Reclining nudes, women posed ‘just so,’ we’re all quite accustomed to this kind of figuration and portraiture in the art world. Even those of us who are just dipping our toes into the wonders of the art world associate art with this kind of imagery. Art students at universities the world over can be found squinting in deepest concentration, poring over their depictions of a nude model before them - often a woman - and trying to figure out form, perspective, how to capture the ‘essence’ of this stranger they’ve met. It’s part of the canon, in many ways.
The anonymous, somewhat notorious, feminist art collective known as the Guerrilla Girls point out something rather pressing that we take for granted when we look at these images that are so deeply rooted in the public psyche as what art and art history is about: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but over 85% of the nudes are female.” It’s a comment that incites cringes and looks of surprise, but the surprise quickly fades – the art world is, after all, still part of the world we currently exist in, warts and all.
This obsession with the female form, but apparent lack of support of women artists, shows us that while the imbalance here is gaining slightly more attention and care these days, it is still indicative of the difficulties of having an art world that is as wrapped up in imbalances of influence as our daily lives are: patriarchal privileges and the disadvantages of women, particularly women of color, are very much real and very much felt, especially in our corner of the world. This is why the work of Gabrielle Banks gives us a refreshing moment to sit back for a moment and consider where women of color stand in the greater context of global art history and also, importantly, in the representations we see of black women in media.
Her new solo exhibition, “The Mark of a Woman,” currently displayed in the Project Space of the NAGB (National Art Gallery of The Bahamas), takes some of the great art-historically significant works one might come across in closer study of the history of painting and shifts the images ever so slightly, in such a simple but significant change, to make us totally reconsider the place of many of these greats in the Western canon of painting in regards to our own lives. The RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) student takes these famous works and simply changes the subject from white women to black women - and this insertion of the black female figure instantly moves the narrative into some weighty topics to navigate: the male gaze, the white gaze, appropriation. It’s all in there, and boldly - in both size and color - Banks forces us to reckon with the things we take as default, particularly the Western whiteness we use as a baseline for experience and wrongly so when we think of just how much happened in the world even before history began to be framed through this lens.
In this region particularly, we are quite used to having others take what is ours and turn it into their own: our music (wherein currently, dancehall beats are now being taken by artists from elsewhere and called ‘tropical house’ music), and even our land itself (we know the colonial history and legacy that we grapple with heavily even now). So then, for such a young artist, and a young biracial woman at that, to take on some of these greats as direct references in her work and shift their focus onto black women is a pretty heavy statement, but one that needs to be made.
Banks began to notice the historical disparity of images going on quite early in her time at university. “I started realizing that there was something lacking in the representation around the female form when I started taking art history classes going out to see exhibitions and galleries more often. I was finding that when the female form was represented, it was often in a way I wasn’t very comfortable with. There was always a nude, or a reclining nude, or someone sprawled on a bed or spread on sheets, or women in some form of servitude. And then, looking more closely, I noticed that with women of color, particularly black women, were almost not represented at all. The few instances I found early on where they were represented, it was in comparison to some other “higher class” female, who was often Caucasian and European, and usually the black woman was there to highlight these other women’s class or status.”
Looking more closely, the fact that Banks is painting in oils - given the rich history of the medium, for instance, when we think of Renaissance painting - is a proclamation within itself. Where Banks saw a historical lack of representation, she literally inserted herself and other women of color into these works and into this timeline, putting us back into the narrative by giving us this imagined history and playing with the representations we see of ourselves day in and day out. She challenges the notion that black women only be represented in limited terms: as “the help” (both in popular media, and in many an oil painting of old), the hypersexual being, the strong woman, or the black ‘mama’ mystic. It is a limited palette to use to paint such a multiplicity of personal histories and experiences of black womanhood, and this is perhaps why Banks chooses to render herself and those like her in such bright color, away from these ‘black and white’ tropes.
The thin layers of oil color build up and sediment into a colorful, saturated, and varied version of history, in a way that almost surreal - and isn’t the idea of seeing black women at the forefront of these historically-influenced images surreal in some way? The cultural amnesia and erasure of black women from history, and people of color and women in general, is palpable and being challenged - those marginalized are re-writing their stories from the margins into the center, and the old powers we become so accustomed to are now having to be re-thought through.
Banks shares: “I’m really keenly interested in art history, and there are some great painters, but there are lot whose subject matter I find really disturbing, there’s just some really problematic imagery. So I take their images, and try to reclaim it in a way that I felt better represented how I felt or better represented women - not necessarily as a way to feeling empowered, but just a more sensitive way to communicate that particular image.”
In looking to other artists of color - such as the famed photographer Carrie Mae Weems, whose photographs of black women in everyday life show us in such stark honesty, and Kehinde Wiley’s realistic paintings of black people, heroically elevated and proud amidst patterned tapestry-like backgrounds - Banks finds a way to problematize the white, Western canon of art, whilst simultaneously paying homage to other artists of color in our black diasporic art history who give us the representation we never quite had.
The women in Banks’ arsenal of images confront the viewer, looking directly to meet your gaze - as boldly as Édouard Manet’s “Olympia” had done to such scandal in 1863 - or they look away, disinterested, atop a surrealist tropical backdrop of saturated color that is reminiscent of Paul Gauguin - who also, it is worth noting, had a habit of painting women of color in Tahiti, among other things we know him to be (in)famous for. Some of the women also seem to reject manicured ideals of femininity as much as they reject the male gaze, as some present themselves with an almost androgynous ambiguity about them, or unflattering angles and rolls of skin proudly on display.
Banks, who tries to not spend more than two weeks at a time on each work, produced all of these pieces in one semester, and her urgency in moving from work to work, and reference to reference, shows not only a love of the medium and practice of painting, but a need to produce these reflections and questions on black womanhood that she wants to be able to see. As the Guerrilla Girls also so succinctly, and so aptly put it: “You’re seeing less than half the picture without the vision of women artists and artists of color.”
“The Mark of a Woman” will be on view at the NAGB from June 22nd to July 30th.
In this season, celebrating academic accomplishment and reward has sparked much hope and expectation for young Bahamians. Among these are the first graduates of the University of The Bahamas (UB), who celebrated a significant moment in the institution’s transition with its inaugural Spring Commencement on May 25th. As many of UB’s alumni plan to transition into their careers or continue their education, over the past six months art and art education graduates were preparing for their rite of passage into the professional art community. Their induction in the form of a graduate exhibition presented a very intimate collection of work that reflects on their experiences at UB.
UB’s Visual Arts Department hosted an opening reception for its ‘Grad Show 2017’ on Thursday, June 22nd at Hillside House from 6 - 8 p.m. The event celebrated the university’s historic milestone along with the journey and achievements of its first graduates including Schuylar Cheng, Kiana Christie, Moriah Lightbourn, Spurgeonique Morley, Christopher Outten and Nowé Harris-Smith.
Schuylar Cheng (AA, Art) has interests in painting and interactive design. His recent artwork is concerned with narratives, fairy tales and self-reflection. Cheng considers the unpredictable endings within fairy tales. In his acrylic painting “Breadcrumbs” he depicts an alternative reality based on the tale of Hansel and Gretel, who he reimagines as dark and deceptive characters. Cheng plans to continue his studies in Gaming Design at Hanze University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands. Reflecting on his fondest memory at UB, he said “I valued the support and time spent with other art majors and UB students. In my final year, I spent most of my time in Ceramics and this is where many of my true friendships were made.”
Kiana Christie (AA, Art) has interests in digital and traditional illustration, particularly character development inspired by cartoon personalities. “My woodblock print ‘Jam‘ is inspired by cartoons, specifically those that would've come about in the early ’90s where cartoon animals were at their peak.” Christie intends to continue her studies in Graphic Design next spring. Reflecting on her most cherished memory at UB, Christie said “Sure, I was greatly annoyed when I had to come in on a Saturday to finish my ceramic work, but the extra time I got to spend with my classmates were wonderful and unforgettable times.”
Moriah Lightbourn (AA, Art) is a multi-disciplinary artist who enjoys working in new and unfamiliar media and techniques. Her artwork often presents surreal compositions inspired by personal realities. In her self-portrait, Lightbourn portrays herself in contemplation, an empty gaze engulfed by the cosmic dreamlike halo. Lightbourn plans to continue her studies in Material Art & Design at Ontario College of Art and Design in 2018. Lightbourn remembers her dearest memory saying “Initially, enrolled as an architecture major, I wasn't content and felt like I belonged more in my Bahamian Art History class, taught by Keisha Oliver than any other class. The curatorial project for this class was a collaboration with art and art education majors. I was paired with Nowé Harris-Smith. The passion Nowé showed in and about her work intrigued me and was the beginning of my transition into realizing my future in the arts.”
Spurgeonique Morley (BA, Art Education), although having a natural talent for all areas of fine art, is a ceramicist at heart. Morley exhibited a few pieces from her 2013 ceramic series “Jus’ Cuz She Phat” and a few later works expanded from the collection. This fall Morley plans to begin her teaching practice with the Ministry of Education and eventually pursue her graduate studies in Fine Art. She recalls her most cherished memory at UB, “In 2013, I participated in my first national art experience, “Transforming Spaces” and sold all six of the original pieces on the first day.”
Christopher Outten (AA, Art) is a visual artist whose work is rooted in expressionism. Concerned with the art of layering and gestural mark-making, his creative practice is less thematic and more interested in process. Outten’s “Untitled” oil painting on canvas that began as a figure drawing exists as an abstract narrative straddling the lines of purity and corruption. He is currently working and intends to continue his studies in Painting and Anthropology in 2018. Reflecting on his fondest memory at UB Outten said “I will miss those days where I could bond and grow with my peers. Late nights in the studio working on assignments together allowed us to experience each other creative process, priceless moments.”
Nowé Harris-Smith (BA, Art Education) is a mixed-media artist and photographer, who explores concepts of humanism and abstraction. “The Painted Experiments” is a project started in Harris-Smith’s junior year where she painted the faces and bodies of friends and former classmates to explore paint and its correlation to skin. Having investigated this process for more than a year, Harris-Smith has established an exceptional and progressive collection of work. She plans to teach in the public school system and eventually abroad before pursuing her graduate studies in Fine Art. Reflecting on her fondest memory at UB, Harris-Smith said “I cherished my final critique in Advanced Painting with Heino Schmid. This was my last art course as an art education major. It was here I truly realized this was what I was meant to do and I always appreciated the creativity and happiness Schmid fostered.”
Heino Schmid’s practice can perhaps be described as slippery or amphibious — and it’s not so much to do with the water as it is to do with his fluidity in dealing with the bounds of what we believe to constitute drawing, sculpture, and painting as separate genres — the proverbial lines in his practice become blurred. This movement between the medium and the means is why “Temporary Horizon” (2010) was chosen for the current permanent exhibition, “Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics” on display at the NAGB.
“Temporary Horizon” (2010) is what initially appears to be a delightfully simple video work that shifts at one moment from performance — with the artist clad in a white shirt and jeans (a sort of uniform of modernity for many of us) as he attempts to place the bottom of a Kalik bottle on the neck of another lying flat on the table. It then shifts to a still-life of sorts, as, almost impossibly or by magic, the bottles balance on top of each other and remain unmoving for what feels like eternity. Of course, nothing lasts forever, and the bottles eventually become re-animated and topple over before rolling off the table in the video.
The work is displayed across from a newly created work by Schmid for the exhibition, “Pull” (2017), almost as if they are in conversation with each other. The works in this particular section of the exhibition, entitled “Beyond The Tropical”, deal with the way Bahamian contemporary artists are moving past the manicured tropical image of Caribbean paradise to produce work that engages with our specific regional and international context in ways that challenge these notions of the picturesque. Schmid’s work typifies this in many ways. The artist and educator, currently Associate Professor of Art at the University of The Bahamas, uses found objects and materials from our everyday environment to re-inform the way we view our surroundings. His work provides us a moment of unfamiliarity wherein we have to re-navigate what we thought we knew our surroundings to be.
This is in part achieved by his work often operating in ‘white cube’ spaces, much like video displayed in this white background and on a white table — they both blend into each other before Schmid activates the space in the video by entering the shot. The ‘white cube’ is the default we often think of in regards to most gallery-based contemporary art work. White walls are meant to indicate a blank slate, tabula rasa, and clinical quality, an idea of a neutral space —but, as the world of art is built of symbols and histories, the white cube is of course anything but. As Brian O’Doherty, the Irish installation artist and critic known for his seminal text “Inside The White Cube” produced in 1976, the white cube is not neutral at all, it is an art-historical construct. The history of the white cube is one that elevates anything within it to be considered art — hence the problems we have with people thinking that fire extinguishers are being exhibited rather than their proper placement as protection from fire hazards.
The neutrality desired by the construction of white cube spaces is best thought of as setting a stage, it creates an environment and set of social rules for how to engage with the contents of the space in a particular way. That being said, as Caribbean and postcolonial subjects, given our mixed heritage of European, indigenous and African ancestry, with a healthy dollop of globalization and American influence, our art history is a little bit all-over-the-place — and that provides a beautiful freedom in many ways. We are not bound by the rigidity of being boxed in by “white” as many other Western practices are, because while we are Western, we are also not. We have the freedom to move between different historical references, but not in a neutral way, we carry our history whether we engage with it directly or not. Schmid might be in a white shirt and jeans, and in a white space — he could literally be anyone by these listed signifiers — but he cannot escape the racial ambiguity of his skin in the image and what curiosity that piques. He is a trickster not just by the act performed, but by his movements between elements of blackness and whiteness as his mixed Bahamian and European heritage allows.
There is both a tension and contention for bi-national and mixed-raced subjects, wherein there is a perceived privilege of being able to move between whiteness and blackness, an implied ease of sorts that isn’t afforded to most black folks. This is not, however, quite true in itself. Being a black and white mixed subject means that while perhaps a certain whiteness might provide some privilege of moving in primarily white spaces that other black bodies may not be so lucky to do, there is also a distrust that becomes present on both sides and a displacement that can never quite be reconciled.
Caribbean work in the white cube space can also feel this displacement, a feeling that harkens back to some difficult parts of our history as a people descended from all manner of migratory bodies: displaced Black Africans, European colonizers, Chinese, Greek, and South-Asian migrants brought in or moved for opportunities in new lands. We feel it all.
Angelika Bammer, the feminist scholar of “Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question” (1994) describes our plight as the "deconstructive dilemma of needing to step outside and remain inside the same systems". She states that "Identity is at times about what we are essentially not, but are also not free to dispense with." The tension of the beer bottles elucidates this in an understated and succinct way: if we take them to be the fragile balance of our European colonial history and African ancestry, the way that we try to reconcile these two sides of our heritage, and the loop of this video in the way we must gently balance them, hold this balance for as long as possible, and watch as the bottles collapse before we must loop back and do it all again. It feels true to the constant push and pull we feel on our identity here, amidst this displaced backdrop and new territory we are forced to navigate.
The magic of Schmid’s trick lies in this balance, and become more real than imagined if we use it as a metaphor for the way think and come to know ourselves. The balancing act is difficult, it may occasionally feel like a performance, but it is an exercise we are much accustomed to. And just as the video– while filmed in a white cube–is displayed in a space with richly colored walls in a building with a history just as richly colored - perhaps we just need to look outside the bounds of our personal frame of reference and add more color to this clinical space to begin to move past these difficulties.
In The Bahamas, there has been an ongoing discussion about lowering duty on art supplies and products in order to discourage the disenfranchisement of local artists by allowing cheap imitation art to be imported at a lower duty rate.
Free trade and membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is often discussed, but quickly it becomes clear that few people understand the complexity of the situation and regional governments have done little to help the public inform themselves. In fact, it would seem that up to now information has been intentionally opaque and even less has been shared than ought to have been. At the apex of talks about the WTO, the Ministry of Financial Services were leading all matters dealing with legislation and they had announced that an entire suite of laws would be forthcoming. What has happened since then?
The WTO agreement is in a number of parts, or sub-agreements, one being the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT); another being General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS); and yet another being The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which is governed in concert with WIPO, yet another UN organization. The Bahamas has been infamous, especially at violating the latter, with the buying and selling of knocks-offs, infringing on copyright laws and agreements, and disregarding the need to protect its indigenous knowledge. To say the least, government agencies and ministries have been so blatant about breaking laws and international agreements that they have, themselves, bought fake goods meant to have originated in The Bahamas but that are made of inferior material and incompetently to boot. Meanwhile, the businesses in the local economy that would have spent capital creating these goods have been undermined, as has been demonstrated in this column on other occasions.
