"Out of many one is tru but only a few on page 2." That's the irreverent quip on a street sign crafted by the illustrator and mural painter Matthew McCarthy for his 'New Jamaica' project. On May 23, the sign was published on the Observer's Page 2 with the shameless caption, "Same Way So!"
McCarthy is one of 10 artists featured in the National Gallery's current exhibition, 'New Roots'. His in-your-face graffiti installation, 'PUT DIS ON Page 2', invites audience participation. I happily added my tag: 'Gwaan!'
The last time I publicly drew attention to that infamous page, I got into trouble. I made the mistake of using the R-word to describe the Observer's editorial policy in a column, 'Dying to be beautiful?', published on January 8, 2012. I should have been more diplomatic. Race is not a topic for polite conversation in Jamaica. Much more racism! If you call racism by its right name, you run the risk of being called a racist.
A few days later, a disclaimer was published on The Gleaner's website, headed 'Correction & Clarification'. It must have also appeared in hard copy: "Professor Carolyn Cooper labelled the Jamaica Observer's editorial policy relating to Page 2 social coverage as racist. We wish to state that we have no evidence to suggest that this is basis (sic) of the newspaper's decisions cocnerning (sic) its social coverage. The Gleaner Company does not share Dr Cooper's assessment of the Observer's editorial policy. We regret the publication of the offending words."
The Gleaner's attempt at damage control gave quite a few people a good laugh. I suppose the lawyers conferred and a decision was taken to play fool fi ketch wise. Costly lawsuits, even over the truth, don't make sense these days. Legacy media are in enough difficulty as it is.
I got that skilfully evasive term, 'legacy media', from a BBC series on the subject. It evokes lineage, pedigree, history, heritage, tradition, and, of course, incalculable value that can be passed on from generation to generation. In our context, 'legacy' is the long-distance run of the broadsheet as distinct from the much shorter sprint of the hurry-come-up tabloid.
That somewhat dodgy label, 'legacy media', also confirms the fact that old-fashioned media, like newspapers, are at risk of extinction - both broadsheet and tabloid. The recent purchase of The Washington Post by the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, is a clear sign of the times. Newspapers are going virtual. But online papers have limitations. You can't wrap up fish, line a chicken coop, or soak up water with soft copy. It's a virtual impossibility. For all of that, you need to keep on buying your hard-copy Gleaner - still the generic name for newspaper for many Jamaicans of a certain age.
Whether the Observer intended it or not, 'Page 2' has now become a coded way of talking about colour and class consciousness in Jamaica. Sounds so much better than 'racist', doesn't it? A highly placed black woman in a private-sector firm recently told me about the disparaging way she was described by a detractor. Not to her face, but still: "She's not even Page 2 material."
INT'L REGGAE POSTER CONTEST
The National Gallery does showcase subversive art. But, in its own way, the institution can be rather conservative. In my column, 'Afro Supa Heroes and Jamaicons', published on September 29, I expressed the opinion that the National Gallery "doesn't put a high price on popular culture". I used the example of the way in which the Gallery has handled the invitation to exhibit the top 100 entries in the International Reggae Poster Contest, co-organised by Michael 'Freestylee' Thompson and Maria Papaefstathiou.
In response, the Gallery's executive director, Dr Veerle Poupeye, wrote a letter to the editor, headlined 'National Gallery didn't spurn poster exhibit', which was published on October 1: "The public will recall that the National Gallery last year showed the 100 best entries in the inaugural International Reggae Poster Contest, and this was not done 'grudgingly', as Professor Cooper claims, but supported wholeheartedly once we had established a mutually convenient time with the organisers."
This is not the whole story. It wasn't simply a matter of timing. The National Gallery, at first, did not agree to host the exhibition and sent the organisers to another exhibition space which turned out to be inappropriate. I gather that it was the intervention of the Ministry of Youth and Culture that persuaded the National Gallery to "wholeheartedly" support the poster exhibition.
Dr Poupeye asserts, "We have not, as Professor Cooper claims, declined to show the 2013 Reggae Poster Competition, nor were we specifically asked to do so." Dr Poupeye's cunning syntax conceals the facts. At a meeting convened to discuss future collaboration, Dr Poupeye informed Michael Thompson that the National Gallery would not host the 2013 exhibition. There was no opportunity "specifically" to ask the Gallery to do what it had already determined not to do.
Mr Thompson left that meeting with no clear sense of the National Gallery's firm commitment to hosting an exhibition in 2014. A year later, Dr Poupeye herself now states, somewhat tentatively, "We have offered the organisers the option of exhibiting the best of the competition every two years, possibly as a special section of our own Biennial exhibition, the next edition of which will be held in 2014."
Dr Poupeye alleges, "Professor Cooper also made general claims that the National Gallery is not receptive to contemporary popular culture." I said no such thing. Dr Poupeye is a native of Belgium, a country with three official languages - Dutch, German and French. She's long been resident in Jamaica, so I expect she understands the meaning of our cautionary proverb, 'Finger never seh 'look ya', im always seh 'look deh'.'
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 email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.