August 11, 2008
Look out for, and support the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre’s new initiative in street theatre. WROC is a non-governmental organization that does some amazing work. The organization is currently led by Linnette Vassel, a feminist scholar and activist who works quite dilligently to keep the history and contributions of SISTREN alive, and who, it appears, has never forsaken her own left-of-centre politics (not like the rest of dem like di one Beverly Manley she.)
Street theatre is a form of grassroots activism which has been the basis of SISTREN’s popular and pathbreaking work in poor communities in Jamaica since its inception in the late 1970s.
Street theatre is performance-based community engagement, and is practiced around the world in a variety of ways, usually to generate dialogue and interest in issues about social justice. It is a methodology – ie. an approach to dealing with an issue – that is favoured among groups that don’t have the resources or the power to get on radio, tv and run ad campaigns to get their ideas out to the masses. In fact, these are usually the groups who are the targets of retrograde policies or are vilified in some form by the mass media. Often the messages they are spreading might seem basic, but are often quite threatening to those in power. That street theatre is ephemeral makes it an especially useful and subversive medium to deliver powerful and unpopular messages that will take on a whole other life as it is being spread by word of mouth.
SISTREN’s focus – in various shades since the 1970s – has been to provide a platform for articulating the ways in which working class Jamaican women’s daily lives were ridden through by poverty, sexism, colour prejudice, paternalism, and all kinds of violence. Today, the group continues to use theatre to make these experiences visible to women and men also helped women to recognize how they could act collectively to change their situations as individuals and members of a disadvantaged group. Not surprisingly, we don’t have a real sense of what effect SISTREN’s work has had on individual women’s (and men’s) lives beyond those involved in the project; we haven’t really bothered to ask or look into such an issue. Some of the women’s accounts are published in the book Lionheart Gal, which was brought back into circulation about three years ago. I certainly don’t know of any other grassroots activist group that has had the vision or the sheer determination to survive that SISTREN has demonstrated.
WROC is using SISTREN’s model to get women and men talking about and acting in concert with the human rights approach as it relates to women’s everyday struggles. I don’t totally agree with how and why Jamaican femocrats are defining and focusing their work so narrowly – ie. on getting Jamaica to sign on to the UN Convention to Eliminate Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But, as there can be multiple positive effects of doing this kind of consciousness-raising work (if only folks like Glenda Simms can back off and not work so hard to contain women’s ideas and interests that don’t mesh with hers) I am still glad that something is happening.
In fact, I think that more of us who are interested in social justice issues need to take on street theatre as part of our way of getting ideas out there and people talking and taking on more progressive positions. There’s nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Street theatre is not just for or about “women’s issues”. We need folks doing theatre to address corruption, police violence, illiteracy, food and politics (e.g. chicken back and cassava), urban un-development, how art has been hijacked by elites, etc. etc. etc. You got an issue, there’s a street corner waiting for you to do something to get us talking about it.
August 11, 2008
So everyone – really, only those who care to look and offer an opinion – is a-twitter about Natalie Barnes’ painting “Justice League”, which won a silver medal (is that equivalent to second prize?) in this year’s JCDC Visual Arts competition. As shown below, the painting depicts [a handful of] our national dons as wannabe superheroes, who set out in their pretty european suits to rescue the masses from the plagues and various disasters that befall us.
What I do love is that the work is drawing in people to see this painting, and others, that are on view at the National Gallery. The painting won the “Viewers Vote” apparently. What I don’t know and can’t discern is the tenor of the conversations about the painting.
If you used to read comic books, you will recognize the depiction as a variation on the Fantastic Four. Natalie Barnes’s piece is certainly part of a time-honoured tradition among politically-astute artists and activists in the U.S. who often use these comic-book caricatures to critique the amateurish and juvenile attitudes among reform-minded politicians who love to represent themselves – and often treated – as caped crusaders who are taking on the Evil Hordes and detritus of modernity: prostitutes, gamblers, progressive sex educators, immigrants, homosexuals, poor people, liberals, intellectuals, people of color, human rights and anti-war activists et al.
