Articles

Something Queer About Jamaican Art

Protest signs (image via bigqueer.com)

In Kingston, Jamaica, making artwork that explores LGBT-related issues is becoming increasingly more accepted, however it still has the potential to be life threatening.

Harry* is an artist born in Jamaica who creates photographs that explore male sexuality. His work is not directly LGBT however his images depict men in various states of undress, whether standing, lying and posing on the edge of the beach surf. The men do not touch but are placed adjacent and diagonally to one another and the picture plane. These images are not overtly sexual, in fact they are more poetic than provocative. However showing them in the Jamaican capital may be tricky. The history of violent attacks on gay men and women attests to an entrenched cultural homophobia that makes exhibiting work outside the confines of a gallery difficult.

Jamaica's first Gay Pride, Montego Bay, 2010 (image via ukgaynews.org.uk)

This year, Jamaican lawmakers have actively introduced campaigns promoting the acceptance of gay relations. “Unconditional Love” is a campaign that incorporates former Miss Jamaica World and Miss Jamaica Universe, Christine Straw, publicly declaring her support for her gay brother, Matthew Straw. This program received a strong international push and the US Ambassador to Jamaica, Pamela E. Bridgewater, is on the record as lending her support:

The US Mission joins all partners in the fight against homophobia [because] as President Obama says, no one should be hated because of who they love.

A year prior, Montego Bay hosted 100 people for Jamaica’s first Gay Pride under the slogan “Walk For Tolerance,” which is a far cry from the scale of Gay Pride marches internationally but a positive — and very public — beginning.

In 1992, Jamaica’s hostility to LGBT people was catapulted into the limelight when international focus fell on Reggae star Buju Banton, whose infamous dancehall hit “Boom Bye Bye” [posted below] chanted anti-gay rhetoric suggesting that “battymen” (a Jamaican term for gay men) be set on fire and shot. Musicians Elephant Man and Bounty Killer, who also aggressively encourage the killing of gay people, later continued this rhetoric and further entrenched the cultural bias.

Veerle Poupeye, executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica offers a pragmatic explanation to the sporadic upsurges of prejudicial behavior:

The current public expressions of homophobia are also a response to the external pressures for reform, which reinforce an already pervasive view that homosexuality is an alien imposition onto Jamaican culture and it is my view that these issues will ultimately have to be addressed by dialogues and changes that take place within Jamaican society and on terms that are consistent with and sensitive to local histories and social and cultural dynamics. This is not going to be an easy process but there are encouraging signs that it is in actuality happening.

The 2011 Amnesty International Report for Jamaica reports that:

Scores of homophobic attacks, harassment and threats against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were reported to LGBT organizations, including at least three cases of “corrective” rapes of lesbians.

Installation view of Ebony Patterson's "Gangstas For Life" (2010) (photo courtesy the artist)

These rapes happen despite the fact that the “buggery and gross indecency” law governing homosexuality excludes lesbians from the term “homosexual.” Only used to describe men who have sex with men (MSM), this law sanctions discrimination against gay and bisexual men and in the same way violence becomes geared towards MSM. As a result people like Michael Hayden, an openly gay policeman, have been forced to leave and seek asylum overseas. Effectual change it seems needs to begin with local lawmakers.

Jamaica is a predominantly Christian community (of which the Rastafarian movement forms a part), and Kingston is home to the most churches per square mile than anywhere else in the world. As a result of this religious fervor the cultural landscape tends to be affiliated with conservative thinking. The visual art community in Kingston offers artists a congenial platform to express themselves openly. Exhibitions, such as the 2010 National Biennale at the Jamaica National Gallery have been able to overcome prejudical thinking by showcasing contemporary LGBT artists living both locally and abroad. Many of those living abroad continue a dialogue with Jamaica and continue to exhibit their work “at home.”

Detail of Ebony Patterson's "Gangstas for Life" (2010) (photo courtesy the artist)
 One such artist is Ebony Patterson whose drawings, paintings and monumental installations assert her identity as an urban Jamaican woman. When asked about her gender ideals, Ebony replies, “I have always felt that notions about gender are ever changing … Dancehall culture I have always seen as a ‘cultural’ waterhole where roles and norms are reaffirmed, in a overly misogynistic, homophobic and hyper-sexual culture, that is all held together by Christian morals and understanding … contradictions.”

Patterson transforms traditional motifs and portraiture by bedazzling and sequencing her work to echo the same upbeat and extroverted theatrics of Dancehall that on the one hand embodies a space to renegotiate identity andon the other re-entrenches stereotype and prejudice. Another artist who regularly shows his work in Kingston is Lawrence Graham-Brown, an openly gay artist residing in the United States. Graham-Brown was included in the National Gallery’s 2007 Curator’s Eye III exhibition, and despite the explicit and provocative nature of the work, it received no adverse response.

Veerle Poupeye further explains:

I’d like to caution that attitudes towards homosexuality in Jamaica are a lot more complex than it is often represented … (Harry’s*) work, that of other gay and lesbian artists, and of other artists who deal with gender issues in their work such as Ebony Patterson already contribute to the new, more even-handed and productive dialogues about sexual identity and, particularly, black masculinities that are currently emerging in Jamaican society. I thus believe that the terrain is changing in Jamaica, no matter how conflicted and incremental these changes may be, and that artists have an important role to play in these changes.

Despite the latent hostility toward homosexuality, Harry* is also positive and continues to exhibit his work. “Reflecting on the nature of the Jamaican audience, it is a mistake to underestimate their ability to move beyond their comfort zones,” he says.

*Harry is not the name of the artist but a name chosen to protect his real identity.

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