Welcome to the 25th Art of Reggae Exhibition, showcasing the 101 top-ranking entries in the 6th International Reggae Poster Contest!
It is a great pleasure for me to be here today at the National Gallery of Jamaica, 7 years after our very first exhibition was mounted in this space. I must thank Geoff Lewis of Paperboy Ja., one of our sponsors, who made the necessary connections and enthusiastically gave his support for this exhibition and, more broadly, for the Contest.
And I thank Jonathan Greenland who embraced the Contest with such love and agreed to host the exhibition here. And our major sponsor, Montego Bay Airports Limited and its CEO, Rafael Echevarne. And, also my good friend and member of the board, Dr. Carolyn Cooper, who was the main person who encouraged me to keep my head up after the co-founder of the contest, Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson, suddenly passed away in the summer of 2016. I dedicate this day to him: a brilliant artist, a committed activist and a passionate visionary. ‘Freestylee’ saw himself as an artist without borders. I know he is here with us in spirit, penetrating the barrier between this world and the next.
I invite you to observe a minute of silence in honour of Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson.
So, let me now tell you a little about myself. I come from Greece, a country with a rich mythology of duppy stories. That’s why I’m so sure Michael is here. I’m a visual artist based in Athens. In the spring of 2011, my first poster on the theme of Japan’s earthquake was exhibited in South Korea. Today, my social design posters are exhibited all around the world. The most distinguished ones were designed for the “Mandela Poster Project” and the “Breast Cancer early detection” campaign. The latter poster is part of the project “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” curated by one of our jury members, Elizabeth Resnick. The Mandela poster was selected as one of the 95 best that helped to raise money for the Mandela Children’s Hospital.
I met Michael Thompson online as I was searching for unique and eye-catching posters to share on my blog, Graphic Arts News. Very soon, he told me about his vision to see a grand museum on Reggae in the city of its birth, Kingston. He conceived it as the Reggae Hall of Fame Museum and Performance Centre. For Michael, this museum would be an architectural masterpiece that would attract visitors from all over the world. It would not only be a place to learn about the history of reggae. The building itself would be a work of art. It would be in the league of iconic buildings such as those conceived by Frank Gehry, Michael’s favourite architect.
In Michael’s words, “Ska, Rocksteady, Reggae and Soundsystem are Jamaica’s biggest cultural exports. Reggae Music and its sub-genres such as Dancehall and Dub are ever finding new ground in Europe and other parts of the world. It is time to celebrate the rich narratives of those characters who made this powerful music; names like Lee Stratch Perry, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Trojan, Kilimanjaro, Studio One, Yellowman, Big Youth. These are not just important names but iconic brands recognised globally. Reggae is played in all corners of the world from South Africa to Japan from Rio to Berlin. This is the time to big up all the pioneers who made this incredible music possible. This music has inspired millions and spawned many other popular global music such as Rap, Electronica, Dubstep etc. The respect for Reggae is ever growing as a new generation embraces Jamaica’s culture and makes it their own. What would be more fitting than to some day in the future see the construction of an iconic structure to celebrate the wonderful music in the land and city of its invention?”
Michael wanted to find a way to start a conversation with the world about his vision. He wanted to find a medium to draw attention to the grand enterprise of establishing a Reggae Hall of Fame Museum and Performance Centre in Kingston. He wanted to see if others would share his big dream. He started designing posters about it. Many people all over the world saw the posters and assumed that the building already existed! They kept asking Michael where it was located. They wanted to visit the museum. From those conceptual posters, the idea flourished. Michael concluded that the ideal medium for his mission would be a Poster Competition that would attract designers and artists from all over the world to create and share their love for reggae through art.
So one beautiful day in October 2011, Michael sent me a nice long message sharing with me his vision and asking me if I would like to help him. “There is no money involved in the project,” he advised. But I know when you love something, you don’t do it for the money but as you say in Jamaica, you do it “straight outta love”.
And such a love, but also a curiosity, was what drove the Chinese cello player Yo Yo Ma to establish the “silk road project”. He wanted to explore how the arts can advance global understanding. So he created a fantastic band consisting of musicians from Iran, Spain, China, Syria, and a dozen other nationalities.
What intrigued me about this project was the exchange of cultures and what this could create. Yo Yo Ma asked himself, Where does creativity come from? How do new ideas emerge? His answer: It is when cultures intersect. This is how you learn from each other’s culture and bring your new experiences to your own culture. This is what I learned from collaborating with Michael Thompson. I developed an interest in Jamaica and Reggae music because of Michael’s vision. I started designing my own posters for this little island with such a far-reaching music and culture.
Wherever we go, design surrounds us. Good and bad! In books, newspapers, magazines, catalogs, flyers, posters, tv, internet etc. Why? Because we need to communicate, and we use design to do this. The power of design has never been stronger than nowadays. Artists use their talents to communicate and convey messages to the world. One of the most powerful means to communicate has been poster design. Since the 1880s when the lithographic print process was invented, artists were making posters. First, we saw the amazing posters of Toulouse-Lautrec in France. Later on, with the First European War, arrogantly dubbed as a World War, propaganda posters made their appearance. Since then, poster design has continued to flourish.
