Sunday, September 27, 2009

Eyeless in Gaza (and Gully): 'Mi deh pon di borderline'

Clovis Brown, Wednesday, October 7 2009, Jamaica Observer

Gaza. Gully. The two words, inscribed in locations all over Kingston and Jamaica, signify internecine zones of conflict competing for supremacy in the dancehall universe here. For those who don't know: Gaza=Kartel and Gully=Mavado. Mavado, popularly known as 'Gully Gad (God)', comes from Gullyside in Cassava Piece, an impoverished community in the foothills of Kingston. Kartel comes from a neighbourhood in Portmore that was once known as BORDERLINE.

And thereby hangs a tale. A story you wouldn't find in the normal media yasso which specializes in skimming the surface and shallow moralizing. The Jamaican media generously accommodates both sinners and sermonizers, protecting the former by voluntarily gagging themselves and the latter by giving them as many column inches as their sermons demand. In the US it is citizens who usually “plead the fifth” and have “the right to remain silent”, both stemming from the Fifth Amendment of their constitution. In Jamaica the media seem to have arrogated such rights to themselves; they provide a minimum of in-depth coverage of events apparently on the grounds that the information given could be used as evidence against them!

So like me, you may not have known the etymology of the term 'Gaza' in the Jamaican context (Talk bout the media being eyeless in Gaza!) or why Borderline came to be so renamed. It's a fascinating story which is intimately connected (as a batty is to a bench you might say) with this culture's notorious attitude towards male homosexuals or 'batty' men as they are called here.
Shebada Ramsay, the 'Gender Bender'

It all has to do with an actor called Shebada, the star of a super successful series of plays put on by Stages Productions. This company produces what is known in local parlance as 'roots plays', a kind of farcical, over the top production with picaresque characters performing or acting out the issues of the day. Sex is a big part of it, and subtlety is not, but Stages Productions whose slogan is “Comedy is serious business” always plays to full houses.

Stages Productions has also pioneered the explicit exploration of alternative sexualities and Shebada himself, whose stage persona is camp as they come and twice as provocative, sports a bleached face and gay-ish attributes that complicate the argument that Jamaica is unremittingly hostile to Gays. In fact international Gay rights groups who have targeted the island's musicians repeatedly would do well to analyze such productions and feed the resulting insights into their jackhammer strategies at outing and combating what is touted worldwide as Jamaican homophobia.

The induction of the name 'Gaza' into the Jamaican firmament came about because in the very first insanely popular Stages Production, Bashment Granny, there is a scene where a policeman confronts the sinuous Shebada asking “Yu a man or yu a woman?” “Mi deh pon di borderline” declares Shebada unabashedly, emphasizing his retort with an exaggerated wag of his hips. The phrase became so popular in the context of discussions about sexuality that Vybz Kartel decided that the name of his community 'Borderline' had been irrevocably contaminated by association. He therefore adopted the name of the most violent place he could think of at the time—Gaza in Palestine.

Again Fernando Guereta, or Mr. Previous, as I have nicknamed him, the man responsible for the film, Why Do Jamaicans Run so Fast? has been quick off the mark. He is already in the middle of his next film, which documents the Gully Gaza phenomenon (please note he was NOT the source of information for this post). The interview with him I promised is still pending. I will unveil it over the course of the coming week. In the meantime check out these two video clips of Shebada in Bashment Granny (the relevant declaration is four and a half minutes into the first one). The second one has some priceless footage of Shebada teaching Bashment Granny how to walk and dance with credibility. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Boy with the Golden Shoes

Sign in Jamaican storefront during Beijing Olympics

One of the things I most regretted about being in India this August was that I wasn't in Jamaica during the World Championships in Berlin. Having experienced the sheer exhileration in Kingston, August gone, during the Beijing Games, I knew only too well what I was missing. Because of the time difference and probably because India itself had minimal participation (for such a great nation we have produced remarkably few great athletes) I wasn't able to watch any of the races live, though by the end of the month Usain Bolt had become a household name all over again in India as well as the rest of the world.

