
In recent years, public opinion has become significantly more censorious, and this is a global phenomenon, not limited to Jamaica. Social media has created an environment that facilitates the expression and wide circulation of opinion, which is as such positive. Alongside, a situation has however evolved in which actual and perceived “infractions” of various social and cultural codes can be called out swiftly and “punished” harshly and very publicly – the so-called “cancel culture.” This sometimes amounts to veritable viral mob attacks in which participants join based on uncritical, knee-jerk responses, rather than any independent, thoughtful critical reflection. In this context, it has for instance become very difficult to have open and inclusive discussions about issues that involve gender, sexuality and race
The risk of being “cancelled” or “de-platformed” has, predictably, caused many public and not-so-public figures to become more risk-averse, as there are often severe consequences for themselves and the organizations and issues they represent. While there are of course issues that warrant vigorous public criticism, the general effect is a narrowing of freedom of speech, with a growing intolerance for differences and nuances of opinion, beyond certain rigid, prescribed positions, and that is not healthy or desirable, intellectually and culturally. This rapidly changing context inevitably constrains the work of artists, cultural institutions and, for that matter, criticism.
Jamaica prides itself in having a robust tradition of freedom of speech, which is primarily defined in terms of press freedom, but what about the inter-related concept of freedom of expression in the visual arts? Although there are laws, such as the Obscene Publications Act, that could put a serious damper on the freedom artistic expression, depending on how broadly or narrowly “obscenity” is defined by a particular judge, they are only rarely applied, at least with regards to art. Public opinion is another matter, however, and Jamaica has a long history of contentious public reactions to public art and monuments. Some of these controversies have led to the removal of statues such as the Bogle monument in Morant Bay and the original Bob Marley statue by Christopher Gonzalez – these are de facto instances of censorship although they are not necessarily seen that way by those engaged in it.
In almost all of these statue controversies, concerns about nudity and perceived references to sexuality have played a major role and, although most of the references are in fact quite modest, it is clear that this is deemed incompatible with official collective representations. Typically, the same works exhibited in a gallery or museum would not cause any controversy at all. There is, in contrast, only occasional public outrage about popular culture representations with often far more provocative and problematic content, such as what can be seen on some of the ubiquitous dancehall signs and posters, and the decorations on certain bars and even public transport vehicles. Different standards obviously apply in different contexts and circumstances, and double standards in some.
There have however been a few instances here in Jamaica where art works that were exhibited in more specialized art contexts have attracted public outrage, and media attention, usually because of concerns about the actual or perceived content (controversies about form are far less common). I had to deal with some of those while I served as the Executive Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, and it was a singularly unpleasant experience, which was furthermore fanned by political and personal agendas that had nothing to do with the ostensible issues at hand. It made me realize that, once in the public domain, such controversies are often a no-win situation for artists, arts administrators and cultural institutions alike, as there are widespread perceptions that the art world is libertarian and socially irresponsible, and out of step with the dominant mores. It also taught me that a lot of the freedom which is taken for granted in the visual arts is in fact tenuous and fragile, and needs to be handled with care, lest it be lost. And it forced me to think more carefully about my own position about freedom of expression in the arts, and what I am prepared to stand for and defend, as an art historian, curator, and arts administrator.
As I professional in these fields, I support freedom of expression as a matter of principle, but I also have to consider the rights of the public as well as the potential legal and other consequences for the organizations I represent. It is an increasingly difficult balancing act. I have learned the hard way that I should support only what I think is worth supporting, in terms of provocative art that is sufficiently compelling, artistically and in terms of the significance of the issues it seeks to represent. I will not support art that is deliberately and obviously racist or sexist, or seeks to do harm to any individuals or groups. Or art that seeks to capitalize on sensationalist controversy without having any real artistic merit or integrity, as is unfortunately quite common these days. Controversy sells, after all.
While I recognize that provocative art can be very useful, in terms of how it allows for discussion on difficult but important cultural and social matters, I have also come recognize that it should not be forced onto an unsuspecting or unwilling public, which is why public art can be so contentious. People need to have choices in terms of what they are exposed to. There is a time and a place for artistic provocations, which are often better handled in specialist contexts, such as a museum, that are better equipped to contextualize and communicate such issues. But perhaps most importantly, I take the position that once I have opted to include a work of art in an exhibition or publication, or otherwise support it, I must be prepared to stand with the artist and to defend it, even when the controversy gets ugly and whatever the consequence.
There have been a number of controversies involving public and other art works in Jamaica, and several of these have involved censorship.
One pertained to Albert Huie’s painting Miss Mahogany (1960), which depicts a reclining black woman, fully nude and with her pubic hair visible. The work was first exhibited in the Institute of Jamaica’s annual All Island Exhibition and was objected to on moral grounds by a prominent member of the local clergy, who gained public support with his concerns. While the work fits in with long traditions of reclining nude figures in art elsewhere (some of which have, by the way, also been controversial), nude painting was new to Jamaica at that time and the “explicit” visibility of the pubic hair and the already then well-coded “centrefold” pose, proved to be controversial once it had been publicly singled out. That the painting was reproduced in The Star did not help matters, as that daily is notorious for its provocative images of sexy women. Most of the “Star Girls” were white at that time, but for Jamaican readers to be confronted with the nude image of a black Jamaican woman, who was furthermore recognizable as an individual, was a different matter.
It is tempting to conclude that Miss Mahogany was simply ahead of its time, which in some ways it was, but the controversy flared up again in 2000, when the painting was reproduced in the Air Jamaica inflight magazine, Sky Writings. Air Jamaica was not prepared to defend its reproduction, however, and the section with the reproduction had to be pulled hastily from the already printed magazine. The decision raised eyebrows in the art world, and was deemed unjustifiably conservative and risk-averse by many there, but it also needs to be considered that inflight magazines have a very diverse readership and do not generally court controversy. The painting is today recognized as one of Huie’s most outstanding figure paintings.
