With Christmas fast approaching, people are looking for gift ideas, so I thought I would make a couple of suggestions. Books are an endangered species nowadays, but here are two that offer great value for money. Serious Tings A Go Happen is film producer Maxine Walters’ present to the Universe, in the form of a colourfully reproduced selection of the best samples from her 4,000-strong collection of Jamaican street signs and dancehall posters.
Dating from the early 1980s, the Walters collection is essentially a valuable record of vernacular graphic design in Jamaica. This sumptuous coffee-table book is a paean to Jamaica’s vibrant popular culture, scorned by the elite here, but valued by the hoi polloi, a Greek, not Latin, term (meaning the masses or commoners), as I said in my last column.
With titles such as ‘Ants inna yu milk’, ‘Di bees pitch pon wi’, ‘Nuff niceness’ and other such choice phrases, the signs encapsulate the inimitable humour and lingo of the streets, as well as the tenor of the times. The one-of-a-kind, hand-painted posters advertise local parties, concerts, ‘bashments’ held at bars, on beaches and in primary schools. For those who frequented these events, the signs evoke fond memories of their youth and bygone days.
Walters can get rhapsodic on the subject, summing up the intrinsic value of her collection: “Our language and the way we describe things vocally is so picturesque, and one of the best ways I’ve seen that translated is in these street signs. They are beautiful and simple. Some are hysterical, and others are really serious. They are signs, and, to me, they are also a science of communication, which is completely unique and organic.”
Adding value to the signs, Serious Tings A Go Happen features essays and interviews with an array of well-known writers, musicians and designers. The introduction, for example, is by none other than Marlon James, winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize and a graphic designer himself in a previous life when he produced album covers for the likes of Sean Paul. Other essayists include Carolyn Cooper, Wayne Chen, Anthony Winkler and Vivien Goldman, who also interviews Walters. I particularly enjoyed Mikie Bennett’s interview with Rory Stone Love and look forward to reading Maxine Walters’ interview with sign painter Denva Harris.
Serious Tings is being launched in Kingston on December 15 at Red Bones CafÈ. All proceeds go to the Consie Walters Cancer Care Hospice at St Joseph’s Hospital in Kingston, so this is definitely a book worth investing in.
The other book I want to recommend is Judy Ann MacMillan’s catalogue Still Painting … After All These Years, consisting of 80 full-colour reproductions, with two essays, one by the artist, and another by internationally acclaimed art critic Edward Lucie Smith. The catalogue features a chronology of MacMillan’s work with a recent self-portrait on the front cover and one of herself as a teenager on the back cover.
MacMillan’s work is far removed from the street signs mentioned earlier in that she is a trained painter, who studied in Scotland, after studying with classical painter Barry Watson in Jamaica. MacMillan paints from life, the scenery and people in front of her, setting her easel up in the middle of Cross Roads to paint a ‘madwoman’ on the street or balancing it in a boat on the sea so she can catch the full frontal view of a grand house. She wouldn’t be caught dead painting from photographs, and her finely wrought canvases capture local landscape and colour consummately. The painstaking nature of her work is captured in the following passages from her blog, Welcome to my Jamaica:
“It was of symbolic importance to paint today and the quality of the light, that November light, Albert Huie called it ‘the beautiful month’ was too precious to miss, so I quickly cleaned up my paint box, did a quick check that everything was in it, and put it in the car. If you glanced into that falling-apart cardboard tray piled with rubbish, you would not be impressed, but everything in it, including the bit of string to tie the canvas on to the easel, the rusty razor blade for scraping, or the small bit of plastic ruler for doing straight lines quickly, is essential. Turning off the phone is also essential.”
“Driving up the familiar road I passed by many motifs of past paintings stretching back to my teenage years; that mango tree, that clump of bamboo, that deep corner were actually lifelong acquaintances and seeing them again has always had the same effect, the comfort of well-known faces ageing before my gaze. But today, the ordinary seemed significant, more intense, almost charged. Was it the light? No, it was more than that.”
Judy Ann MacMillan’s catalogue, Still Painting, can be ordered directly from the artist (check her on Facebook) and is a bargain at J$3,000.