In the last couple of weeks the airwaves and other media have been buzzing with reactions to the Government's decision to rename Highway 2000 (the superfast major cross-island artery built with French technology) the Usain Bolt Highway. Yesterday on Facebook a local journalist posted what are allegedly a parliamentary reporter's notes on a Cabinet discussion about honouring Usain on.

Yesterday at 5:38pm

So I managed to pull off a coup. A major scoop so to speak. I got hold of some very interesting cabinet notes on honouring Usain Bolt.

Apparently, Prime Minister Bruce Golding asked his ministers to come up with ideas on what tangible things the country could do to honour Usain and here's what they came up with:

1) Change Jamaica's Coat of Arms to "Bolt Arms"

2) Rename the parish of Trelawny - Usain Bolt

3) Rename Yam - call it Usain

4) Make him our 8th National Hero ( It was decided this will come after the next Olympics, they'll need that long to research how to accord a person National Hero status)

5) Put him on the 10,000 dollar bill (Audley assured Cabinet that the denomination would be coming by next May)

6) Have 9.58 days of bashment celebrating Usain ( I swear Babsy did suggest this)

7) Rename William Knibb High School Usain Bolt High ( Ruddy Spencer asked who is William Knibb and why does he have things named after him? )

8) Declare August 21 Usain Bolt Day and make it a public Holiday ( Cabinet was very upset with Chris Tufton for this one. Andrew Holness said it sounded too PNP. Di man hold up di "fist" one time and tell Jamaica to put di "X" beside di Head and dem won't let it go.)

9) Make his home in Sherwood Content a national landmark ( It was pointed out that the community still lacks piped water and Dr. Horace Chang couldn't guarantee that they'd get it in Usain's lifetime.)

10) Make Usain's favourite food the National dish and create a new designation national night club and give that to the "Quad".

11) Change the national dress, to all Puma and make it mandatory for everyone to wear the Yamm shoes. (However all agreed they certainly wouldn't be orange like the ones that Usain wore. Chris Tufton was eerily silent).

12) Finally settle this Gully/Gaza mess and make everybody say Gaza since ah dat Usain say (I feel Babsy in this again)

13) Write Oxford to have the word "fast" in the dictionary replaced with "Usain" (Mike Henry). Babsy agreed and thought we should get "sobolious" added as well!

14) Rename Air Jamaica, Usain Air.

15) SUGGESTION FROM BRUCE GOLDING: Rename Jamaica - Usain. The PM said "There's no honour that's too great for this young man and right now the national profile has been taken to echelons far beyond our greatest expectations because of Usain's feet!"

Well, long before the Jamaican government decided to honour Usain Bolt and before he became a household name outside Jamaica a Spanish national named Fernando Guereta (Nando) decided to honour Bolt and Jamaica's athletes with a film celebrating their exploits. Called “Why do Jamaicans Run So Fast?” this superbly conceived and crafted documentary-style film creatively captures the environment these athletes spring from in Jamaica.

On the verge of signing major distribution and international TV rights deals Guereta has scooped the world on this. With a beautiful soundtrack and interviews with Usain from the age of 15 onwards the culture that has produced such indomitable talent is centrestaged, with a prominent role accorded to dancehall music and the dances that inspired Usain, Melaine Walker, Shelly Ann Fraser and others to dare to grab their share of the pie.

I asked Nando about the role of music in the film and this is what he said. Keep in mind that he's not a native English-speaker which makes what he's done that much more remarkable.

“My two main concerns were to cover all music genres, from ska, to roots reggae and moving towards the latests dancehall hits. The second concern was to make the music match the images properly, even if I sound a little bit arrogant I think we achieve to deliver very well in both matters.

Heptones' Country Boy matched Bolts origins, Bob Marley's Bad Card reminds the world that dem a go tyaad fe see Bolt face, Movado reminds Melaine Walker not to forget about the Gully, Bugle ask Carl Lewis what have Bolt done to him, and Jah Cure seh as long as I live he will remember those days.”

