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A Clash of Black Bodies: Barrington Watson in Conversation with Tribe Sankofa

Tribe Sankofa performs Black Bodies against the backdrop of Barrington Watson

Since the introduction of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Last Sundays programme, one of its most intriguing elements has been how they strive to match the day’s entertainment with the exhibition. Sometimes the link is casual, even tenuous. But last Sunday, they may have created the most successful dialogue between visual art and performance as the paintings of the late Barrington Watson engaged in a haunting conversation with Tribe Sankofa’s Black Bodies. 

The discussion, a powerful yet quiet, subtle one which could easily have been missed if one was not paying attention, surrounded the state and possibly fate of the nation that came out through the contrast between the images looking down from Watson’s canvases and the stories being painted by Tribe Sankofa’s experimental ensemble piece.February's Last Sundays event matched Tribe Sankofa with Barrington Watson

“The stories I tell are hard to hear. They are hard to tell as well,” says the narrator in the introductory lines. The growing discomfort on some to the faces of members of the audience, underscored the truth of his words.

With a narrator dubbed Tella, the piece links itself it the storytelling tradition but makes it clear that it is telling neither tall nor magical tales. Instead, it focuses on the festering underbelly of the island, terrible deeds that have made in the current discussion about the dismemberment of Black bodies and our need to re/member them in order to bring about change.

While Black Bodies is guilty of romanticizing and essentializing Africanness, depending on West African garbs to connote a sense of heightened consciousness, it has ripped stories from Jamaican headlines that are worthy of being told and retold until change is effected. Its message is particularly stark when you compare it to contemporary news media’s culture of dramatizing the plight of the downtrodden, reducing their trauma to entertaining bites of the week.

The story of Vanessa Kirkland is dramatised through danceIt is therefore interesting, that the most effective piece of the excerpt was Tribe Sankofa’s portrayal of the fate of Vanessa Kirkland. The piece uses an extended news interview with Kirkland’s mother as she narrates the loss of her child creates. The interview becomes the sound track for a dance interpretation of Kirkland's fate.

The dance itself is forgettable both in its choreography and execution, depending on clichéd vocabulary of loss. However the bald pain presented in the interview is haunting, especially it's end as the mother cries: “Whe mi daughter deh? She deh pon ice.” Her last words questioning this unquestionable loss.

Tribe Sankofa also presented the stories of Mario Deane and Jhaneel Goulbourne, all victims of violence, whose fates declare that we no longer live in a world where our children are safe. As the stories of violence wrought upon the bodies of young Jamaicans unfolded, their meanings, and the statements they make about contemporary Jamaica and that we have lost our way, seemed to multiply in the face of Barrington Watson's images of Jamaica. 

Watson's paintings presented visual stories of a different Jamaica, one peopled by proud hopeful bodies. The master painter, whose work was being celebrated by the National Gallery of Jamaica in the wake of his recent passing (January 26, 2016), presented the visages of National Heroes, Sir Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley numerous Pan-African leaders, as well as ordinary Jamaicans at work or in repose. The sense of hope and personhood emanating from the images clanged loudly against the performances of despair.

It is important to note however, that despite the violence it recounts, at its heart, Black Bodies is a hopeful production. So a key part of the dialogue was that, although most of us may no longer carry buckets of water on our heads, the Jamaica presented in Watson’s painting, the portrayals of people teeming with life and dignity, is not dead, just under brutal attack.