Annie Paul | A Sunday in Montego Bay
Sunday gone, I made a day trip to Montego Bay for the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Michael Lester at National Gallery West. We sped across the length of the island in two hours and 15 minutes using the new highway. Twice we were stopped by police, but, because of the presence of a name-brand politician in the car, not detained longer than to exchange pleasantries.
The Gallery is a lovely space in the historic former courthouse, now the Montego Bay Cultural Centre. As we had arrived an hour earlier than expected, we took in the latest edition of Classics on the Cobblestones, a charming event designed to showcase young talent in the Bay - "melodious sound by classical music ensemble". Organised and compered by Valerie O'Brien, we listened as 13-year-old Joseph Davis played Mendelssohn on the piano, taking turns with singer Tahir Thompson to entertain the audience.
At first, there was only a trickle of people, but the hall soon filled with families out with their children, parents, aunts, uncles and grandmothers in tow, all dressed in their Sunday best. By the time 'Rising Stars' finalist Anna Mariah came on, it was time to move to the wing of the building housing National Gallery West, a splendidly restored space repurposed for art.
Displayed there were brilliantly coloured paintings by Polish seaman and painter Michael Lester, capturing the Bay as it used to be in the 1950s and '60s before the ravages of the late 20th century made it the rather frowsy tourist town it is today.
Lester, nee Leszczynki, was an inveterate mariner and painter whose love for the sea and boats made him a career as a maritime artist in England. In the late 1940s and early '50s, Jamaica became a haven for several distinguished Europeans fleeing the aftermath of World War II that had left their cities in rubble and ruins. The famous English playwright Noel Coward, who made his home in St Mary, is perhaps the best known of these; he, too, liked to paint and found Jamaica a stimulating source of subject matter, though unlike Lester, he wasn't particularly good at it.
Lester arrived in Jamaica in 1952 on a bauxite ship and lived here till he died in 1972. Nathan Robb, who opened the exhibition, recalled how he and his classmates would frequently encounter the 'white man' knocking around the streets of Montego Bay with his canvas and paintbrushes. Lester and his wife started an art gallery called Lester Gallery, but only hit the jackpot when Heinz Simonitsch of Half Moon Resorts offered Lester the walls of the hotel to display his work.
A CULTURAL RESPITE
National Gallery West is particularly well located in the Montego Bay Cultural Centre at Sam Sharpe Square. The building is located where the old courthouse used to be, where the famous national hero and leader of the Christmas Rebellion of slaves and his fellow rebels were sentenced to death. They were hanged in the square in front of the courthouse, now commemorated with beautiful life-size sculptures of Sharpe and his band. Behind the building is an obelisk bearing the names of all the slaves who were hanged for demanding their freedom.
Kay Sullivan, the sculptor who cast the Christmas rebels in bronze, tells a lovely story of visiting her various works along the north coast to give them a thorough cleaning a few years ago. On reaching Sam Sharpe Square, she noticed that there were grains of rice in Sharpe's mouth. Startled, she looked around and saw a man sitting in the square eating a box lunch. "Yes, ma'am," he said, "every day I come here and make sure Mr Sharpe gets his dinner."
I applaud the Montego Bay Cultural Centre and the National Gallery for reviving such historic spaces and turning them into places the citizenry can visit of a weekend enjoying a cultural respite from the tensions and worries of daily life.
Kingston, too, is badly in need of spaces that families can go on a weekend to relax and be enriched in each other's company. A police constable who works at Kingston Central tells me that the worst day of the week for them is a Sunday when people are cooped up together in their tiny homes with nowhere to go. Tempers flare and fights break out, with wounded citizens inevitably ending up at the police station.
In that regard, what's happening with the refurbishing and expansion of Heroes Park in Kingston? The city urgently needs more parks, squares, music halls and galleries if the current downward spiral is to be reversed.
n Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @anniepaul.