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By Rae Chen Elliman
peeding through the hot, chaotic roads of Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, it’s hard to believe that just a couple of hours North-East by car is Port Antonio. Cooler in temperature thanks to mountains, sea and lush foliage, the small city is the crown jewel of Portland Parish, and is sedate by comparison to the capital, which holds Portland’s nearest airport. It’s also barely touched, even now.
“The sense here is that many a holiday has been extended in perpetuity, evolving naturally from visit to lifestyle”
Here, there are neither the corporate nor the tourism strongholds we’ve come to associate with the various tropical havens on our planet. The sense here is that many a holiday has been extended in perpetuity, evolving naturally from visit to lifestyle. It’s not hard to see why, the force of its beauty and slower pace a worthy match for any workaholic. In the best way possible, it feels like a secret.
In San San, just up from Sanko Bay, a picturesque little beach where a couple of local fishermen keep their small boats afloat on crystalline water, is Geejam.
Part hotel, part recording studio, this is where celebrities and civilians alike seek out a little extra luxury, with a recording client list boasting names like Koffee, Alicia Keys and Amy Winehouse.
Rooms come either in the form of wood cabins, perched in and amongst luscious greenery with panoramic views of jungle and sea, or newly, the recently developed Rumba rooms. While the cabins offer total seclusion, the Rumba rooms provide something else. Something of an LA feel, big and bright with tall ceilings. White marble floors and steps lead to cavernous shower rooms and deep bathtubs. Each room opens out via ceiling height glass doors onto private balconies that overlook the grounds - a perfect picture framed by palms, with piercing blue skies for a background. And, just visible, a footnote of sparkling teal - the Caribbean Sea.
The airy rooms which opened this year are undoubtedly beautiful, but they could feel a little bare, if it weren’t for the art. It is among the first things you notice on arrival. Abundant clusters of framed photos, posters, flyers, old letters and postcards adorn each white wall. Lively black and white photographs by Savannah Baker (the daughter of Jon Baker - co-owner of the hotel and music industry exec) travel you to the heart of dancehall, while aged envelopes addressed to and from Port Antonio are mounted on to vibrant coloured backgrounds.
A pyramid of these carefully curated pieces crown the headboard of each bed, and this is thanks to Holly Cushing. “It started with a conversation with Jon Baker, who I’ve known for some years.” She explains to me, from the balcony of one of her favourite rooms, overlooking the hotel’s grounds. “I’ve actually been coming to Port Antonio since 1994. [Jon’s] idea was that I asked artists if they wanted to come and do a residency here.” The pieces the artists would have created would then decorate a room. “But I thought that a.) that would take too long, and b.) it wasn’t very Jamaican centric, even though the art would be inspired by their stay. I thought we should keep it more Jamaican.”
“If these rooms tell any story, it is a love story. The artwork speaks of an adoration for this sublime place”
Holly, who describes herself as an Art Consultant, rather than a curator “because I do lots of different things!”, previously worked for many years managing and producing the work of Banksy. Her CV reads to me as having the transferrable skills to do almost anything; before working with Banksy, she produced films in Los Angeles. After her initial conversation with Baker, she brought him her alternative proposal for the curation of the new rooms; a salon hang that felt unique. “I came up with the idea that I wanted to cover the walls with images that celebrated all things Jamaican; the 1970s tourist board posters, and pictures of famous Jamaican musicians and sports personalities… I said that I would source [the pieces] myself, just gather them. And he really loved the idea.” And so, she set to work, spending the entire of the first March lockdown at the National Library of Jamaica in Kingston. “I realised that they had thousands of images. They don’t really have anything sort of past the 80s, so it’s all archive, vintage, amazing photographs. I just got deeper and deeper into the library. And found more and more images. I think to me it was important to find really positive imagery” she explains, which was part of her intention to avoid and to counter the “negative information, incorrect information about Jamaica”
When she said ‘cover’ the walls, Holly meant just that. “In total there are 600 [pieces], there were a few left over – but most of the rooms are in the region of 40, 45”. To amass this enormous collection, Holly also used eBay, a contact in Kingston who managed estate clearances and a few local artists. “There’s a lady called Marina in Kingston. She was a mum at the school where Jon’s kid went. She had some pieces on zinc. I actually liked the pieces better when they weren’t on zinc, because they became too distorted - I didn’t think they really worked with what I had gathered. So I asked her if she could print some of the images up as photographs. The guy rolling the joint on the left hand side of the bed, that’s one of hers.”
“I feel like you spend a lot of time in your hotel room, even if you’re somewhere like this. And I think that it gives you an opportunity to tell a story”
The image Holly refers to is one of a few pieces that ended up recurring in multiple rooms. These little reoccurrences feel as though they tie together the unique collections in each room. One of the beautiful photographs by Savannah Baker, of a man and his horse in front of a fruit and veg stall, can also be found in multiple rooms.
Another (a personal favourite of mine) that perhaps was too good to only use once, is a vintage tourism poster for Port Antonio; a photograph of the immaculate Pellew Island, known more commonly as Monkey Island. It’s reminiscent of those printed car advertisements of the 70s. A striking colour image with monochrome text underneath that reads: ‘In a world of bad air, poisoned water and litter, there are still a few virginal places. Enjoy. Quickly.’
Even as a first-time visitor to this Portland, it’s easy to see that each frame contains something deeply personal, not just to Jamaica but to Port Antonio. “I decided that I had to narrow it down and make it Port Antonio-centric. And bring everything into context: bring the outside and the environment that people are in, into their rooms. I wanted to sort of educate them visually. When you get to the high end of hotels - there’s so much to do in the resort or hotel that people just want to spend a lot of time on the property and they don’t get to meet the locals. That’s why every room has pictures of the locals and of the surrounding area, and some have pictures of the staff that work here – so you can get a vibe of what’s out there if you’re not willing to venture out. I feel like you spend a lot of time in your hotel room, even if you’re somewhere like this. And I think that it gives you an opportunity to tell a story.”
If these rooms tell any story, it is a love story. The artwork speaks of an adoration for this sublime place. The aforementioned vintage poster that hangs in some of these rooms identifies Port Antonio as a rare treasure, yet, though the poster is decades old, its message remains: Port Antonio still feels like one of ‘few virginal places’.
I ask Holly, who has spent time over the last 20 years in many parts of Jamaica, why she favours this place enough to both reside here and dedicate the 600 pieces of art in these rooms to it? What is it about Port Antonio? Her answer is both spoken and embedded in the careful curation of these spaces. “It’s the beauty” she says, “and the people. That’s what draws me here, that’s always drawn me here.”
The rooms at Geejam hotel are (almost) as beautiful as their surroundings.
By Rae Chen Elliman