Watch this spot over the next week for more from Nando on the making of “Why Do Jamaicans Run so Fast?”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

India Art Summit et al

loved this work at the India Art Summit but neglected to note artist's name.
India Shining

Landing in Kingston after five weeks away reminded me vividly of why I love returning to the Rock so much. As I waited with my lootcases and laptop for the offspring to arrive, I noticed two individuals hovering nearby. One of them sidled over muttering something that sounded like “Mi like yu eyes y'know, wicked eyes yu ave.” I complimented him on his prowess with lyrics while trying to return a basilisk stare.

“Well, a lady like you must elicit lyrics y'know,” growled the other wolf (trust me he actually did use the word 'elicit'), approaching and shooing the first lyricist away. Before I could contemplate my next move, Worm, a taximan I occasionally use, appeared out of nowhere: “You look like you need to make a call” he said, slipping his cellphone into my grateful hands. And in two twos the offspring who had inexplicably been lurking a few cars away (“I thought you'd still have credit!”) appeared and whisked me off after the lyrical ones had manhandled my baggage into the trunk. A few bills were distributed hither and thither and off I rode into the Kingston night, thrilled to be back.

Dalmatian by Ved Gupta

India was a trip and a half. The parents live in Bangalore and that was my base, a cool Southern city with a remarkable number of pubs, cafés and restaurants. From there I went to Kochi and Trivandrum, Kerala, for a week to visit extended family and friends. Then a week in Delhi to visit a cousin, more friends and the India Art Summit, an art fair and forum of discussions around the state of art in India.

Compared to art in Jamaica and the Anglophone Caribbean, Indian art is thriving, despite much hand-wringing and laments from sundry art interests who populated the rather expensively priced discussion fora. The pocket would only permit two sessions, consisting of four discussions or talks altogether. The standout speakers for me were Jitish Kallat, one of the most successful contemporary artists in India today and Geeta Kapur, the single-most respected voice on the Indian artscene speaking on Emerging Markets and Subversion, Perversity and Resistance respectively.

Two Gandhis by Balaji Ponna

A panel titled The Role of the Gallery—The View from the Street turned out to be a riveting one as well when the matter of pre-eminent Indian artist M.F. Husain's absence from the Fair was raised, provoking an impassioned debate about the role of the state in relation to the politics of art-making and the corresponding role of galleries. 94-year old Husain is in voluntary exile in the UK after a group of Hindu extremists declared the equivalent of a Fatwa on him for portraying 'Bharatmata' or 'Mother India' in the nude. Previously the artist had also drawn the ire of religious extremists with his depictions of Indian Goddesses in their birthday suits. This was one thing, but was it also necessary for his work to be kept from display at the Fair was the question posed.

Jab we meet by Saptarshi Naskar

With a panel including Sharon Apparao of Apparao Galleries, the venue where the offending artwork by Husain had originally been exhibited, the ensuing discussion was pretty intense. The Galleries unanimously maintained that they would have been happy to exhibit Husain's work but were prevented from doing so by the organizers who had forbidden the work to be shown for security reasons. "We acknowledge the iconic stature of Husain, but are unable to put all
the people and art work at risk," Neha Kirpal, associate director of the India Art Summit said in an AFP interview.

When asked about this at the Forum Kirpal explained that the organizers had tried their best to enlist the support of the Government security forces in protecting the Fair against possible terrorist threats but that the police had shown complete indifference, only complaining that they had not received their VIP passes to the fair (!). Under the circumstances it seemed unwise to court almost certain disaster by exhibiting M.F.'s work.

Reclining Gandhi by Debanjan Roy

At the Emerging Markets forum Sotheby's deputy director, Maithili Parekh, lamented the lack of an 'art ecosystem' as she put it—that is, the network of artists, curators, critics, dealers and gallerists required to maintain a functioning and healthy artworld. Self-titled 'artworld worker' Jitish Kallat summed it up as “a lot of art being viewed and very little art being reviewed.” Hmmmm, over here you would have to say--very little art being viewed and even less reviewed. Saying that serious cultural stewardship was required Kallat went on to observe that India has an “art scenario completely orphaned by an absent state.” The sharp-tongued artist also described the current recession as “a kind of greed tax”.

