Man from Redemption Grong or The Griot

The piece is called Man from Redemption Grong after the place where the enslaved gathered in Kingston Jamaica, on the 1st August 1838, to hear the reading of the proclamation which was meant to make freemen of them. I am unable to explain how I made the connection between the piece and its title. It was later dubbed The Griot by an African American artist who explained that it expressed for him, a feeling of the timeworn quality of African wisdom. He said ‘It is as though it is imbued with the power of knowledge and wisdom, the kind that comes through the understanding of accumulated suffering. Wisdom seems to be the very essence of its being.’

I have exhibited this piece several times and each time the response has been the same from people with whom I have discussed it. It seems to have special significance for Africans, and people of African descent. On one occasion an old Jamaican man was dumfounded by it. He explained that he was sure he knew who it was. He scratched his head and screwed up his face for a long time then suddenly he said, "I know who that is, it's Anglin”. He then proceeded to explain to me that as a schoolboy in Jamaica in the 1920s, there was an old man called Anglin, who would come to the local Moravian Sunday school in his village in Clarendon on the 1st of August each year to talk about his experiences as a young boy born in slavery. It was uncanny how without any knowledge of the title of the piece he was able to connect the piece with slavery.

There is a universal quality about it that Africans from all parts of the world are able to identify. Africans from the Continent, the Caribbean, Europe, and the Americas all seem to recognize him. He could be the old man sitting drunk in a bar in Boston one American once told me. Another brother from Africa said he had once seen this man sitting under a baobab tree outside Banjul in the Gambia. There seems to be in this piece a quality that all old African men have in common; a kind of Africanness that is easily recognized and seen as something positive. It asserts I believe the yearning for an expression of our oneness, rather than the usual negative denial.

Man from Redemption Grong is unique among all the pieces I have produced to date. It is the first piece that I made using soft wet clay as the primary material; I usually worked with partly dry leather-like clay, serapite plaster or silicone wax which allows for a smooth, worked surface. This was the first time I worked the clay in such a way that left evidence of the process in the finished piece. The finished piece in fact shows the impressions made by the hands and fingers, as well as the imprints of the modeling tools. In many of my pieces evidence of the process is usually meticulously eradicated leaving a smooth highly worked finish. This I am sure is due to the influence of certain African art traditions on my work; these being sculptures by artists and craftsmen from the Benin, Ife and Nok of Nigeria. My obsession with African art has kept me away from processes and techniques usually associated with European traditions of making sculpture. This was a conscious decision on my part, as the European aspect of my being is an ever present threat to the African in me. It is the greater part of my duality from which the lesser African self needs protecting. This duality I believe, is the basis of the personality of all Africans whether in the Diaspora, or on the Continent of Africa, and is the cause of ever present struggles between the conscious and unconscious, in us. So it was no surprise that when this piece, which is in fact pure European in form and technique, and comes out of a suppressed European self, was allowed to be given birth, it did so with a furious rage; it had been a part of that inner struggle too long. It took less than two weeks to complete the modeling of this Man from Redemption Grong; two to four months would be closer to the norm. It is also unique in the way it evolved. My usual method of creating a piece is to conceptualize the object in the round (this process could take up to a year to complete) before starting the modeling. The rest of the process is subject to divine intervention or the little accidents that inspires and adds mystery of the creative process.

On this occasion however, I began with a lump of clay and no preconceived idea. After playing around with the clay for a while a vague idea of a face with a flattened forehead came to mind which I proceeded to model. This soon developed into the face of someone I once knew as a young man in my twenties. His name is George Fairclough, and he was one of the original 'beardmen', who brought Rastafarian ideas from Jamaica to England in the nineteen fifties. George would always be telling stories of the Rastafarian ritual of nyabingy to anyone who would listen. He would extol the virtues of Rasta based on an idealized Africa. ‘Africa is Zion, land where milk and honey flow’, where the acolyte would walk under trees planted by rivers of water picking up fruits as they go; Africa land of the old and wise”.

As I continued to work on the piece, thoughts of the so-called madmen I came across while on a recent visit to my native Jamaica in 1987, kept going through my mind. I found these people really fasci­nating. For me, they were not mad at all; just people who had a different perception of reality, people who dare to express the kind of pride and arrogance that this piece exudes. These men seem to be privy to a knowledge of reality that lay beyond the reach of the rest of us. For this they are ostracized and even locked away.  Man from Redemption Grong epitomizes for me, Jung’s archetype of the wise old man.

 

Fowokan 1989