Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston

“Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston,” is an exhibition at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia that explores the aftermath of the violence that rocked a community in Jamaica. — submitted photo

A 2010 standoff between Jamaican security forces and a local gang leader wanted for extradition by the United States government, resulted in the death of at least 75 civilians in the West Kingston, Jamaica neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens. Over a period of four days, residents were under siege and memories of the violence still resonates for “Tivoli Incursion” survivors.

“Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston,” a Penn Museum exhibition, examines the aftermath of this traumatized region of the island nation. As detailed by the museum, the exhibition is “part art installation, part memorial, and part call to action, this powerful new exhibition sheds light on the tragic events of May 24-27, 2010 and its aftereffects, through compelling video, photography, written biographies and audio featuring accounts of 21 community residents directly impacted by the violence.”

During the week of May 24, 2010, the museum’s timeline explains, that members of the police force and the Jamaican Army entered the community of Tivoli Gardens to apprehend Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who had been ordered for extradition to stand trial in the United States on gun — and drug-running charges. Under pressure from Parliament and the U.S. government, the prime minister announced to the nation on television that he had authorized the attorney general to sign the extradition order. This led to a standoff between the security forces that had to find Coke —“don” of the Tivoli Gardens community and popular benefactor as well as gang leader — and many of Coke’s supporters who wanted to protect him at any cost. At week’s end, Coke had not yet been found, while more than 75 civilians were officially recognized as having been killed, community members give a number closer to 200.

Beginning in 2013, filmmakers and Penn students recorded oral histories from survivors of the Incursion, collected archival video and created a documentary, “Four Days in May,” portions of which are presented in the exhibition.

“They want to want to make sure this stays on people’s radar,” explained exhibition co-curator, Dr. Deborah A. Thomas, the R. Jean Brownlee Term Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. “In order to understand no only this particular event, but a kind of longer history of political violence, and the ways that it is coming out of colonialism, even slavery, and even more recently the U.S. kind of interventions not only in Jamaica but the Caribbean and throughout the western hemisphere. In this case, obviously, the ties between Jamaica and the U.S. have been very strong and very varied and not always above board. The wanted some light shed on those kinds of things.”

Thomas, who has lived in and continues to visit Jamaica, strove to ensure museum guests could connect the dots between these regions.

“On one hand, Americans should know what their government does in their name, and this is one example of those relations and those ties,” said Thomas. “Since the first World War, this hemisphere has been seen as the U.S.’ and the U.S. has intervened on many occasions in order to protect economic interests throughout the Americas — but then to also tie it into other concerns regarding anti-Black violence, anti-Black state violence, in particular, and police violence and the movement for Black Lives Matter, in the U.S. context.”

“Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston” is on view at The Penn Museum. Set prominently in the exhibition space is a Feasting Table, an important part of Revival, a Jamaican spiritual tradition. One element of a ritual that is used for both celebrations, and memorials, the Feasting Table is a reminder of the community loss — and a window into understanding the spiritual practices that sustain Jamaican communities in good times and bad. For information, call 215-898-4000 or visit (215) 893-5749

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