As a part of the globalization trend— a trend to remove borders except on people from the global south-- goods, except those that are deemed to be threatening to market stability, and services may flow without heavy penalties. The WTO was created by the same parties that created such institutions as the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund and The Inter-American Development Bank, in order to spread the joy of free trade, whose essential core concern is to remove all customs duties and policies that would act as artificial barriers to trade. In theory, the government of The Bahamas, for example, in its bid to join the WTO, should have removed all duties. Instead, many duties have remained and other taxes, like VAT, have been added. Again, the idea of free trade is that everything should flow according to the demands of the market. To achieve this goal, the WTO framework has two extremely fundamental pillars (or Articles); one is Article iii, National Treatment, and the other is most favored nation Ssatus. These principles are fundamental and they mean that, firstly, nations cannot discriminate against goods produced in other countries and, secondly, whatever concessions are granted to one nation, the trading partner shall be granted to all. We saw some of the fallout of the latter on the local level when Atlantis complained that Baha Mar was granted more favourable deals and concessions than they received. At the same time, The Bahamas has always been in favour of international trade over local empowerment whereby legislation, such as The Hotels Encouragement Act, has been put in place to favour international businesses by granting them hefty concessions. The WTO takes this to an all-new level and means that local businesses must compete with international businesses in an ‘open market.’ What this means for locally produced goods is troubling.
The GATT begins this process by removing duties, tariffs and quotas on goods coming into the country and (supposedly) goods leaving the country. The GATS takes this to another level by doing the same on services. TRIPS includes intellectual property, which includes copyright, trademarks, geographical indicators and patents, and so covers the great expanse of what we produce with our minds. It also challenges our ability to own our Indigenous Knowledge, which is an intricate and intimate part of who we are as Bahamians. This would include, for example, bush medicine and any organisms from the sea, which in turn means that whatever granny used to make babies better that grew outside in the bushes, and has miraculously survived the devastation of local development through unchecked bulldozing, is open to international exploitation. It also could mean that we will have to pay to use such ingredients in the future because they will be owned by transnational corporations and pharmaceuticals companies. Further, we are expected to open our borders to legal as well as natural persons, which means international businesses and real people who can come in and work ‘without’ controls being levied on them. Freeport has functioned like this for a very long time, though it continues to limp along without truly benefiting too many Bahamians.
Local legislation and public international law
The WTO requires that local legislation be in tune with its articles and policies. It also requires that all laws and regulations be harmonized, so that one law does not conflict with the spirit of another. It also requires that no laws that restrict free trade be implemented after signing on to GATT, GATS and TRIPS, for example and that these must be adopted at the local level. This means that local laws must be changed to work in concert with WTO laws yet nothing has been done publicly to meet this challenge. Whatever is being done to work with WTO demands has not filtered down to the people or the practitioners. This is a serious developmental flaw as it means that the people who are being affected by these laws and policies will be working in the dark. However, the government has been notorious for such disregard.
What does this mean for art and culture?
In the interim, when the government lowers import duties on art, they are really and truly working within the constraints of the WTO. However, they are also insisting that all art is the same. Given the idea behind non-discrimination, National Treatment and MFN, and the insistence on open borders, art that is produced in The Bahamas cannot be treated differently from other art, unless there is a carefully crafted policy that can work to ‘protect’ Bahamian art and culture. Obviously, though, the concept of protection goes completely against open markets and free trade. Bahamian artists and other artists working in the country have to compete against transnationally produced copies of their work, especially until the government has regulated the system. To date, the government has not created an environment that promotes and safeguards local creative industry and its production. In fact, countless are the woes of creatives that have had their products stolen and copied and then sold on the open market without them benefiting at all, as stated above. So, as we move into the next century, the government is removing barriers to trade, yet doing nothing about the minutiae that needs urgent attention and that will either allow the local creative industries to survive or thrive.
In 2017, as a nation that claims to be transitioning to ‘First World’ status, argued by many ministers in the former government, as long as they continue to benefit from the spoils of unregulated corruption, we are behind the crowd. In fact, we are at the back of the queue. Bahamian artists and designers, such as architects, fashion designers, software designers and others, are expected to work in an environment that opens the door to any and all forms of piracy and leaves the nation and the state vulnerable. Recognising nation limitations and working within those gaps and spaces is essential to growth. The government has refused to move from the prehistory of non-computerised offices, where one person may be educated enough to function at a decent professional level, and is trounced by workers who go out of their way to stop progress and development. Moreover, it is even more egregious when this is done by key figures, who wish to protect their interests and undo efforts to promote development.
There are good people who are ignored and/or barred from participation in the development of artistic expression and protection of cultural wealth but the government has seen it necessary to go to outsiders who are given enormous consultancy fees either because they receive kickbacks or because they argue that there are no Bahamians with any of the necessary skills. Also, they often contract private individuals to work in strengthening the infrastructure, but train no one else to work along with them or they continue to empower their cronies.
We are at a crucial point in our development; we have signed on to the WTO, which stipulates all these details of policy, yet we are doing nothing to meet them. We have talked about cultural industries and cultural tourism as if tourism were a cultural driver without ever buttressing the support for tangible and intangible culture.
To be sure, the country’s membership of the WTO means that it will not be “business as usual,” and that the system that Immanuel Wallerstein and Eduardo Galeano, for example, critique in “World Systems Theory” has won out and is re-empowering itself through gaining control of trade; even though the U.S., for example, has huge protections barriers to trade, we must remove ours because we have agreed to do so. All the while, the very country is suffering because of ill-thought-through plans and policies that undermine locals in favour of the old power system.
