AFRICAN ARTS & CULTURE AT GREAT HUTS

The Importance of African Arts and Culture within Great Huts’ Design and Educational Programs

Great Huts seeks to replicate a peaceful, harmonious West African village where our guests can find comfort, tranquility and inspiration.  Animated by what I have read about African village life and seen in photographs, I have chosen to embrace Africa’s rich beauty and diversity within our four-acre complex, which occasionally prompts a guest to ask: Why?  Why simulate an African environment in Jamaica?  The answer is to be found among the people of Jamaica themselves.

Ninety-five percent of Jamaicans are descended from West Africans who were bound and shipped like cargo across the Atlantic to Jamaica in the 15th to 17th centuries.  During that period Portugal, Spain and England were sending European commercial goods to Africa to be sold and traded for enslaved Africans, who were in turn brought to the Caribbean and the eastern shores of North and South America and traded for abundant raw materials that were in high demand back in Europe.  The pivotal leg of this Europe>Africa>New World>Europe “Triangular Trade” became known as the “Middle Passage.”

Most Jamaicans are descendants of the Akan, Igbo, Ibibio, Mandingo and Yoruba tribes from Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria, each with its distinctive language and intricate manner of art, customs and belief.  After their capture, these deracinated Africans had been marched in chains to the slave forts of West Africa, herded onto ships for a long and harrowing – sometimes fatal – transport across the Atlantic, and sold at slave markets into an enforced system of labor and punishment.  In the New World, plantation owners and slave-based society sought to repress African culture and communication, often in brutal ways.  Plantation profits battened on control, repression, torture and dehumanization.

Despite the abolition of slavery in 1838 (slave-like conditions persisted for another half-century or more), and emancipation from English colonialism in 1962, African culture, religion, art, language and identity continued to be suppressed among the majority of those who survived slavery, as well as their progeny.  Jamaican national hero Marcus Garvey, through his oratory and writings, tried to help his people to understand their connection to Africa – their royal leaders of centuries’ past, the brilliance of their art, architecture, science and engineering – and to love themselves and their black brethren as children of God.

A major voice for Black is Beautiful, Garvey encouraged the masses to return to Africa, if not geographically then in their hearts.  Due in large part to his eloquence and the ongoing impoverishment of the black masses, Rastafarianism arose.  Rastafari leaders Leonard Howell and Joseph Hibbert touted the Divinity of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia — a direct ancestor of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, whose child, Menalek, and the priests of ancient Israel brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia.  The Rastafari acknowledged Selassie as the Messiah, and molded the tenets of Ethiopian Orthodoxy into a Judaic-Christian amalgam of theology and philosophy.

Early Rastafari communities were often regarded as barbaric – black, African…even criminal – and adherents could be subjected to beatings or incarceration by the Constabulary, whose authority derived from the white British police force.  Many Jamaicans, in fact, internalized the prejudices of their oppressors, openly disdaining anyone whose skin or behavior was “too black.” Light-skinned Jamaicans, usually descended from the miscegination of slave master and slave, were considered superior, a lasting and pernicious indication of the racism that underlies this formerly slave-based economy.

The Maroons of Jamaica, who have self-governed communities near Port Antonio, are descendants of runaway slaves or slaves freed by the Spanish.  Like the Rastafari, they are more Afro-Centric than many of the assimilated, Anglicized (and repressed) Jamaican majority.  Their ancestors may also have survived the genocide of the original AmerIndian population of Jamaica, the Taino people.  Robert Nestor Marley, a Maroon who adopted Rastafarianism, is known to millions for the reggae music he performed and recorded with his band, a rhythmically and lyrically spiritual music that continues to resonate with masses around the the globe.  The Judaic philosophical underpinnings of Rastafari are unmistakable in Marley’s lyrics and his call to return to Zion (Ethiopia), whether literally or figuratively.

Other connections between the peoples of Africa and Israel abound.  The Falashas of Ethiopia, now almost exclusively living in Israel, were deemed by the Rabbinate of Israel to be the lost Tribe of Benjamin, or may also be ancestors of Solomon and Sheba. The origins of Judaism can be traced to Black Egypt 3000 years ago, when Moses (perhaps black as well) emancipated the Hebrew slaves, and the black and Asiatic white Jews traveled to and populated the land of Israel.  The Black Lemba Tribe of southern Africa is genetically related to the priestly caste of Israel, as likely to test positive for the ‘Aaron gene’ as any white European Jew. Many black Jews have resided in Yemen and North Africa for centuries, if not millennia.