Ms. Barnes’s work is reminiscent of one other Jamaican artist, the photographer Renee Cox’s superhero series, where she imagines herself as the one doing the saving. Then there’s Dulce Pinzon’s work that is a scathing critique of the exploitation of immigrants in the US. And then, there may be some interesting comparisons to draw with the latest Batman flick over which there has been too much excitement. I haven’t seen it (my favourite superheroes are not men), and don’t plan to. But if you did see it, tell us what you think.
Read in that light (rather than our typical insular, suicide-inducing practices) Ms. Barnes’s painting is certainly a hilarious and yet serious, timely, dead-on critique of the ways that our own home-grown politicians love to see themselves as our saviours, and how Jamaicans even at 46+ years, are constantly looking to be saved by someone on high. If its not Jesus, then it might as well be the J-Team who imagine themselves (in a characteristically limited way) as fictional characters invented in the US and in outfits probably made in China. The original transnational poppyshows!
This is definitely an image that scholars and artist-practitioners will look to in the future. I can’t wait for her to produce posters and giclee prints from this painting. I can see a whole cottage industry emerging from these: calendars, book covers, t-shirts, you name it. Small Axe will probably get first dibs.
From reading the coverage though – which is different from what is actually happening on the ground, as it were – its funny how ideas circulate and are given form here through the lenses of the media reportage.
Based on how the painting and its reception is being framed, it’s not clear to me that many folks get the critique being offered by the work. The reports, lie much of the narrow debates about what constitutes “art” in Jamaica, are tending to situate Barnes’ piece as some laudable form of ‘high art’, as if this concept has never been executed anywhere else before.
So, in true colonial fashion, The Royal Court led by His Highness Bruce Golding summons a Special Viewing of “That Painting That Has Been Given the Title Justice League by the One Artist a Natalie Barnes of Kingston Jamaica.” (By the way, why is this the first time that Golding is seeing the work? Isn’t it part of his responsibility to view [some of] the works on display at the national competitions??) And they look closely to evaluate just how well the artist is trained in her craft, and if she is truly an Artist by how well she is able to capture the true likeness of the said crusaders, and want to know whether she really wants to say that they are indeed true superheroes of our time, or is she being just a bit facetious to imagine that they are like such superheroes, who we know are just figments of somebody’s imagination from far away. Poppyshows indeed.
And the one Ms. Barnes, even after “showing her hand” in the Gleaner’s, August 3 piece, clearly sees how she is about to be propelled into the land of the famous and wealthy artists who have been given the official blessing of the State and the tastemakers, provided that she does not alienate or piss them off or give a hint that her intentions are anything else but honourable.
So, in today’s article in the Gleaner, she with her cunny self does a 180, and totally shies away from claiming her work for what it is – an incredibly subversive piece that shows how the emperor has no clothes. That is, our mout-a-massy so-called justice-doers are at their core a fantasy that was created and given substance in someone else’s (racial) imagination, and which we have willingly co-opted without thought. Instead, Ms. Barnes resorts to the sacharrinely delivered coy “whatever it means to you” gesture when asked what she was thinking when she created this piece. You know, Ms. Barnes, it would be nice if you used these opportunities to say what you have to say rather than resorting to this cloak-and-dagger crap. I guess she too is enamoured of the PM giving her attention. She’s probably hoping he’ll buy it.
[Oh god, please do not let this work fall into the hands of one of those folks. Me a beg yuh!]
If Ms. Barnes keeps up this performance, she will certainly achieve her intentions, which is to make everyone like her enough to pay her and give her a studio somewhere so she can create more art that can be consumed by the public. But then, there is the chance that she will probably become more like the company she will keeping, and I don’t know if that will bode well for her work in the future. Just look at Laura Facey-Cooper for a good example of how not to be as an artist. Access to the master’s tools is really not enough to initiate the kind of critical introspection and action that Ms. Barnes is calling for in her more revelatory moments. I think she gets that. I hope she remembers that.
Of course, there’s much more to be said about this painting and the kinds of issues it raises for how Jamaican artists see themselves in relation to the society and the world, and for how we relate to art in our daily struggle for dignity and a decent quality of life. Your turn….