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Matthew McCarthy: Visualizing the Reggae Revival

Matthew McCarthy

Chronixx, Protoje, Jah 9, Kabaka Pyramid, Raging Fire and Nomaddz are hailed as the voices of the Reggae Revival. But there is also a visual arm, declared in the works of Matthew McCarthy and his New Jamaica Collective, who use a style built on the urbanized ethos of graffiti. Graffiti is often seen as the bane of contemporary existence, the last resort to leaving your mark on the world and so you scratch ‘Pinky wuz ere’ lest you be forgotten.

Yet the artistry, and exploration of the contemporary aesthetic that resides in the urban ethos of graffiti art has long been recognized. Matthew McCarthy, is among those artists who bridge the chasm between street art and well ... traditional art or whatever you want to call that other stuff, including ‘art, art’.

He stops for a momentary chat with Susumba, while setting up for another of his interactive art sessions at the National Gallery of Jamaica, where his work branded as New Jamaica, currently adorns the walls.
Tracey Cammock makes her mark
“I think I had a lot of practice with writing on the walls,” McCarthy says. And that is precisely what he and his team had invited the public to do: to add their own message by taking a bit of chalk and declaring it on the gallery’s walls (in designated areas of course).

McCarthy’s work,  His visceral, evocative images thrum with the insistence of the bass rhythms of the music that not only influences, but speaks through his art. It was included in the recently ended New Roots exhibition, gaining pride of place in the lobby as well as in Gallery 1. As with the lyrics espoused by the musicians of the Reggae Revival he demands social change.

His edict ‘Put This Pon Page 2’ speaking of the shade/class relations in Jamaica, which many believe is epitomized by The Observer’s ‘Page 2’ social section (featuring the island’s elite, and by extension, more light-skinned denizens). McCarthy’s declaration, is attached via a coil of rope to the ‘bleaching’ phenomena, highlighting that the celebration of the ‘brownin’ is also responsible for the much decried act of lightening the skin.
McCarthy's installation in the New Roots exhibition
Interestingly, having gained much media attention for the striking nature of the imagery and the message crafted in his art, McCarthy, is becoming Page 2 ready. McCarthy was among the 2013 graduates from the School of Visual Art at the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts. He explains however, that going to art school had not been in his original plans.

“The only reason I even went to art school was that I saw a final year show by Phillip Rhonden, he admits. “I’m happy that I was able to stick it out.”

Yet the evidence suggests he did far more that “stick it out”, as McCarthy started making a resounding impression from his own final year exhibition at SVA, earlier this year. He explains however, that he had not anticipated the level of response they received.

“The attention we got definitely threw me,” he said. The ‘we’ he refers to, is the New Jamaica team who are integral to executing the installations. Their work, much of which extolls the Reggae Revival, has been included on walls around the city, as well as on the Edna Manley campus.

McCarthy and his team, however intend to leverage that attention to deepen their impact and spread their message of critical social change mediated through culture.
Dwayne Jones is remembered on McCarthy's interactive wall
“Nothing moves without the arts,” McCarthy says, and movement and change is what he’s after.

New Jamaica events are never about merely gazing at and admiring the art and artistry of the works. The pieces encourage activism. So audience interaction had always been included in the installation at the NGJ, the morning’s activity was merely expanding on it. McCarthy hoped, that when choosing to make their mark on the walls, patrons would ruminate on the message coming from the reggae being pumped into the room, creating more than a mood. Not surprisingly, Black Uhuru’s ‘Solidarity’ whose message is also emblazoned on the walls, was one of the first pieces played.

McCarthy is committed to this idea of the communication between Jamaica’s sound and visual art forms.

“Our visual culture responds almost directly to our music culture,” he asserts, noting that this happens both at the formal and informal levels as names of songs wind their way through other avenues becoming emblazoned on event flyers.

“Jamaica is one of those places where it’s hard to tell where the art begins and the politics ends,” McCarthy says, and gazing on his work how the two are intricately bound. McCarthy promises that he and his team have only just begun, as the work they have already accomplished has laid the foundation for them to do even more.

“What is to be seen is yet to be seen,” he says.