Let’s hope that working with UNESCO and the other UN systems to protect ourselves and our Indigenous Knowledge—that is our tangible as well as our intangible culture—can be fruitful to the nation and not just a few privileged members. We must move into the 21st Century and work to empower Bahamians and Bahamian production.
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.
The American watercolor painter, Hartwell Leon Woodcock (1853-1929) is very much one of the typical representatives of British colonial-period painting where The Bahamas is concerned. His quaint depiction of a Bahamian home and landscape — complete with outdoor amenities associated with the time — fits in with the usual canon of charming images from the era. In “Native Hut” (1915) this portrayal of the Caribbean picturesque is precisely why the work was chosen as part of the 2017-18 permanent exhibition, “Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics,”, and why it is an important part of the National Collection.
It might seem curious to have the picturesque work in the National Collection, given the mandate of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas to promote and preserve Bahamian art. That means the question must be asked: “What constitutes Bahamian art?” If the nation was formed in 1973, how do American and British travellers, generally producing quaint ‘old world’ charm watercolors in the late 1800s to early 1900s, count as “Bahamian”?
If we look to these art objects as things of historical significance rather than something to threaten the socially engaged, visually dynamic work of our contemporaries, we might begin to see how these items help highlight the difference between how we were seen versus how we see ourselves today, as we try to re-inscribe ourselves into a history about us that was rarely written by our own people from the perspective of the people, but generally by someone on a socially-deemed ‘higher’ rank in the hierarchy looking back at us.
We now aim to dismantle that hierarchy and that history with photo, pen, film, and make ourselves present in three-dimensional vibrancy too. We are the people on the margins whose stories were being told by people in the distance - and not the sort of distance that gives one clarity of a landscape, but rather the distance that renders everything a little blurry, the distance that makes things hard to discern.
This distance is visible in looking at Woodcock’s “Native Hut” (1915) in both the way the subject has been treated visually in addition to the titling of the work. Watercolor by nature implies a sort of transparency given the way the medium works, and there is indeed a certain transparency in the way that Woodcock has rendered his interpretation of a scene from Bahamian life.
Perhaps the most striking in this scene is the fact that it could quite honestly be anywhere in the Caribbean. There is nothing to denote a distinct sense of Bahamianness, despite the fact that Woodcock was approaching this with the wisdom of his later years in life and also despite the fact that he had indeed completed other paintings with scenes that showed iconic Bahamian scenery. Woodcock’s reduction of the landscape and removal of a horizon to give us a sense of place help speak to this distance on a level of ‘us’ and ‘Other’. The poincianas and palm trees that have become so indicative of the region are present, but the land in this image does not exist outside of these plants to give us a generalized sense of place, and the home pictured center. Even the faces of the people shown are lacking distinction and the skin color, paired with this lack of features, means these women and child could be anyone on the demographic of people of color in the region: Black African, East Indian, the descendents of either, any creole or mix-heritage thereof, and so on.
Further, the use of the word “native” in the title is also particularly loaded and indicative of the time. The black population of The Bahamas at this time was still very much suffering from the segregation and systemic racism associated with the time. Though this was after the abolishment of slavery, the effects were still very much fresh and felt, which is easy to imagine given the remnants of the era we are still being forced to reckon with now. The term was always a misnomer, as the word is indicative of a sort of indigeneity that we simply do not have in The Bahamas, and lacking in much of the region as a whole - largely thanks to Columbus and his first wave of colonial activity which, as conventional wisdom has it, wiped out the Arawaks and Lucayans.
This home he has depicted - loosely and, yes, beautifully - also lacks depth in itself. This feels very telling, in retrospect, as it is in many ways a way to show the traditional lack of origin many Bahamians and Caribbean subjects feel as a whole given our difficult history and lack of indigenous peoples. What does being “native” mean to us truly? People have been stripped of their identity in terms of face, even distinctness of place, and the whole painting looks a little bit like a dream, which is—again –very telling of the way the place was viewed at the time. The Caribbean was an idealized Eden, a place full of compliant “natives” even after the commercial practice of slavery was eradicated, like a ‘bad dream’ from which we suddenly awoke.
The distance of Woodcock from his subjects, as you can see, is revealing of the period in many ways more than the artist. Amelia Jones, an American art historian, critic, and curator, discusses in her 2003 essay, “Feminism, Incorporated,” the way that the theory of the “Distancing Effect” of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht can be applied to painting practice, primarily in the way this affects postmodern paintings. The “Distancing Effect,” also known as Brechtian distanciation, is, as Jones states, the “[aim] to make the spectator an agent in cultural production and activate him or her as an agent in the world”. It is that phenomenon in which the audience is presented with a situation that removes them slightly to then imply a sort of objectivity with which we can re-interpret the situation in front of us in a new way. It serves to remind us that we can, and should, be critical of what we consider an ordinary or everyday experience, things we take for granted.
Simply put, it helps us take a step back to re-assess what is happening. It is an implied, perhaps false sense of objectivity that helps us to not quite take the world as default. This is the sort of distance we perhaps see in Thierry Lamare’s watercolors, in which he re-presents our traditional ways through painstakingly accurate portraits of women who we know could be any of us ‘back in the day’. The portraits are often confrontational, in a way, with the women facing you head-on, directly meeting our gaze - an effect often employed in classical paintings by ‘the greats.’
Both Lamare and Woodcock are watercolor artists of European nationality or descent who made the choice to move here, live here, visit here, but the attitude towards subject is incredibly different. Perhaps it is because of personality, in some regards, as Lamare has a keen interest in knowing his subjects and muses on an intimate level of friendship and closeness before he paints them, but perhaps it is more indicative of the time.
