‘Vigil for Roxie’ performance in Jamaica

The inaugural performance of Vigil for Roxie was staged this year at Liberty Hall, Marcus Garvey’s UNIA headquarters.

Letters of the Dead performance package_V3

Posting by graduate assistant Anique Jordan

Throughout the last year and a half I have worked alongside Jamaican scholar and theatre worker, Honor Ford-Smith on her research project; Memory, Urban Violence and Performance in Jamaican Communities, more commonly known as Letters from the Dead. Her work looks at how communities affected by violence, remember, mourn and perform these memories. Specifically, its looks at performances of political protest, community vigils, memorial murals, music and drama, and questions how communities and individuals both complicate and articulate their responses to violence. The project has several notable elements to it which lift the academic work from the written page to the human body. This is done through community-led public interventions, art installations with images of the dead and participatory theatre, specifically the one woman play; Vigil for Roxie.

Vigil for Roxie intentionally brings all these elements together and forces a broader audience to confront the themes and questions at the foundation of the project. The one woman play, is performed by Jamaican actor, Carol Lawes.  It follows the life of  Miss Iris, a woman who’s son and local Don, Roxie, was violently murdered at the hands of the police. In Roxie’s memory, Miss Iris stages an annual vigil. Throughout the play the actress performs the roles of ten characters which together illustrate how different members of the community saw Roxie as both a local leader  and bod mon. Collectively the characters also offer the audience insight into the political context surrounding his death and memory.

This was the first public staging of Vigil in Jamaica and it was important, more than ever, to keep the play strongly rooted in the community. For me this is what made this production like nothing I had ever worked on before. While the play itself was already a collaboratively created script, the installation surrounding it was completely designed by community members, specifically, the Hannah Town Cultural Group. Here is where the idea formulated to make the entire experience a massive community vigil.

At 5:00pm on the dot, the audience started to funnel through the red iron gates of Liberty Hall, an old Garvey headquarter, and were enveloped into a sound scape of djembe rhythms and gospel songs, surrounded by memorial images of those past, hanging from close pins –a literal reminder of their lives on the line. The energy in the courtyard before the play even began was unmistakable, woman mainly, were celebrating, mourning, speaking softly and joining in song.   I knew this was staged, they knew they were audience members but somehow the rift between real life and theatre was blurred and people immersed themselves fully in the experience as performers of memory, then acting on their own.  This is what furthered the political content for me, the themes were no longer embedded in the lines of a script, they were being played out right before me, as a reminder of is urgency.

Im proud to be a part of creating a space that used art in such a profoundly political and personal way and to have learned different ways of letting go control to effectively share ownership. This experience was powerful for me and I left, like i often do, feeling richer and expectantly  filled with more questions than I came with. I now wonder if places of grieving are always reparative? and if not, what right did we have as artists to jog memories where maybe some have wanted to forget?  and further, What questions must we ask when trying to use art in sacred spaces and vice versa?

I know that Ive acted in creating this installation, I participated as a witness to it and now in writing, I am crafting my testimony of this experience and as much as I was present in the space, I was also want to recognize my role as an outsider, both culturally and geographically.  I was documenting a process as a form of art but because of the blurred lines, I was also documenting deeply personal moments. These are the lessons I take forward in my own practice of community work and art.

Anique Jordan

Anique Jordan is a graduate assistant for the Memory, Urban Violence and Performance Project

Censoring the popular art movement: The police and the street murals in Jamaica

November 11, 2013 published by Stabroek News By Honor Ford-Smith

(This column was first carried in the Jamaica Gleaner, Sunday, November 10, 2013)

For some years now, the Jamaican police have been painting out murals in working class communities in a symbolic battle with residents. Now the story has gone global. According to tongue- in- cheek news stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere, police wearing battle fatigues and carrying paint brushes have entered Kingston’s “notorious slums” and covered images “celebrating leaders of Jamaica’s violent underworld.” Police claim that the murals “immortalize criminal elements and dons.” In an interview on Jamaica’s CVM TV the police commissioner stated that they plan to remove everything symbolic of gang presence.

Judging by the public silence, many agree that destroying the murals will somehow help to obliterate donmanship. Perhaps this is understandable given the fact that we’re all tired of living in fear and we’re tired of the global media marketing the idea that all Jamaicans are pathologically violent. It is hard then to ask what other meanings the police “clean up operation” might carry, or to suggest that we have much to learn from the murals themselves.

The fact is that there is a vibrant popular community art movement in Jamaica and the street murals are part of it. Those who wield power ignore it at their peril for, as with the destruction of all popular movements, violence is likely not to stamp it out but rather to strengthen it. The destruction of the murals is an act of violent censorship of a popular street art movement in Kingston in the guise of law enforcement. It is a violation of the right to freedom of expression that is guaranteed in the Jamaican constitution. We may not like the murals. We don’t have to. That is not the point. Not liking them is not the same as denying the right of self-representation.

