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Free space: Emancipation Park in New Kingston

Emancipation Park, an oasis in the middle of New Kingston, is a rare open public space in Jamaica’s capital

When you walk into Emancipation Park in New Kingston, you get a vibe. It’s not just the feeling of calm that green spaces evoke, or the warm fuzziness at the sight of children playing on the lawn, or the couples hugging up on benches. There is much more happening here, on a subconscious level.

The park makes a statement, a poignant synopsis of the story of the Jamaican people, in a million subtle ways. A one-time dust bowl that sat smack in the middle of New Kingston’s commercial hub, it is now the Jamaican capital’s most beloved public space. An estimated one thousand people pass through on a regular day; on public holidays that number increases tenfold.

But there was controversy every step of the way. From the moment the land, once the property of the exclusive Liguanea Club, was transferred to the National Housing Trust in March 2002, critics questioned its strain on a severely stretched public purse. Three months later, on July 31, one day before Emancipation Day, even the most toughened cynic must have been teary-eyed as one of the most remarkable public parks in the Caribbean was opened. Yet a whole new bacchanal was unleashed, as the plans for the monument that would stand at the ceremonial entrance were unveiled.

Laura Facey Cooper’s Redemption Song ignited a whole new debate about nudity and morality that had the largely Christian population in an uproar. Her design was centred on two figures, a man and a woman cast in bronze, standing on a dome, with water flowing around them. The dome represents life, and the water purity, as it washes away the pain, angst, and struggle of slavery. The couple, naked and full-bodied, gaze heavenwards, having risen and transcended the past. At the top of the dome is a pool from which water overflows, falling to the pavement then vanishing into a cave-like area hidden underground, creating the sound of water in a cavern. In all, it took more than a hundred people — engineers, artisans, and others — to produce Redemption Song.

But the critics cared little about symbolism — they were riveted by the male figure’s penis. It was strikingly large, they complained, for a public monument.

Fortunately, the judges of the contest included the chief curator of Jamaica’s National Gallery, David Boxer, who championed Facey’s sculpture. “Their nudity is part of their potency,” he said. “It is part of the meaning of their emancipation; their rebirth into freedom. They stand there as a symbol of the naked truth of the argument of emancipation; the truth that we are all equals in the eyes of God.”

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