Monday, March 26, 2007

A Report: Rape, Rudeness and Renee Cox

The first research symposium at the Edna Manley College was held last week, with the highlight being the appearance and participation of controversial New York artist Renee Cox. Cox gave an artists talk to keen students and staff amongst book shelves and tables in the library. She was very animated in her delivery garnering frequent laughter from the audience. The level of intimacy achieved with the audience was such that students lacked no reserve in questioning and speaking to the artists. Foundation year students were moved to comment multiple times and a final year student made reference about the artists ego as being integral to his enjoyment of her work. Cox spoke about problems with how her pregnant body was viewed by the art world and society as being the driving influence behind the 'Yo Mama' series. She even provided a 'sneak peek' at new work which is inspired by 'Desperate Housewives' and the St. Andrew upperclass housewife set. The driving influence being the need to create images where black women are given the space to 'luxuriate in depression' . She also spoke of her controversial match with ex-Mayor Giuliani back in 1996, referring to the former mayor as a greasy-haired Italian with a bad comb-over who knew nothing about Photography. In another mouthful, ignorant ebonics-speaking black women were also reproached for missing the message in her work and the intention of it being made for 'them'. This made me think about the commitment that artists have to make in using racial material in their work. Are artists required to reflect the politics in their work in their speech and lives? Should they be held as responsible as 'regular citizens' for their viewpoints and how important is intention to how a work functions for its public? Omari Ra answers this in stating in his presentation that he believed artists had citizens rights and responsibilities only and not specifically a free pass to do as he or she pleases.

On the Thursday, when the symposium began with Cox as the keynote speaker, I arrived just in time to hear her tell students to do first and ask later before descending the podium. An audience member noted that it was a more reserved Cox that presented that morning, perhaps due to the setting as an official research symposium.
Panel 1 comprised of Taynia Nethersole, Clinton Hutton, Marcia Hextall and Kim Robinson-Walcott and was the most comprehensive in its scope. Taynia Nethersole spoke about the law in relation to censorship as being very subjective. The basic guideline being that the rights and freedoms of the individual should not infringe on the rights and freedom of others or the public interest. She also spoke about the law being used to label an artwork seen as having no artistic value as being obscene. Concerns raised are that often persons call to make judgements about the artistic value of something are often not qualified to do so. An individual judges what is in public interest and not a majority therefore rulings are often personal matters and not necessarily rooted in the

Clinton Hutton's take on the role of censorship in the arts in the Caribbean involved the cultural and religious censure of African slaves in plantation society. His vociferous quotations of ethnological texts was surely strategically placed to incite the black members of the audience to nod heads and cause the caucasian audience members to feel discomfort in their seats. His conclusion from his research was that whatever was considered white was beautiful and whatever was black was ugly. This ugliness and 'love of vice' was not curable by our own devices but had to be assisted through the colonizing powers thus the attempted erasure of African heritage.

Kim Robinson-Walcott gave a very entertaining talk which involved her doing a slow rap from the now popular Kiprich track mimicking Zebra and Tiger. She clearly stated that she enjoyed the beat of the music, calling it 'cute and catchy'. Her issue was not the catchiness but with a specific section of the song which described graphically and admittedly quite lyrically, the events of a possible rape. Her frustration then stemmed from attempts to have the song removed from the air waves to have the censured song re-appear with a beep at the last words of each line. This she did not find satisfying as any one could figure out the missing words. I say possible rape as a debate ensued about this. Was it rape or what Carolyn Cooper called a 'bait and switch'. Cooper was however quick to say that she was not defending slackness but looking at the possiblities of the song. Winston Campbell, who later presented on the Visual arts panel, chided Robinson-Walcott for taking the song out of the context of the mimicry of dancehall rivalry. This was countered with the general sentiment that context or not, a public description of a rape for entertainment purposes is never appropriate. This led her to her main area of Anthony Winkler's 'healthy sexual references'. Robinson-Walcott introduced a kind of binary system for measuring 'slackness' which perhaps could guide in the censorship process. 'Slackness' and obscenity could be 'fun' or harmful, meaningless or meaningful. Intention is apparently all. This again made me think of the issue of artistic license and freedom of speech. Does the title 'art' make slackness alright in society. Do artists use slackness and controversy as a poltical tool and what does that do to perceptions of art and artists?

On a last note Karl Fagan, a 2nd year student who presented a lengthy paper, must be commended for almost outshining several other presenters at the symposium. He obviously had an opinion and was not shy or rudimentary in his expression of it. Censorship functions within some of the very instituions who don a progressive self-image such as the Edna Manley College. Censorship of students for final year shows, censorship of certain ideas in certain courses and departments. To reference Winston Campbell, society seemingly cannot exist wtthout censorship as social groups do have rules and guidelines for appropriate behaviour. Is Censorship linked to power? Perhaps as Omari Ra suggests censorship is not linked to morality as such but political agenda. Do we judge the our popular culture, the dancehall, with the same code as, our high culture?


  1. Comment by Taynia Nethersole:

    I note your comments with respect to my presentation at the Symposium. To be absolutely clear it is not the laws in and of themselves that are subjective but the manner in which the may be subject to interpretation that can be subjective! The Constitution grants every Jamaican the right to freedom of expression, subject to one understanding that enjoying such freedom should not prejudice the rights and freedoms of others and the public interest.

    Where this becomes subjective is that the determination of what may be in the public interest or what may be considered obscene can be left up to the whim and fancy of a beaurocrat with no qualifications to make such a determination or one whose opinion has been affected by a vocal minority.

    Artists, particularly in the music industry, have chafed under restrictions placed on the right of expression. Those restrictions are usually placed by companies who do not want their name/image associated with expressions which they(not necessarily the laws) considers "indecent". They have invoked to law to defend their position but in truth it is really their own determination of what they wish censored.

    While we do have laws on or books which, had Mayor Guillani had same at his disposal would have made Renee Cox' right to express herself much more difficult, our officials have not (to date)utilised them to stringently censor.

  2. I'm glad Taynia responded.

    I also attended this symposium and think that you misrepresented Kim Robinson-Walcott's point to some extent.

    The issue was not so much about her failure to have the song censured, but the rather curious ways a la Carolyn Cooper in which we choose to defend "artistic license" and "possibilities". It is not moral acceptance of "slackness" that is at issue here, but the ways in which we choose not distinguish between the real harm and the claims to moral harm. I, and several other persons in that audience - I think one person actually said this out loud too - found Carolyn Cooper's comment profoundly irresponsible and dangerous in a context where sexual violence against women is never taken seriously - we have much evidence of this right now - and thus, where some ideas are tacitly and happily given more approval than others. It sweet us to hear the "bait and switch" "alternative" as long as we don't have to consider the other alternative, and our complicity in promoting it.

    In my opinion, our discussions about art and freedom of expression in jamaica are quite behind the times. We can only begin to have any meaningful discussion about issues such as censorship when the domains of artistic expression actually represent a diverse array of ideas and possibilities that we can all struggle and engage with.

    Rght now, we are being held hostage both by moral crusaders and the cultural spokespersons who claim to know what is "right" for us and how and when we should think and act, both of whom give far more attention than necessary to the rather lazy artists (musical and otherwise) who refuse to take the kind of chances they should, to think outside of the box, and to render something meaningful to our existence. From all of them, all we get is the same-old same-old. The discussion of Renee's work was disappointing precisely because of this. The pursed-lipped silence from the powers that be combined with the students' tittering about the content and meaning of her work was really amazing - and at an arts college at that!


Thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts.