Words by Erin MacLeod
Images by Lennox Coke
A few weeks ago, the Jamaican version of the Yellow Pages was released: three directories in total. One for residential, one for the whole of the island, and one for the capital and surrounding area—Kingston and St. Andrew. The illustrations, commissioned specially for the phone books, were musically themed: a ska scene by Raymond Jackson, a reggae image from Karla Gauntlett and Esther Beckford and a painting of a dancehall event by Lennox Coke.
Almost immediately, there was an outcry about the latter painting, featured on the cover of the Kingston and St. Andrew edition. Why? Because dancehall. A religious organization, Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, felt that the depiction of dancing and general merriment was “encourage[ing] behaviour that is not necessarily ideal”. Global Directories, publisher of the Jamaican Yellow Pages, quickly provided an alternative cover, but just as quickly fed a controversy. Yet again, here was dancehall being characterized as somehow problematic—unbecoming. Forget about how the rest of the world loves this music—and how folks like Drake, Justin Bieber and Rihanna are being nominated for Grammy awards with dancehall-inflected tunes. In Fine Style: The Dancehall Art of Wilfred Limonious, a book that showcases images of the dance, was just released by publisher One Love Books, and has been celebrated in exhibitions from London to Miami. Dancehall music, art and culture are significant, important and representative of the richness of Jamaican culture as a whole.
Though perhaps not in keeping with church organization standards, the directory in question has become a bit of a collector’s item. People want a copy! Large Up spoke to Lennox Coke, the artist whose image caused so much attention.
Large Up: Could you talk a little bit about yourself and your art?
Lennox Coke: I’m a visual artist. I studied at Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts in Jamaica. My core focus is the social and cultural aspects of Jamaican society, and the depiction of the lives that all people live. So when I was approached and asked if I would like to do the dancehall cover, this was the kind of thing that I produce in my work. I don’t paint abstraction, but realism; I paint the true culture of our people.
LU: What types of scenes do you paint?
LC: I have focused on fishing villages, street scenes—wherever you see the expression of our culture. You can see places where people with lesser means find creative ways of doing things. I paint these aspects. These are the people that express the truer side of our people. They don’t manicure and manipulate.
LU: What is your process?
LC: What I do is I compose my scenes. If I need reference — maybe I have one photograph of something — I take some from memory, I put all of those processes together and then create a live scene. It’s basically a composite.
LU: Can you talk about other places where people can see your work?
LC: I have a website. Also, I display at all the major galleries in Jamaica. I have showed in Washington and Toronto as well as other Caribbean islands.
LU: How did you go about painting the image in question?
LC: The commission was specific—there was certain criteria they were looking for. This was to be the dancehall. I focused on the early ‘90s, when artists like Shabba Ranks were popular. I just just absorbed all of this—I went to sessions that were keeping, listened to the music and looked on all the costume that they were wearing. I didn’t have a lot of time to do this. I had about a week. It was extended to two weeks. Sometimes you need to sit and soak these things in, and get inspiration. I did research and composed the image.
Inside of the book there are other images of the dancehall—a man selling jerk chicken, peanuts—these are people who directly benefit from the business of dancehall. There’s a whole economic system that is supported by the party. All of those aspects I tried to bring to life. The focus on the indigenous culture was important. I give them kudos for this move, and this is why the level of objection was really frightening.
LU: Were you shocked at the negative reaction?
LC: Yes, I was. This image is not strange to us. We have street dances. Whenever Jamaicans get a chance to play music, there will be dancing. And the comments about the skimpy attire? On the street in Jamaica, people walk in this attire, even without going to a party. It is hypocritical to hear these people coming out and talking about the degrading of women and things like that. There are more pressing issues that they are not dealing [with[. This is easy picking and they jump at it. I don’t think that they seriously care about this.
LU: When they offered an alternative cover, it was not your piece. Were you upset by this?
LC: I understand the step taken. At the same time, as someone asked on a panel I was on, what if someone else complains about the next one? Are they going to go and change it again? But it’s their decision. I don’t get emotional. My job is [as] an artist, and my job is to execute a commission to the best of my ability. And they have this for some time now—and they liked it. It is now they are backtracking, and I think this shows a bit of weakness, but it is within their remit to do that.
LU: It would seem that your image has made the book quite popular as a result of the controversy.
LC: I had a show over the weekend and 99 percent people of who came—of 300—they knew about it. And I told them that they need to go to wherever there is this phonebook and ask for it! Ask for it to be re-printed. If they really want to do something and not want someone else to enforce a point of view, they need to make sure that the book does become a collector’s item. And if you have seen the response on social media? I’m having recording companies get in touch who like the image wondering about for a next album—to design it. It’s all good for me.
Jamaican people are not aware enough. The discipline of visual art is important. The symbols of religion are given to religion from visual art. From the imagination of visual artists. They should celebrate the visual art. When you go to Rome or Greece, you see the naked sculptures. They talk about nudity like you really want to hide from yourself. We try to hide from ourselves; we don’t accept ourselves. There is very good art in Jamaica, and not enough attention paid to visual art—so this controversy can be beneficial to the art industry in general. We could be at any international show, but there isn’t enough support from those who have the means.