Inner-city art in Kingston

For middle-class Jamaicans and tourists alike, downtown Kingston, with its deprived communities, can seem off-limits. So when a group of young artists began a public mural project in the Fleet Street area, it wasn’t just about beautifying the neighbourhood, writes Tanya Batson-Savage. It was really about opening opportunities for local residents

A girl from the neighbourhood, posing here with her friend, discovers an uncanny resemblance in artist Matthew Henry’s mural. Photo by Matthew Henry

The shell of the old Toyota warehouse at 41 Fleet Street is a ghost from a bygone era. But concrete skeletons are nothing rare in downtown Kingston, even as the Jamaican capital shows signs of a revival. Buried in southside Kingston, a javelin’s throw away from the Rae Town neighbourhood, a few years ago Fleet Street was a part of Kingston outsiders were told to avoid.

But today 41 Fleet Street attracts growing interest from Kingstonians and foreign visitors alike. That interest comes in the wake of Paint Jamaica, a project that transformed the abandoned warehouse into a creative mecca. Now, new life, energy, and interest have been brought back to the community, outlining the transformative power of art. The old warehouse, the Paint Jamaica flagship, bears uplifting murals with messages of hope and change. It is more than a beautiful space. Though roofless, which is a part of its charm, the Fleet Street warehouse has become a space for members of the community to stage events and hold meetings, and several musicians have made it a space to shoot music videos.

Paint Jamaica is more a movement than a foundation, but its foundations are rock solid: using art to create and inspire change. While the idea took root after a meeting between its founder, French-Egyptian Marianna Farag, and Jamaican artist Matthew McCarthy, its collective vision is touted as the reason for its success.

As it currently stands, Paint Jamaica is an undefined collective, which in part came to life via social media, particularly a Facebook page. Farag and McCarthy met during the 2013 New Roots exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica, where McCarthy’s striking graffiti-style art festooned the walls. Their conversation revealed a shared interest in art as a tool for transformation and change.

Paint Jamaica epitomises the possibilities of a grassroots movement in the digital era. Along with the Facebook page, which facilitated discussions, the project used an online sign-up sheet for volunteers and raised most of its budget through crowdfunding. These funds were offset by in-kind donations from Jamaican companies. But ensuring that the project is steered by the needs of the community, rather than the desires of a corporate sponsor, was an important consideration.

 

“There’s a side to Jamaica that has been left out of the conversation, and this project allows them to be a part of the conversation again,” McCarthy says. That conversation has been critical to Paint Jamaica’s sustainability, and the fact that it remains an important part of the community two years after execution. McCarthy explains that the participating artists walked through the community for weeks prior to the actual painting, to ensure their ideas and interests were reflected in the space. It was a process they repeated before painting the murals now garnishing the walls of the Holy Family Primary School, also in the same community. “If you don’t speak to the people in the community, you don’t get the authentic story,” McCarthy says.

Additionally, Paint Jamaica has benefitted from a democratic process among the artists. The group found themselves inspired by the 2011 Arab Spring and its germination via Facebook. So they too started a Facebook page, and invited other interested artists to share and participate.

One key element is that interest in the Fleet Street project has leveraged opportunities for both the artists who have worked on the project and members of the community as well. One of these is Life Yard, an ital (i.e. vegetarian) cookshop that operates just across the street from the warehouse. Apart from benefitting from patronage by visitors to the mural, Life Yard has also been hired to cater events outside the neighbourhood.

And members of the community are getting exposure and making connections and gaining opportunities previously closed off to them, because of the music videos and photo shoots taking place there. “There are a lot of artistic people in the community, and they’ve been practicing their craft long before we got there,” McCarthy explains. “What we’re doing is reviving Kingston to what it used to be.”

As McCarthy points out, Paint Jamaica is not the first attempt to use street art for transformation in Kingston. He points to the work of Rosie Chung of Studio 174, and Alison Perkins, who conducted the Red Rubberband painting project through the Kingston on the Edge (KOTE) festival. Still, Paint Jamaica has easily been the most successful. “Not only do you paint something, but you also attract the attention of other people who wanted to do something,” McCarthy says. Indeed, the project would not have been successful without throngs of volunteers from the community and outside it. Working on the project also significantly boosted the skills of the individual artists in creating murals, as well as better understanding how to run art projects aimed at stimulating development.

Yet, despite the project’s success, Paint Jamaica has been deliberately slow in proliferation across the island. “It was alluring to go everywhere, but it was also beautiful to stay there and watch the community grow,” McCarthy says. “Many people consider me a painter, but I personally consider myself a social engineer.”

Interestingly, Paint Jamaica was born after the police had systematically removed murals of fallen “dons” from the walls of several communities throughout Kingston. McCarthy admits that the decision to pursue the project was a direct response to that. “We try to do things that will have an impact because they are a response to other things that are happening,” he says. “This project is a very diplomatic project. We don’t do anything because we think it should be done, we do it because we feel it must be done. The neglect was unreasonable. I don’t think any community should suffer from this kind of neglect.”

For Paint Jamaica, its greatest impact will not simply be how it transforms one community, but rather how it inspires others to do the same. “I want to make sure that every artist feels the current of this project,” McCarthy says, “that they can do this too. We were just a set of average Joes on Facebook.”