Dudus entraps a nation and enchants an artist
Erin Hansen, Contributor
Saturday evening's launch of 'The Dudus Chronicles', the art exhibition focused on the strongman Christoper Coke, was the climax of a drama which ambushed the plans of a Belizean artist who travelled to Jamaica to understand dancehall but has come to understand so much more.
But Hubert Neal Jr's collection of 26 paintings capturing the monthlong military and police hunt for Coke, now in a United States federal lock-up on drug-trafficking and gunrunning charges, is as fortuitous as it is monumental. (He arrived here a few days before the May 23 upheavals, which triggered a military backlash in Coke's Tivoli Gardens fortress, on an artist residency with the Roktowa Studio for a dancehall project).
Neal first approached the concept of 'The Dudus Chronicles' with hesitation, committing to only one piece, before gradually allowing the project to evolve into an entire collection.
"I decided to do one piece, 'The Hunt for Dudus', but from the painting sprang another and another and pretty soon I was overflowing with ideas," said the artist.
Neal culled a wide range of sources for his chronicles, including media and police reports, while also engaging urban myths.
"I realised my subject was all around me," Neal said of the unrest, which inspired the collection of often violent and disturbing imagery.
The artist was quick to point out that the pieces were his perspective on the tragedy that unfolded.
"The event was a pivotal moment in Jamaican history," he told The Gleaner. "All history is an exploitation of the past."
Expressions of personal experience
Grosvenor Galleries curator Douglas Reid said more artists needed to express their personal experience as Neal had done.
"What makes Hubert a good artist is that he is open, that he is open to being autobiographical," he said.
Neal's initial piece, 'The Hunt for Dudus', is particularly emotionally effective. Using a storyboard format, the artist composes a plotline of mourning mothers and warring men, with a singular wide eye that stares back at its viewer. At the centre of the exhibition is a painting of a mass-burial site.
In his opuses that directly engage Dudus, Neal endows him with an ungraspable identity, by either blocking out his face in 'Wet', giving him the thematic wide-eye character's face in 'Driving Ms Dudus', or revealing only a pair of eyes behind the doors of solitary confinement in 'Solitary'. In these creations, 'Dudus' is more of an idea than a literal expression.
As for Neal's own inspiration to develop 'The Dudus Chronicles', he said, "It's my view of something I could not ignore."
While the artist emphasised that he remains unbiased as a non-native observer, he stated, "It still affects me when people die. I believe we can do things better."
One soldier and 73 civilians were killed in the Tivoli military incursion.
'The Dudus Chronicles' will be on display at Grosvenor Galleries in St Andrew for two weeks.