Brute force, threats and violence will not halt the crisis of violence in the region. It never has. The way forward depends on sustained dialogue and mutual recognition between ordinary people, the police and all other social institutions, in the context of an absolute commitment to social justice for all. Not justice for some, but not others. Not dialogue with some, but not others. This slow process of careful relationship building takes time and hard work that threats and “out-badding the bad” only impede.

The Popular Mural Art Movement in Jamaica

Commemorative mural to fallen constable in public space Photo: H. Ford-Smith, 2012

The mural art movement in Jamaica is part of the global street art movement. To see the murals, (at least before the police incursions) all you had to do was step off the main road into any working class community. The murals are not the same as graffiti. Many are carefully crafted and fall into four types.

The first set depicts community heroes such as successful reggae artists, businessmen and sports people. A second set depicts political figures. These tend to be local activists who have championed the community or international Black anti-colonial, political heroes such as Marcus Garvey, Leonard Howell, Haile Selassie and others. There are a few national politicians. A third grouping consists of religious images often with Rastafari themes like the Apocalypse, the Last Supper and the Black Madonna and child.

The fourth group is made up of commemorative murals (also known as sunrise and sunset murals). These portray community members who have died – sometimes but not always – violently. These can be found in all communities regardless of political party affiliation. There are memorial murals to police who come from the neighbourhoods and who have fallen in the line of duty.

There are murals of area leaders, ordinary community members and big or little dons. Claudie Massop and Jim Brown (father of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke who was extradited to the United States three years ago) fall into this latter category and like many others, appear on the walls of their communities. But there are also murals on the exterior walls of dwellings of family members who have lost loved ones to violence. There are murals of schoolchildren who have been killed accidentally in crossfire or whose lives have been taken because they witnessed a murder or were killed as an act of reprisal.

Finally, there are murals of those who have been shot dead by the police. They depict the person who has been killed. Sometimes a verse from the Bible accompanies the image. One such mural was for a young 15 year old shot to death by the police while riding his bicycle in the market in a bungled operation over a decade ago. The mural was on the wall outside his family home and was painted out in 2012. Another mural painted out a few weeks ago was that of D, executed several years ago by a special force of masked police who shot him dead in his bed before day. D never had the benefit of a trial so we don’t officially know what he was wanted for or if he was innocent or guilty. Even legendary cold war bad man Jim Brown of Tivoli died under highly questionable circumstances in prison.

Behind the Whitewash: Reading the Murals

To remember Jim Brown is to bring back into public memory a history of conflict that few want to recall because we might be confronted with some difficult answers to the question where does “badness” spring from? What forces brought enforcers like Brown into being and what forces enabled his power to be reproduced after death? What constellation of local and global forces facilitated his rise to mythical status? For indeed behind every outbreak of community violence and every attempt to address it, there is a link to powerful global interests.

We might consider the way figures like Jim Brown reproduce themselves globally in many settings from communities in other Caribbean countries to the high seas off the Horn of Africa to the forests of Colombia to the trails of Afghanistan and deserts of Mexico. Surely then the factors that enable “badness” in so many places cannot just be local. All indications are that it has something to do with how the global economy has wasted the lives of millions in unprecedented ways that also require local collusion. And there, the trail the police are following may well turn uptown and they may have to turn their gaze to the walls of the wealthy.

These are well guarded; in Jamaica it takes the form of security companies whose marksmanship is cheerfully advertised in billboards all over uptown Kingston. Nobody asks for permission for security companies to display images of brutality all over Kingston. Nobody complains about the men in company uniform brandishing artillery. It is “natural.” Business as usual. Cops don’t paint out these corporate glorifications of private violence. Obviously in the struggle over symbol, story and space some acts of violence are more innocent than others.

Whose violence then is really being obscured by all this police paint? Since when and in what societies do the police or the armed forces get to make decisions about art? The answer to this is chilling – Germany under the Nazis, Argentina under the generals, the USSR under Stalin and so on.

Folks’ interpretations of the murals are as diverse as the murals themselves, for artists cannot control the meanings given to their work. It is taken up and given a variety of meanings depending on who is interpreting it. Not even the police can control the meanings given to the murals for intention is never the same as impact. Indeed one young man from a community of many murals remarked, “I need these murals. They show me the path I do not want to go down. They remind me of all I want and do not want for my life.”

Some of the murals can be read as covert statements against police impunity and against police methods. But this doesn’t mean communities are against the police per se. If this were true police from inner city communities would not be memorialized. But they are. They too are mourned and remembered. Nevertheless it is well known that Jamaica has a high rate of police violence that undermines public confidence in policing.

The spectre of armed men in battle fatigues painting out street murals is not likely to change that. How does painting out the image destroy what it depicts? The image is not the same as the thing it depicts. Art is a representation or a performance of something. It tells us more about the desires and hopes of its producers and consumers than about the reality it depicts. How does the destruction of street murals call perpetrators of violence to account for wrong doings? Censorship in the guise of law enforcement is a fundamental violation of the rights of all citizens that perhaps says more about an absence of real power than its presence.

