As a part of his retrospective “Love, Loss and Life,” artist Thierry Lamare hosted a frame-building workshop at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas (NAGB) on May 20, 2017. In just over three hours, he generously shared techniques that he has used to build driftwood frames for his paintings over the years. More than thirteen people from diverse backgrounds and varying degrees of experience were in attendance. Artists, art enthusiasts, craftspersons and a few do-it-yourselfers came seeking to acquire a new skill, build on existing knowledge or satisfy their curiosity.
A painter and transplant, Lamare has called The Bahamas his home for almost thirty years. Over that period, he has become a keen observer of the Bahamian landscape, its people, customs, and traditions, some of which are slowly fading, others shifting quickly like the dying light which he captures so evocatively.
Lamare’s artistic journey began at the early age of 13 years, and although he deviated during his college career when he studied maths and later, interior design, his love for painting was a constant and eventually led him to The Bahamas. In 1996, he visited Long Island where he met Ophelia and Joyce, his muses. Lamare continued to visit the island every year thereafter and cultivated a rich, deep relationship with these women whose lives and personalities are communicated so hauntingly in his work.
Following the tradition and genre of Realism, Lamare’s gaze and painterly gestures gently reconstruct the quality of the space that he occupies, reflecting the warmth and the coolness of the tropics. In Lamare’s paintings, one can easily escape into a world where time stands still and the beauty of the everyday comes into sharp focus.
In many ways Lamare bring the same aesthetic to the frames that surround these emotive depictions. Driftwood, like his subjects, is a raw, battered, durable and timeless material and possesses a deep, authentic beauty that is echoed in the landscapes and individuals captured in his paintings. This material is taken from the sea and used to build frames that are crafted with a skill and attention to detail that is virtually flawless.
The workshop began with a brief tour of the exhibition, where participants closely examined the frames used to showcase work that spans over 25 years of the artist’s career. Particular attention was paid to the to detail and design that was needed to ensure that the frames display the paintings in a way that is not only conducive to viewing, but supports the aesthetic of the work.
After the tour, participants journeyed outdoors where a temporary carpentry workshop had been set up. Lamare led participants through the step-by-step process of making driftwood frames using techniques that he has developed and learned and used in his practice over the years. Materials were included, however, persons were encouraged to bring any viable reclaimed wood or driftwood that they may have collected. They were given leeway to choose a frame size that would be most useful to them and after the initial demonstration, began the process of crafting a driftwood frame from raw materials.
At first, many participants found the loud, quickly rotating blades in the power tools intimidating, especially the table saw, but after some coaxing a few intrepid individuals tried their hands at using these dangerous, somewhat fascinating tools. Eventually others followed and a few persons indicated their interest in continuing to develop their carpentry skills and make frames for their work in the future. “I never thought I would ever feel comfortable using a tool like that,” said a participating artist about her experience with the miter saw. “I can’t wait to make frames for my work!”
After a few hours of cutting, sanding and nailing and eventually assembling and staining the driftwood pieces, under Lamare’s guidance, participants were able to build beautiful, finished driftwood frames for the special paintings, drawings or photographs that were awaiting them at home.
Lamare’s exhibition, “Love, Loss and Life” will be on display at the NAGB until September 10, 2017.
And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.” — Deuteronomy 28:23&28
I cannot say why this quote from Los pasos perdidos (1953) by Alejo Carpentier the Cuban writer and musicologist resonates with the work of capturing or documenting cultural heritage in the southern Bahamas. However, these words capture beyond reason so much of what time has done in these islands. We, as a people, also treat Bahamians as if they were second-class citizens in their country. The system of paradise and exploitation, created during piracy and continued during colonialism, is not about white against black, but rather about a system of exploiting those who cannot — or are not allowed — to speak for self because they are repeatedly told they do not have souls, they are not human and they should be grateful to be allowed to be near such greatness.
Carpentier is a truly incredible writer and is important to us as Bahamians in the southern Bahamas that once gazed on and spent days learning and shopping in those southern neighbors, who we now turn up our noses at. His work shows not only the fecund nature of the region, but also how quickly erasure can occur, as indicated by the title, the lost steps. It is not only that the steps are lost, but that they are utterly forgotten and leaders can pretend as if they never happened. In this magical realism — or marvelous realism — that we inhabit, so much of what is real is more unbelievable than fiction; we are cautioned not to believe the bearers of glad tidings lined with empty promises that only extend a hand that extracts the marrow from the nation and the community.
