Christina Leslie's Portraits

N.L.S., A New Local Space

Deborah Caroll Anzinger's artist run residency and exhibition space in Kingston


Leasho Johnson's Provocative Re-interpretation in 'Canopy Guild'

Light Sensitive

Marlon James' black and whites

Annalee Davis: ON THE MAP

Caribbean Political Documentary

Friday, July 16, 2010


Around Facebook and Flickr Michael Thompson's designs, images, politics by beauty drifted into my consciousness. Again the connection emerged with design and beauty being used for political expression. Is this this a new route? Will design effectively replace the political voice of Painting in Jamaica? Is the accessability of Design replacing the often high-browness of Fine Art? I asked Michael a few questions and he gave me his thoughts.

Can you give me some insight into your background as a designer/artist and relationship to Jamaica.

I am a Jamaican living in the United States. I attended Calabar High School in Kingston, Jamaica and graduated in 1976. After leaving Calabar I studied commercial art at the Jamaica School of Art as a part time student. My first design job was an apprentice position at the Daily News art department. Shortly after, I joined Paisley, Kelly Keynon & Eckhardt Advertising Agency(PKK&E) as a layout artist and illustrator. After a long stint at PKK&E I took up an offer as Art Director, at Mike Jarrett Communications, a public relations firm. It was my last gig in Jamaica before I migrated to the United States in 1989. In 1978 I designed a poster that got me a place on the Jamaican delegation to the 11th World Festival of Youth and Students in Havana Cuba. This was an amazing cultural experience that has influenced my design aesthetics. I was very inspired by the beauty and power of the poster arts produced by the Cuban agencies of ICAIC (the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry) Editoria Political, and OSPAAL (the Organization in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.) The artistic energy from that festival in Cuba and the international art that I was exposed to still influence my creativity today. The International festival definitely opened a lot of doors both internationally and locally once I return to Jamaica. I had my first major art show in Jamaica which included paintings, poster art and drawings. This exhibition was a two artist show held at the Bank of Jamaica with myself and Clinton Hutton a fellow progressive artist at the time, this was around 1979.

Looking at your portfolio I am seeing at least two approaches to design emerging. One seems more meant for traditional commercial work where the designer could be anyone from anywhere. In the other kind I am seeing a designer asserting a voice about nation and place and culture through the design and imagery. How are you balancing and approaching the two differently?

It is important to separate my commercially designed work from what I call my Activist/Awareness designs. On one side of the scale the commercial design process is born out of some kind of consensus; the clients input and direction coupled with my creative conceptual ideas. This struggle can often become an hinderance to creativity depending on the kind of relationship and freedom I have with the client. It is always a struggle to break through the corporate briefs and restraints. On the other side of the scale my Activist/Awareness designs are expressed through "freeform creativity" layered on a forward thinking design platform. They are not restrained by any briefs or directions to corrupt the creative process. This is my voice and conceptual ideas expressed undiluted. It is my passion and conviction all wrapped up around an array of issues, ideas and causes. What you see in these designs are a commitment to freedom in the creative process. I try to separate and balance the two by approaching the creative processes differently. The Activist/Awareness designs are my personal work which is very important to me as a means to explore new techniques and ideas in a freestyle way.

What visions do you have for the role of your more activist work and how has it being delivered to its audience and used by them?

The delivery formula for my Activist Art Project can be summed up in five words “communication by any means necessary.” FLICKR plays a big role in introducing my poster art to a broad international audience. It is where this present episode of my activism started and already my work has attracted thousands of viewers since I started posting my art on FLICKR a year and half ago. The web has been a wonderful way to achieve exposure and to get my message out. However, it is not the only way my work is delivered. I make digital 18”x24” poster prints and have shown locally in traditional gallery settings. For example , I exhibited at a gallery in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania with a group of underground Zine publishers. This was a new type of audience of young rebel writers and graffiti enthusiasts. I am also working on other collaborations with publications and archives like the Palestinian Poster Project and the Canter for the Study of Political Graphics in an efforts to expand the audience. I am also planning a collaboration with a local skateboard company to do a show in their retail outlet later this year. I hope to do more of this type of delivery.

