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Controversy over a statue

Sunday, April 22, 2018

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We continue our reflection on some of the stories covered by the Jamaica Observer over the 25 years of its existence.

Controversy erupted immediately after the July 31, 2003 unveiling of Laura Facey-Cooper's Redemption Song — her bronze monument marking the 165th anniversary of the emancipation of slavery — at Emancipation Park in New Kingston.

The statue, located at one of the entrances to the park, was both ridiculed and praised. Criticism ranged from the size of the male statue's genitalia to whether Facey-Cooper, a white Jamaican, could identify with the plight of enslaved Africans.

In an interview with the Jamaica Observer in August 2003, she addressed some of those remarks.

“I do feel a little hurt, a little sad, especially by some of the comments from my fellow artists, but everyone is entitled to their opinion,” she said.

The controversy raged for weeks, with some people calling for the imposing statue to be removed. However, on August 17, 2003, chairman of the Emancipation Park Trust Kingsley Thomas made it clear that the monument, which cost $4.5 million, would not be removed — unless Prime Minister PJ Patterson ordered its removal.

“We at the National Housing Trust have no intention of removing the monument unless the minister to whom we report says we must remove it,” chairman of the Emancipation Park Trust, Kingsley Thomas, told the Observer from New York.

He added that even before its official unveiling on July 31, the monument had long been part of the park's logo, dozens of which had been circulated, through correspondence on the park's letterheads.

“For one year we have had that logo, it has been circulated so they knew it was coming,” he said. “It was also on all our newspaper ads, which were many, yet no one said anything.”

The monument, two massive figures of emancipated slaves — an 11-foot naked man and a 10-foot tall woman — was commissioned by a committee of leading figures in the arts field, including National Gallery of Jamaica curator David Boxer and vice-chancellor of The University of the West Indies Rex Nettleford. The bronze piece replaced another, sculpted by A D Scott, which, like its successor, had its fair share of criticism.

After Redemption Song's unveiling, many questioned whether emancipation and freedom are akin to nakedness, while others, pointing to the size of the male's genitalia, called it a vulgar display for a public monument. There was daily criticism on radio discussion programmes as well as on the letters pages of the major newspapers, almost drowning out the arguments in favour of the statue.

However, Thomas said the trust thought the work was appropriate in its symbolism.

“Anyone who sees two naked bodies and the first thing that comes to their mind is sex is sick,” he said. “It's two people washing away the vestiges of slavery and human subjugation, looking upward and forward to a future of freedom, hope and prosperity.”

The trust also sought to publicly clarify its selection of the piece through a full-page newspaper advertisement in the August 17, 2003 Observer, entitled 'The how and why of Redemption Song'.

According to the advertisement, one of the characteristics of the monument which the judges found admirable was what they described as its “highly spiritual character”.

“The judges saw Redemption Song as a work which had the potential to be a sculptural prayer of thanksgiving,” the ad read. “The judges also admired the title Mrs Facey-Cooper ascribed to this work of art... They felt this would help to make the monument more meaningful to today's audience.”

The sculptor's interpretation of the piece reflected the judges' interpretation of her work, the public notice added.

At the time, the piece was incomplete with one of its main features, water falling over the bodies of the figures, still missing. Thomas said that feature would be added within a month.

“We were on target to complete it, but there was a problem with the casting of the dome at the bottom, owing to some impurities in the silica,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the trust warned against the taking of photographs — and reproducing for sale — the statue or any other features of the park, saying it would take legal action against people who “wilfully engage in such activities”.

“There are individuals, who, because of the monument's popularity, will probably take pictures for the purposes of post cards, etc, similarly to what they would do with popular monuments like the Eiffel Tower,” Thomas told the Observer.

Just over 11 years to the day of the statue's unveiling, Facey-Cooper was recognised by the Government of Jamaica with an Order of Distinction in the rank of Commander (CD) for her contribution to the country's arts.

“I was completely shocked. You could have knocked me over with a feather. But I'm absolutely thrilled,” she told the Observer in response to the national honour.

Her follow-up project, the instalment Their Spirits Gone Before Them, was inspired by Redemption Song. It is a 16-foot canoe with 1,357 Redemption Song miniatures.

It was on display at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England. The piece was officially launched in 2006 during her exhibition at the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston.

Facey-Cooper admitted she has benefited from the controversy that accompanied her Emancipation Park statue.

“Every time it comes up I get a chance to explain the concept behind Redemption Song, and that's a good thing,” she said.

A graduate of the Jamaica School of Art, Kingston-born Facey-Cooper pursued her craft on a small scale while raising a family in rural St Ann.

She staged her first exhibition in 1985 at the Mutual Life Gallery. However, it was not until the late 1990s that art became a serious venture for her.

Late last year, Redemption Song was in the news again after it was painted black.

Former journalist and art custodian Tamara Scott-Williams was among a number of people who wrote letters to the newspapers protesting the action.

In her sarcasm-laced letter, Scott-Williams stated: “In a stunning act of foresight, the owners of the Redemption Song statue at Emancipation Park, New Kingston, decided against laying a plaque to identify the sculpture's creator, Laura Facey; for some 15 years later, they would have to change that very plaque to identify the person who has just hijacked the work.

“That new creator is whoever painted over the male and female forms with black enamel or oil paint. The figures now shine brightly, yes. And if I had seen sweat dripping from their bodies when I passed on Thursday afternoon, perhaps I wouldn't have worried for their health, but there was none, and I am worried.

“For every pore in every inch of their sizeable figures has been sealed by paint and any wish that Ms Facey might have had for the couple to weather gently into an aged patina has been denied.

“We are left with a completely new work. Still powerful, yes. But worrisome too. There are conservation issues: Can they breathe? Will the chemical undermine the fabrication of the work? How long before the paint begins to crack and peel and fall into disrepair?

“Perhaps the owners of Redemption Song are satisfied with this new aesthetic, but what they are clearly not aware of, however, is that this transformation may, in fact, represent copyright infringement, for essentially what the painter has done is to appropriate Ms Facey's work as raw material for their own artistry.

“Great physical care must be taken with our art assets, and the creative rights of our artists must be safeguarded. It is unfortunate that neither may have been considered during this paint job.”

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