Dancehall culture – the epitome of Jamaican pop culture – is what inspires the work of artist Robin Clare. Currently residing in Sydney, Clare’s Jamaica Project is a way of introducing and showcasing Jamaican culture. ‘Dancing Words’ is the first body of work to come under the banner of the project and is a collection of paintings and screen prints featuring Ja slang and dance sequences to popular dances from the 1980s to now. Here, Clare talks more about her project and how music has put Jamaica on the map.
Your current body of work, ‘Dancing Words’, is inspired by dancehall culture. For those of us who are unaware of this culture could you enlighten us on what it is all about? Are you a big dancehall fan?
Dancehall culture for me kind of encapsulates Jamaican pop culture. I think music has defined Jamaica’s popular culture for decades. Since the late 1950s there’s been a steady flow of home grown tunes that have been played in local dancehalls and street parties for the people who couldn’t afford to go and enjoy the places that played all the latest foreign imports. I love that it’s everyday, every man’s music and is often a direct expression of their struggles and gains.
I’m a dancehall fan, coming from Jamaica everywhere you go there’s music and the beat and riddims just makes me want to dance. I don’t always agree with the messages in dancehall lyrics, but there are more and more artists coming up who aren’t singing about anger or hate. As modern dancehall becomes more mainstream I think artists, who tend to be from Ja ghettos, get more of a chance to get out and experience different points of view and feed those influences back into the music.
Dancing Words is the first body of work to come under the banner of the Jamaica Project – a project which is an expression of how Jamaica identifies itself through its dancehall and party culture – how is the work an illustration of what the project is about?
The project started while on a visit to Mobay. I kept seeing the words Cleavage Refill everywhere then after about a week the message expanded with a location and date and soon it was everywhere in all sorts of different forms: it turned out to be a New Years Eve party. The name made me laugh (only in Jamaica would you get a party called Cleavage Refill) and I really liked the way the promoters worked to get the word out. So when I got back to my studio I started playing around with the name which sparked a whole exploration into the world of dancehall culture and Ja party promotions. The project has blossomed out of that with the Dancing Words and text based pieces focused more on the party names with a few voluptuous female figures added for good measure to reflect the types of imagery often used in party flyers and promotion.
The Dancing Words pieces are mainly a combination of painted work focusing on popular dances from the 1980s through to today along with some small screen prints. As the work flowed, the idea of the Jamaica Project has kind of grown with the addition of the Rice & Peas zine and linked up with dancehall djs to get pre-recorded sets for shows; it’s become a bit of a way to show off Jamaica and introduce the culture.
Aside from the tourist industry, the music industry is one of the highest profile on the island and it tends to offer opportunities to many who wouldn’t otherwise be able to rise up due to a combination of lack of education, poverty and circumstance. As a result, the music has become a way for the poorer majority to have a voice. It’s been used as a political tool, with sometimes very scary and successful results; it’s put Jamaica on the map, with the popularity of reggae; it has offered entertainment in hard times when there wasn’t much else but music and dance; and it has become in a way as much a part of the fabric of Jamaica as the land is. The project is an attempt to document my interpretation of the importance of the music and entertainment industry to Jamaica that has since its beginnings been exciting, innovative, controversial, home grown and incredibly prolific.
With regards to ‘Dancing Words’, is there a certain way that the artworks are meant to be seen/read? Is the text or the graphics meant to be seen first or are they meant to complement one another?
With the ‘Dancing Words’ paintings, I like that it takes a bit of time for people to figure out what’s going on. If you’re walking up to them first you see a bit of text, which is often something people don’t have a reference to as it’s Ja slang, set against a brightly coloured pattern. They go closer and realise the pattern is made up of dance sequences and it all kind of starts to fall into place. If you see them close-up first, the colours and pattern created by the dancers combined with the text all vie for attention in a slightly chaotic way until it settles down. It’s a bit like going to a street party with a sound system blaring, street vendors pushing carts with beer and food around and everyone dancing and carrying on; it’s like a full on assault on the senses.
