Friday, 15 December 2017

OUT IN THE OPEN: How Marcus Garvey’s face value ignited a combustible mix of public opinion, art appreciation and controversy

SEEING GARVEY: Jamaica's first national hero was at the centre of one of the biggest news stories of the year.

Marcus Garvey was front and centre in one of the biggest news stories of the year, surrounding a Raymond Watson-designed bust erected in his honour on the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. Talking with some of Watson’s peers in the local art community, TALLAWAH explores how Garvey’s face value ignited a combustible mix of public opinion, art appreciation and controversy.

CONSTRUCTIVE criticism is always welcome, as it forms a critical component of the art appreciation (artist-and-viewer) dynamic. But when all is said and done, artists are sensitive about their work. Even more so when the piece they have created has been mounted in the public space for everyone (art lovers and regular folks) to consume. Reactions are often strong and swift.

Laura Facey’s Emancipation Park statue “Redemption Song”, Christopher Gonzalez’s Bob Marley homage erected in St. Ann and Edna Manley’s Paul Bogle tribute in St. Thomas (to cite a few examples) all bear testament to this fact.

More recently, Raymond Watson’s Marcus Garvey bust on the UWI Mona Campus ignited such a firestorm of controversy that the artist had to subject himself to a do-over request when the protests became deafening. To say the least, not many people would want to be in Watson’s shoes, in spite of the vast public attention that his work and his name have attracted.

That said, how does Watson’s contemporary art-community colleagues feel to see one of their own (and his work) put through such an ordeal in what has become one of the biggest headline makers of the year? For fellow sculptor Ronald Sullivan, the widespread complaints that Watson’s Garvey creation did not resemble the great man can’t be ignored.

“If it’s public art, it has to look like the person, bear a close enough resemblance, unless it’s an abstract work and the intent is for it to not necessarily look like the indiviual,” he told TALLAWAH, standing by his booth at the recent Liguanea Art Festival. Putting himself in Watson’s shoes, Sullivan added, “I would first hear what the complaints are and make my assessments. I wouldn’t dismiss them off-hand.”

Alphanso Blake agrees. “If I felt my work was up to standard, I would be offended, but honestly, the original scuplture did not look like Garvey. Public art has to be representational. The majority of the public is into realism. You have to give them the real thing.”

The vastly dissimilar tastes that lurk in the court of public opinion is precisley the reason why living legend Gene Pearson doesn’t accept commissioned jobs. “I would never take a commission to do a piece of public art. I would never do that,” said the Rastafarian artist, known for his stunning masks and other objet d’art. “I learned from Edna Manley, who did the Paul Bogle statue and people were complaining that she made it too ugly. You can’t please everybody. I would never want to put myself in that kind of position. So I don’t do public art. I’m not into that.”

Meanwhile, when asked if the Raymond-Watson-UWI-Marcus-Garvey saga reminds her of ‘her moment’ back in 2002, Laura Facey demurs. But she does admit that artists must brace for the varied kinds of responses that their work will generate. “People respond to the art when it’s out there. When art is in a public space, there will be millions of opinions,” she said, “and if you’re waiting for the public to appreciate something to your liking that might never happen.” 

But Jermaine Morgan, winner of this year’s First Place Jury Prize in the National Visual Arts Competition, believes the public has every right to express dissatisfaction (as the case may be) and the artist has the responsibility to take that into account. “As an artist you have to listen to the wider public. We put it out there for the public, so if the public does not buy into it we have to draw back and find out why,” he told TALLAWAH. “People are saying it is not a true representation of Garvey; it doesn’t capture the character of the man.” 

Still, have we been missing a crucial piece of the puzzle all along? According to Philip Supersad, Watson’s School of Visual Art (Edna Manley College) faculty colleague, Watson was initially instructed by those who hired him to create a likeness of Garvey – as a student! Has this bit of info been adequately publicized? 

DID YOU KNOW? Raymond Watson (the Marcus Garvey bust) and Basil Watson (the Usain Bolt statue) are sons of the late great Barrington Watson.

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