Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Annie Paul | Garvey Lite?

Published:Friday | June 2, 2017 | 6:00 AM
Raymond Watson’s bust of Marcus Garvey.

During his lifetime, Garvey was much vilified, as those who fight the status quo often are. Born in Jamaica, he strode forth boldly into the world and changed it by rallying people of African origin who had been systematically exploited and denigrated by slavery.

His influence rebounded all the way from the Americas to Africa, where he promised to take all those who wanted to 'go back home' in the immortal words of Jamaican singing star Bob Andy. To the pre-eminent shipping enterprise of the day, White Star Line, he counterpoised his Black Star Line, a fleet of ships that would carry the descendants of slaves back to Africa. The rest is history.

Decades after they're gone, how do we memorialise such individuals? In May 2017, during a short run of Garvey: The Musical, a bust of the great man was unveiled at the UWI, Mona. Members of the Marcus Garvey Movement on campus had demanded a statue of Garvey after a life-size one of Mahatma Gandhi was installed there a few years ago. 'How could the university pay tribute to an Indian leader before even nodding in the direction of its own home-grown hero?' they asked.

Accordingly, Professor Waibinte Wariboko, a Nigerian by birth, volunteered to take on the task of arranging for a suitable monument to the great man. Sculptor Raymond Watson was commissioned to produce a bust, the university's slender resources not stretching to accommodate the expense of a full-bodied statue.

Details of the commission, such as the brief presented to the sculptor, are unknown, but on May 19, the bust was duly unveiled. The ceremony was timed to coincide with the visit of Professor Rahamon Adisa Bello, vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos in Nigeria, who jointly unveiled it with the Mona principal Archibald McDonald. When they ritually removed the cover, a gasp of consternation went up from the audience. Rastafari representatives started grumbling loudly that this was the statue of an imposter, not Garvey. This slim, unremarkable, downtrodden-looking person could never represent the magnificent Marcus Garvey, they said. Many agreed.

 

#NOTMYGARVEY

 

"Garvey seems poorly. His posture conveys passivity. He looks like a weakling," declared Carolyn Cooper in her column. #NotmyGarvey, protested lecturer Isis Semaj-Hall, commenting on what she called the "slimmed-down interpretation". Xavier Hutchinson accused the sculptor of "fat-shaming one of my heroes".

Suzette Gardner was kinder to Watson: "Maybe he was trying to inspire young people capturing Garvey as a youth. Still, Garvey might have been slimmer, but his head was always big. Give us our big-headed Garvey so the youth can know him as he was - young or old!"

According to Am'n Ron: "Regardless of the artist's explanation this presentation should never have been approved. This was a moment for a recognisable rendering that will last through the generations and not a moment for a random artistic interpretation. ... I fully appreciate the spirit of the mounting of a Garvey bust, and I agree that it was overdue, but I'm in agreement with the woman who calmly said, 'Tek it dung!' To those who have the authority, please replace it. It feels disrespectful."

For me, the problem wasn't so much that the bust didn't look anything like the Garvey we feel we've come to know and love. It's the scale and unambitious scope of the representation that bother me. The only other lifelike sculptures on campus are of Mahatma Gandhi (Indian) and Philip Sherlock (white), both full-body representations. Then for the champion of black identity, you have a modest bust. It's a problem, to say the least.

In the weeks since the unveiling, calls have been mounting for the removal of the 'fake' statue of Garvey. The Gandhi and Sherlock sculptures were gifts to the university, and it may be that those who feel strongly about this might have to undertake to commission a better representation of Garvey that can be situated at the UWI or some other location.

In future, any public commissions of art should be informed by the well-documented history of responses to public monuments in Jamaica. Edna Manley lecturer and first Stuart Hall Fellow Petrina Dacres has written an entire thesis on the subject. There is no excuse to be caught by surprise like this. Contrary to what many seem to think, commissions of public statuary are not occasions for artists to wield artistic licence and express themselves as they would with work meant for a gallery or private setting.

- 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 columns@gleanerjm.com or tweet @anniepaul.