Popular art in public spaces springs up when people want to counter the inaccuracy of dominant stories about them. It springs up where their side of the story is misrepresented even as their basic rights to employment, education and respect remain unmet. Whitewashing commemorative murals is an act of intimidation. It censors the inconvenient stories of communities. It is the kind of behaviour that has helped turned vibrant communities into deathscapes. In the words of one of the artists, memorial murals remind us that: “the act of remembering… is part of realizing that we the living have value, our lives mean something. ” Violent death is a fact of inner city existence, but we will not accept this. We will not accept that we are fundamentally unacceptable.

For further information visit:

Charles Campbell artist talk on exhibit “Anything with Nothing”

Community and Environmental Arts  at the Faculty of Environmental Studies presents

a talk by visiting artist

Charles Campbell

“Anything with nothing: Urban space, racial boundaries and contemporary Caribbean art.”

actor-boy-portraitCharles Flyer

Thursday Sept 18, 2014, 12:45 pm
HNES, Room 140

 Charles Campbell is a Jamaican and Canadian multidisciplinary artist and curator who has exhibited throughout North America, the Caribbean and Europe, in the Havana Biennial, the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Museum of the Americas and others.   He has also been chief curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica. His work takes up decolonization, racialization and the carnivalesque and moves between performance art, sculpture and painting. In this talk he examines two projects with urban communities and artists in Kingston Jamaica and discusses the ways in which this work dissolved social, geographic and political boundaries, reimagining possible engagements in Caribbean urban space.


“Anything with Nothing” an art exhibit of popular murals


“Anything with nothing” is the upcoming exhibit on the popular mural art of urban Jamaica at the National Gallery of Jamaica. Curated by Charles Campbell and Monique Barnett-Davidson, it really will be a first and a very special exhibit.  I was privileged to work a bit with the curators on the project and can say it was very exciting.

It’ll be a chance for folks from communities uptown downtown and out of to visit the gallery, weigh in on the work and perhaps discuss all the issue and ideas that produce them.


Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women


Launch of Website for Community-led Database for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women on Anniversary of Bella Laboucan-Mclean’s Death


As Indigenous peoples, working for justice for #MMIW is a process that starts within our own communities. The launch of this website is one example of the resurgence of community documentation as justice.

In April of 2013, No More Silence, Families of Sisters in Spirit and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network began what has become a long term vision for a community-led database documenting the violent deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women. It is our collective hope that the lives of Indigenous Two Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual (LGBTTQQIA) will also be recognized as gender based violence also impacts these communities and is often invisiblized.

The website is available for viewing at: http://www.ItStartsWithUs-MMIW.com
FSIS, community partner on this initiative indicated that they “support a grassroots led community database because Indigenous people are first and foremost the experts in gathering data and information about missing and murdered Indigenous women”. The launch of this website is an outcome from many community conversations with impacted families and individuals affected by colonial gender based violence.
1 year later and still no justice…

The purpose of the database is to our honour women and provide family members with a way to document their loved ones passing. As the one year anniversary of Bella Laboucan-Mclean’s death approaches the family has provided the first of many tribute pieces on the website, available to read at: http://www.ItStartsWithUs-MMIW.com/bella
According to Melina Laboucan-Massimo, “Our family still does not have answers from the Toronto Police about Bella’s death which is still listed as suspicious. We appeal to anyone with information to come forward with answers. We urge the Toronto Police to investigate her death as if Bella were part of their own family and not just another police statistic. This new website and database gives families like ours the ability to not only document the lives of our loved ones but also commemorate and celebrate their lives and achievements.”
As the search for answers persists, we continue to urge the Toronto Police Service to maintain their focus on the details surrounding Bella’s death as the family and larger community follow this case closely. We are honoured to have Bella’s story be the first tribute that is shared on the website as a way of recognizing her life and spirit.

We also call attention to Sonya Cywink, murdered in London, ON who’s family and community are preparing a memorial on the 20th anniversary of her passing and are also holding out hope that one day they will uncover the mystery surrounding her murder.
Krysta Williams of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and community partner, “We know there are many other stories, families and anniversaries, this is just the beginning. We continue to build capacity within our networks to respond and support.”

For more information and background on #ItStartsWithUs please read “Supporting the Resurgence of Community-Based Responses to Violence” at: http://www.nativeyouthsexualhealth.com/march142014.pdf

No More Silence Media Contact:
Audrey Huntley
Phone: 647-981-2918 Email: audreyhuntley@gmail.com

Bella’s Family Media Contact:
Melina Laboucan-Massimo 
Phone: 780-504-5567 Email: miyowapan@gmail.com

Native Youth Sexual Health Network Media Contact:
Erin Konsmo, Media Arts Justice and Projects Coordinator
Email: ekonsmo@nativeyouthsexualhealth.com