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Gary Younge


In proportion?: Redemption Song in Kingston
Size does matter, Jamaicans decide

It was supposed to symbolise liberation and celestial reverence in an independent Jamaica. Two naked 7ft-high bronze figures - a male and a female - looking skywards on a dome-shaped fountain embossed with Bob Marley's lyrics "None but ourselves can free our minds".

But according to the statue's critics the artist is too light-skinned, the male figure is too generously endowed, and both are, well, too naked.

Since Redemption Song was unveiled at the entrance to Kingston's new Emancipation Park a fortnight ago it has prompted a debate that has revisited myths about the black male, scratched at sores about "shadism" and brought to the fore a prudish streak in a country more renowned for taking things easy.

Every morning the nation's airwaves and letters pages are jammed with comments that range from the puerile to the priggish and the raunchy to the racial; every evening a permanent crowd of different people gather to point, laugh and engage inbouts of public banter that mix art criticism and sex education.

An unscientific straw poll, conducted just by listening in on the conversations of onlookers for half an hour and judging by the balance of letters and phone-in callers, suggests most people like it but that a sizeable number are scandalised.

Yesterday a columnist in Jamaica's Daily Observer, Lloyd Smith, described the sculpture as "a rape of our democracy".

Another writer ridiculed Renaissance sculptors for being not generous enough. "Just because Europe's classical statues had small penises," argued Mark Wignall, another Observer columnist, "does not mean Jamaica must follow suit."

A letter to the sculptor, Laura Facey Cooper, from the director emeritus of Jamaica's national gallery praised the statue and described the controversy as "vulgar epithets spat out by an unknowing and uncaring public".

Having attracted past criticism for a near-naked and well-endowed carving of Christ, the sculptor knew Redemption Song would draw some flak but had no idea it would be so sustained.

"It has surprised me," she said. "I expected something but not this. Public art is new to Jamaica and people project their own anxieties on to it."

She laid out her symbolic intentions in a contest conducted last year by the Jamaica national heritage trust. "The water washes away the pain, angst and suffering of slavery," she wrote in her submission. "The figures rise having transcended the past, standing in strength, unity and reverence."

The greatest amount of controversy relates to the nudity. In a country that produced the bawdy gyrations of dance hall queens, such conservatism would seem out of place. But despite, or perhaps because of, this reputation for licentiousness there is a deeply prim and proper element in Jamaican society; an MP recently called for the virginity testing of schoolgirls and tabloids have problem pages entitled "Tell me pastor".

Many feel affronted by the public nudity - albeit in inanimate objects - in Redemption. "Do we wish to give foreigners who visit the park the image that we are promoting nakedness?" asked Alfred Sangster, a visitor to the park.

Others have an issue not with the figures' nakedness in general but the size of the man's penis in particular. The 49-year-old sculptor says she used models and photographs and insists "it is in proportion to the rest of the sculpture. I certainly didn't overplay it."

Unapologetic

Cooper is unapologetic about the complaints that have come her way. "Both the male and female are very well-endowed in every possible way. It's an important part of life and it's a wonderful part of life. I'm a wife and I have kids and I enjoy that part of life."

Others have issues not with the sculpture but the sculptor. Cooper is eighth-generation Jamaican and like most Caribbean islanders is the product of some racial mixing. She looks white and claims African ancestry through her father. "At least one of my ancestors was a slave."

For some that is simply not enough. "[She] is a fine sculptress," wrote Kali Krishnadatta in a letter to the Sunday Herald. "But in the complex race-colour-class network that governs Jamaica she is neither the right race, the right colour nor the right class ... The implication is that black people in Jamaica are incapable of representing themselves."

Such criticism no longer bothers Cooper. "I know that with my privilege comes responsibility and growing up I struggled with it," she said. "But I'm comfortable with who I am. I don't even think of myself as white, I think of myself as Jamaican."

Meanwhile, the debate continues to raise a host of issues that Cooper never intended and few could have envisaged.

"See the woman standing there naked with her high breasts," one mother told her two daughters as they stood before the statue. "See the man standing opposite with his penis still flacid and they're not even touching. That is emancipation."

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