Words by Jesse Serwer
We’ve been highlighting the work of Jamaican illustrator Robin Clare for several years now. Robin first caught our attention with her Dancing Words project, an ongoing series of illustrations based on popular dancehall dances like the Dutty Wine and Nuh Linga. Originally a set of paintings, she’s since turned the series into a popular series of cushions. After a long night of wining yuh waist in the dancehall, you can now come home and rest your head, feet or waist on a set of Wine Yuh Waist pillows.
Though Clare now resides in Sydney, Australia, dancehall and Jamaican popular culture is at the center of all her projects, including the Bulls Eye series, which juxtaposes modern dancehall events promotion with the aesthetic of Western movie posters. You may also recognize her style from various LargeUp projects, including Blacka Di Danca and DJ Gravy’s Dancehall Warm-Up Mixtape.
Her latest project is The Dancehall Colouring and Activity Book, available today through the LargeUp store. Inspired in part by Bun B’s Rapper Coloring and Activity Book,the book features a Yellowman crossword puzzle, Elephant Man word search and Vybz Kartel maze, while tracks by Shabba Ranks and Red Rat get the Mad Libs treatment. Though mainly made with adults in mind, you could say this project offers dancehall fun for the whole family. Get it here.
We spoke with Clare about the project, and her work celebrating the visual vibrancy of Jamaica and dancehall culture.
LargeUp: Tell us a little about your background. Coming from Jamaica, how did you end up in Australia?
Robin Clare: I was actually the first person in my family to be born outside of Jamaica. I was born in Belize. We lived there ’til I was four, then moved back to JA. When I was 12, my mum died in a car accident, and I was sent to live with family in Vancouver, Canada. That was a bit of culture shock, to say the least. I think it helped me strengthen my bonds with Jamaica, though, as you do when you’re young and trying to define your identity. I ended up moving back to JA when I finished school. Then I went over to the U.K. to study art. The whole Australia thing just kind of happened. The opportunity to come and stay for a while presented itself.
LU: What can you tell us about the experience of being Jamaican in Australia? Are there many others?
RC: It’s nice. The vegetation really reminds me of JA, if not quite as dense and luscious. There are a few Jamaicans over here. Mostly from the Windrush generation. There are a few amazing Jamaicans who helped introduce the sound system scene and dancehall vibes to Sydney like JJ Roberts, who runs the Soulmaker Sound System; Ted Vassel, who runs Power Cuts Radio; and Keith Williams. Keith is an Alpha Boys School alumnus, and has an amazing vinyl collection of ska, rocksteady and early reggae tunes that he shares at the rare Sydney event, and on his program, “Bamboo Hut,” on 2ser Radio.
As a Jamaican over here, it can be a bit culturally lonely but there’s a nice little community of Sydney-siders who are into dancehall vibes and put on some cool nights: the Foreign Dub Crew, Dibby Dibby Crew. Dutty Dancing, which was started by Louis Basslines who’s now in NY. The 101 Doll Squad have been amazing to me over the years and are always up for performing at my gigs. It’s really helped to have a little community that I can dip into, and are always incredibly open and ready to just enjoy a vibe for the love of the music.
LU: You’ve been in Australia a while. Why has your work remained focused on Jamaican, and specifically dancehall, culture?
RC: I find the culture really inspiring. The artists and dancers inspire me. I love the movements, the riddims and music, the sense of humor, the controversy. I love the raw creativity — people are always moving forward, even if there’s no definite reward at the end of the day. It’s grown out of passion, frustration, joy, struggle, big opinions and that drive to be heard — all the things that helped shape me in my childhood and which I draw strength from today.
LU: Do you remember the first commercial art in Jamaica that struck you visually? When did you realize there was this great visual language within advertising in Jamaica? It’s getting a lot of international attention now, especially the ’80s style of Wilfred Limonious and Sassafras. But this is a relatively new development.
