Michael Thompson on the First International Reggae Poster Contest

By Holly Bynoe Sunday, January 8th, 2012 Categories: ARC Partners, Interview, Updates

For 2012, ARC is breaking new ground and continuing to strengthen our ties with various cultural and artistic initiatives across the Caribbean and beyond. Late last year we heard of the First International Reggae Poster Contest and were excited to be approached to be one of its media sponsors. Michael and Maria have developed a concise definition of what they want and have set out to really engage numerous contemporaries practicing today. It is our hope that you will be motivated and inspired by Jamaican-born creative activist, Michael Thompson, aka FREESTYLEE’s generosity the way we have been. We are proud to bring to you one of the first in-depth interviews that attempts to encapsulate the vision of the contest and Michael’s idea of contemporary design and practices.

Holly Bynoe: What was the inspiration for conceptualizing the First International Reggae Poster Contest and how does your practice feed into the development and realization of it?

Michael Thompson: The inspiration for conceptualizing the First International Reggae Poster Contest 2012 was an eureka moment triggered by my desire to celebrate the pioneers, musicians, artists and institutions that made Reggae music possible. The global response to my own Freestylee poster art project on Flickr and my participation in the Reggae Movement Exhibition now touring Europe, has proven clearly that the subject of Reggae and the iconic visualization of the music and culture through design was something the world is ready to embrace.  All my reggae designs are inspired by all the popular Jamaican genres; Ska, Rocksteady, Dub, Roots Reggae, Dancehall and the Sound System culture.  Once the idea took roots it was clear to me that designers, wherever they are, if given the opportunity, would de delighted to participate and share their creative interpretation of the global energy of Reggae.

Here is the background to what sparked all this. My interest in establishing the First International Reggae Contest 2012 came from the realization that there is not a single iconic institution established in Jamaica that can truly celebrate and preserve this global treasure. We know the music has enough powerful narratives and artifacts globally to fill any museum. You would think that this kind of initiative would have taken found support already considering the popularity the music has enjoyed, and is enjoying, worldwide.  A Reggae Hall of Fame would seem to make perfect sense. I wanted to do something about that. So, I designed a series of posters and posted them on Flickr to draw attention to the fact that we need to celebrate and preserve the greatness of Reggae music in a big way. Something inspiring and tangible. Our Reggae poster contest is just one step to that larger vision to see the realization of a Frank Gehry “iconic” style architecture built in Jamaica to house such a Reggae institution. This contest can prove the power of Reggae from a different context.

I should mention that through the contest, we plan to raise funds for one of the oldest music institutions in Jamaica: the Alpha Boys’ School.  This school is a jewel in Jamaica and continues to be an incubator for Jamaica’s musical talent. Many of the pioneer musicians who created Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae came from that school. So, we hope to auction the 100 best posters and give back to that institution, for without them we may not have Reggae music.

HB: Certainly Reggae’s roots are Jamaican but do you think with globalization it is less about Jamaica and more so about how the world considers the proliferation and influence of reggae?

MT: This is an important question. I have to give credit to the Sound System, Bob Marley and Rastafarian culture for the globalization of Reggae. There is hardly a place on the planet where reggae is not known, even in the remote villages in Africa or the far reaches of Russia, the faces of people will light up when Reggae and Bob Marley is mentioned. Certainly, Jamaica is the foundation and the roots of the music. However, what is certain and without a doubt is that the music is now a global cultural phenomenon. France is said to be the center of Reggae music at the moment, but Germany has a strong Reggae scene that can rival Jamaica, with its own homegrown army of reggae artistes like Gentleman, Seeed and many others.  There are hundreds of sound systems across Germany and Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. Even India now is boasting its first home grown sound system.

I firmly believe this globalization of the music is a good thing for Reggae music and Jamaica.  The issue is what will Jamaica, the birthplace of the music, do creatively to exploit this to benefit the island and the local economy. Our objective of the First International Reggae Poster Contest 2012 is to continue to build awareness for Reggae music and to celebrate the global achievements of Reggae and its positive impact on the world. So, this contest has embraced that international reality, and we are using this poster design contest to celebrate this proliferation and influence of reggae around the world. Yes, you are correct, it has become less about Jamaica, but Jamaica can use this opportunity to bring the center of gravity back to Jamaica, if it is willing to make bold investments in this important cultural asset.

HB: How did you go about selecting the international Jury?

MT: My colleague, Maria Papaefstathiou from Athens, Greece has partnered with me on this contest. She was instrumental in building the contest jury committee.  We believe the contest should reflect the international perspective of the music and how the rest of the world sees our culture through their creative eye.  We approach the search from that point of view.  The aim of the contest is to continue to build awareness for Reggae music and to celebrate the global achievements of Reggae and its positive impact on the world. That’s why we wanted to invite a cadre of international designers. This brought the necessity of an International jury panel of highly respected designers.

