In 2012, for the first time in its almost 40-year history, the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) hosted an exhibition of poster art. It was a coup. As was to be expected, there were initial reservations about the elitist gallery descending to the level of pop art. It is certainly true that, in recent years, the Gallery has been hosting events, featuring popular culture, particularly music, in its excellent Last Sundays series. But, I suppose, a poster exhibition was not quite the same thing. I think the art was seen as ephemeral, just not up to the standard of the usual high-brow work exhibited in the Gallery.
Furthermore, this was to be an exhibition of reggae posters. And even though the Gallery is located here in downtown Kingston where reggae music is rooted, that connection did not seem to make the prospect of the reggae exhibition any more attractive. But, sanity prevailed and the Executive Director at the time, Dr. Veerle Poupeye, did agree to host the very first exhibition of the International Reggae Poster Contest. And the posters were judiciously hung by Dr. David Boxer.
For that exhibition, the posters were placed in the inner galleries. This signified, I think, acceptance of their legitimate place within the National Gallery. But their placement was, ironically, rather conventional. The posters had now been dubbed as upper case Art, however reluctantly. By contrast, the location and layout of the current exhibition are both much more imaginative. The use of this relatively public space and the concentration of the posters in a single place simulate the in-your-face immediacy of street art. This exhibition mirrors the one held at the Montego Bay International Airport, thanks to the vision of Dr, Rafael Echevarne, CEO of MBJ Airports Ltd. The MoBay exhibition was mounted outdoors and attracted a huge audience. It might seem counter-intuitive to take art out of the Gallery and into the streets. It is not. Enticing viewers to appreciate art in unusual locations might just make them want to visit a real-real gallery.
“World-a-reggae music on ya eh” – the words of the Hotstepper, Ini Kamoze – were the inspiration for the title of the very first exhibition. It remains a constant theme, as is so vibrantly illustrated in the diverse nationalities of the graphic designers whose posters are exhibited here. The winner of the very first contest was Alon Braier, a freelance illustrator and reggae musician living in Jaffa, Israel. His brilliant poster, ‘Roots of Dub’, featured King Tubby, Lee Scratch Perry, and Augustus Pablo. Braier used concentric circles to represent dub echoes. He got it completely right. I knew he had to come to Jamaica for the opening of that inaugural exhibition.
So I got in touch with my sparring partner, Ainsley Henriques, then honorary secretary of the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica. He immediately caught the vision of cross-cultural exchange. With the support of the Israeli government, Alon was able to come to the Promised Land of reggae.
The winner of the current exhibition, from Bolivia, also won a trip to Jamaica funded by the MBJ, thanks to the vision and generosity of Dr, Rafael Echevarne, CEO of the company. came to Jamaica for the opening of the 24th exhibition at the Montego Bay airport. It was a red carpet affair.
The exhibition returned to the Gallery in March after going all over the world as Maria will tell you. Co-founder with Michael Thompson of the International Reggae Poster Contest, Maria Papaefstathiou is now an honorary Jamaican. She has embraced our culture with passion.
A couple of weeks ago, Maria sent me an excited email.
“And I didn’t tell you… who is coming to Athens in June ????????” – (8 question marks!) She continued, “I am soooo excited! (4 o’s) I only wish I could go on stage and give him a big hug… 🙂 (one smiley face) But anyway, it is good he will be here :))))) (5 smiley faces)h
So I hope you have guessed it already.”
Of course, I immediately knew. I wrote back to Maria, “It must be Damian Marley. Who else?” Maria is a huge fan of Junior Gong’s music and designed a brilliant poster of him. I said to her, here’s your big opportunity to meet Damian and give him the poster personally. So we’ve been conspiring to with Jerome Hamilton to make it happen.
Maria is an outstanding example of so many reggae fans across the globe who have embraced Jamaican culture. But her passion extends beyond fandom. She has made a commitment to sustain the International Reggae Poster Contest even after the death of the co-founder, Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson. It is an honour to collaborate with her as a board member of the contest. Nuff respect is due to you, Maria!