Washington, DC — “Dub poet Mutabaruka found it necessary to argue, in a public contribution on the subject, that the statue [Emancipation Monument], which represents a woman and a man, both nude standing in a pool of water and looking upward as a symbolic representation of the spiritual emancipation from Slavery, was ‘gay’ because the male figure did not respond sexually to the presence of the naked female figure.” explains Veerle Poupeye, Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica.
Artwork created for the public domain often presents a challenge for artists. Not only does the work need to be accessible to its constituents, it also needs to be sensitive to its surroundings and take into account its social and cultural context. In developing parts of the world this sensitivity needs to be even more acute as the circumstances surrounding an artwork are often ambiguous. Fundamental social issues such as unemployment, lack of health care and political disquiet factor in to the psyche of the viewing public, and as a result make the public’s response to an artwork unpredictable.
In 2003, Jamaican artist Laura Facey was selected from 16 submissions to erect a public sculpture for Emancipation Park, a community garden in the center of the capital, Kingston. Entitled “Redemption Song,” the monumental bronze cast sculpture depicts a towering 11-ft foot tall man and a woman. The artwork motif is simple: a man and woman, standing naked in water and looking upward towards the sky. As a monument for emancipation, the artist’s intention is to express the notion of togetherness as well as freedom from slavery. On the surface the sculpture appears to be harmless enough to avoid ethical or cultural objections, however given the cultural context of Jamaica the reading of the work became complex.
Shortly after “Redemption Song” was installed it received numerous protests that threw in to question its ability to adequately represent the notion of emancipation. Not only this, in addition to Mutabaruka’s complaint that the virility of the male figure was ignored, many found the overt nudity of the figures, specifically the male figure, offensive. “This illustrates that public representations of the male body are likely to be scrutinized in light of sexual identity, with sometimes bizarre and unpredictable results,” Poupeye explains.
Professor Carolyn Cooper went as far as to question the racial standing of the work in her essay “Enslaved in Stereotype: Race and Representation in Post-Independence Jamaica” stating:
… the monument appears to be a re-inscription of racist ideology, with its representation of the African Jamaican body as essentially dismembered.
In response the chief curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, David Boxer, came to the monument’s defense:
I see two human beings, two black human beings, one male, one female, standing in ‘the healing stream.’ They are resplendent in their purity; their heads are raised heavenwards in prayer … yes, this is a prayer — the work is a silent hymn of communion with, and thanksgiving to, the Almighty.
Laura Facey is considered one of the premiere practicing artists in Jamaica with extensive experience producing art of this scale and for public consumption. She does however come from a family who has been well entrenched in the politics and history of the country, suggesting that opposition may have been misdirected. It would be easier for citizens to express their dismay at the works approach to theme than to insinuate the artwork selection was bias. She is quoted saying:
Some people think I was the wrong gender, race and class to be the artist chosen for such a prominent piece of public art.
Her work was selected as part of a national competition that maintains the selection process was blind not revealing the names of the artists.
There is no question that Facey is an adequate artistic choice. She is wildly talented and comes from eight generations born and raised in Jamaica. “As an artist, you just have to keep creating and don’t pay attention to criticism,” she says.
Such, it seems, is the nature of making art in the public domain.