The marvelous real, where history is forgotten, is upon us in the southern Bahamas. Indeed, the efforts to control, manage, package, celebrate and enliven Bahamian tangible and intangible culture are essential to the survival in the modern economy. Once upon a time, the land was never sold, it was only ever leased. The colonial governors and the Crown ‘lent’ huge tracts of land to other sovereign states, where they set up bases and developments, other large swaths of land were deeded to cousins and other relations. Today, the state gives away swaths of land that hold the lives of Bahamian folk in its balance for cents on the hectare, where no real money changes hands, and the money that does is often kicked back into deals that continue to enrich a small group at the endless expense of the nation.
However, as cultural heritage is safeguarded, it is less easy to squander a people’s patrimony or birthright. The UNESCO project to build and protect our intangible cultural heritage creates legal instruments and an overarching system that sees fit to protect this for future generations. Cultural patrimony is not only about today; it is about all the generations to come. We can see the cultural shifts that occur with time’s swift progress, but we can also capture these in art, design and cultural industry that is not limited to arts but is about focusing on all aspect of creativity from fashion and haute couture, fine dining to building and manufacturing; these are creative industries. Food canning and spice and pepper preserves are other excellent areas we can expand in. Instead, we put all the energy into building resorts for people, who may come once and never return, or homes that stand empty for 11 months of the year and may employ one lady to clean part-time.
The darkness as nature reclaims what was once developed and hides it from memory is salient in a culture that is so rich, yet is exclusively depicted as paradise for pleasure seekers. It is the poking in the darkness of the middle of the day that resonates particularly as we pretend to attend to investigating our culture. It is the irony of loss with the promise of the future, roads paved with gold yet devoid of humanity that has struck me as so utterly devastating and tragic.
The Southern Bahamas lives, not in a time forgotten, but in the space of abuse, neglect and ‘political pawnage.’ The nothingness that was once pregnant with promise and potential stands now like a forgotten nightmare, tossed aside, used and very much erased by the vagaries of political cronyism. Los pasos perdidos is about the splendor of a robust and fecund nature ready to erase the footsteps of those who were once there. It is reminiscent of the cultural loss that is being visited on these islands and cays and so on the national whole as populations die out, migrate out or are replaced by empty promises of development that would pave over the very nature of the nation.
Intangible cultural heritage is part of the rich tapestry of life that we ignore or simply do not understand but practice daily. The loss of tangible and intangible culture can be seen as a natural progress of time, but when we discuss the lure of ‘cultural tourism,’ we see that we are starting from the back and so we can’t be the swiftest nor the nimblest as we have missed the very essence of cultural tourism.
Ministries of tourism do not make culture, they rather spotlight what already exists, but it must be preserved and conserved to remain. t cannot be eradicated and still expect to attract visitors from far and wide to gaze on the empty space of where cultural heritage stood but was bulldozed.
As the ‘nine-seater’ fumbles into the longest landing strip in the Caribbean, we are then greeted by a reality of rot, abandonment and neglect. So much of what once thrived on these islands of Inagua and Mayaguana has been eclipsed by bush and dereliction of duties that it is hard to imagine what Bahamian prosperity would look like. The ‘airport’—another misused term when applied to where one lands in Mayaguana—is now waiting to be remembered as the weeds choke out its potential for future joy. So few Bahamians can access these spaces and know about the wealth these islands and islanders have that we should begin a new course in all schools called learning The Bahamas, our home. By building awareness of Bahamian culture, tangible and intangible, by developing the creative industries and inviting the world in to see who we are, not whom we are told by the outside we are, we can become great.
Mayaguana needs locally-focused, locally-driven development that may be small-scale but creates wealth for the community; it does not need a multi-million dollar, multi-million-person-a-year resort that shuts down in the offseason, leaves its trash on the land, pollutes the incredible waters, and plucks out the remnants of social history, intangible culture, and the plants and aquatic life that support local culture. We do not wish to replicate Nassau on every rock, cay, and island in The Bahamas; too many people wish to avoid this place. Why duplicate a pariah of crime, overcrowding and poor zoning, where local life is left a long way from or choked up under the resorts that build walls to block out the ‘stench’ of poverty.
Traveling around the country gathering information has shown how magical reality is and how rich actors become by under-developing their people. As Walter Rodney demonstrated How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the same is true today where we talk about cultural tourism that means people who come to paradise for an exotic adventure but everything indigenous is for sale, sold, or developed out of the national coffers. We must embrace our patrimony and develop it so people who live and work here—be they permanent resident, citizen or temporary resident—will enjoy and benefit from it without destroying its uniqueness.
