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“The Gaze of the Natives”: Visualizing Reggae Music as CD Artwork
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In An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque, Krista Thompson explores some of the earliest visual representations of the Anglophone Caribbean. She explains that starting in Jamaica in the late nineteenth century, “proponents of the tourist trade recognized that the idea of Jamaica would have to be reinvented in the imaginations of North American and British audiences.” This “reinvention” strategy became necessary in the face of Jamaica’s floundering sugar economy and was crafted with the hope that these newly shaped images of Jamaica would stimulate travel to the island as well as investment and white migration. As a result of these objectives, around the turn of the twentieth century, Jamaica underwent a makeover, enabled by photographs that “perpetuated an image of the island as primarily a place of nature and, more specifically, as landscape in which nature displayed the charms of a ‘picturesque tropical garden.’” Through images, often on postcards, the island was transformed from a struggling postemancipation economy stifled by “lazy black natives” and an abundance of tropical diseases to a luxuriant and inviting paradise. In Consuming the Caribbean, Mimi Sheller also explores the “reinvention” strategies that suffuse portrayals of the region and explains: “It could be argued that there is no ‘primal nature’ in the Caribbean both because so much of it has been constructed by human intervention and because every aspect of it is dosed with a heavy infusion of symbolic meaning and cultural allusions.” In other words, representations of the region are all mythic, including those perpetuated by the earliest images.

The nineteenth-century Edenic visual interpretation of Jamaica as “picturesque” involved photographically fashioning both the island’s geographic landscape as well as its inhabitants as either “exotic” or “orderly.” Visual renderings of Jamaica shaped by this underpinning desire to showcase the extraordinary and the extra-orderly became manifest in photographs of objects such as highly unusual trees and flawless gardens. Additionally, black and East Indian “natives” were posed as if engaged in various productive undertakings; these poses intended to lessen European anxieties about “native” work ethics and cleanliness. In “Cane Cutters” and “Banana Carriers,” which appear in Picturesque Jamaica, by A. Duperly and Sons, black men and women are posed with the tools of their labor amidst towering stalks of cane or dutifully balancing bananas on their head while obediently immobilized for the camera.

A century later, another group of images of black Caribbean bodies has emerged on the global marketplace: CD art on reggae dancehall compilations. These images operate in a similarly performative space as the nineteenth-century Jamaican postcards. The connection between these seemingly disparate visual representations created a century apart, one primarily photographs, the other graphic art, may seem tenuous, but the manner in which the looker interacts with these images is similar. As E. Ann Kaplan points out, “Looking relations are never innocent,” but are shaped by the “cultural systems” of the looker. Just as those reinvented images of Jamaica were distributed in the global marketplace of touristic desire in the late eighteen-hundreds to spur a flagging economy, reggae dancehall CD cover art provides another type of “eye for the tropics.” Disseminated globally to generate sales of the music, the graphic designs that adorn reggae dancehall CDs provide an enticing visual peek at the music contained within. Unlike the disciplined black bodies captured in the nineteenth century, the bodies on the CD jackets are disorderly but also configured in poses to inspire consumer desire.

Click for larger view
Fig 1. 

“Cane Cutters.”

Photo Courtesy of the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC), Gainesville. http://www.dloc.com/UF00103316/00001/.

Click for larger view
Fig 2. 

“Banana Carriers.”

Photo Courtesy of the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC), Gainesville. http://www.dloc.com/UF00103316/00001/.

This essay explores the cover art on reggae dancehall CDs in an effort to articulate a relationship between these contemporary artistic imaginings of the Caribbean and earlier efforts to render the region in images. Given historical impulses to craft images of Jamaica that make the island appealing at a particular moment in the interests of capital, I contemplate the ways that the cover art on the Strictly the Best CDs...

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