This post was published in its original form in the Monitor Tribune of February 26 and March 5, 2023.
The Art of Reggae exhibition, which features the top 100 winners of the 2022 International Reggae Poster Contest, opened on Sunday, February 19, at the National Gallery of Jamaica, as part of that institution’s Reggae Month programming. It is the third time that the top-100 winners of this contest, are shown at the National Gallery, with the first exhibition in 2012 and the second in 2019. For the current edition of the contest, which has been held eight times thus far, there were 1180 entries by 653 artists from 53 countries. These are impressive statistics that certainly reflect and pay tribute to the global reach of Jamaican music culture.
The International Reggae Poster Contest was launched in 2011 as the brainchild of the late Jamaican, US-based poster artist and designer Michael Thompson “Freestylee”. He conceived of the poster competition as a platform to promote the establishment of a Reggae Hall of Fame on the Kingston Waterfront that would pay tribute to the greats of the genre, for which he had even identified the ideal architect, Frank Gehry. It was a romantic vision, quite different from the more scholarly and didactic Jamaica Music Museum that was being developed by the Jamaican government, and Thompson was obviously inspired by the cultural and urban renewal effect of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum branch in Bilbao, Spain. He also conceived the contest as a fundraiser to support the Alpha Boys School, in tribute to that school’s seminal role in the development of Jamaican music, and supported the school in various other ways, for instance contributing its distinctive new logo. Thompson passed away unexpectedly in 2016 but the project is continued by its co-founder, the Greek designer Maria Papaefstathiou, and Jamaica’s cultural scholar Carolyn Cooper.
These worthwhile goals notwithstanding, there are several critical questions that arise from the contest. One recurrent issue with the contest has been the lack of participation by Jamaican designers, despite the obvious local awareness of the initiative. For the current edition of the contest, for instance, there were only three Jamaican submissions, and none made it to the final 100. This has, with one or two exceptions, been a feature of all the International Reggae Poster Contests thus far. It is certainly remarkable that designers in reggae’s country of origin are not interested in participating and I believe that the reasons, perhaps surprisingly, are both cultural and political.
The poster, as an art form, has been used in many parts of the world as a democratic, accessible vehicle for political propaganda, social commentary and cultural activism, with the Cuban and Puerto Rican poster traditions as two prime examples in the Caribbean region. Poster activism has gained a new global circuit with digital design and social media, with the widely circulated political and human rights posters of the American artist Shepard Fairey as the best-known example. Michael Thompson was an active participant in this online community, and he regularly “dropped” digital posters in response to international events and issues, including the Tivoli Gardens Incursion. This poster activism culture, which is the foundation on which the International Reggae Poster Contest builds, does however not have a strong foothold in Jamaica, which has used different media and formats, such as street art and graffiti, for such social and cultural messages.
The Reggae Poster Contest is furthermore part of a global circuit of international poster competitions, which many designers regard as a way to gain broader professional exposure and to foster professional networks. The local design community is however averse to “spec work” (or speculative work) that does not guarantee professional remuneration and where the designer may have to surrender part or all of the copyright, which can indeed be exploitative. The Jamaica Design Association opposes and even boycotts design competitions on that basis. This view is not unique to Jamaica, but having a hardened position on this count may not be productive, as speculative and pro bono work are common and indeed beneficial in many professions, graphic design included. There are many instances where design competitions are entirely justified and not at all exploitative. The Reggae Poster Contest, which has a charitable agenda, and which does not call for designs that could otherwise be directly commissioned, is arguably one such instance.
But there are other, perhaps more significant critical considerations. As I argued in my review of the 2019 Art of Reggae exhibition, the troubling subtext of the absence of Jamaican designers from the winning entries is that Jamaica is somehow deemed incapable of representing the culture it has birthed “properly.” The visual culture of reggae has of course never been exclusively developed in Jamaica or by Jamaicans. Reggae itself was, from early on, a transnational affair, mediated by migration, and counter-cultural and resistance movements in various parts of the world, as well as the marketing machinery and profit-making imperatives of the international music industry. Many of the best-known reggae album covers were, for instance, authored by English, American and other illustrators, photographers, and graphic designers, with the cultural expectations of Euro-American audiences in mind.
The visual culture of reggae is the product of a complex, contradictory and sometimes problematic dialogue between how Jamaica imagines itself, and how it is imagined by others, with all sorts of cross-cultural translations in the process. Its visual expressions are also negotiated between the formal world of graphic design, and a local popular visual culture that is blissfully indifferent to established design principles: the world of hand-painted dancehall signs and other such informal visual expressions.
At its best, the International Reggae Poster Contest celebrates and builds on these generative dialogues; at its worst, it contributes to the routinization of reggae’s visual imaginary, in a way which is increasingly disconnected from its roots and original cultural politics. Repetitiveness and predictability were already evident in the inaugural exhibition, and these issues were overwhelming in the 2019 edition. Many of the posters in that year’s exhibition reflected a shallow, exoticized and formulaic vision of reggae and Jamaican culture, awash with more exhortations for “One Love” and “world peace” than the average beauty queen pageant. Part of the problem is, of course, that many participants in the contest do not seem to have any real history with, or sustained interest in, the subject and interpret reggae culture visually for the sake of participating in the contest only, which is not exactly a recipe for thoughtful or imaginative engagement.
Add to all this that the local music culture and its visual expressions have changed significantly in recent decades, and it may well be that the implied aesthetic and ethos of the International Reggae Poster Contest is simply not appealing to Jamaican designers. Their participation, with innovative designs that challenge the global routinization of reggae culture, may however be needed if the contest is ever to be to re-anchored in contemporary Jamaican culture. It would be interesting to hear from the local design community on that count.
