The Art of the Salon
Style ObserverSunday, May 22, 2011
At one point in our history, soon after Independence, the Jamaican middle class was culturally on fire. The living room was a tour de force of intellectual thought and boundless passion. Then suddenly and inexplicably, the bottom dropped out from under it and Jamaican middle-class culture died.
It was this initial burst of post-Independence intellectual energy that fuelled the rise of Jamaican middle-class heavyweights like Nettleford, Chevannes, Watson, Delapenha, Hart, Hyatt, Forbes, Shirley, Rhone, Pouyat, Lee, Neita, Perkins, Brewster, Hyde, Parboosingh, Macintosh, Marriot, Phipps, etc. Wow! What an impressive set of contemporaries!
Broadcaster and MC impresario Fae Ellington was always there. She knew everybody. From her unique position, she is probably our best living witness to the rise and fall of this phenomenon. Ellington was out there as this middle-class culture was fermenting and bubbling with creativity. And she is still out there, long after it has collapsed. Everyone else who was there has either died or simply retreated from the public arena in disillusionment.
Two factors decimated the intellectual vibrancy of the Jamaican middle class. Firstly, real and imagined fears of Communism sent many of the best and brightest scurrying abroad. Caught up as we were in the geo-politicking of the then USSR and the USA, many of us abandoned our treasure troves of friends and property. Five flights a day to Miami meant something to many. Personal connections frayed. And rising political violence kept the middle class who remained in Jamaica off the streets. No more late-evening verandah chats.
Secondly, American television came too early and too fast. When we were on one channel with limited broadcasting hours, we had to read, we had to talk. We were still an emerging middle-class culture when cable arrived. Without the time to solidify deep roots or develop a strong sense of self, we were unable to withstand the onslaught of those powerful Western media images. We did not know how to integrate them into a Jamaican context. They took over and overwhelmed, we threw out our way of life. Grand gatherings of Saturday soup, Sunday dinners and extended conversations vanished. Shopping and show have become our only culture. And unsurprisingly, we have become cynical and bored.
It is impossible to communicate to anyone who was not there what it was like to grow up in that very engaging era. When I visited relatives in the US, it was clear that the American way of life was more money, yes; more things, yes; more TV, yes; more shopping, yes -- but there was/is no conversation. Even as I grew older and attended some of the most prestigious educational institutions in the USA and went head to head with their best and brightest -- I soon grew to understand that none of them grew up in anything near the intellectually stimulating environment that was the Jamaican middle-class living room. I took it for granted until it was gone.
There was a time when a Jamaican went to school abroad and people were taken aback by how educated we were. Yes, we de likkle black people from the Third World could dazzle Europeans with our knowledge of European thinkers. We could quote Shakespeare and Chaucer or contrast Marx and Hegel. Partially it was the quality of the best middle-class schools at the time (Campion, Jamaica College, etc) but largely it was the quality of the middle-class living room chat to which we were privy.
Since that time, we have allowed pagan capitalism and its discontents to swallow us whole leaving us in financial debt and spiritually adrift. Money (not education) has become the only marker of class. The hierarchy of education and culture collapsed under the hierarchy of wealth. As a middle class we are now left with no culture but the hollow moneyed culture.
The Jamaican working class, on the other hand, with an abundance of creativity has kept the cultural fire alive. They have remained true to their Jamaican-ness even as the images from the US bombarded their consciousness. Since these communities did not suffer from mass migration (no one ever gave them visas), their ties had not frayed. By the time the American media images arrived en masse, the working-class community was able to simply incorporate it into their Jamaican-ness. Tight Armani shirts were revamped as dancehall style. High fashion reinterpreted as Jamaican fashion. It is the working class who has fuelled the mega-brand "Jamaica" around the world. They have absorbed only to retransmit back over the international transom. Music, food, sports and dancehall fashion are our widely successful working-class exports. Our middle-class culture/high culture was stillborn.
But the truth is that it is a middle class and an upper class that build any society. It is this group that sets the national course. The failure of Jamaica is largely the failure of the middle and upper classes to provide a workable vision of progress. Bereft of ideas, we do not read and we, too, have become slaves to American television, which is intellectually bankrupt.
