Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
The 'Equal Rights: Reggae for Social Change' exhibition which opens at the Institute of Jamaica, East Street, Kingston, this afternoon differs from the accustomed graphic exploration of Jamaican popular music. For while there are images of the performers, they are not concert shots. Where there are performers' pictures they are on album covers, because that is what the exhibition utilises.
A project of the Jamaica Music Museum, 'Equal Rights: Reggae for Social Change' ran for two years on the East Coast of the United States (US) after opening in March 2006 at the Karl Drerup Art Gallery at the University of Plymouth, New Hampshire. It was organised by Herbie Miller, director/curator of the Jamaica Music Museum; Joshua Chamberlin of Green Lion entertainment outfit; and Catherine Amidon, director of the gallery.
For this mounting of the exhibition, Miller said it has been expanded beyond what was done in the US. That was funded by a grant from the New Hampshire State Council of the Arts.
Explaining the approach of using album art, Miller said "I am into the arts in general and it dawned on me that many people buy records for the music. We all do. And few of us really pay attention to the art on the record covers. I always did," he said.
There is, of course, a difference between an album cover that is intended to have significant meaning and one which is simply there as a wrapper for the record. For the former, Miller uses the example of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Survival cover, on which Neville Garrick used the layout of a slave ship, with Africans packed together.
There are books which explore cover art of Jamaican albums, notably Stir It Up: Reggae Album Cover Art by Chris Morrow and The Cover Art of Studio One Albums, edited by Stuart Baker. In this exhibition, though, Miller said he thought that by paying attention to the cover art we could see, over the history of recorded Jamaican music, "we have shifted from how we were depicted by 'them' to how we choose to identify ourselves and our environment".
He spoke to the caricatures that were often used to a "move from that sort of depiction to show us as a dignified, cultural people like any others anywhere else".
So the exhibition starts at 'From the Roots' to 'Jamaican Art and Music: Inseparable Partners at the Birth of a Nation' (which includes mento), 'Freedom Sounds' (focusing on ska), 'Wailing Rude Boys' and 'Ras Daniel Hartman' (where Hartman's intended cover art for the Wailers' Burnin' album is one of the exhibits).
The core Wailers' trio - Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh - are given individual treatment, in a situation where many times Wailer and Tosh are neglected while Marley gets sole billing. Miller said "I have looked at the Wailers in a special way. Individually and collectively I consider them the most vibrant, most important group that Jamaica has produced - Individually they are among the most authentic, original and creative that this country has produced."
FROM TOSH TO RASTA
After Tosh, 'Equal Rights: Reggae for Social Change' moves to 'Rastafari: Dreadlocks inna Babylon' and ''Oman', the latter focusing on the contribution of women. Miller pointed out that Miss Lou is positioned as the mother and noted the contribution of Sonia Pottinger, Hortense Ellis and Phyllis Dillon, among others.
After 'Africa and Black Consciousness', the exhibition ends with 'Word Soun' Ave Power', where the poets are featured. Among them are Mikey Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mutabaruka, Oku Onuora, Jean Breeze and Edward Brathwaite.
"We cannot overlook some of the innovations Jamaica has given the world, from deejaying to dub poetry," Miller said. However, dancehall does not make 'Equal Rights: Reggae for Social Change'. Miller puts this down to several reasons. One is that the exhibition focuses on albums and "dancehall came into its own in the CD era".
Another is the sheer magnitude of the genre. "Dancehall poses so many questions it deserves an exhibition that focuses on it. It will get to it in its own time," Miller said.