In the first part of this review, we looked at the history and objectives of the now biennial International Reggae Poster Contest and the current Art of Reggae Exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica. We also explored the critical concerns that surround the lack of Jamaican participation in the contest over the years and the shallow, routinized manner in which Jamaican culture is represented in many of the posters. In this second and final part, we take a closer look at the posters in the current exhibition and the February 19 opening function.
The contest website tells us that the 2022 contest sought to honour “women in and of reggae and all other genres of Jamaican popular music” and highlight “the many roles of women in the Jamaican music industry” which have been “central to … Jamaica’s greatest cultural export.” The organizers also invited submissions that honoured “the women whose powerful roles in society as freedom fighter, cultural activist and nurturer are documented in Jamaican music.” It was the first time, I believe, that such a theme was introduced to the contest and that may have been a good thing.
While the concerns I expressed in the first part of this column remain valid, this year’s crop of winning posters seems more imaginative than what I had seen before. Perhaps the theme did not lend itself so readily to the routinized interpretations of reggae culture that were so overwhelmingly evident previously and also invited more active engagement and research on the part of the designers. There are however several posters that are graphically interesting but have nothing whatsoever to do with Jamaican music, history or culture, and just reflect generally on women and music, such as the two posters by Jan Li from China, which simply combine musical symbols with high heels.
What interests me about the contest and exhibition is what these posters are telling us, about the current status of Jamaican music in the global arena, and about how Jamaica and Jamaican history and culture are perceived and represented in different parts of the world. The exhibition and contest however fail to deliver on that count, as the focus is on celebration, and on highlighting the remarkable global participation statistics, but not on any such critical analysis. The exhibition and the contest website do not provide us with any information on the designers, beyond their name, the title of the poster, and their country of origin. In many instances, when this is not evident from the name, we do not even know the gender of the designer, although this is of some importance here, given the gender-based theme. The manner in which the exhibition is installed, with posters stacked closely together is also not helpful, as it makes it harder to disaggregate the commonalities and directions in the individual posters.
One remarkable feature of the current edition of the contest is that there were 295 entries from China, the most for any country, and that 63 of the 100 winning posters are by Chinese designers, up from 21 in the 2017-18 edition (which was shown at the NGJ in 2019) and 29 in the 2020 edition. This is a significant increase, with Chinese entries now making up the majority of the winning posters, and this surely warrants further analysis. The posters are judged anonymously, we are told, by a diverse panel of judges, and based on their consistency with the exhibition theme and their design quality. The nationality of the designers would therefore not have been considered in the selection.
I know nothing about graphic design and illustration in China, or about the impact of reggae and Jamaican culture there, although the political climate and internet policies in China may put some constraints on that. Apparently, China has a well-developed poster culture, and art schools there actively encourage their students to enter the contest. While some of the Chinese designs are derivative, this can be said of many other posters in the contest, and several of the Chinese entries are, in fact, among the most imaginative and well-designed in the present selection. From what I could see, however, there was nothing that particularly distinguished the Chinese contributions from the other winning entries. I could not help but think of China’s notorious “art factories,” that mass-produce credible, competently executed replicas and pastiches of art from all over the world. If that is a factor in the growing Chinese participation in the International Reggae Poster Contest, which I hope it is not, this would only add to the routinization and cultural disconnection of the imagery.
There was a brief opportunity, in the (poorly attended) panel discussion on February 21, to discuss and contextualize the winning poster, Queen of the Maroons, by the Greek illustrator Vasilis Grivas. The poster provides a visually eclectic portrait of Grace Jones as Queen Nanny, which is certainly a tantalizing identification. While the Nanny figure has a commanding monumental quality, the smaller figures in her arms are scrawny, drawn in a linear, chalky graffiti style and, as a member of the audience observed, almost skeletal. According to the artist, this invokes Nanny as a symbolic mother, but it also seems to allude, more broadly, to her role as invoked her as a protector of the oppressed. I left wanting to learn more about this and other posters and artists in the exhibition and I hope that there will be other programming that allows for the many critical implications of this project to be unpacked.
In closing, the handling of the exhibition opening also warrants some commentary. I arrived right after the speeches, and deliberately so, as I now have the luxury of avoiding the tedious officialdom of such programmes, but I received many reports on what was said and done. The Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Olivia “Babsy” Grange was billed as the keynote speaker but was in actuality represented by the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Denzil Thorpe, who read her (no doubt aide-written) speech. We have to ask why Minister Grange has to be the keynote speaker at practically every National Gallery function, as this points towards an excessive political ownership of the institution.
When I arrived, furthermore, the speaker’s podium was flanked by not one, but two poster portraits of Minister Grange, displayed on painting easels. Apparently, they had been unveiled after the reading of the Minister’s speech, as gifts from the contest organizer Maria Papaefstathiou and the 2022 contest winner Vasilis Grivas. Minister Grange’s professional role in the music industry certainly deserves to be acknowledged, but that this was a major feature of the function troublingly illustrates how steeped our cultural institutions now are in a culture of political patronage and clientelism.
The speech included assurances, I was told, that the Ministry is committed to the establishment of the Reggae Hall of Fame and a national performance centre. This too raises many questions, given the lack of progress with establishing a Jamaica Music Museum that improves on its current, very modest operations and premises at the Institute of Jamaica, despite many similar announcements over the years. It also raises the question whether the Ministry supports the Reggae Hall of Fame or Jamaica Music Museum model, as the two are quite different, conceptually. Let us see whether this latest political promise will yield any tangible results this time around, and whether productive common ground will be found between the Jamaica Music Museum and Reggae Hall of Fame plans, in a way that does justice to the significance and impact of Jamaica’s music history.
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