freestylee - creative activism

jamacian born poster artist michael thompson, aka freestylee, discusses the political power of art, solidarity with the oppressed people of the world and the rich cultural heritage of reggae.   interview with i.t.a.

check out michael thompson's gallery

firstly, i’d like to say michael that we love your poster art here at powder. we’re very taken with your political subjects. i’d like to ask what three issues you’d like to give special mention to at the beginning of the interview and why?

Thank you for the compliments.

There's an NGO called FaceAfrica that raises funds to build wells that can provide clean drinking water in Liberia. It is one of the biggest problems facing underdeveloped countries today, the lack of clean drinking water. I have offered my art in support of their effort, and help build awareness on the subject. It is one of those issues which concerns me. The Arab uprising for freedom from oppressive regimes, and now the horrible violence facing the people of Syria. The Tivoli Gardens massacre, 73 people, mostly civilians, including women and children were killed by the Jamaican security forces in a poor housing project in Kingston, Jamaica, in an attempt led by the government to arrest and extradite a gang leader to the United States. I have made a number of posters in solidarity with the people of this poor community, to help draw attention to the injustice that took place there and which has yet to be investigated.

what started you on the path to becoming a creative activist?

I think if you pay attention to that inner voice, you will have to be concerned about the many social and political plights abound. You have two choices, you can either close your eyes or speak out, I choose the latter. My first protest poster goes back to an incident in 1978, in Jamaica, which was dubbed the Green Bay Massacre. Members of the army lured a group of poor inner-city youths from a slum community in Kingston, called South Side, with promise of work. They were lured to a military firing range where they were lined up and fired upon. Luckily, two of the young men escaped to tell the tales which contradicted the military's official version. These extra judicial killings led to my first hand painted poster design. Green Bay might have been my first act of creative activism. My Activist/Awareness designs are my way of drawing attention to these kinds of atrocities facing ordinary people around the world.

do you believe that art can change the world?

Certainly, it can help. However, art alone cannot change the world, it needs people including artists who are willing to step out front and make a difference. Those who march and sit in the squares and face the cannons are the ones who make the change. You have to be willing to "Get Up" and fight for your rights and for others as well. Of course, art can help the conversation and start a dialogue. It is a tool, you have to realize that art is a tool, and a powerful one at that. If you combine it with social media it is possible to give voice to a movement.

is there a political doctrine that you follow or is yours a more personal set of political persuasions?

No, I don't follow any political doctrine, Peter Tosh the outspoken iconic reggae artist favored the word play "poli-tricks" so I am very weary of the "ism" and political doctrines as well. I speak out in solidarity with the oppressed, and lend my creative voice to seek justice and what is right. It is not difficult to find the path or the correct side to take. I developed a sense of responsibility that I need to be involved, to use my poster art to spark a profound dialogue on the subject. I do not believe in framing my creativity in the narrow confines of political straight jackets. Artists around the world like, Al Weiwei and Oakland-based artist-activists Jesus Barraza and Melanie Cervantes of Dignidad Rebelde are taking a stand.

your posters are often used by activist movements. which movements are you associated with and involved in?

Yes, you are right many activist movements have requested my art for various campaigns. Code Pink for example is one such organizations that I have lent my creative support to in the past. Others are not so easily identified, for example, I have been approached by individuals associated with the Arab spring and recently the Syrian struggle to use my poster art, and I have obliged. I am not associated with any movement in particular. With the power of social media it is easy for those fighting for freedom or a cause to reach out and ask for help, or request the use of one of my posters, this is usually the case. I lend my creative voice because I believe in their struggle and also because my conscience drives me to do this.

has your work always been political or do you branch into different subject matter?

Yes, my art has always followed a progressive direction. However, my Freestylee posters also branch into different interests outside of activism, including my love of Reggae music and Jamaican historical themes. My Freestylee promotional pieces are also fun visuals as well. A lot of my imagery captures the golden periods of Reggae music, 1970s - 1980s; the style and energy of the time. I've been trying to involve myself in a dialogue about the need to celebrate the pioneers and the institution that made Reggae music a global success story. This is an important personal project for me. So you see, I am not locked into one kind of energy.

how did you first come to do poster art? what were your first pieces?

I first became really interested in poster art with my visit to Cuba in 1978, as a member of the Jamaican delegation to the 11th World Festival of Youth and Students in Havana, represented an important marker in my interest in the medium. Revolutionary art and propaganda is always extremely potent, because of the verve and passion of the originators. The Cuban poster designers are extremely passionate. Even the US embargo could not limit their creative energies. The Cuban designers had a huge influence on my design aesthetics. I was very inspired by the beauty and power of the poster art produced by the Cuban agencies of The Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry (ICAIC), Casa de las Americas, and the Organization in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (OSPAAL). My work is heavily influenced by the retro Cuban post Revolutionary Posters of the 1960s and early 1970s. Jamaica also played an important role in the development of my art. At the time, Jamaica did not have a strong graphic poster art tradition or institutions that could nurture this kind of excellence in design like the Cubans. However, there were grass roots artists in Jamaica, like Ras Daniel Hartman, whose graphite Rastafarian-influenced drawings were what I grew up admiring on the island. I give much respect to an icon like that. As a matter of fact, my earliest drawings as a youth were mostly inspired by his works. The spirit of his art captivated my imagination. One of his most iconic pieces that I really love is the image of a defiant Rasta boy with arms folded. That piece captured and celebrated the covenant of the Rastafarian culture. I have to say that this combination of Cuban and Rastafarian influences are the pillars on which my art finds roots.

when you approach a piece where does your inspiration come from?