As your work heavily explores Jamaican culture, has this resulted in you gaining a greater knowledge of the culture?
Definitely. Even though I spent most of my formative years in Jamaica you get caught up in the everyday and the struggle and don’t step back often enough to appreciate the culture and what it has to offer. We’re taught not to speak Patois in school and taught that modern dancehall is crass and is just all about ‘slackness’ but that isn’t the case. Patois is more than just Jamaican slang; it’s pretty much a second language and is expressive and lyrical and evolves in such a fascinating way as does dancehall and all that makes up Jamaican pop or street culture. I’m fascinated by the impact that the small island of Jamaica has had on the rest of the world through its music and to a lesser degree culture. Everyone knows reggae and most people now know dancehall.
You also have a zine going on called Rice & Peas, how is this a further exploration of your work? What’s in the name?
Rice and peas is my favourite food. It’s rice and kidney beans cooked in coconut milk, thyme and Scotch Bonnet pepper. It’s served with pretty much everything in Ja. I thought it would be a good name for the zine as it seems to go so well with the direction of my project and the things that the other contributors are trying to achieve.
The zine has been quite an exciting project. I’ve got some really fresh Jamaican talent contributing to it, mainly female bloggers, writers and artists who are trying to spread a positive conscious light on the island. Most of them still live in Ja while a few of them are, like me, living abroad. I’m feeling it’s really important to give a female perspective on the culture when much of it is still dominated by a male voice, but women are the back-bone of Jamaican society and are known for their strength. A new issue is printed every quarter focusing on Jamaican art, culture, and music and includes a few illustrations and a how-to for the latest in dancehall moves.
Your artwork has caught the eye of some clothing brands namely Rub A Dub and Mixpak Records, does your design process differ when designing a print for a t-shirt? I.e. In terms of pushing a particular message seeing as a t-shirt has the possibility of being seen by a wider audience.
The messages have to be tamed down and I find text based t-shirts tend to do better. It’s an interesting process; suddenly it’s not only about what I want to create, it’s a collaborative thing between the company and myself. They usually give me a direction and I come up with a few ideas and some work and some don’t. It’s quite fun though as it takes me out of what can become a bit of tunnel vision when I’m caught in a series of my own paintings. Plus it’s always nice to see someone sporting a t-shirt that’s been designed by me.
How much do you see your work being a part of your life and vice versa?
Producing art is such a personal thing it’s hard to divide work and life. I’m constantly taking things in, getting inspiration, battling artist’s block and scribbling ideas down. Inspiration always strikes at unexpected times, often in mid-conversation, and then I forget and wake-up in the middle of the night when I remember and I’ll go try something out or scribble a note to myself about an idea or a colour combination or phrase I just remembered. I do try to treat time in my studio as a ‘nine to five’ thing as it helps to keep me focused and keeps work flowing.
What are some of the best things to see and do in Sydney?
My favourite thing about Sydney is that you can be close to the water. I love taking the ferries. Sydney has also got some pretty cool art stuff happening. I love the new Kalder collection in the Gallery of NSW and White Rabbit Gallery has some amazing work by contemporary Asian artists. And for the not so mainstream there’s always a really good variety of shows going on under the radar. Recently I’ve been frequenting shows in the newly opened Tate Gallery in Glebe and China Heights Gallery in Surry Hills usually has some pretty cool stuff happening.
Have you got any other projects in the works for this year?
Well I’ve just sent some work over to the UK for a show and am locking in another show in Sydney for the beginning of November. The next issue of Rice & Peas is going to print in early July and I’ve got a couple more t-shirt projects in the works, one for a London based group called Shimmy Shimmy, and I may get to do another for Mixpak then there’s Rub A Dub which is heading to Ja. Apart from that I’m back into the studio to get some fresh work ready for November and see how the Jamaica Project progresses.
Thanks for your time Robin! Final question is what are three words people should live by?
Positivity, equality and acceptance.
Interview by Christine Miralles