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Changing lives with 'democratic art'

Paint Jamaica uplifting inner-city communities with positive murals

BY SUZETTE BONAS Sunday Observer writer bonass@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, July 27, 2014    

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BORN in Greece of Egyptian and Syrian heritage, Marianna Farag has travelled the globe, from Paris and Switzerland to New York in the west. But after a visit to this country in April last year, Farag fell in love with Jamaica, its people and culture.

Along with some friends, she started a team called Paint Jamaica, revamping logo-free public spaces with murals and messages.

"We had two objectives," Farag told the Jamaica Observer. "One was to bring art into unexpected places and unexpectedly, and the other was to change the perception around the inner-city communities of Kingston. We wanted to do a project that was very community-oriented and what we called democratic art."

Paint Jamaica was conceptualised about two months ago, but the 12-day project only began on Saturday, July 19. They initially set up a crowd-funding site that allowed people from all over the world to contribute to the cause.

Through additional donations from Diamond Paint and non-monetary aid from GraceKennedy, National Baking Company, Island T-shirts Company, and Tuff Gong International, Farag and her team were able to make their dream a reality.

She said it was love at first sight when they came upon an old abandoned warehouse on Fleet Street, Parade Gardens in Southside, that had been empty for over 20 years. People in the community used it as a recreational centre, but Farag and her team saw the roofless compound as having untapped creative potential.

For about six weeks they interviewed the residents, listening to their issues on what they would like to see changed and what they wanted to see on the walls. The unfolding result was an artistic expression of the rich, creative culture of Kingston.

"Our artists took those words and used them to translate into images," Farag said when the Sunday Observer visited the site on their fifth day of work.

The themes of love, peace, unity, respect and community are evident in the pieces that have been completed so far. They also began painting a football field on the ground of the warehouse upon the sponsored request of Tuff Gong International.

The team consists of students from the Edna Manley School of the Visual and Performing Arts, artists from the community, photographers, videographers and several volunteers.

A typical day starts at 10:00 am with plenty of doughnuts, Farag said, as they set up and go through their objectives for the next seven hours. Braving the scorching summer sun, they outline the murals in chalk or spray paint, before continuing their creative expression until 5:00 pm.

Even during their lunch break, the Paint Jamaica team, who have become like an extended family, promote communal support and enjoy ital food from Life Yard, a group of farmers in Parade Gardens.

The artists take their role as change instigators seriously, especially with the growing number of children who visit the site to help with the painting. They understand that they are the ones who can really make a difference in their lives.

"The reality is that as artists this is what we always hoped for, even while in at school: to be able to contribute to changing the visual landscape of our country," said Matthew McCarthy, who had become somewhat of a mentor to one of the community artists.

For fellow artist, Taj Francis, the project is really about changing the feelings that people have towards inner-city Kingston.

Kokab Zohoori-Dossa, the only female artist on the team, takes the time out to interact with the young girls who come to admire their progress.

"I see the kind of environment they've grown up in, with the skin bleaching and straightening of the hair. I wanted to promote natural beauty, getting them to accept themselves as young, black girls," she said.

Referencing her painting of a woman, which community members fondly call the "queen", Zohoori-Dossa wants these girls to see themselves that way — beautiful.

The people of Parade Gardens have been grateful for the art intervention.

"It's more development," said a member of Life Yard. "For so long the community has been down. It's like an initial step towards progress that we can build up and value, even protect it."

Though this is Paint Jamaica's first project, Farag said they have been receiving support from all over the world, including Argentina, Mexico and Germany.

"We're getting e-mails from other neighbourhoods who want us to do the same thing there," she said. "So there would be a Paint Jamaica part two coming up if we get the funding."

The project ends symbolically on August 6, Independence Day, but an official schedule of activities is still in the planning stages.

The community will still use the completed space as their recreational centre, but Farag sees it as a potential venue for concerts, photo shoots and even music videos.

Paint Jamaica continues to receive positive feedback on its social media, like similar initiatives in South Africa and Brazil. The difference that Farag and her team are making through art keeps them going.

"I think that art inspires people in different ways. When you walk down the street and you see this, you want to protect it," she said. "It builds some pride. It's for the people. It's something that they own and they can come back in many years and still look at it. It's engrained; it just stays in people."

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