At the session on 'difference', cultural, sexual and otherwise, the next day, Geeta Kapur chided the Fair organizers for billing the Summit as “400 crores worth of art on display” (a crore is an Indian unit of counting equivalent to ten million). Vigorously embodying the spirit of resistance Kapur invoked Guy Debord's 1967 tract Society of the Spectacle to dismiss the art fair as “the epitome of the idea of the spectacle” or “money which one only looks at”. In response to an art writer who had celebrated her ability to critique art without being in possession of an abundance of erudition ('swallowing an encyclopedia') Kapur declaimed that she would have liked to “perform an encyclopedia that I have swallowed.” In the final analysis she urged that exhibition sites such as India Art Summit be kept open for innovation. A slideshow of some of the work on display at the fair, courtesy, may be viewed here.

Another redoubtable interlocutor on the discussion circuit was Shukla Samant but enough about the words that were exchanged at India Art Summit. The best part of the Fair was of course, the art. I was struck by the number of artists who focused on Mahatma Gandhi as a suitable subject and by the sense of humour that pervaded much of the work. Graças à Deus there were not too many tormented, tortured bodies as would have appeared in the Caribbean or that sense of leaden solemnity that pervades much visual work here.

A fortuitous meeting with Singapore artist Ketna Patel (we were both staying at the India International Centre) introduced me to Siddhartha Tagore, the editor of Art and Deal and the artists in his circle, among them Vibha Galhotra, whose brilliant work Construction, Deconstruction and Reconstruction, drew much attention at the Fair. Other highlights were meeting Abhay Sardesai, editor of Artindia, photographer Gauri Gill and on old friend George Jose, now with the Asia Society. Hanging out with George at the Devi Art Foundation reception is a memory I will cherish for a long time. The fortress gallery of Anupam Poddar, the most canny collector of contemporary art in India (sometimes called the Indian Saatchi) was opened to summit participants one evening complete with bar, dinner and disco. An amazing collection of art letters between four Sri Lankan artists* and artwork by a Bangladeshi artist** were testimony to Poddar's subcontinental vision, ignoring national borders in favour of a regional purview. Hint hint, Caribbean collectors who still confine their collections within national borders.
Through an Anish Kapoor, darkly

Back in Bangalore I gave a talk at Gallery Ske called Kingston Logic vs. The History Brush about Jamaican music, art and culture. It went down really well. Gallery Ske is one of the most interesting galleries in Bangalore/India along with No. 1 Shanthi Road, where I spent a little time. I also commissioned a portrait of the offspring as a Hindu deity, by Afsar Pasha, a billboard and sign painter of renown in Bangalore—Varun, as God of the Sea and water, his namesake—hopefully I won't be targeted by religious extremists, after all Pasha is a Muslim while I'm a Syrian Christian by birth.
Varun by Afsar Pasha

So much more to tell, but here finally is the first installment...from India...with love.

*"‘The One Year Drawing Project’ is an experimental drawing exchange that takes the form of an artists’ book, involving four of Sri Lanka’s most critically acclaimed artists- Muhanned Cader, Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, Chandraguptha Thenuwara and Jagath Weerasinghe. It comprises 208 drawings created by the artists in response to each other’s works. From May 2005 to October 2007 these artists exchanged drawings via post between Jaffna in the north of the country and the suburbs of the capital Colombo." (from Devi Art Foundation website)

**"Mahbabur Rahman, 40, is a painter and performance artist, a key figure in the Bangladeshi art scene. Setting his performances within larger installations, Mahbub often uses his own body as material. Some draw from literary references – a performance titled Transformations (2004) is an enactment of a story by Bangladeshi writer and poet Syed Shamsul Haq about an indigo farmer who was forced to plough his field with his own body." (from Devi Art Foundation website)