The combined effect of the mass migration and the rise of American television in the Jamaican home doomed all middle-class cultural aspirations. As a young country we didn't stand a chance. We are living through the remains of that vacuum today.
But all is not lost. A renaissance is possible. However, it is up to the middle and upper classes to reignite that cultural conversation. We have to reopen our living rooms and revive what is now a dead Jamaican tradition of the verandah chat. We need to create spaces where the artists, writers, ethicists, religious leaders, educators, and business people come together again over one pot. We need safe places where a-political first-principle thinking is on the table again for national discussion.
The corporate cocktail parties with their capricious "how you doing?" air kiss are not good venues for stimulating debate. Enjoyable as they are, those soirées are simply showcases for style. Once you have been photographed ("Yes, I was invited and I was there"), there is absolutely no reason to stay.
The Jamaican living room is the place to linger; the one-pot serving as the basis for the gathering of ideas, the Art of the Salon.
Such a salon took place recently, one evening in the cool of Stony Hill. The genesis of the event was that one of the new generation of Jamaican artists, Michael Flyn Elliott (Flyn), was recently invited to exhibit some of his latest paintings at the Galerie Breuer in Munich, Germany. He wanted to display the new works before they left the island. The gathering pulled together people from all walks of life, many of whom had never met. Visual and culinary arts can help build cross-generational and cross-professional conversations.
Flyn describes himself as a journalist. He is primarily interested in political and economic manipulation and exploitation. He tends to be playful with depressing themes, mixing the banal and the macabre, fusing the light and the dark. He is perhaps a bit overtly didactic for my taste as he seems to view art primarily as education. He actively pushes a human rights agenda. There are pros and cons to this approach, but what is clear is that the works are visually explosive and stand out in any context. They solicit response.
At the salon, four of the five paintings heading to Munich were on display. The pre-exhibition buzz in Germany suggests that there is already excitement about the pieces being presented. Part of the excitement is that the topics and the style are not what one would usually expect from a Jamaican. Our cultural stereotypes internationally are wired tight. Flyn and many of his compatriots are breaking this mould. (For more on Michael Flyn Eliot and his works, see his website www.flyncity.net)
The surrealistic painting Sand Shepherd explores the exploitation of African resources by the West. A beautiful but sad black woman spews oil from her breast into a sea of vultures with gas spigots for mouths. What was she promised? What was delivered? In the background, there are a set of straw huts burning. This can't end well. This won't end well. Mama Africa has become a willing participant in her own exploitation. Her defenders, such as there are, are nowhere in sight.
The Sons of Embezzlement wraps ousted Egyptian President Mubarak in Pharaoh headdress. At the base of the painting there is a multitude of diminutive men bowing and worshipping at his behest. We may think that the Pharaohs are of history, but in truth their exploitive acts and sense of entitlement remain in our midst ,undertaken this time by men wearing red power ties. He smirks at the fortitude of his position.
The painting Donopoly Deception recasts the Dudus fiasco as a monopoly game with Dudus and Tivoli as positions on the board. Is all politics in the end just a game? Are all the players merely caricatures of plastercine, puffed up and excessive bravado hiding dangerous child's play? Flyn rebukes by recasting the serious into the laughable.
And finally, The Red Dynasty Shadow Doll Series is a meditation on 'Baby Doc' Duvalier offered up as a pitiable baby doll. Voodoo meets mass manipulation for dollars.
This in-home exhibition of the paintings heading to Munich was supplemented by three of Flyn's earlier works. These include National Dish, a gut-wrenching Recruitment of the Innocents portrait of a gun and bullets served on a plate. The blends a fluffy white teddy bear with an assemblage of bloody needles already used for destructive recreational drugs. And finally, there was a disconcerting triptych of cicada flies called the June Fellowship. These earlier works are available for sale from the Wayne Gallimore Collection.
Many of these images are powerful yet stomach- churning. Like a modern horror movie they compel you to look on while simultaneously repelling you away. But like them or not, the critical issue is that these works raise the level of the conversation by igniting a debate about art and politics. When was the last time that happened?
A lethal rum punch, a few bottles of wine, some tasteful nosh and 45 open minds made for a great evening. We need more of these to reinvigorate the once venerable Jamaican middle-class culture. It began in the living room.