Interview: Michael Thompson / Freestylee … artist without borders
Nils, 1. Februar 2011
Have you ever heard of digital poster artist Michael Thompson? Probably, if you have read the latested issue of the reggae magazines Riddim or Irie Up.
As I am fascinated by his art, I asked for some pictures and an interview. Here it is with Michael Thompson talking about tradition and technology and what his art has in common with Reggae artists like Bob Marley and Burning Spear.
How did you get into poster art?
Michael Thompson: My poster art goes back to the late 1970s in Jamaica. My first protest poster was about an incident in Jamaica called the Green Bay Massacre. An incident that took place on January 5, 1978 in which seven youths from the South Side ghetto in Kingston were lured to the Green Bay military firing range in Hellshire, St. Catherine and were executed by JDF (Jamaica Defense Force) Soldiers. This incident was shocking when the truth came out and I had to use my art to protest the massacre by the Jamaican State.
„I have always felt the need to use my creativity for positive change and peace activism from way back then.“
Some Reggae artist at the time also recorded protest tunes about the incident, songs like „Green Bay Killing“ by Big Youth and producer Glen Brown, incidentally one of the youths who was killed in the massacre was a young Reggae singer name Glenroy Richards who ironically recorded the chune „Wicked Can’t Run Away,“ on Glen Brown’s „Youthman“ riddim. This chune was later renamed “Green Bay Killing”, this was a wicked dancehall anthem and a haunting tribute to those who suffer injustice at the hands of the „wicked men.“
I mentioned that to show the general mood at the time and why I felt it necessary to create that poster. I have always felt the need to use my creativity for positive change and peace activism from way back then. It was also during the 1970s that I won a poster competition that gave me the opportunity to join the Jamaican cultural delegation to the 11th world Festival of Youth and Students in Havana Cuba, in 1978, and again to the Moscow Festival in 1985.
In those days I was painting my posters by hand. Visiting Cuba and seeing first hand the amazing poster designs coming from the Cuban agencies of OSPAAAL (the Organization in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia and Latin America), ICAIC (the Cuban Film Institute), and Editora Politica was an inspiring experience to say the least. Cuban artists like René Mederos and Félix Beltran are two of the Cuban poster designers I admired greatly. That trip made a huge impact on how I design posters today. I am returning to my roots of activism with my current posters.
In which way has your art changed due to technical progress?
My “awareness art” and Reggae inspired posters has evolved tremendously with techniques and style, definitely technology has played a big role in that evolution. First, it is possible to experiment more than I would have by painting in traditional mediums. Painting a piece obviously takes a lot more time and a lot more preparation. Secondly, with a computer and the right illustration software I can react to an event like the Haiti earthquake or the Tivoli Gardens massacre and create a number of designs in a few hours, ready to be posted for the world to see and react to.
I totally embrace the technological progress that allows artist such as myself to have a platform to express ourselves digitally to a global audience. The web, for sure, has given me the opportunity to do this in a way that would have been almost impossible in the 1970s. Without the tools provided by technology it would have been much harder to get this kind of exposure.
„I totally embrace the technological progress that allows artist such as myself to have a platform to express ourselves digitally to a global audience.“
What is most important is that the fundamental principles that guide my aesthetics and messages remain the same. It is no different from a roots Reggae singer who embraced technology, but the core message and rhythms stays rooted in the traditions of Rastafari and the Nyabinghi drums. It is the same balance I have with tradition and technology in my art.
My works on Flickr have attracted many admirers and friends of my art from around the world, including Germany, where the support is growing, now that my work has been published in Riddim and Irie Up magazines, and now House of Reggae, the exposure is fantastic. I have to give nuff respect to you and the people at Riddim and Irie Up.
What’s your aim with the posters?
To me, poster art provide the perfect conduit for “freeform creativity”, the absence of any direction drives the energy in my art. It pushes the boundaries of my creativity to grow. It is the liberating factor that I experience and the satisfaction that I get from trying to make a difference, my Flickr ID “Freestylee, artist without borders“ is a reflection of that.
Art should not only express the beauty that surround us, but also try to advocate for change. I am ready to highlight and show solidarity with these who struggle in places like Gaza, Tivoli Gardens, and Tunisia, who are oppressed by state sponsored violence, or support environmental concern etc., a small voice is still louder than silence. My art accomplishes this in a fun and beautiful way and that is what I try to do in my work; combining creative and solidarity to garner support on a number of pressing issues of our time.
„It is that same way I see my posters; protest and positive messages wrapped in beautiful images and designs.“
I look to conscious Reggae musicians for inspiration as well. They have combined protest music that’s fun. We can dance to the rhythms and still get the message, it is what make singers like Bob Marley and Burning Spear and others successful. Many of their songs are also expressing the harsh realities of life, and the oppressive nature of Babylon that governs us. It is that same way I see my posters; protest and positive messages wrapped in beautiful images and designs.
This type of positive art can be successful as well. I’m very interested in the potent revolutionary narratives, and my poster art can bring my passion to the web, the streets, art galleries, and the global stage. Give Thanks!