Lavar Munroe’s “The Migrant” is an illustrative portrayal of a spindle-legged, knock-kneed nomad carrying his home on his back. In many ways, the tale in this digital print tells of the ubiquitous image of the immigrant and is reminiscent of the Phil Stubbs classic song, “Cry of the Potcake”. The xenophobia and self-hate we deal with as a nation is quite easily summated in the lyrics of the catchy tune, “they don’t love me, they only know me when they need me”, and Munroe’s look at the struggle of the emigrant bolsters this when we think of our history as forced immigrants. For instance, can we image our Bahamas without teachers, nurses and doctors from elsewhere in the region working alongside those we consider to be ‘born’ Bahamians?
Growing up in Grants Town, Lavar Munroe is no stranger to what this particular side of immigration in The Bahamas looks like and by this work’s exclusion of the expat immigrant, it helps to emphasize the kind of migrant pictured. Since, when it boils down to it, regardless of where you come from, in truth, anyone who moves here is an immigrant, but the connotations of the word are what make things sticky. We have very particular images in mind when we think of ‘immigrants’ and when we think of ‘expatriates,’ and we know the power structures and history in which this difference in terminology is rooted.
This digitally rendered print has the makings of an illustration, like many of Munroe’s works from this period. It’s only fitting, then, that Munroe proclaims himself to be ‘the trickster’ and deals with these slippery narratives in his practice. Like another trickster we know, Anansi of African and Caribbean folklore, the figure in the image is a many-legged thing. In some ways this could be seen to imply that migrants are seen as not quite human. The number of people supporting this house make it look to be a heavy burden to bear on one’s back, and the “government pink” speaks to how that burden of finding home here can be difficult on more than one avenue —not just socially in finding “home,” but also logistically. It is not just the journey to reach the islands — it is one that can be fraught with danger and taken on rickety vessels over sea, for some it is a life/death journey.
Particularly, when we think of nations elsewhere in the Caribbean, more politically corrupt or fractured than ours, we have people fleeing one set of extreme difficulties to experience the perceived lessened ones here in The Bahamas. It is certainly our geography that makes us so attractive, but the high cost of living and immense bureaucratic challenges across sectors of the government makes this dream one that is far too expensive to sell.
Still, the figure guiding them, with his head poking out, points forward, onward, reminiscent of the black triangle of our flag as well as our country motto, and there is the implication that one can, and should, press on toward better life despite the gray of the horizon. This gray renders everything vague with regard to time. Is it night? Day? The weight of this heavy sky speaks to the pressing conditions the displaced are under. Moving forward no matter what, taking the stairway to nowhere that Munroe has sketched in the background, or perhaps taking refuge in one of the ramshackle homes that are reminiscent of Haitian shanty villages and Over-the-Hill alike. The former, with houses built out of nothing, compared to the latter, where old, formerly dignified houses are patched with whatever is to hand, are different absolutely, but the urgency and necessity to be able to just ‘keep going’ on a day to day basis is a shared value.
“The Migrant” (2008), created in the midst of the 2007/8 global financial crisis, a period which, if we look closer to home, foreshadowed the six years following where our adult unemployment rate rose to 13.7% from 7.9% previously. It’s no surprise that conditions like this lead to divide people rather than unite them. At the end of the day, if we are all too concerned with how to live from day to day and resources and opportunities seem finite - how can we expect people not to fight in times like this? As a postcolonial nation, we are just starting to crawl out of this bucket, and the crab syndrome of dragging our brothers and sisters down to get ourselves out of this hole becomes more pronounced considering our history.
The imagery that ‘trickster’ Munroe employs plays to ideas of movement and mobility and they are just about everywhere in the work. From the legs of the figures to the wheels at the bottom corners of the image to the stairway going nowhere - the idea of movement we see is more than just something of ‘flee’ here, and speaks to ‘free’ in other ways. We all understand displacement as Caribbean people—itis quite literally what this region was built on—the displaced Africans brought into slavery to build each nation for each respective mother-colony. It is a hard history, and one that we share, but what we often feel to be a lack of roots can be something altogether more freeing if we choose it to be.
Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo, another post-colonial subject just like ourselves, speaks of the lack we so often feel here and the struggle of the migrant, the mixed-national, and anyone struggling with a sense of in-betweenness in her book of poetry, “Questions For Ada”
“So, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
Never enough for both.”
