Heartbeat of the city
The following is an edited version of a speech delivered by Andrea Dempster Chung, co-founder and executive director of the local arts organisation Kingston Creative, at the recent opening of an exhibition by Jamaican artist Laura Facey.
WHILE scouting for locations in downtown Kingston, Laura spotted Ormsby Memorial Hall and saw that although the building was falling into disrepair, the light, the soaring columns, and ceiling height created an ideal backdrop for her new show.
Over the years, Ormsby Hall has been the host of public meetings, debates and musical recitals, especially during the late 1930s. It sits adjacent to the St Michael and All Angels Anglican Church and it was the site of significant social and cultural events of the day. Poetry readings and performances could be seen and heard at Ormsby Hall. Up until 2010 it was the home of the Ormsby Primary School, and Jamaicans who have travelled the world performing theatre got their first taste of the arts as children on this very stage.
Why locate this exhibition downtown?
Downtown Kingston has been home to numerous art galleries on Harbour Street, and further back in memory, it was host to the Great Exhibition of 1891. After receiving some 302,831 visitors, the attendance was estimated to be larger than that of any previous exhibition in Europe or America. Similar to the Venice Biennale, countries like Canada paid Jamaica to have pavilions in Kingston where they displayed their cultural goods. America, England, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland, Greece, France, Norway, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and even Russia all were represented, right here in Kingston. It’s safe to say that downtown is no stranger to art and culture.
And Laura Facey is no stranger to downtown Kingston, nor to using her art for social transformation. She was one of the supportive figures behind Melinda Brown in the founding of Roktowa, the artist collective, residency space (and we could add “cultural movement”) that was located on Pechon Street, which created so many opportunities for grass roots artists from the community. Artists are natural activists, and we can see in the intentional siting of Facey’s work in the ruins of a historical building a bold statement on reclaiming our heritage, preserving our architecture, and remembering the legacy and greatness of our old city.
This is Laura’s first solo show since 2013. During these last nine years Laura participated in group exhibitions and biennials. During the last two years she completed a body of work carved from guango, mahogany, lychee, cedar and lignum vitae. Laura and her team have created a trilogy of installations that visitors will explore, walk through and touch.
Guide Their Way Home is the memorial part of the trilogy. It honours what has gone before while opening a path for present transformation. Three Graces are powerful, purposeful and unified, representing the gathering of women for these times. What kind of women were they? Artists? Activists? Healers? Land of Look Behind, the sanctuary part of the trilogy, is Laura’s tribute to the Cockpit Country. The work “represents a journey through a place that captures us with its impenetrable mass and offers sanctuary to whomever wishes to find it”.
Kingston Creative is a registered non-profit organisation whose big vision is that Kingston is the creative capital of the Caribbean. Our mission is to empower creative people and use art for social and economic transformation. As a country with a highly creative populace — and arguably the most cultural soft power per square mile — we believe that the arts can be a catalyst for attracting visitors, creating jobs and opportunities, achieving sustainable national development and transforming downtown Kingston. Ours is a mission centred around both people and place.
And downtown Kingston is our place. It is the oldest area of the capital city, with great bones, a musical history like none other, and a special vibration that can only be experienced. It is also full of architectural treasures like Ormsby Hall that time has forgotten. Downtown is surrounded by marginalised communities with a reputation for political division, poverty and crime. This stigma is not the entirety of Kingston’s story however. There is a rich cultural narrative and history in each community to be understood, embraced and shared. Sadly, many people, especially our youth, only know the dilapidated streets and the ever-present legacy of violence. They yearn to escape, and do not have an image of how Kingston started and developed, and as such, it is almost impossible for them to imagine what it can become.
The Way Forward
For us to move forward, everyone needs to be aligned around the possibility of what Kingston was, what it already is, and what we want it to become in the future. Do we want it to return to being a segregated city with first and second class citizens? Do we want the vibrant cultural life that our elders describe? Do we want opportunities for just a few to build wealth or do we want to create opportunities for everyone?
Kingston Creative is using culture and art as a lever for the balanced, inclusive transformation of the city, and the development of the country. As an artist-led organisation we feel that we can no longer sit on the sidelines and bemoan the state of the city — we have to use what we have to build what we want to see.
Over the past five years, we have been quietly and methodically reaching out to the communities, training and empowering creatives, developing the murals and infrastructure for an art district, launching a creative hub and enrolling the business community/property owners into partnerships for the city’s development.
Our vision for downtown includes safety, commerce, beauty, restoration, good governance and infrastructure. With the support of our partners TEF, IDB, DBJ; Diaspora donors; and others from the local private and public sector, we develop murals that strategically connect two iconic arts institutions — the National Gallery of Jamaica with the museums. We host artwalk street festivals that bring life to the streets and visitors to the bars, restaurants, communities and new hotels in downtown. Our vision includes tours of cultural communities — tours led not by huge companies, but by people from the communities. It includes employment, growth and entrepreneurship opportunities for talented artists and creatives — especially those from the downtown Kingston community.
We view making Kingston the creative capital of the Caribbean as a process, not a project. We are committed to a multi-year process of collaboration, advocacy, engagement, learning, research, investment, social entrepreneurship, and supporting the necessary State coordination and policy development as we work to realise the vision.
Artists leading the way
It is worth stating that artists are at the very forefront of this movement; performing and enlivening the streets for the artwalk, storytelling our new narratives on the corners, painting new possibilities on the cracked and crumbling walls of the narrow lanes, and choosing to stage their exhibitions in historic downtown spaces like Ormsby Hall.
But more of us need to get on board. The property owners and business owners need to renovate, but protect the heritage facade of their buildings to maintain the integrity of the streetscape and the collective value of the art district. If we lease buildings to artists and creatives for studios, galleries, performance and retail spaces, this will bring the cultural life back into the city. We have to intentionally unlock the potential trapped in the blocks of abandoned warehouses, historic buildings and commercial properties.
Lastly, our Government needs to bet on Kingston, and facilitate these civil society and private sector efforts. They can lead by putting in place the necessary infrastructure, civil works, policies, regulatory frameworks and financial incentives to make this all possible and, most importantly, sustainable in the long term.
This exhibition is exactly the type of artist-led activism that we need to see from the creative community to bring the vision of a vibrant downtown Kingston art district into sharp focus. If you come to Rae Town and experience this exhibition, you will be one step closer to seeing new possibilities for what a transformed downtown Kingston could really be.