Melinda Brown is the founder and creative director of Roktowa, a nonprofit gallery, café and community space in downtown Kingston, Jamaica. She is an Australian abstract sculptress who has been in Jamaica for the past eight years, and depending on the circles in which you roam she is either persona non grata or a celebrated crusader for the arts. Her very presence in the area inspires awe and admiration among the uptown art crowd, and her work on the ground developing the infrastructure necessary to cultivate the growth of a creative community makes her a beloved neighborhood resident. But Roktowa’s stated mission, “Plant artists to create growth,” flies in the face of the top-down approach favored by the business community tasked with revitalizing the area. Sevens Clash salutes the mission.
Roktowa occupies the second floor of 8 Pechon Street, an 85-year-old, five-story concrete structure that once housed the original Red Stripe factory. We are greeted in the street outside the gallery by Dion ‘Sand’ Palmer, a self-taught painter and draftsman, whose name recalls his one-time occupation as an enterprising sand smuggler. He speaks with a rapid-fire free association in what appears, at first blush, to be a put on, but which later seems to be an involuntary, almost non-stop, cascade of overlapping riffs on words pulled at random from the conversation. As we try to keep pace with his racing thoughts, he guides us up the stairs and through the gallery to the café and communal eating area in the back where Melinda is waiting for us.
Now, I was taught at a young age that it is impolite, some say unwise, to ask an expat encountered abroad for any biographical details not freely offered. This is a discipline that has served me well in myriad situations over the years, but one which I inexplicably abandoned the instant we met Melinda. She was one of the founders of Bush Video, an influential tribe of (occasionally) nomadic visual artists whose output in the mid-seventies was heavily infused with a second generation Australian mutation of the sixties psychedelic social consciousness emanating from Berkeley. Known mostly for their pioneering experimental video work, it was no surprise when, in 1981, Melinda was tapped to design and build the special props for the post-apocalyptic world of George Miller’s cult classic film Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. By the time the early nineties rolled around, her career had outgrown the scene in Australia. “Bigger pond, you know?”
Shortly after landing in New York she secured a long-term lease (on the cheap) for an abandoned, two-story mid-century building in Manhattan’s Meatpacking district on Ninth Avenue at the corner of 13th Street. She christened the place Bombora House and ran it as an artist colony and underground museum for the next decade. In the dead of a particularly harsh winter — and amid protracted battles with a landlord looking to cash in on increasing property values by squeezing her out — she impulsively fled to Jamaica. Callously mocking the established etiquette of the local elite, she rented a loft on Church Street in the heart of Kingston’s deteriorating downtown. She fell in love with the city.
In 1958, Red Stripe relocated, expanding operations west to a more modern facility at Hunt’s Bay. In 2007, Roktowa moved in. Today, studio spaces and living quarters occupy the cavernous rooms once filled by machinery. In addition to a small core group of artists and artisans, Roktowa offers space and materials to a rotating cast from the surrounding neighborhoods and hosts an active international artist residency program. Melinda explains that she’s gradually reclaiming space for her own studio, but for the time being takes regular trips out to a gypsum quarry in Bull Bay just east of the city. There, a team of chiselers led by Roktowa founding member Crocus is currently executing her latest project, a suite of five-foot-tall, two-ton phallic sculptures — which she euphemistically refers to as Shiva lingams — meant to represent each of the Ten Commandments. She leads us into the former grinding room, a massive space spanning the width of the building, which she envisions as a possible site to exhibit the project. “I’d love to show them here. I was thinking of getting one of those big revival tents, and when you put the ten of them together it will be like this critical mass, so the space between them will be as important as the shape itself.”
Melinda’s grandfather designed and built iron lungs for polio victims at a major infectious diseases hospital in Australia, and she tells me that her work is a conceptual continuation of what she absorbed as a child in his workshop. “When you conceive an idea, its execution is inherent because you’re familiar with the tools and the process.” As a creative haven carved out of a hostile landscape, Roktowa maintains respiration where the paralysis of social and structural decay has previously meant asphyxiation. Fifty years after the last polio outbreak, and half-a-world away, she is orchestrating her own abstract variant of the pressure ventilators her grandfather once made.
As we talk, 27-year-old sculptor Derval ‘Junior’ Johnson arrives with a few of his birds, each one lovingly carved from a single piece of cedar sourced from St. Ann. He came in for the first time last year to attend a drawing workshop conducted by visiting artists from the United Kingdom and has been involved with Roktowa ever since. A few paces behind Junior is Ital chef Christopher Jones carrying bags of fresh coconut jelly for everyone. Rounding out the scene, Roky — the gallery’s three-footed, formerly homeless canine mascot — snaps at Alexander’s sneakers as he takes pictures of Sand, who is now rolling around the room on an old industrial mold-making wooden ball. As far as I can tell, this is a normal day at Roktowa.
words: Sean Stewart
images: Alexander Richter
design: Anthony Harrison