Another, quite different example was the removal of Christopher Gonzalez’ 1983 Bob Marley statue. The Jamaican government, which had commissioned the statue, abruptly withdrew its support while it was being installed on the day of the unveiling because there was a hostile response from the gathering crowd and criticisms from members of the Marley family. The unveiling was promptly cancelled, at the orders of the then Prime Minister Edward Seaga, and the work was dispatched to the National Gallery of Jamaica. The main concern was that the statue was not a likeness of Marley, but a symbolic representation. This has been an issue in several of Jamaica’s statue controversies, and it is obviously a widely shared expectation about commemorative statues, but it was sharply posed with Marley. He was, after all, the most photographed Jamaican, with iconic photographs that produced particular expectations about the manner of his representation, not unlike those that surround Usain Bolt today.
While the art world rallied to his support, the incident left Gonzalez bitter and he was arguably never the same again, producing very few sculptures for the remainder of his life. He repeatedly blamed the then National Gallery Director/Curator David Boxer, who had visited him on behalf of the Jamaican government while he was producing the work in Atlanta and who had, according to Gonzalez, “approved” the design. Whoever would have had the final say in this matter, and there were in fact modifications to Gonzalez’ original design concepts, the statue would not have been shipped to Jamaica and readied for installation had there been any serious objections on the part of those who commissioned it. Its withdrawal on the day of the unveiling was clearly reactive and impulsive, to appease an acutely hostile situation. After a number of years at the Island Village complex in Ocho Rios, the work today stands at the front of the National Gallery, both without any controversy I am aware of, which suggests that the statue would have been accepted with more time and better support and management.
The Marley monument was not Gonzalez’ only brush with censorship. His Risen Christ, another free-standing sculpture, was in 1968 commissioned for the Holy Cross Church in Kingston but was rejected by the church authorities because the figure’s penis was prominently visible through the shroud in which the figure was wrapped. The Risen Christ was subsequently acquired by the collector A.D. Scott and is now recognized as one of Gonzalez’ masterworks. Gonzalez defended the work stating that Christ was a man, and that he could therefore not represent him in a gender-neutral manner. The combined artistic representation of religion and sexuality is a however a combustible one in Jamaica and what was at stake was not its artistic value or validity but its suitability for display as a sacred sculpture in a (conservative) church environment.
These incidents came to mind when a work of art by the contemporary artist Khalfani Ra, that is on display on display at the recently opened ROK Hotel on the Kingston Waterfront, attracted the ire of some visitors and the attention of the media. The Star headline of August 9 screamed “Black Gal Artwork Draws Rage – Downtown Hotel Mounts Racy ‘Hole’ Painting”. The mixed media collage in question depicts the body of a squatting woman, clad in a pink bikini and high heels, and has the inscription “Big Hole Gal. See Ow Yu Black …” over it, echoing the sort of racialized and sexualized personal insults that are not uncommon in the popular culture, but which, the artist rightly argues, reflect a lack of racial self-respect. The work is also collaged with pages from the bible, which allude to the moral hypocrisy that surrounds sexuality in Christian Jamaica.
The hotel management has defended the work and cited the artist’s critical intent. The question however arises whether this undeniably provocative work, which arguably needs explanation for its critical intentions to be understood, is a good choice for a hotel environment, where people of different backgrounds and beliefs congregate. The work is furthermore exhibited along with a giant banana sculpture, which actually suggests a lack of regard for the work’s political intent and a sensationalist desire to play up its “racy” content. An extended label with the artist’s statement would have been far more appropriate.
I have my own history with this work. Khalfani Ra was an invited artist to the 2014 Jamaica Biennial at the National Gallery, of which I was the lead curator, and he had submitted the work in question. This happened in the months after the censorship incident that I alluded to in the first part of this column, and which had also involved the representation of sexuality in art. My colleagues and I realized that we had another inflammatory, no-win situation on our hands if we would have exhibited the work. I thus consulted with the artist, and we agreed to exhibit a related but less provocative work instead.
Khalfani Ra is an artist I have known since 1984 and greatly respect, but I have mixed feelings about some of his recent work which I find too preoccupied with provocation and not enough with critical nuance, or technical and formal resolution. There is also a hectoring, moralistic preoccupation with the politics of black female sexuality which could be construed as misogynistic on the part of a male artist. But whether I personally approve of the work, or its politics, is not at issue here. The work is perhaps not Ra’s best but, under different circumstances, I would have accepted and exhibited it, albeit probably with some precautions regarding location and signage. Equally provocative art works, by various artists, have been exhibited on many occasions at the NGJ, including under my watch, and most such instances have been incident-free. In 2014, however, it was a matter picking our battles in what was already a volatile moment for the NGJ.
For all the contention that has surrounded these examples, art controversies and censorship are rare in Jamaica, and usually only occur when art is given high public visibility outside of the confines of the art world, for instance in a public location. Context is always a major consideration in such matters and the quality of the work, as art, usually has nothing to do with the controversy. With the exception of the public statues, where the concerns more commonly pertain to the representational expectations about historical figures, it is clear that the representation of sexuality, race and religion are the most powerful triggers, especially when they appear in combination. And there is no doubt, as the artists have pointedly reminded us in some of the examples cited here, that this involves significant and largely unresolved double standards.
Note: the artist Khalfani Ra submitted a response to the Jamaica Monitor which was published on November 20 and can be read here. Mr Ra is entitled to his opinion but I stay by what I wrote. The hyperbolic, personally hostile tone of his response is however, in my view, uncalled for and counterproductive to healthy, respectful, and inclusive critical debate.