The question of freedom of expression in the arts is currently receiving a lot of attention in many parts of the world. While many artists are pushing the limits of the acceptable, with deliberately provocative works, the public exhibition and support of their work has resulted in many controversies, fueled by new, or renewed, political and religious sensibilities and the enhanced exposure provided by the media. This debate has special significance in the postcolonial world, where the arts have conventionally been seen as crucial to the development of a more equitable society, or nation-building, and a confident sense of cultural self. This is evident in state-sponsored, independent and explicitly dissident artistic expressions alike. In the Caribbean, this moral-political imperative exists in uneasy tension with a well-established tradition of freedom of expression within the artistic community and subversive tendencies within the popular culture.
There have been several incidents recently in Jamaica that have given particular urgency to the subjects of freedom of expression and censorship and the arts. For instance, the controversy about a new Emancipation monument – Laura Facey’s Redemption Song (2003) in New Kingston – mainly concerned the nudity of the two central figures and its appropriateness to the subject. This resulted in vigorous debate in the local media about what is and what is not acceptable in public art, who should decide on how subjects of collective interest are publicly represented in the arts, and whether this differs from the fine arts in other, more private contexts. The provocative music, dance style and fashion of Jamaican Dancehall culture, on the other hand, have not only become dominant in the local popular culture but have spread throughout the Caribbean and its Diaspora in North America and Europe. This Dancehall culture is seen by its critics as socially counterproductive and therefore rightfully subject to censorship. Jamaican-style “Passa Passa” street parties have been banned by authorities in Barbados, Grenada and Guyana and there have been calls, locally, to curtail the use of indecent or abusive language, which is in any case illegal in Jamaica, and provocative, potentially physically hazardous dance moves such as the “Dutty Wine” at Dancehall events. Several popular Jamaican Dancehall artistes have also become internationally controversial because of their violently homophobic lyrics and this has led to the cancellation of some of their concerts in North America and Europe. Advocates of Dancehall culture have argued, in contrast, that it deliberately challenges middle class moral norms and is held by its critics to more restrictive moral standards than Caribbean “high culture”, such as the fine arts and theatre, where provocative content is more likely to be tolerated in the name of artistic freedom.
These Jamaican examples well illustrate that the subject of freedom of expression and its relation to the social role of the arts is central to the debates that shape the arts in the Caribbean and must be taken seriously by Caribbean artists, cultural institutions, the media and audiences alike. While the subject is receiving intermittent attention in the regional media and in some of the critical writing about contemporary Caribbean culture, there has been insufficient structured debate thus far that confronts the full range of viewpoints and the issues that arise in the different areas of cultural production. Nor has sufficient attention been paid to its significant implications for arts education in the region. The Edna Manley College, as the main tertiary educational institution dedicated to the visual and performing arts in the Anglophone Caribbean, has thus decided to make it the subject of its emerging research, public discussion and publication programme.
The “Censorship and the Arts in the Caribbean” project has two key components. The first is the staging of two symposiums on the subject. The first such symposium will be a full-day event held on March 22, 2007. This event will consist of a keynote address by Renee Cox, a prominent Jamaican-American photographer and performance artist who has personally encountered major controversy and efforts at censorship in response to her often very provocative work. The keynote presentation will be followed by three panel discussions, one in the morning and two in the afternoon, that will explore various positions on the issues at hand and allow for audience interventions. This will be followed by an open discussion at the end of the day. Each panel will have four panelists and a moderator, selected from Edna Manley College faculty and students and other artists, cultural administrators, media practitioners, religious spokespersons and cultural critics based in Jamaica. In selecting these panelists, care will be taken to represent a broad range of perspectives and issues relevant to the Caribbean and its Diaspora.
The second symposium will be a half-day event and will be held in October 2007, on a date yet to be determined. The main purpose of the second event is to revisit and reflect on the issues raised in the first symposium and to create an opportunity for the presentation of responses and alternate views. It will consist of a keynote presentation and at least one panel. Persons from the local or regional media, the academy, the art world, and the Church will be considered as keynote speakers or panelists. The discussion panel(s) will, as before, consist of four panelists and a moderator and will be selected from the same categories as the first panels.
In terms of audiences, the symposiums are mainly directed at the Edna Manley College faculty and students but, given the subject, should attract more widespread attention and participation. The symposiums will be free and open to the public and will be well-publicized in the local media.
The second component of the project is the publication of the papers presented at the symposiums which will serve as a resource for further debate on the subject. This will be done in a specially-themed edition of the Edna Manley College’s new arts journal, which will become an annual or biennial publication. This publication will mainly be circulated in Jamaica, for the benefit of the cultural, educational and academic communities here but the journal should also be available to overseas interests. It will be sold at an affordable, cost-based price to facilitate broad access. Distribution arrangements are to be worked out and may involve a local publisher or printed matter distributor.
- post contributed by Veerle Poupeye