Michael Thompson fully understood the power of an eloquent poster. This is how he put it: “We live in this global community that is besieged by crisis. I asked myself, ‘What can I do to make a difference? How can I use Art to make a difference and spark change?’”
In the world of design and the arts, there are many poster competitions. Some focus on music, such as jazz and rock. Others carry social messages, such as No War, Peace, Justice, Poverty, Love, Politics, Culture, Migration, etc. But there is only one competition on Reggae. And our International Reggae Poster Contest can encompass all of the issues found in other social message contests. Because these are the messages that Reggae music talks about. These are the messages you see on the posters in this Contest.
The Contest started with great success and continues, with posters coming from all over the world. I still remember Michael’s excitement seeing posters coming from designers from Russia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Israel, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, and countries in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. And you know what is magical about a successful poster design? The message is clear to anyone, in any country, in any language. Engaging posters challenge the viewer. They are a call to action. And that is why the reggae poster contest has attracted so many designers and has spread so widely, just like the music itself.
In December 2011 we launched our first competition and received more than 1150 posters created by 678 designers from 80 countries. Since then, every year we have received more than 1200 posters from 75 to 80 countries, with more than 700 designers participating. The posters are judged online by a distinguished jury panel that consists of 21 well-known designers from different countries, such as Mexico, Italy, Greece, the USA, Canada, England, China, Israel, Bolivia and, of course, Jamaica.
Over the last six years, the contest has become a unique Jamaican cultural medium. We have had 6 Competitions, 25 worldwide exhibitions, and have gathered more than 6000 posters from more than 80 countries. This flowering of creativity confirms that Jamaica has touched the consciousness of the entire world.
In 2012 the winner came from Israel, in 2013 from UK, in 2014 from Sweden, in 2015 from Iran, 2016 from Russia and 2017 from Bolivia.
This underlines the positive message of Jamaica’s popular culture. You will agree with me that this is a fantastic achievement. These iconic posters represent a powerful visual narrative declaring that reggae is loved worldwide and its vibrating sound-waves continue to reach far and wide. Let’s take Greece for instance. One of the most significant and iconic reggae films, ROCKERS, was written and directed by a Greek national, Ted Bafaloukos who visited Jamaica in the 1970’s and produced an amazing film, which remains ever popular after 40 years.
The theme of the International Reggae Poster Contest, “Toward a Reggae Hall of Fame: Celebrating Great Jamaican Music!” is the mantra that drives our initiative. It’s the message that’s embedded in every exhibition. For us, the collective term “Reggae” represents all the popular Jamaican genres: Ska, Rocksteady, Roots Reggae, Dub, Dancehall and the Unique Jamaican Sound System. And still counting!
The exhibitions have traveled from Jamaica to so many countries: Greece three times, Miami two times, Washington DC two times, Mexico three times, Spain, Britain five times, Cyprus two times, Poland, Germany and Cuba. The exhibition in Cuba was very important because it was the first time that a Reggae exhibition – an event celebrating Reggae and Rastafari Culture – was organised in this Communist Country and sponsored by the Government of Cuba. It was a big deal for those who love Reggae music on the island. The symposium, hosted by Casa De las Americas, marked the 70th birthday of Bob Marley. It was particularly rewarding for Michael because it was in Cuba that he was first exposed to the art of the political poster.
In 2014 we had a beautiful surprise when the Portuguese Ministry of Justice sent a request to all prisons in Portugal to participate in the International Reggae Poster Contest. One of their posters got an Honorable Mention. Since then, they have continued to participate and last year we had a winner in the 70th place! The artists told us how Bob Marley’s songs keep them calm in prison and give them hope for the day when they will be released.
Another memorable achievement was the donation in 2014 of Bob Marley Posters to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston JA.
A major objective of the International Reggae Poster Contest is to celebrate the Alpha Boys School, the amazing Jamaican institution which has produced so many legendary musicians: Don Drummond, Desmond Dekker and Yellowman. This remarkable institution should be celebrated, and its vision replicated. Without this fertile training ground, we might not have seen the flourishing of the global music that we call Reggae.
When we visited the school in 2012, we talked to the students about the contest and told them that we get posters from countries they didn’t even know about. They were very impressed and felt proud to be part of a great musical tradition. We also introduced them to screen printing and showed them a poster designed by Michael and been screen-printed in Greece. That image became the school’s new logo and we sparked the idea for a new vocational screen-printing program at the school. Now, the Alpha students themselves screen-print t-shirts which are sold online to raise funds for the school.
In conclusion, the International Reggae Poster Contest is a persuasive visual reminder that reggae is no longer the music of only Jamaica. It belongs to the whole world. I know that many Jamaicans feel that your music has been stolen by foreigners who are the primary ones who benefit from the music. It is true that Jamaican artists are often sampled and ripped off by unscrupulous players in the international music industry. And even locally. But there is another side to the story. It’s not all about piracy and exploitation. I am a witness to the power of Jamaican music to bring people and cultures together in a spirit of mutual appreciation and respect.
And for that, I give nuff, nuff thanks!