RC: There’s this one street in MoBay that always had someone hand painting advertisements. A new one about every two weeks, he’d sit there in the blazing sun with his pots of paint. I thought, Wow, that’s amazing! As a kid growing up I always loved the hand-crafted images that were everywhere. There was bright color, there was a lot of cheeky humor and innuendo, and things had this unique look and feel. Each artist had their own style. There was pretty much art everywhere — album covers, dance posters, there was artwork built into the tint of back windows of cars, taxi drivers would bling their rides up. They were Ladas back then, [and] were works of art themselves — music blaring, traffic jam, chatting, yelling, rival car passengers leaning out windows threatening each other with large cooking forks and spoons. There was even artwork shaved by barbers on the sides and backs of people’s heads. Life was just this massive thing!
There’s also an amazing stylistic tradition of Jamaican political cartoons. I guess because it was such a part of the overall Jamaican culture back then, before printed media, it was kind of taken for granted. I suppose both artists and people saw it as a skills-job, like carpentry or masonry.
One of my very favorite artists, Albert Artwell, was on everyone’s walls. He never made a fortune from his work but he was championed by the Gallery of West Indian Art, who have done some amazing things to get non-formally trained Jamaican and West Indian artists some well deserved recognition.
LU: I think we first became familiar with your work through the Dancing Words project. Where did the idea come from to represent dancehall dancing in such a formal fashion?
RC: I always loved the old Byron Lee ska cover with the photos showing the step breakdown. I also am amazed by people who can dance really well and make it an art — the visual shapes the body makes. Dancing Words came out of that. Jamaican moves were being copied more and more in the mainstream. The first move I did was the Dutty Wine, after a trip down to JA. The politicians were trying to get it banned, as girls kept putting their necks and backs out. It just reminded me of the kind of outrage that previous generations faced with their risky dances like The Twist and Elvis, with his swinging hips thing, haha.
LU: Have you had any interesting reactions from people depicted in your drawings — artists, dancers?
RC: It’s been really cool. The choreographers/dancers who create the steps are always really supportive. I try to add in a bit of info on who created the move in my descriptions, and when I talk about them. They’ve almost become like my own little historical documentation of Jamaican dance. It also developed a little side project with DanceJa and Latonya Style, who has developed her own series of dance moves called Stylish Moves. We do a series of instructional books that have been really successful worldwide. She does dance tours and now offers certification in the style. It’s been really nice to watch the whole Stylish Moves thing grow and to play a part in documenting it.
LU: What’s been the most popular piece?
RC: I think the Dutty Wine is the most popular. The move is so dynamic, and everyone knows it and I think they love the name, haha.
LU: How long has the Dancehall Colouring Book been in the works? How did you decide on the activities for each artist? Did you reach out to any of the artists who are featured to get their endorsement?
RC: I got a copy of Bun B’s Rap Colouring & Activity Book, and loved it so much. Since then, I’ve wanted to try the format out with a dancehall style. This is a small version. I’d like to expand it with some more of my favorite artists in a larger book format. The activities just came to me as I thought of each artist. Elephant Man’s word search came from the Dancehall Gym DVD – Out & Bad!!! A word search is kinda crazy and energetic and you’ve got to focus in and bring a bit of order to the madness. Just like the Energy God brings it all together. Then some came from my favorite tunes like Shabba’s “Ting-A-Ling,” a classic now but still sounds fresh today in my opinion. I also was so excited to add Red Rat in, the Oh No album is a classic! I didn’t reach out to any of the artist, I guess I’m too shy haha. I did get a thumbs up from Spice for a painting I did of her the other day, which was the baddest thing ever!!!
LU: What will your next series be about?
RC: I’m currently working on a series of paintings called Jamaica Pop. It’s kind of spurred on by the lighter side of the dancehall gossip machine. I got so caught up in the Gully Bop story, I just had to paint it. Other pieces have focused more on the clash between the super conservative nature of Jamaican culture, even within dancehall, and the culture of slackness and the re-emergence of strong female performers.