Caribbean people are nomadic in our origins and by nature in many ways, how many Jamaicans, Trinibagonians, Bajans, Cubans, Haitians, and Bahamians do we know that have moved and live elsewhere? Of the aforementioned Caribbean sister countries, we have pronounced pockets of them living here, and who knows how many Bahamians live in Florida and further afield. The Windrush of the 1950s and 60’s that saw a great number of Jamaicans move to the UK, or the fact that we have Bahamians - even our oft-revered Sir Lynden Pindling or Stephen Dillet - who have Jamaican or Haitian heritage means that we are, as the saying goes, ‘Out of many, one people’ - so why the distancing? Why not see our similarities and differences, our multiplicity of experiences for such a small part of the world, as something marvelous?
The pink shell of a house on the figure’s back reminds us not just of the government pink, but also the pink of conch shells. One of the ultimate nomads here, conchs carry their home on their backs. To have one’s sense of home with you wherever you go is something to be seen less as a burden to bear and more as a freedom of mobility. We have that capacity to feel our sense of home within ourselves, not just in the place we inhabit, and that freedom means we needn’t feel threatened by others bringing their homes with them. We then become a great network of homes and hearts together, an ecosystem of to live in symbiosis rather than the struggles of power and hierarchy, like being spokes in the wheels of Munroe’s work.
When we move past our nationalism as a region, and move past feeling the threat of being lumped together as so often happens globally - because many of us have experienced the dread of having every nation in the region be reduced down to Jamaica, Cuba or Haiti because of their global familiarity - and when we begin to embrace the similarities that bond us together simultaneously with the differences that make us unique, we will feel less of this plight of the potcake.
Cultural heritage, shockingly, is actually not unique to or owned by a people unless it is inscribed as such. So, as a nation, we think we are the sole practitioners of Junkanoo the way we perform it on Boxing Day morning and New Year's Day morning, however, this unique cultural relationship does not endow us, The Bahamas or the Bahamian people, with the right to use Junkanoo as we wish. We do not own the practice nor do we benefit from it, despite the fact that whenever we are invited as a country to an arts or culture festival we tend to drag an entire Junkanoo group with us. The nation and the state have been historically irresponsible when it comes to officially claiming, and so protecting, our cultural heritage.
A lesson learnt
Trinidad is renowned for creating steelpan, which has its own festival, “Panorama” around carnival time and may also be incorporated into carnival groups. Be that as it may, because Trinidad was slow on the uptake when it saw the time come to protect steelpan, it does not own it or the rights to it. That means that Trinidad, although the indigenous home of the steelpan, is neither legally identified as the creator of the instrument, nor can it trade on its fame or fortune. The international community now insists that Intellectual Property be tied to a place through legal registration and clear and obvious legal title. The World Trade Organization and other groups such as World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), UNESCO, and other UN organizations and groups have created serious and complex systems of registering what we would call indigenous knowledge and indigenous culture. Much of this is studied under Intellectual Property (IP) Law, and is often included in some aspects of Public International Law and Trade Law, all of which The Bahamas participates in, even if begrudgingly. A part of this is Trademarking, Copyright and Patents etc, all of which make up intellectual property. So, just as Trinidad lost the rights to own and benefit from steelpan, other indigenous cultures have lost access to their indigenous knowledge because they never claimed their ownership over it; they understood that this was theirs by nature and by virtue of their location, they could simply benefit from their indigenous culture.
Recently, the government of The Bahamas has embarked on a journey to show that it owns certain parts of its intangible culture. Remember that one must demonstrate through documentation and numbers of practitioners that one owns culture. In The Bahamas, this would include Rake-n-Scrape, Goombay and Junkanoo, for example. The process by which we must begin to ‘own’ our intangible culture is through documenting its practice and that people ascribe it to their culture. This process is referred to as establishing the Geographical Indicators that would link the country and its people with these cultural forms. This means now that there must be documentation of all communities where these cultural forms are practiced.
UNESCO is the official UN body for this kind of cultural inscription and so the country, not the government alone, must now step up and work on this process.
The Bahamas certainly has a captive audience on New Providence for Junkanoo, but not every community around the archipelago practices Junkanoo. At the same time, the other forms of music above-mentioned are also important to Bahamian indigenous culture. So, although the country has been invited abroad on numerous occasions and has taken these cultural forms to perform our culture across the Americas, we must now really do the work to protect these intangible forms of culture.
