Roktowa: Bringing Life to Downtown
Dayton Wood (left) and Carol Crichton examine Icarus, oneof the pieces from Laura Facey’s collection of sculptures.
Style Observer

The old Red Stripe Brewery on Pechon Street is, in a sense, a fundamental emblem of Downtown Kingston's decay -- a prominent edifice whose derelict façade has beaten it into something morosely unobtrusive, largely present, but hardly noticed anymore.

It is from the hollow interior of this building that Melinda Brown is aiming to inject some artistic vitality into the area's troubled streets. Brown, a globetrotting artist who hails from Australia, is using the building to house the Roktowa Gallery -- a non-profit venture that aims to develop the artistic talents of those who live in the surrounding area.

"One of the inherent things about poverty is you're not aware of the possibilities that are out there," she says. "This building we're in, I want it to be a beacon."

The gallery has taken in roughly 10 artists from the surrounding area, so far. Aside from developing their own works, they are given the opportunity to work with tradesmen in the surrounding area to create sculptures and other works of art from resources such as wood and alabaster. Some of the designs, Brown says, will be sold, like the alabaster tables that were created right in Roktowa's halls.

"Downtown is rich in cultural design," says Brown. "We're using its available resources to communicate the creative genius of downtown -- of its environment, of its tradesmen -- we're responding to its energy."

While taking on the task of broadcasting downtown's creative potential to the outside world, Roktowa is also trying to foster cross-cultural links between downtown and cities from as far away as Port-au-Prince, Haiti to districts a bit closer to home like, say, Kingston's uptown area.

Propel, an exhibition staged by Roktowa last Sunday, showcased recent works by renowned Jamaican artist Laura Facey and several visiting artists from Haiti, who are a part of the gallery's Trembling Heart residency programme, including sculptor Lionel St Eloi, flag artist Myrlande Constant and sculptor and painter Guyodo.

Packed in the stained beige walls of the Roktowa gallery were scores of art enthusiasts and buyers who, one could assume, were not denizens of the downtown area.

"This is why a project like this is important," says art enthusiast Tamara Scott Williams, "to get all types of people down here."

The collection of works by each artist speaks volumes about the journeys they have taken via their craft. The exhibition of woodcut prints cataloguing Facey's Everything Doors show placed alongside that of her recent sculptures showcases a physical transition in the artist's work on several planes -- piercing stills of natural life in her woodcut prints make way for rousing portrayals of motion and phenomena in her sculptures.

Seething from the entire exhibition of works at Propel, however, was an idea, a lament almost, of the history of setbacks and tragedy that factors heavily thoughout the histories of Haiti and Jamaica. Facey's living, bleeding sculpture, the Blood of Christ, a large block of cedar, with streams of simulated blood gushing from imperfections in the wood, recalls the recent upheaval in Tivoli -- a district clearly visible from the cracked windows of the Roktowa gallery.

St Eloi, a renowned artist who manipulates metal objects to create impressive sculptures, showcased a polychromatic painted structure rising from impressions of rubble. The sculpture stands as a staunch reminder of the recent earthquake that devastated parts of Haiti.

But the spirit of triumph over setbacks was alive at Roktowa, as well.

"I look around here at this compelling and truly beautiful body of work, this beautifully installed exhibition . . . at the work already done for the Trembling Heart residency, and at Roktowa itself, [and] I am inclined to say, Kingston is alive!" trumpeted Veerle Poupeye, executive director for the National Gallery of Jamaica. "And we, the members of the artistic community, must support and sustain this moment, if only because our relevance depends on it."

One of the hopes for Roktowa is poignantly captured in the work of Myrlande Constant, another of the visiting Haitian artists and one of the foremost names in Voudou flag (Drapo Voudou) artistry. Constant's prominent display depicts St Nicholas, the first of all Haitian voodoo priests, floating above supplicants and converging on what appears to be a Jamaican flag. They carry offerings to St Nicholas; others around them bear the colours of the Jamaican and Haitian flags. There is a link between Jamaica and Haiti -- a link steeped in rebellion and oppression, in folklore, mythology and other attributes that colour the development of both cultures. The flag draws attention to that relationship and perhaps asks us to examine the restructuring of that cross-cultural link.

-- Kedon Willis


Veerle Poupeye (centre), executive director of the Jamaica National Gallery, stands withLionel St Eloi (left) and Myrlande Constant, two of the visiting Haitian artists at Roktowa’s Trembling Heart residency programme.
Melinda Brown (left), founder of the RoktowaGallery, stands with artist Laura Facey overher sculpture Propel Him.

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