I do get many request for the use of my work as fundraising or promotional material to support a variety of causes that are represented by the designs. One of which is the design in solidarity with the Palestinians in the Gaza strip. The image of the “Gaza Child” has gotten the biggest request and admiration to date. Posters and T-shirts were made by The Gaza Freedom March organizers and distributed at the march in Egypt and other cities around the world during the International solidarity march in January, 2010. International requests for the “Gaza Child” design are still coming in from as far away as South Africa and Australia. The Gaza Freedom March and The Haiti Poster Project are two campaigns that have helped publicized my designs and messages on an impressive scale and have also raised money for two very important causes.

I am working on more collaborations and hope to create a dedicated website featuring only my activist works in the near future. My Haiti poster designs will be featured on TV Cultura on a program called Almanaque. TV Cultura is a public television channel in Brazil. The program will use my Haiti designs as an example on how others especially the youths can use the internet to help Haiti. I have to thank many of my FLICKR friends and other supporters who have helped to spread the messages and my work to new audiences via blogs, online galleries and Facebook postings.

Do you think art can change the world?

Yes, to a point. Art can play an important and supportive role in changing the world. Art by itself cannot change the world. However, it can communicate ideas and messages in a powerful and effective way; elevating awareness in people that might not o

therwise turn to action. It can provide a powerful visual queue for those in the struggle to help motivate others to participate in the process of change. All branches of the arts can play a relevant role effectively. As artists we can ask questions about the many problems around us and present them in creative ways to foster dialogue and discussion. Activism is still the best way to achieve change, people have to stand up and go out there to "make a difference." I think more artists need to point to the problems and find the best solutions to stimulate activism. I would like to see more art in workshop settings, where people are no longer passively sitting and consuming the art. Instead, they are creating together, feeling empowered and focusing on solutions, community and communication. I am upbeat that this activism among young artist world-wide have begun to find roots. I admire artists like Shep

ard Fairey of OBEY, Dignidad Rebelde and Taller Tupac Amaru Collective who are doing amazing works in highlighting a number of political and social issues. I would love to see more visual artist in Jamaica standing up and speaking out through their art on issues of injustice, human rights and environmental concerns affecting Jamaica and the wider world. We can find examples of Jamaican musicians who have successfully used beautiful music to raise consciousness and to fight injustice; Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Burning Spear, Michael Smith to name a few. I think the Jamaican visual artists can find inspiration from the history of activism in our music.

It is clear that beauty is important and iconic imagery is the support for your strong ideas. Can you explain the process of how you locate an issue for use and then create an appealing image.

You do not have to look very far to find issues to support. It can be local or international, the media and the web are filled with stories of war, injustice, brutality, environmental concerns and exploitation, you name it is there. Lets look closer to home, the violence that occurred in Tivoli Gardens Jamaica on Labour day (May 24, 2010) and its aftermath was terrible. It was not hard to see that the stories that were presented by some local and international media had ignored the physical and emotional trauma that the majority of citizens were facing in that community. Hundreds of police and military personnel attacked a community inhabited by innocent women, children, and men, killing over 70 in the process. An unnecessary war unleashed on a civilian population. The stories that were coming from the residents totally contradicted the official reports. The residents spoke of summary executions and brutality by the security forces.

One of the poster design that I created in solidarity with the residents of Tivoli Gardens and Denham Town depicted the iconic face of a crying woman. I started out with the illustration because I wanted it to set the tone of the design. I am pretty much entirely Adobe illustrator-based as far as software is concerned. The entire design and illustration is created from start to finish in Adobe Illustrator; no sketches or scans. I usually prefer to work this way. The expression on her face captured the frightful experience they had endured. I read some of the statements given by members of the community and have seen the images and videos of the women weeping for their loved ones that were either killed or missing. It was clear to me that a very large number of the people living in Tivoli Gardens were woman and children. The face on the poster represents the weeping mothers of Tivoli Gardens. Everyone with a heart can relate to the humanity in the narrative. I then added a bold and powerful statement that reminded the government and other Jamaicans that the residents of Tivoli are citizens of Jamaica not enemies and they deserve justice. I wanted a beautifully designed image, colorful, and strong enough to grab the attention the first time someone looked at it.

What do you think about Michael's work and what he is doing as a designer of political imagery?