Photography by Peter Dean Rickards
Christopher Irons is a critic’s worst nightmare. Hailed by some as ‘a highly unorthodox talent’ he is the kind of artist whose work you instinctively recognise as great art though singing his praises could be as risky as wearing tight pants in Kingston.
In early 2006, to give you an example, I got a call from the soon to be defunct CCA7 (Caribbean Contemporary Arts, based in Laventille, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad) asking me to recommend a Jamaican artist for a residency – starting practically immediately. An artist had failed to take it up and they had an unexpected opening…the chosen candidate would get to spend two months in Trinidad and Tobago starting two weeks before carnival, with a modest stipend and complete studio facilities.
I happened to be in Trinidad at the time so Christopher Cozier (a prominent artist from Trinidad and Tobago) and I pondered the matter over coffee at Rituals and decided that Irons was the obvious candidate. Chris Irons duly found his way to Trinidad and shortly thereafter the phone calls and email messages began.
First it was my good friend Ataklan politely trying to find out whether I had realised what I was doing when I recommended this particular artist.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
Well, he was upsetting everyone– taking inappropriate photographs of himself, raising white fowl in his studio and having his enthusiastic conversations with various females misinterpreted as overtures. Hmmmmm, I called Cozier in a panic, and gratefully left the matter in his hands when he pooh poohed the alarmists saying that if Irons had been “white and foreign” (instead of “black and ugly” like Shabba) the same people would hardly be complaining.”
The culmination of all this was a performance by Irons in a culvert in the Trinidadian equivalent of Cherry Gardens where he donned a black robe, strung up his hand-raised white chickens – by now plump and pretty – and slaughtered them in front of an arty farty audience who had innocently turned out expecting the kind of precious badness most Caribbean artists like to pass off as Art.
Back in Jamaica Irons basked in the afterglow of the stir he had created in TnT and jubilantly planned to outdo himself at the big ‘Materialising Slavery’ show coming up at the Institute of Jamaica later in the year. Calling me on the phone for one of his regular check-ins he boasted of excesses to come. At the Institute of Jamaica show to be specific.
“Is it going to be as bad as what you did in Trinidad,” I asked.
“Worse!” answered the enfant terrible.
“What about what you produced for the Jamaican Biennial then,” I asked.
“Worse!” he claimed. The JCDC competition? “Much worse!!!”
Well, after such advance warning you would have thought I’d have made sure to be on the spot when Irons struck again at the IOJ last September. What gets my goat is that I was actually there but just around the corner from the avian abattoir listening to a Kumina band perform when I missed his performance. By the time I got to the Irons performance he was stomping off in a seeming trance clad in underwater flippers and wearing a screwface.
The bloodied chamber he left behind was full of feathered carcasses and shocked Upper St. Andrew types with exclamation marks for eyes. The walls were covered in violent graffiti. In between swigs of white rum Irons had bitten off the necks of several chickens, sliced the head off others with a machete and generally terrorised a small flock before donning the flippers and leaving.
Shortly thereafter the Kumina band finished its performance and decided to check out what else was going on around them. The green and yellow begowned brethren and sistren wandered into Iron’s performance space advancing cautiously towards the fluttering white hens hanging from ropes like clothes hung out to dry. They looked around in wonder as if they had chanced upon Ali Baba’s cave. “A who response for this chicken?” asked one of them as another plucked a beheaded chicken off the line and whirled around and round with it like a dervish.
Another woman bit the head off one of the few intact chicken and ran around the edge of the room dribbling blood in all its corners. The drums struck up and the entire troupe started whirling and dancing around in a trance plucking and tearing the remaining fowl to pieces. A bewildered Irons returned from a brief time-out in curator Wayne Modeste’s office congratulating himself on the resounding success with which he had shocked his Upper St Andrew audience only to find a bunch of people taking his performance to new levels of seeming spirit possession. For once it was he who was shocked.
So what’s it all about? It may be useful to know that Christopher Irons is possibly Power 106FM talk show host Mutty Perkins’ biggest fan. Mutty Perkins is a tough old contrarian, the small man’s champion against the government and the police, a man who is as hated as he is loved because his views do not often coincide with the politically correct views of the left, yet someone who appears to have that rare quality: integrity.
At the same time Mutty speaks the Queen’s English and refuses to patronise the masses or kowtow to their preferences in music and generalised culture and in return he is much cherished by the massive. One of those peculiarly Jamaican institutions, that’s what Mutty is, someone who deplores the notion that slavery is a wound the nation can never recover from, who casts aspersions on the claim that white people were exclusively responsible for the slave trade and who often says with a sigh how much better things were when the British ran things. Mutty rejects the posture of victimhood vehemently laying the blame for the abominable state of affairs in countries like Jamaica squarely at the feet of corrupt and inept postcolonial governments. You get the picture.
It is in the context of the refusal to be seen as victim that Christopher Irons’ powerful IOJ performance When Africa Enslaved the world must be viewed. According to an email from Irons, “I am moving away from the idea that white people owe us; we black people, who are the great grandchildren of the slaves are blackmailing them; looking for pity. We black people are great like any other race …what did we learn from slavery? What did we lack? If White people owe us, then Africans owe us even more for selling us. White people are not killing us in Jamaica, we are doing a fine job ourselves.”
To my mind the problems of exhibitions related to the trauma of slavery were captured in Irons’ raw, visceral performance and his unfortunate chickens. It was hard not to make the link to terror, bondage, rape, torture and death we customarily associate with slavery. It made us intensely uncomfortable to be confronted without warning with the unrepresentable, we who insulate ourselves from the daily violence in postcolonial Jamaica. Irons made the necessary connection between the past and the terrifying present the poor inhabit today and for this he brought down on his head the usual censorship. This remains our predicament –how to deploy the lessons of slavery in dealing with the persistent trauma of contemporary life.
There remains an amazing DVD-recording of Irons’ performance followed by the Kumina version. He has since extracted clips from the DVD and incorporated them in a music video he has created – Irons is also a singer with aspirations towards a musical career.
Born in Buff Bay, Portland in 1973 and a graduate of the Edna Manley School, Irons is perhaps the only visual artist around grappling so visibly and so memorably with issues that afflict our postcolonial present. Many of his sculptures are biting satires commenting on police brutality and political corruption. His Braeton Brutality was created in response to the controversial police massacre of 7 teenagers in Braeton, a locality in Portmore. The metal sculpture, in the shape of a seated animal, has a long tubular muzzle like the barrel of a machine gun menacingly aimed behind it. The sculpture is both sleek and sinister, a startlingly evocative image of the notorious Jamaican police force or ‘Babylon’.
Irons came to public attention in 1996 when he won the Wray & Nephew ‘Spirit of Jamaica’ competition with his sculpture The Undying Spirit consisting of a John Crow-headed creature riding a motor-bike, only facing the wrong way, a commentary on Irons’ perception of “the way Jamaican was moving, going in the wrong direction.”
Then there is Ride on Atrocities, about the failure of the courts and the justice system in Jamaica which depicts a wild boar holding a gun in one hand and a gavel in the other while riding a stunted demonic looking creature. The Grim Reaper, a galloping ten-foot apocalyptic horse and rider Irons is based on the observation that crime and injustice go hand in hand.
In 2002 Irons won a prestigious Commonwealth Arts and Crafts Award that took him to Nigeria. In 2003 he showed his work at the Pendulum Gallery in Lagos. He continues to make and show work in Jamaica where he is art teacher at Ascot High School in Greater Portmore.