My source of inspiration can come from anything or anywhere. Everything around me comes into play by keeping an open mind. I can usually see the design take shape in my mind very quickly. Like an eureka moment. Of course the finished piece may take a new direction on the computer. But mostly, I am on target with the first mental sketch. I have come to trust my instincts when it comes to design.

which poster artists have influenced you? what other kinds of artists and thinkers have influenced you?

You know, I'm a huge fan of post revolution Cuban poster designers, particular Antonio Fernández Reboiro, Rene Mederos, Roberto Figueredo and Alfredo Rostgaard, and of course the Bulgarian born poster designer Luba Lukova who I consider to be one of the most potent social poster artists of our time. These names are at the top of my list. I am also inspired by the Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei and Japanese contemporary pop artist Takashi Murakami. The philosopher of design Victor Papanek. Other influences come from Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey, and Emperor Selassie I.

you go by the moniker freestylee: artist without borders. what is the significance of this name?

There is no deep significance to the name, except to say, If you combine "Free" and "Style" you get Freestyle. "Stylee" was a popular reggae dancehall DJ jargon in the 80s, and it fits perfectly with my message; Thus, the name Freestylee. It has a nice ring to it. "Artist without borders" speaks for itself.

you grew up in Jamaica. how would you describe life for you in Jamaica to an outsider?

Jamaica is a small island, with big ambition. On the world map you can hardly see it, however, it is a place of big dreamers who aspire to take on the world. Many have looked far beyond its sun drenched beaches throughout the island's history. Philosophers like Marcus Garvey, Leonard Howell, Bob Marley, and now the sprinter Usain Bolt are just a few Jamaicans who have made global impact in one form or another. Reggae music and the Rastafarian culture found their roots here. So this is an extraordinary place to grow up, even though life is tough for the majority. I grew up in a poor working class section of Kingston, called Jones Town, I grew up here in the 1970s, not far from the famed Trench Town. This was a time when Reggae music was reaching out to the United Kingdom and beyond. There was plenty of optimism in the popular culture at the time. Plenty of imagery and narratives to spark a young mind like myself. This was a place where all the great reggae artistes like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Toots, Stranger Cole and Alton Ellis and many others came from. West Kingston was the incubator of popular urban "rude boy" culture, style, fashion and the unique Jamaican Sound System, movies like "The Harder They Come" and "Rockers" captured this period well. A lot of imagery used in my Reggae poster art are inspired by this time and space.

lastly, a lot of your poster work involves reggae; indeed you are a co-founder of the reggae poster competition. so i'd like to know what reggae music means to you? how did you come to begin the competition and how has the competition itself helped to bring new attention to this form of music?

The contest evolved out of my Freestylee reggae poster project on Flickr, and the dialogue as mentioned earlier. The idea to launch the International Reggae Poster Contest, which I founded along with my partner and friend Maria Papaefstathiou. Our plan is to celebrate the positive impact of reggae music globally and to spread the vision that seeks to establish a Frank Gehry designed Reggae Hall of Fame Museum, in Kingston, Jamaica. It is extremely gratifying as a visual artist to see this vision find a grip and take off.

Reggae is rich music, and has adopted and assimilated in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, even in Australia you will find an entrenched Reggae scene that goes back decades. This music has also inspired and spawned other music forms as well, such as Hip Hop and Dub-step for example. The contest is a platform to remind those who love the music about the journey the music has taken, and the Jamaican pioneers who made this a global treasure. Actually, we are rebranding reggae with beautiful contemporary imagery. Our 2012 inaugural contest received 1142 posters from 80 countries. Just to show the impact the contest has made. The Israeli government sponsored our Israeli winner, Alon Braier's trip to Jamaica for the opening. You can't get much more attention that that.

The overwhelming attention we received from international designers to the subject is a testimony of what the contest has achieved. Our first exhibition "World-A-Reggae" was held at the National Gallery of Jamaica, in October 2012. Our second exhibition was held at AKTO design college in Athens, Greece in November, and more to come in 2013.

I wish to mention that one of our important objectives is to raise money for Alpha Boys' School, a school for wayward boys in the capital Kingston founded in the 1800s, where many foundation Jamaican musicians of Ska and Reggae were taught to play music. We raised over US$6.000 for the school by auctioning the top 30 posters from the contest. Yes, we are doing our part to bring new attention to the music. This is a catalyst idea and it is opening the eyes of Jamaicans about what the potential possibilities are and what the music has achieved.

thanks so much for speaking with powder michael. we look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.

Give thanks for the opportunity to share my art and visions...Respect!

check out freestylee - artist without borders