Mon | Oct 15, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | Art on the move at MoBay airport

Published:Sunday | November 12, 2017 | 12:00 AM

From the art gallery to the departure lounge! It's a bright and out-of-order idea: taking art out of context. A lot of Jamaicans don't go to art galleries. And it's not because we don't appreciate visual art. Just look at the way market vendors arrange fruits and vegetables on their stalls! It's functional art designed to catch your attention and make you buy beautiful food.

I know Half-Way Tree is pure visual noise, with all the 'trapaulin' hanging over makeshift stalls. Even the more substantial stalls, provided by Digicel, look so terrible with the ratty tarpaulin covers. Something has got to be done to sort out the square. But if you go around the corner, opposite the elegant bus terminal, you can admire the artistry of the vendors selling hats, belts, T-shirts, etc. Everything is lined up so creatively on the fence they've captured for their display.

One of these days, some enterprising foreigner is going to do a coffee table book on street vendors in Jamaica: the cane and coconut man; the peanut man; the water and soft drinks man; the rizzla paper woman; the mobile cook shop woman, and so many more micro entrepreneurs. Some of us will say, "The book look good, eeh! How we never think of dat?" Others will protest: "Those damned foreigners! Always taking us for a joke. Now they're pretending that indiscipline is art."

Dr Rafael Echevarne, CEO of MBJ Airports Ltd, is one of those clear-sighted foreigners who takes Jamaicans very seriously. And he knows the value of our art. MBJ Airports Ltd recently launched an artisan competition with a prize of US$1,000 for the winner and US$500 for second place. Plus, a ready market at the airport!

The criteria for judging are: functionality; cultural expression; retail pricing and quality of workmanship. The artwork "must feature an aspect of the island's personality that will make it distinct from generic souvenir items found in similar retail areas outside the airport". And made in China, I'm sure! The competition was advertised on the website of MBJ Airports Ltd and in The Gleaner and the Observer. Organisations such as the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association were informed. Unfortunately, only a few entries came in. So MBJ Airports is going to wheel and come again.




This Friday, the departure lounge at the Montego Bay international airport will be turned into a pop-up art gallery. The top 100 entries in the 2017 International Reggae Poster Contest (IRPC) will be showcased. This will be the 20th exhibition of posters from the contest. In 2012, the very first exhibition was held at the National Gallery of Jamaica. It was spectacular. The lyrics of the self-styled 'hotstepper', Ini Kamoze, were used to brand that distinctive exhibition: "World a reggae music!"

Over the last five years, there have been exhibitions in Greece, Cyprus, Mexico, Spain, Poland, England, the US and Cuba. The contest graphically illustrates the global reach of Jamaican popular culture. It inspires visual artists across the world to create startling images that cross sensory borders: reggae music from sound to sight.

The brilliant posters in the MoBay exhibition are simultaneously global and local. All the artists pay tribute to the Jamaican roots of ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall. But they also acknowledge the far-reaching branches of roots culture. They reinterpret the story of origins in new ways that express their own cultural values and artistic practices. All of the prize-winning posters over the years can be viewed on the contest website:




The International Reggae Poster Contest is the brainchild of Jamaican graphic designer Michael 'Freestylee' Thompson, who saw himself as an artist beyond borders. He conceived the contest as a platform for the erection of a world-class Reggae Hall of Fame museum and performance centre in downtown Kingston. Another objective of the IRPC is to big up the Alpha Boys' School. Some of Jamaica's most talented musicians are products of Alpha: for example, Don Drummond, Desmond Dekker and Yellowman.

Michael shared his big idea with Maria Papaefstathiou, a Greek graphic designer in Athens. Together, they developed the contest into a global brand. Regretfully, Michael died last year. A memorial exhibition opens on November 18 at Spanish Court Hotel, thanks to the generosity of the CEO, Christopher Issa. It features 50 vibrant posters designed by Michael, which he imagined as 'Roots'.

The posters focus on the heroism of Jamaican warriors such as Queen Nanny of the Maroons, Paul Bogle and Marcus Garvey. And, by the way, the Garvey bust at the University of the West Indies, Mona, has been restored. It look pitiful same way. By contrast, Michael's splendid portrait of Garvey evokes all the dignity and grandeur of our first national hero.

'Roots' also highlights some of the festering global problems that need urgent attention: the tragedy of war and forced migration. Michael's politically engaged poster art reaches beyond borders to embrace diverse cultures, establishing communities of empathy. As art moves out of the gallery to more accessible public spaces, it pulls viewers in. From all bout!

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and