Cultural protection requires detailed planning and complex identification of sources and also of desired outcomes and outputs. What is the country willing to do to protect its culture? How can it protect its patrimony in the long term? Can it really protect intangible culture without protecting tangible culture? In reality, all of these considerations must be dealt with simultaneously. Without protecting our landscape and seascape, we cannot protect our culture. Without understanding the importance of place to music, folklore and other cultural practices, we stand to lose our identity and our culture.
As a part of a team that will work on documenting Bahamian cultural heritage and thereby ascribing a name to our cultural practices, or owning them outright, I have been involved in seeing how culture survives on different islands and in multiple communities. So, for example, a plastic drum is not the same as a goat-skin drum and the quality of the sound are all distinct and can change the way our culture survives, especially if another culture adopts our cultural practices first.
It is now time to take cultural heritage seriously. We stand to lose a great deal if we do not embrace and engage this process actively. As many of the old ways are being lost to death and the creep of time and cultural globalization, we need to save what is ours. That is to say that we must document, demonstrate and identify what forms the Bahamian vernacular and how these are linked to our physical environment.
We must invest in the culture or it will vanish and, like so many other places, we will not be able to capitalize on our cultural heritage because it will be the property of another. This is particularly poignant given that so many skeptics argue that culture is not important to the bedrock of our society and that we can benefit from tourism without so much as owning what we argue makes us a unique destination. We talk continuously of being an attractive destination, but do little to protect and ensure our continued success and attractiveness. One way to do this is through the creative industries or the orange economy. Creative Nassau has started this process, let us join them in putting The Bahamas truly on the cultural world map. Our culture needs documentation and protection, let us do it now and benefit from it in perpetuity.
Many contemporary art works today involve the use of both text and imagery within one composition. The combination of both provides two means for communication: offering a more unified surface for interpretation and, perhaps, raising more questions regarding the content of the work. The use of both text and imagery demonstrates the artist’s ability to blend the boundary between commercial and fine art, creating parallels and adding another layer of complexity to potential interpretations. The text responds to the doctrines of traditional fine art, and questions the way in which it can exist.
A sense of gloom surrounds “Nassau from Above” through Blue Curry’s use of black-and-white collage-styled imagery, paired with the words “Doesn’t it all look so peaceful… from up here.” We are slapped with sarcasm as these words overlay an image of Nassau seen from above through an airplane window. The aesthetic of this work is reminiscent of Barbara Kruger, an American artist best known for laying aggressively directive slogans over black-and-white photographs. Her work critiques consumerism and desire, as well as challenges viewers’ conceptions of power and control. Here, Curry deliberately critiques the way in which we distribute power and how we navigate around reality to portray a mislead sense of utopia.
Stylized and flat imagery of highlighted “Bahamian icons” permeate the work, including the Atlantis hotel. It is awkwardly placed within the setting, as if cut out and stuck clumsily on the surface without consideration of unifying the composition. The distortion of this “cut-out” is suggestive of propaganda — a vehicle for spreading biased or misleading information, usually to promote a political cause or point of view. It’s almost as if the artist has found advertisements, cut around them to salvage the imagery, and pasted them inelegantly into this bird’s-eye-view of Nassau. It suggests that the artist intentionally covering segments of reality with symbols that promote a paradise – something that we strive to present to visitors of this country. The alteration of the Atlantis structure is also suggestive of a Roman Cathedral, an architectural icon that serves as a spiritual center– a place where God dwells. This poses a fascinating indication of tourism and its role in The Bahamas.
Do we identify the tourism industry in The Bahamas in similar ways to the act of worship? If we place so much importance and dependence on foreign support, how can we define ourselves? So: what is real Nassau? It may appear to have pure, white beaches and a crystal-clear ocean; it may shine under a vibrant sun; it may present underwater dreamlands of a hidden Atlantis or a smooth sailing on a boat due to our gentle breezes, but what about the close-up details? What about the people and the crime and the struggles and the pollution and the corruption? Things that cannot be seen from an ascending airplane but rather by a truly Bahamian individual, who lives, breathes and dies a citizen, who drives the streets and eats the food and knows the people – who can feel the chaos and who struggles when the country does.
This work seems to be a friendly reminder of who we must prioritize and conserve – our culture over any - our beliefs and stories and art, and our people. Our visitors will inevitably flourish from a prideful nation, but only when we discover ourselves will we be able to share a deeply Bahamian culture.