Afro Supa Heroes and Jamaicons

Published: Sunday | September 29, 2013 Comments 0
Carolyn Cooper
Carolyn Cooper

Carolyn Cooper

The global toy industry is notoriously racist and sexist. Like gods, toymakers create puppets in their own image. And the supreme puppetmakers are white and male. Naturally, most toys, for both boys and girls, reproduce stereotypes. Anorexic Barbie dolls and G.I. Joes on steroids have long defined the ideal body type for real children who can never ever measure up (or down).

And dolls are for girls and action figures for boys. No self-respecting boy would be caught dead with a dolly. After all, who would want a boy to grow up to be a man who could and would cheerfully prepare meals, feed children, change diapers and show love in action day after day? That's for girls who are systematically conditioned to assume their God-given role as domestic servant. Christmas gifts of leaking dolls and miniature household appliances accurately predict the fate of girls.

In the fantasy world of the toy industry, the real action for boys has little to do with either love or work. It's all about war and leisure. G.I. Joe is the prototype of action figures for boys. The first G.I. Joes were produced by the United States toy company Hasbro in the 1960s. They were branded Action Soldier, Action Sailor, Action Pilot and Action Marine, representing four of the five branches of the US armed forces. There was no Action Coastguard. I suppose Action Marine did double duty.

Action Nurse was later added to the line-up of dolls/action figures. As was to be expected, Action Nurse was female and white. And she came armed with a medic bag, a stethoscope, crutches, bandages, splints, and a bottle of plasma. Somebody had to look after Action Soldier, Action Sailor, Action Pilot and Action Marine when war put them out of action.

But Action Nurse didn't last. She didn't fit the mould. Rather homely, she wasn't really an ideal doll for girls. No competition for glamorous Barbie, who was a sex symbol without medical baggage. And Action Nurse wasn't enough action for boys. She was more like the clean-up crew. Action Nurse was manufactured for only one year. She's now a rarity and so the most valuable of all these early action figures. It doesn't work like that for women in real life. Less desired, more valued?

ICONIC ACTION FIGURES

G.I. Joe really wasn't the ideal hero for black boys growing up in the 1960s. They needed heroic figures in their own image. That's the compelling argument made by the British graphic designer and creative director Jon Daniel in a brilliant exhibition of black action figures and comics now on at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London. It's called 'Afro Supa Hero' and it documents Daniel's journey to define his identity in a society from which he often felt excluded.

In the exhibition notes, Daniel tells the intriguing story of how he started his museum-quality collection. Round about 1994, when he was in his late twenties, he came across a photo of a Malcolm X action figure which had been produced by the black-owned Olmec toy company. He was hooked. You know what they say: the only difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys.

In Jon Daniel's case, this toy wasn't just a costly indulgence. It signified so much of what had been missing from his childhood. Black power! He now has a collection of more than 40 action figures. I gather that his favourite is Super Agent Slade, modelled on Richard Roundtree's Shaft. Daniel has also collected black comic strips which are featured in the exhibition. These include Brother Voodoo, Lobo, Black Lightning and also a black historical comic featuring Martin Luther King, Pushkin and the heroic freedom fighter Harriet Tubman.

Daniel's long-standing commitment to documenting black heroes was again manifested last year in the spectacular installation he designed for Jamaica 50. Cleverly called 'Jamaicons', the outdoor exhibition was hung on the exterior wall of the famous Ritzy cinema in Brixton. It featured huge images of nine iconic Jamaicans - our own heroic action figures: Queen Nanny of the Maroons, Marcus Garvey, Mary Seacole, Grace Jones, Bob Marley, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Merlene Ottey, Michael Holding and Usain Bolt.

NOVELTY VALUE

When I visited the Afro Supa Hero exhibition, it struck me that it ought to travel to the Caribbean. Our children need to see these relatively rare images of black action figures and comic strips. The National Gallery would be an ideal venue. But, alas, it's not likely to happen. I've concluded that the National Gallery doesn't put a high price on popular culture.

Last year, the powers that be at the National Gallery grudgingly agreed, it now seems, to host an exhibition of the top 100 posters in the First International Reggae Poster Contest. Co-organised by graphic artists Michael 'Freestylee' Thompson and Maria Papaefstathiou, the contest was a huge success. As was the exhibition.

Surprisingly, the National Gallery declined the offer to mount another exhibition of this year's winners. The reggae posters seem to have had just novelty value. As far as I can tell, last year was the very first time in its almost 40-year history that an exhibition of posters was mounted at the National Gallery. And the novelty appears to have worn off rather quickly.

The stated mission of the National Gallery of Jamaica is "to collect, research, document and preserve Jamaican, other Caribbean art and related material and to promote our artistic heritage for the benefit of present and future generations". There must be a really good reason why the National Gallery refused to promote our artistic heritage this year, through the medium of the second International Reggae Poster Contest.

The Multitudes Gallery in Miami will host the exhibition instead. It's a great idea for the exhibition to travel. Last year's went to Thessaloniki and Athens. It's a pity it doesn't appear to be wanted in the home of reggae. And, maybe, I'm wrong. Perhaps, an exhibition of Jon Daniel's Afro Supa Heroes (and Jamaicons) may actually find favour with the powers that be at the National Gallery. He's a supa graphic designer. And he'd be another novelty.

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.

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