The colonial era, as we know, did not encourage the social mélange of people of color with Caucasians, the social hierarchy was established, and this time in history is why Woodcock’s “Native Hut” (1915) has the distinctly un-Brechtian distance it does. Perhaps if he had felt inclined to venture inside this hut, to share a meal with the women working the outdoor oven, the work may have turned out differently.
With less than two months left, the Education Department at The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas has accelerated preparations for the Mixed Media Summer Art Camp (MMSAC). Now in its third year, the camp was started in response to the need for an arts-focused camp after the FINCO Summer Art Workshop was discontinued. MMSAC has been popular since its inception and has impacted the lives of 220 students since 2014. The camp is divided into two, three-week sessions that take place between June 19 and July 7 and July 11 and 28, 2017.
Participants experience fun, team-building activities through the annual mural project, work on individual work that spans an array of disciplines, interact with and watch demonstrations by professional artists and go on exciting, educational field trips that allow them to see The Bahamas in new ways. This all culminates in an exciting exhibition at the NAGB that showcases each student’s most successful work at the end of the six-week period. Students can proudly show off their work to family and friends and parents will know that their child has partaken in an experience that will be remembered.
“Students come from all over the country to participate in this camp. The social interactions are unique and the experiences unforgettable,” says Abby Smith, NAGB’s community outreach officer and camp coordinator. The NAGB works hard to ensure that the camp is open and accessible to children from diverse backgrounds and actively engages Family Islands students.
The theme this year “A Journey Through Time” melds history and visual art and approaches the history of The Bahamas, from the Lucayans to modern day Bahamas, through the work of the artists who are a part of the NAGB’s permanent exhibition. Under the guidance of professional artists and educators, students explore ideas of perception and reality as seen in through artists’ work and follow the threads that connect our present to our past.
MMSAC provides a space where aspiring painters can embrace their inner Brent Malone and experiment with traditional and contemporary painting techniques. Students explore the world of the Expressionists and Impressionists, paint from observation and sample the wonderfully expressive qualities of abstract art through the lens of Bahamian history.
This experience has been designed to increase students’ exposure to the arts and give them the opportunity to dabble in new or familiar art forms in different ways. The untapped potential of the undiscovered sculptor will be brought to the forefront as students create three-dimensional artwork using recyclables, clay, found objects and other materials. Your aspiring builder or inventor will be given room to let his/her imagination soar!
Of course, we cannot overlook the emerging printmakers and mixed media artists who use materials in fun and expressive ways to tell their stories. Paint, paper, string, wood, bottle caps, leaves – students will be invited to use them to create work that pushes the boundaries of traditional art. All of this while learning about our rich, unique history!
The annual mural project will immerse participants in an unforgettable, creative team experience at the NAGB’s Mixed Media Summer Camp, where they will engage in an exciting mural project that will occupy a public space for months to come. Under the guidance of professional mural artists, the finished project will engender a sense of accomplishment among students that is invaluable. This wonderful team-building project will encourage children to solve problems creatively and share their ideas freely.
Come with us as we take a walk through Bahamian history using the stories that artists tell through their work. Watch the story of the Lucayans unfold, experience the excitement of Independence Day and delve into the events that shaped The Bahamas that we live in. See The Bahamas through the lens of artists who have experienced significant historic events, were inspired by them or used the arts to effect change in their communities. Give your child a memorable artistic experience that tells our story.
Lavar Munroe was born in 1982 in Nassau, The Bahamas, and currently lives and works in Maryland, USA. His works have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, Italy; Nasher Museum of Art, USA; and the SCAD Museum of Art, USA. He graduated with a BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2007 and then earned an MA at Washington University in St. Louis. Alongside 5 other Bahamian artists, Munroe represented The Bahamas in the country’s first appearance at the Liverpool Biennale and has been awarded numerous prestigious prizes, including a Joan Mitchell Foundation Painting and Sculpture Grant, a Fountainhead Residency and most recently a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In other words, Munroe is on the up and up, his star now brighter than it has ever been.
Munroe was born in Grants Town, one of the historic communities known as the “Nation’s Navel” that has been neglected and fallen on hard times. Many of his works reflect the environment of his upbringing and his journey of survival and trauma in a world of gang violence, murder, drugs and self-discovery. Contrary to the loud and energetic visual language seen in Munroe’s work, he confronts the difficult relationships between authority and people of Over-the-Hill.
Munroe also draws inspiration from theories surrounding literature and mythology. He explores a number of social stereotypes in order to challenge discrepancies, cutting across race, class, gender and age. According to the artist, “Though framed in fictional narratives, my work explores and in many ways
critiques real life situations that I have either personally experienced or encountered through research. Often times, I am reminded of the underlying darkness that reoccurred in childhood fables – in a sense, drawing a parallel to the menacing motifs that occur in my work.”
Munroe’s cultural background plays a significant role in his creative process. Like many Bahamian artists, the origin of Munroe’s practice is in his uncle’s Junkanoo shack. According to Munroe, “My uncle is an artist. Not the type of artist I am – he does sign-making and before that he was a designer, and had a Junkanoo shack. So, growing up, I was always in that space. I looked up to him and I would watch him design and color and cut paper and stuff. So it started that way, but from there I kind of grew on my own.”
Although shaped by background influences, he explains that his work seeks to evade expectations, “A lot of Caribbean and African-American artists, you expect them to do certain things. I expect to see many flowers in work coming from the Caribbean, I expect to see African-American artists painting something about slavery, or painting something with a black figure in it. Those things are very expected, and that’s something that I’ve always been anti: anti-expected.” Munroe delves into ideas of difference and the way it is mythologized. “We like to see difference. We are curious about difference and a lot of difference, until you see it, it’s like a myth.”