We wanted designers who are committed to participate as judges, who will pay much attention to the creativity of the submitted poster designs.  This was our first concern. We formed the jury panel with those who are known as the best in poster design and other fields of graphic design, and, most important, those who have had experience as judges in other similar competitions, and are dedicated to the task of the jury.

What pleased us most, was that the designers we contacted all had a love for Reggae music.  That made it easier for all to accept the invitation with a high interest and who were willing to participate and even offer a poster of their own as a contribution. Once Maria contacted the potential jurors, we began to get the acceptance emails very quickly. That’s the power of Reggae music.

HB: Have you noticed any current trends in contemporary design that have managed to last a couple of seasons?

MT: I can talk about contemporary poster design. The resurgence of the poster trend is phenomenal. I feel good that poster art is popular. It is exciting that this medium of artistic expression is gaining attention around the world, and is not a seasonal trend that is going away any time soon. As long as we have something to shout and celebrate we will have poster art. Poster artists like Shepard Fairey’s work made it to the Time magazine cover twice in the last four years. Many important contests and exhibitions are held around the world, including the Mexican International Biennial of Posters and our very own First International Reggae Poster Contest 2012. With the ever increasing social and political developments currently sweeping the globe, designers have a long list of topics to interest them.  Additionally, more artist and designers are designing posters for a variety of social causes.

HB: Who and what are you looking at currently? And where would you direct young designers to invest their time and energy, any online spaces or collaboratives that we should know about?

MT: I am excited about the explosion of creativity coming out of the continent of Africa, I see a growing creative movement emerging with much energy and diversity of contemporary art and design that is usually not associated with the continent. I am always checking out African Digital Art (ADA) website to see what and who are emerging. There’s a surge of talented creative minds making waves in music, art, design, fashion, film, so ADA is definitely a place for young Caribbean designers to keep watching for trends and also to submit their designs. A very slick magazine and one which I really like is Arise, out of the UK. I can’t wait for each issue to arrive on the stands. It is a magazine I read from cover to cover. It explores trends, fashion, art and music coming out of Africa and the African diaspora.  Although I look for trends, I try not to copy or follow what is trendy. What I want to do is to discover and know what is driving the trend, and where to find the creative energy source behind the trend and tap into it. That is more important for my creative development.

I like to take an international approach in what I do and my inspiration comes from many global sources. I think it is important to have that perspective as a designer. However, our own cultural background and heritage can be a powerful creative reservoir to draw inspiration from.  I would advise young designers from the region, as well as others in the diaspora, to pay attention to their own roots and culture.

I am looking at artist Ai Weiwei, Shepherd Fairy, Luba Lucova from USA, Péter Pócs from Hungary, International designers and GRaphicArt News. These are some of the names and online spaces that always get my attention. I am not forgetting your own Caribbean Art and Culture magazine. I have to big up your amazing magazine and am delighted that you are lending support to our initiative. Every artist and designer should keep an eye on this space you have created.

In terms of collaborative efforts, next summer the Reggae Movement Exhibition will continue to exhibit in more cities and countries. I am exploring more collaborative projects and exhibitions in the pipeline. There is the possibility of an exhibition at The Drum national centre this summer in Birmingham, UK. However, right now my focus is on the Reggae poster contest.

HB: What do you hope for the contest to bring out in artists and designers across the Caribbean?

MT: We are hoping we will receive substantial submissions from our Caribbean designers. We have begun to see through our Facebook page, a growing interest from the region. I am very confident that we will see the interest coming from that region and will also see great poster designs coming from the Caribbean. We would like to see our regional designers, especially from the English-speaking Caribbean, embrace the growing trend of poster art now spreading across the globe. We want the designers and artists to become aware of the power of this medium and to understand that posters are not just for commercial interest.

By the way, poster art is not new to the Caribbean. Cuba has developed an extraordinarily talented stable of artists and world-class designers who have produced thousands of beautiful poster designs since the 1960s.  I believe the contest can be a catalyst for stimulating an interest in the art form in the English speaking Caribbean as well.  We also want artists and designers in the region to become aware of the power of poster art as social design and how it can provide the spark to inspire awareness on many important issues facing the region. Message art can also be inspirational as much as the music of Bob Marley or Burning Spear.

ARC would like to thank Michael Thompson and Maria Papaefstathiou for accommodating our questions and we look forward to keeping abreast with the contest as it develops. For more information please visit the poster contest on Facebook and through their Website. All works previewed by Michael Thompson see more on Flickr.

Holly Bynoe
Holly Bynoe

Holly Bynoe is a curator, visual artist and writer based in the Caribbean. She is the Executive Director of ARC Magazine, and a graduate of Bard College International Center of Photography (2010) where she earned her M.F.A. in Advanced Photographic Studies. She currently holds the position of Chief Curator at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, and is co-director of the annual arts conference Tilting Axis and Caribbean Linked Residency Program.