Thursday, June 11, 2009
In June 2007, I received a strange email. It said I had received the Commonwealth Arts & Crafts Award. I fell into deep disbelief. I still don’t believe it even though I can however recall the frustration I was experiencing in my artistic career when I applied, the months of tiring planning, the newness and out of body emotions of being in my host country, the many lessons learned about acting as administrator as well as artist simultaneously and the satisfaction with being able to work independently in my own studio for the first time in a few years. When I applied for the Award, I wanted to revisit the UK, being that my relationship with Britain was the basis of my work. I was however asked to find a location in Africa. I chose South Africa, specifically Cape Town. This however was not fated and going through a series of events and restrictions, I finally settled on Singapore. I had then two views of Singapore, as I would come to find out was similar to the view Singaporeans had of Jamaica. There was the romantic idea of Singapore and its colonial era memory and little bits of circulating information of a modern more edgy, thriving and highly restrictive Singapore. This I found to be true and untrue in parts, I also had a classmate who was one of the most well informed artists I had met in my small experience. With all of this in my head and the exciting but frightening prospect of doing my first serious artists residency, which had received some small publicity, I booked my ticket and took the 25 hour journey, ironically via London, to Postmuseum, Singapore.
I arrived at an artists space on a bustling Sunday night in Little India. The first persons I met while still groggy with jet-lag were a group of international and local artists sitting at a table at a social art project manifested as a vegetarian café. Many of those artists I met on my first night were to become my support during my 4 month stay. I asked at one point, why it was called Postmuseum. Singapore is a city-state with around 5 or more well-developed museums, 3-4 large arts education institutions. This I understood to be a country with an overwhelming concern with the organization of its art and culture, though granted I would welcome this sometimes in Jamaica. Postmuseum, I slowly realised was a space away from institutional enterprise. It was social in concerns, communities and the notion of locality was central. The room I stayed in, the loft, was an old brothel and at night while working in studio, I could see and evidence of being situated in the red-light district. This was definitely experiencing the local community and being intermingled with their stories. Though, I was in an environment different to ordinary experiences, I felt more connected to my location and was able to more easily transition this into my work. I mention these things because of the ideas it provided. There was a sense that artists were not willing to abandon areas of a city, that though now a bit seedy were still historically and culturally rich, because of fear or stigma. They were not only willing but enthusiastic to build their lives and make their work in the heart of it.
In considering the Postmuseum project, initiated by the P-10 collective, including Jennifer Teo and Woon Tien Wei, I remember my own attempts at trying to secure an equivalent space in Jamaica. Before I ever had thoughts of applying to the Commonwealth, I was in desperate need of my own studio space. Along with other local artists under the main co-ordination of established artist, Stanford Watson we tried to secure an unused and completely abandoned segment of the Bellevue Hospital. We waited months ending in final refusal. On my own I tried to rent one of the continually empty shop spaces at the Kingston Mall, which seemed to get most of its tiny stream of traffic from persons needing a short-cut rather than actual customers. I was quoted a figure so high that I doubt that an ordinary business person may have been able to make the rent. I tried to rent an office space on one of the several abandoned floors of the Ministry of Health Building. That at the time I was told was only available if the entire floor were being rented. There are several other instances, not only by myself but other artists. I do wonder at this point in remembering Little India, Singapore, Brooklyn, USA and Deptford and Brockley, UK, whether there may ever be a Downtown Kingston, Jamaica story.
Why do we seem to not be able to recognize the potential of the creative individual to regenerate and develop. Bringing new life and purpose to depressed areas through cultural activity is a formula used by many progressive state bodies. Should there not be some kind of recognition through our policy that culture is the new tourism, economy, politics etc. and that any aid to assist in development should not be grudgingly given or frustrated or turned away but enthusiastically aided. Given the mass of unused buildings which in Kingston which are almost untouchable as we seek to find absentee landlords(In some cases the landlord may be found but for unknown reasons seemingly prefers the buildings left in their abandoned state. Of course there are projects that have begun, noteably The Rock Tower, Multi-care’s Ice Factory and Gallery 178 but many are barely surviving and in need of support. Support from other artists, institutions, the state, collectors, private sector and the list goes on. Can we not make a concerted effort to have a new cultural and subsequently economic Renaissance? Could we have a thriving developing hub of activity on the arts front where artists are aided and assisted readily and not frustrated into seeking opportunity elsewhere. Can we have our Downtown story?