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (2011) portrays a digitally rendered work on six separate framed substrates. Although separated, the narrative of the piece continues throughout, depicting absurd scenery of indigenous people and colonialists interacting in a way that feels violent but playful at the same time. The paradox between these contrasting themes in the work creates a tension that adds layers of complexity to the work. Munroe works on a color palette that is at once dull, sparse and vibrant, creating a dynamism of play between forms. When one looks at the work, there are certain moments that recede, and others that rapidly capture the eye of the viewer. The color choices bring wonder of the time period in which this work is defining – a period that occurred a long time ago, but also, with the use of vibrant color and imagery, something that may still be going on today.
The first panel reveals the bow of a boat with a mermaid-like human quietly soaring besides, as if confronting a new land, moving towards it with force and confidence. There are subtle hints of blue and pink within the composition of mainly sepia colors, revealing a painterly quality to the drawn imagery. The mermaid/merman has multiple faces that are distorted, challenging the viewer’s interpretation of a specific identity. The forward facing individual and boat allow the eye to swiftly move from this panel to the next, with a desire to know more about where they might be looking, or perhaps, arriving.
The second panel portrays a scene where three indigenous people stand, one holding a baby and the other in a fighting position. He assertively holds a bow and arrow, pointing it as if he were in mid-shoot, aiming towards something that is still unknown to the viewer. The floor is scattered with three hairless cats, each wistfully positioned. They seem detached from the rest of the composition, adding a layer of absurdity to the work. They theatrically wonder, gazing at the viewer, the floor and something hanging from the wardrobe of the fighting man. At the top right of the composition, the bow of another boat approaches, made up of a creature-like face staring into the distance in the opposite direction. There is a playful moment that interrupts - a shiny, colorful bouncy ball floats within the hull of the boat. The sheen and color of the ball contrasts the dramatic scenery given to us and we are distracted by a sense of play.
The third panel seems the densest of all six, depicting a submissive indigenous man, bent over as if in pain in front of a colonially dressed man. He seems dominant, extensively dressed with traditional eighteenth century attire. A lion/hybrid-like creature follows him with a small servant man on his head, holding an umbrella over the colonialist. This gives more importance to this leading figure, as if he were of authority within this narrative. The motif of the ball is repeated again twice, once at the bottom of the composition and within the hull of the boat, again introducing a jocularity that contrasts the brutality of what is being portrayed between these beings. It seems suggestive of bearing light-heartedness and innocence to the cruelty associated with the colonization of indigenous land and people while also referencing the idea that the islands have long been seen and used as a “playground,” from first landfall to today.
The fourth panel exemplifies two colonial figures in mid-step, walking with a dead pig on a pole. The pig is tied up together with a naked indigenous man, both being carried out, almost as if they were simultaneously going to become a feast. The visual of both the pig and the man being carried together nods to the horrible treatment in which the indigenous, Lucayan people endured. They were not treated as fellow humans, but rather as tools to aid in the daily tasks of the foreigners, similar to their treatment of animals.
The last two panels show a man urinating on a ball, exemplified by a dotted red line coming from his phallus. The repetition of the beach ball may refer to now-lost native ball game the Lucayan’s once played with the image reinforcing the disrespectful way in which the foreigners received the local people - their lives and culture – or could also suggest how a native population might feel about the “gift” of tourism.
Munroe uses his own visual language to depict the brutality of Columbus’ arrival into the islands. He dismisses the glorification of Columbus, and shows the horrific exploitation of enslaved natives of The Bahamas as well as Africans imported to the newly discovered land. In this piece, Columbus is the embodiment of the Devil. The subjugated native figures represent overturned humanity. Munroe uses bizarre imagery to depict the violent and destructive nature of uninvited change. Munroe strives to make the viewer re-think the admiration of Christopher Columbus and promote people’s desire to ward off any future threats of genocide and or “discovery.”
A fire-breathing hell-beast, a scaly winged thing of fantasy — sometimes good, sometimes dangerous and greedy: dragons. Not a staple in the established subject matter for Amos Ferguson, but nonetheless a treasure in the National Collection, an entity worthy of having an epic flying reptilian guarding it for sure. Ferguson’s “The Dragon” (1991) is an outlier for a lot of reasons. While his usual practice includes references to biblical scenes, Bahamian folklore, and more often than not, Bahamian scenery — with the iconic titles painted in Bahamian vernacular that act as a mirror for our particular language traditions, this piece doesn’t quite typify his practice.
Amos Ferguson is one of our intuitive artists, hailing from a settlement enchantingly called The Forest and, to us, he is almost the stuff of folklore himself. Intuitive artists, more often — and perhaps more insensitively — referred to as naive artists, folk artists, or outsider artists, are creative practitioners whose practice exists outside of the conventional art institution and education system. That is, quite simply to say, that intuitive artists are artists who do not have the formal training we conventionally expect from professional artists and do not engage with the standard “art system”, within which we operate.
We are aware of our status generally as a country of people with limited means for our majority, and with tourism influencing our creative practices more than we might want, this is why
practices like that of Ferguson are so vitally important. His work is bright, honest, and it is a marvelous foil to the more intentionally socially-engaged work in the National Collection that is formally shaped by the institution and art history. His work reminds us less of “where we come from”, though it can certainly do so, it reminds more us of who we are and what we all know by living here.
The Exuma-born painter, who moved to Nassau at 17, only began his art practice at the age of 40 - entirely unconventional by the standard timeline we think of for artists. Ferguson originally worked as a house and furniture painter, upholsterer, and carpenter, trained by his father who was a carpenter and preacher. From the beginning, he painted using materials to-hand: cardboard, board, and enamel house paint. This sort of rough-and-ready method is more associated with many of our contemporary artists, using our environment to reflect ourselves in the work. He painted because, as “legend” tells, one of his family members had a vision from God - and thus, his magic began. Ferguson had always proclaimed that he painted by faith and that God leads him through his works.
