- Whose Monument?The Battle to Define, Interpret, and Claim Emancipation
The controversy surrounding Laura Facey Cooper's monumental sculpture Redemption Song exposed many schisms present in Jamaican society along class, race, and intellectual lines, and demonstrated just how many competing perspectives are vying to define who we are as a nation and who we should become. Perhaps most importantly, the passionate discussion exposed that there is an elitist school of thought which holds that a selection of cultured experts should be allowed to define, interpret, and create our cultural norms, our national symbols, our very identity.
Who Is Qualified to Judge?
Oonu leave de people-dem sop'm alone!1—Remark heard on a JUTC #76 bus, in response to the uproar that erupted among commuters as the bus passed by the Redemption Song statues in August 2003 [End Page 170]
When David Boxer, director emeritus/curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica referred to the criticism of the statues as "vulgar epithets spat out by an unknowing and uncaring public," he could not have imagined that on a public bus a rather bedraggled Rastafarian missing a few teeth would express similar sentiments, albeit in the local vernacular that has possibly never passed from Dr. Boxer's lips.2 This Rastaman was peeved that the people on the bus (mostly downtowners) dared to so vocally criticize the monument that "the people-dem" had erected. There are two important premises underlying his brief outburst. First, that the opinion of those eminently qualified people who had deemed the monument good was more valid than the opinion of anyone on the bus. Second, that the monument was in fact the property of the same nebulous group that had commissioned and created it. He did not claim ownership of the monument for himself nor did he defend it by saying that he liked it, since he did not consider it his place to even have an opinion. His defense of the monument was that those who had created it, and owned it, knew what they were doing, and he was perfectly willing to accept that, and wished others to do the same. This man, and many others like him, did not feel worthy of exercising his right to dissent and participate in this national debate as a citizen of a democracy and as a (supposed) taxpayer.
The view that certain segments of Jamaica's society are not qualified to judge Redemption Song was not uncommon among commentators who supported the monument. Some attempted to explain the negative reaction of some Jamaicans by saying that the monument's detractors did not understand its symbolism, and were neither cultured nor open-minded enough appreciate fine art (mostly defined in the classical European style). For example, a letter to the editor published in the DailyGleaner on 8 August 2003 stated, "I assure you that the Jamaican who has stood in awe at viewing the Sistine ceiling is most certainly not the Jamaican now in a furore over Redemption Song. No, the tirade is quite simply a manifestation of ignorance in some quarters."
According to this perspective the dissenting members of the public were ignorant barbarians in need of edification—closed-minded and parochial, with a vulgar addiction to representational and "gestural" art.
The Emancipation Park Advisory Committee apparently endorsed the idea that the public needed education. During the controversy following the unveiling of the monument, the committee issued a full-page newspaper advertisement intended to "provide greater clarity in the minds of persons." The advertisement contained an explanation of [End Page 171] the selection process for the design of the monument and an explanation provided by the artist of the symbolism of her work.3
In this release the public was informed that the selection of a design for the monument had been conducted by the National Housing Trust (NHT), with the guidance and direction of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. It also stated, "The panel of judges . . . comprised a group of Jamaicans, who, based on their respective areas of expertise and experience, were considered (by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust and the NHT) competent to judge a competition of that nature." The...