Most of the best artists are the ones we never heard of and all of the best stuff on Earth comes with a warning. Artist Peter Dean Rickards often, okay… always comes with a warning.
The Jamaica-born, Canadian-raised Rickards was best-known as a photographer, but he produced prolifically, internationally, and most effectively as a merry prankster, conceptual artist, writer, comedian, and genius. A true enfant terrible, Peter was not crafted “so as to maximize synergistic cross-platform branding opportunities” or to “gain influencer impressions”. Peter was the real thing. His art was the actual truth and was, at times, jarring.
Through his photography, dial-up era internet radio station “Kingston Signals”, First Magazine (of which he was co-founder and editor-in-chief), and perhaps most importantly, his seminal, self-curated online gallery, The Afflicted Yard, Rickards showed Jamaica through a henceforth unseen lens.
Peter loved his born-land and his arresting photos command viewers see that the island’s true wealth lies amongst the spirits of the very people who are hurt most by the nation’s “developing world” hardships. He worked passionately to show Jamaica as a country and people of beauty, tortured and twisted by brutal outside forces, but always redefined by the creativity of its citizens. Ever the champion of the underdog, Afflicted Yard photos stop you in your tracks and demand you see Jamaica’s “unseen”, providing hope and dignity to the oft-forgotten.
Peter was the “too bright”, over-caffeinated punk rock nephew of the Caribbean art world, lovingly ribbing the “funcles” at the barbecue. Breaking their balls about their old-fashioned ways from “Yard” (Jamaicans’ nickname for their beloved island in the sun). Jamaica was Peter’s favorite uncle.
Sometimes his work (goodheartedly) made fun of Jamaica. More often, his work made fun with Jamaica. His camera captured life’s simultaneously ludicrous and beautiful wind parade and it was obvious he saw Jamaica as at once Baroque and Shakespearean, romantic and tragic, elegant and vulgar. He loved her in all her chipped tooth, chipped paint, freckle-faced, zinc fence, long-legged, rusty gun glory. All of the agony, agony, agony.
Peter showed a next wave of artists throughout the Caribbean diaspora that it was ok to be weird. He showed them how to be weird. He showed them a new way to see the Caribbean and that this “new way” was okay. He choreographed a visually powerful vaudevillian waltz between “proper” uptown Jamaican culture, common man struggles created by Grand Canyon-sized disparity of wealth, the seemingly inescapable outside forces from “farin” (Foreign, The U.S.), and the ever-dreaded oppressions of the “Babylon System”.
Rickards’ oeuvre is a moody journey of photo stills, video shorts, musically accompanied slide show galleries, and even a reality television program (Dimaggio: The Last Don). The Afflicted Yard’s photo essays are usually-spooky, somber vignettes, humming with an ominous care and other-worldly washes of lighting. His black and white photos are sharp and as with all great art, create more questions than answers.
Described (by himself) as an “Unofficial Member of the Jamaican Tourism Board”, Peter was happy to play the twisted tour guide, taking guests off of our comfortable itineraries and shuttling us into his world. His work escorts us to street side Thursday night boxing matches in Downtown Kingston, rural slaughterhouses, inner city murder scenes, hallucinatory autumn jaunts through Central Park, and the haunting suburban banality of places like Nanuet, Long Island or his hometown of Brampton, Ontario. (also the hometown of actor Michael Cera and recording artists Roy Woods and Tory Lanez).
He showcased stunning women and shot them unapologetically, well-toned and well-oiled in herbal meadows, broken-fanned apartments, and blistered bauxite patches. Peter Dean would occasionally become obsessed with people and turn them into four dimensional living sculptures, oftentimes unbeknownst to them. Oblivious participants. He produced hilarious semi-send-ups of a rotating cast of Kingston characters including entertainment mogul Sani Showbizz, a graffiti virtuoso / bon-vivant named “The Seven Star General L.A. Lewis”, African sensation Prince Zimboo, and StarKist tuna heir turned dancehall-impresario, Josef Bogdanovich.
The steady beat behind it all (if sometimes, only in spirit) was, of course, the mighty sounds of Jamaican music, the pride and joy, the island’s most important cultural export… reggae and dancehall. Much of Rickards’ work documents a particularly electric time in Kingston which ushered in a reactivated “King Jammy’s heyday” or “Skateland 2.0” type energy. He captured a window of Jamaican musical history that included progressive labels like Shocking Vibes, Equiknoxx, and Truckback, and groundbreaking “riddim” production from people like Jeremy Harding, Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor (son of reggae legend Freddie McGregor), and Ward 21. He documented (perhaps even assisted) the nuclear forward ascents of recording artists including Sizzla, Sean Paul, and Vybz Kartel.
On one lazy afternoon, he pulls off to the side of Saint Catherine Main Road to investigate, artfully film, and interview the proprietor of “Breast Milk Auto Repairs” who goes by the name “Breast Milk” and who claims to continually imbibe on a steady supply of breast milk of unknown provenance.
One of his video shorts, Proverbs 24:10, shows a young dancer performing the latest dancehall maneuvers. In typical upsetter fashion, Peter presents it in slow motion, black and white, and set, not to its intended dancehall pulse, but to ‘All Things Beautiful’, a dreamy and tense piano lullaby by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
“If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength?”
On June 7, 1692 a great earthquake and subsequent tsunami crumbled and sank the smuggler city of Port Royal. The spirit of the cutthroat haven would be shortly thereafter reincarnated as Kingston, just a tad up the road from the place that the pirates used to call “The Wickedest City in all of Christendom”. Peter’s art is Port Royal, wicked, legendary, and storied, yet, somehow, still here, firmly within “Christendom”.
Peter created imagery that was tortured, honest, hopeful, informed, and even when pushing buttons, guided by some unspoken moral code and compass.
Peter forwarded onward from Earth on December 31, 2014, New Year’s Eve.
Being a fan of the Afflicted Yard was being in an elite club to which Peter would never want to become a member (although he would secretly and obsessively check to make sure attendance was up and monthly dues were paid). Much of Peter’s work is molecularly esoteric and there’s a kinship amongst those who fully “get it”. Peter embodied that saying about how art should “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. Hopefully “Edgy Pete” is comfortable now, getting great flicks of Bab, Dennis, and Gregory, and looking down (or up) at us, doing the Lord’s work.
By Matt Goias
This article was originally published in the print edition of SOLE DXB Event Edition, December, 2019