K. Khalfani Ra responds to Veerle Poupoye’s “Freedom of expression and censorship in the arts-part 3”

Olympus Digital Camera
Brand Jamaica #2, genocide by any other name is still....Courtesy of K. Khalfani Ra

Your article (of October 23, 2022) is riddled with untruths and faulty reasoning. Firstly, as you should be well aware, but for some reason have chosen to ignore, professionally, my name is K. Khalfani Ra. Also, in terms of naming, the work is not a collage, regardless of who says so. The “collaged” areas function very much as a “ground” or prepared surface for the painting but also as a purveyor of content. This work displays a 50/50 ratio between painted and ‘collaged’ spaces and the painted figurative imagery expresses the major burden of the content. So, without a doubt, it is a mixed media painting in the tradition of the great Jose Antonio Aponte, creator of the modern collage technique, circa 1810-12.

Next, to say “we agreed” to exhibit a different work is like saying Sally Hemings ‘agreed’ for Jefferson to father her children. It’s a patent falsehood! After I insisted we speak in person instead of on the phone, you made it clear when we met, in as many words, that you were only doing me a favour to speak with me about the decision not to show the work because you could have just withdrawn it without saying anything to me, despite my status as an invited artist. Like Sally I had no choice!

You cannot prove/demonstrate where I have ever done a single work that is “preoccupied with the politics of Black female sexuality”. Hogwash! In your first paragraph you say, yourself, that the artist argues (via the painting), against “a lack of racial self-respect”. Let it be known, however, that, despite its lack of veracity, I don’t for a moment hesitate, to wear as a badge of honour your claim of my works being hectoring and moralistic. That kind of language is to be expected from the enemy’s camp. In such an intractable cultural and socio-political environment as Jamaica, infamously resistant and obstinate regarding critique and challenge to all aspects of “coloniality”, there must be much that is right about my works to attract such vitriolic appellations and for that I certainly make no apology. I mean, it’s achieved the nigh impossible…it’s got you talking about them, albeit with forked tongue.

It’s ridiculous to say I’m “preoccupied with provocation” when, clearly, it’s the issues with which I grapple that are themselves provocative. Yes, my works are confrontational by design, it is, as I have said publicly, a martial art. As for a lack of “critical nuance or technical and formal resolution”, your saying so doesn’t automatically make it so. You say you are a professional, so you know very well that until you make an argument of some substance about what you allege, you are merely badmouthing me and my work and pretending it’s not the case. Shame on you. It’s not a very good example for your students, I think.

You claim it’s my recent work that you “find too preoccupied with provocation”! Yet, as you well know, this is not my first encounter with the press and public. For whatever its worth, I am the only visual practitioner of my generation, or since, whose work has scandalized the media resulting in national newspaper headlines response to my work which challenges psycho-social and cultural mores, not once but twice. The first time was way back in 1991 or ’92, when my work was still then subject to the juried section. Two of my works, both using whole bibles were the main focus of a review of, what was known then as, The Jamaican Annual National Exhibition, forerunner of today’s Kingston Biennial. The Sunday paper headlines screamed, “Artist Defaces Two Bibles” and ended by proclaiming me an extremist who should not again be “allowed” to enter the National Gallery. Moreover, this controversy occurred while the works hung in the gallery, contradicting your contradictory statement, “…and usually only occur when art is given high public visibility outside of the confines of the artworld”; spoken in true forked tongue tradition.

In spite of your efforts to say otherwise, “Equally provocative art works, by various artists, have been exhibited on many occasions…”, I know of no other case of an invited artist whose work was rejected from the biennial, not because of the work’s formal properties, as you reluctantly admit, “I would have accepted and exhibited it…” but didn’t because of the intensity of the challenge of the aesthetic presentation of the content. This is regardless of the extant socio-political circumstances which you go to the extreme extent of being dishonest about, “This happened in the months after the censorship incident that I alluded to in last week’s column”, knowing there is no such reference alluded to in the whole article, Part 1 or 2. Merely a part of your thinly disguised efforts at downplaying and undermining the pedigree of my practice vis a vis my apparently superior capacity (if your fairly strenuous efforts at denial is a gauge) to genuinely engage and challenge viewers on subjects which I am certainly not alone in addressing in Jamaica, namely –  identity, race, politics and culture and their impact on attendant areas of sexuality, history and religion.

Perhaps it would have been better for you not to have joined the move to censor the work, (what irony given your title), in 2014 but to have mustered some guts, despite your stated, “mixed feelings”, to which you are, of course, entitled, as possibly the work would have hung without much, if any incident as it did, for a month, in Olympia Gallery in 2019 during the exhibition “BE!”, even being sold! A very similar case to the Marley monument by Gonzalez, which you speak about in the first segment which you end by saying, “After a number of years at the Island Village complex in Ocho Rios, the work today stands at the front of the National Gallery, both without any controversy, I am aware of, which suggests that the statue would have been accepted with more time and better support and management”.

It should have been doable considering the heft of the capital you carry in this country and your infamous swagger in wielding it.

K. Khalfani Ra is a creative artiste.

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