Today, more and more Jamaicans are embracing their African roots.  Many of Jamaica’s self-taught or intuitive artists, from the late Kapo to Ethiopian Orthodox leader Everald Brown, are imbued by African art and culture.  Many young Jamaican Afro-Centric artists such as Mazola, Nakazzi and Gene Pearson are enormously popular.  An increasingly authentic Jamaican pop culture, although still envious of things white, English and American, proclaims its love of Africa, a yearning for a spiritual return to Zion (Africa generally or Ethiopia in particular), a shunning of Babylon (black subjugation and corruption of the establishment) and a reclaiming of African roots and heritage.  Modern scholars have traced the origins of Jamaica’s influential dancehall music to traditional African dance, and Jamaican heritage groups such as the Manchionelle Cultural Group (who perform at Great Huts) reenact the stories of African life in freedom, the chapters in captivity, the triumphs of emancipation and independence, and the redemption of the black soul.

I hope this admittedly encapsulated genealogy of the Jamaican people makes it clear why I am so inspired by Afro-centric scholars and artists.  Having acquired my parcel of virgin land on the cliffs of Boston Bay, I wanted what I established there, as a humble but comfortably rustic family-friendly resort, to exemplify the storied roots of the Jamaican people.  The name, Great Huts, is an intentional play on what the slaves called the home of their overlords – the Great House.  And the overall aesthetic honors the African ethos of living in harmony with nature, a sensibility about which the denizens of the “dark continent” saw the light centuries before the “natural” movements and environmental activism that have finally been gaining traction in the so-called First World.

By keeping pathways unpaved, using stone, mud bricks, bamboo and thatch construction, decorating with painted African geometrics and West African fabrics, and displaying more than 250 objects of Afro-Centric art by Jamaican artists, Great Huts aspires to contribute in a small but meaningful way both to the love of black culture and African history and to Jamaica’s significant role in perpetuating those influences.  The Middle Passage Memorial common pathway through the African Sunrise Hut is a metaphor for the eponymous trans-Atlantic journey.  The mural beside the swimming pool memorializes the lost souls of the sunken slave ship, Sable Venus.  The stone sculpture in the meadow is the Cosmogram and Kulunga-line concept of the Congo, illustrating the African circle of life.

The Solomon Tower adjacent to the Pharaoh Bar has a mural of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon –  with a Hebrew inscription from the Second Book of Kings – of symbolic significance to Rastafari and Jews alike.   As is the interior mural of the Queen of Sheba above the entrance, depicting how she might have constructed her palace or synagogue when she brought Judaism to her people in Ethiopia and Yemen.  Our extensive library of nature and general topics, and the adjacent shelves of African and Judaic lore, invite our guests to read and learn.  Our educational programs on Rastafari Faith, African History, Jamaican art featuring the work of intuitive Afro-centric artists, and our Cinema Paradise Film Festival on Black Film are additional ways in which Great Huts champions to the retention and reclamation of African culture in Jamaica, the “Jewel of the African Diaspora.”

We would like our guests to be charmed, even intrigued, by these details.  Acknowledging colonialism and enslavement isn’t meant to foment anger or resentment, nor to evoke unpleasant memories.  Our aim is to offer an ambience for reflection and self-awareness, as well as for relaxation and fun in the sun.  The Sankofa Bird painted on the Cliffside tables is a symbol of the importance of looking back on history as we progress forward.  As inscribed in the Yad Vashem Shoa Memorial in Jerusalem: “Remembrance is the path to redemption. Forgetfulness, the gate to exile.”  This is a fitting reminder, not just of the fate of six million Jews, but of the 15 million killed in the African Holocaust as well.

“One Love!  One Heart!  Let’s get together and feel all right.” – Bob Marley

Paul Shalom Rhodes, M.D.

Designer and proprietor of Great Huts

Co-founder and medical director of the Port Antonio Homeless Shelter