This investment in his faith is where the Dragon begins to make perfect sense. Dragons are a fixture in world history, with every region and major civilisation having its interpretation. In traditional western art history, Dragons are much more in keeping with the image of Tolkien’s Smaug in ‘The Hobbit’ - fire-breathing, lizard-like beasts capable of flight. The folk stories of old always portray them as fierce fiendish things, as powerful as they were dangerous. It was not long before the folk stories gave way to Christian symbolism, where dragons became a representation of Satan himself.
The image of a saint or profound religious figure in biblical stories slaying a dragon were popular in the Orthodox Christian faith of the Middle Ages, but also in the Islamic world of that time, with dragon-killer saints being depicted on coins from both Christian and Islamic kingdoms. Saint George - the serpent-slayer associated with Christianity and Britain, with England carrying George as its patron saint - is also recognized in Muslim traditions as Al Khidr, seen as a patron of spring and fertility.
This wrapping up of Dragons in the Christian faith is what makes perfect sense for Ferguson’s portrayal: a biblical beast, representing one of the serpentile forms of Lucifer. Ferguson was an avid student of the Bible, and no doubt would have come across the passage in Revelation that reads: “He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” This is part of a greater tale of the angel Michael fighting against a dragon, the dragon, of course, representing the devil.
The story in Revelation of The Woman and The Dragon: “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and his throne.”
Ferguson’s dragon becomes a brooding study of biblical iconography and symbology, with a seven-headed beast surrounded by stars. His super-flat style of painting with enamel - something that takes precision and patience to render as successfully as he does - shows us this dragon as something ominous. Very rarely did Ferguson use black for anything but hair and eyes and details, but this is a dark-colored beast, black and red to signify the darkness of Satan.
Further, the shape of the support - that is, the material that the image was painted onto - of “The Dragon” is also atypical of his practice. However, the octagonal way that the image is framed serves as a perfect way of emphasizing what framing does - paintings are bound by their frames, and this emphasis on framing and shape serves as a metaphor for Ferguson binding and containing Satan himself. We can only hope that the work will last the thousand years that he has bound this evil for!
Though Ferguson’s work usually includes fantastical creatures that are more out of Bahamian folklore, such as mermaids surrounding a blue hole, his dragon becomes a mix and melange of folklore and the biblical in a unique way. His dragon isn’t quite the typical green fantasy fairy tale dragon - it’s much more surreal and brooding. He was strong in his convictions in his faith, and this is seen in how much attention he had in keeping this serpentile version of Satan bound. It is interesting to Ferguson’s practice for certain, but it is also a good way to add more depth to how we think of Bahamian work that deals with faith, spirituality and mysticism.
Just a few days from a clarifying moment in Bahamian history, a sense of liberation and optimism is still felt throughout our islands. Surpassing the rhetoric of politics and governance, the social impact of May 10th’s events has presented a lesson on the power of a nation through the people’s voice.
In the weeks leading up to the 2017 general election, many Bahamians were concerned about the country’s future. With younger Bahamians leading the way as the largest group of registered voters, and millennials like Travis Robinson and James Albury making history as the youngest candidates and future members of Parliament, much hope has been restored for future generations.
Among the optimistic is thirty-year-old artist Durelle Williams, who recently returned to his canvas as a way to contribute to the ongoing dialogue of what its means to be Bahamian. As an Afro-Caribbean man and multi-disciplinary creative, Williams still struggles with defining and defending this evolving reality.
“From my high school years in Nassau, to studying and working in the U.S., I’ve been faced with so many people and situations that have made me question Bahamian identity.”
Like many of his generation, Williams considers himself a ‘creative generalist,’ beckoning to the demands of a versatile workforce. After studying animation at the Academy of Art University and working in San Francisco as a designer, he returned to Nassau in 2014 where he lives and works as a tattoo artist, illustrator, animator and creative director of the tattoo parlour and artists hub, Uprising Studios.
Yesterday, Williams hosted the opening for his debut solo art exhibition “The Bahamas: Forgotten History” at The Ladder Gallery. Drawing inspiration from a culture both learned and lived, his work explores the Bahamian narrative stemming from European influence up to present day by revisiting objects, people, and traditions that exist as national symbols of heritage and remembrance. From the Lucayan and Spaniard to the poised Junkanoo dancer, to a recreation of the historic 1965 Black Tuesday, Williams paints a story on reflection.
“This body of work focuses on our country’s past and present. From my perspective, I’m sharing the history I was taught in school, traditions I learned from family and friends growing up and experiences I’ve endured living in The Bahamas and abroad.”
The collection of traditional paintings offer a glimpse into the social, cultural and political moments that have helped define today’s free, proud, and progressive Bahamas. Although not chronological or comprehensive, each piece feels like a page from a history book, offering illustrations which in many cases do not exist in many textbooks. Yes, the facts are accounted for in literature, but rarely do relevant images exist to support these words.
Williams follows a tradition of pioneering Bahamian artists, like Brent Malone and Maxwell Taylor, and contemporaries, like Kishan Munroe and Edrin Symonette, whose work often documents and revisits these narratives. These artists provide visual context that help frame a lot of what is taught in schools today. They are helping the new generation of learners who depend on digital technology and interaction to better engage in learning about their national identity.
“The Bahamas: Forgotten History” should not be confined to the practice of painting, but belongs to wider critical discourse on patriotism and cultural preservation. Like other artists working in this vein, they too are researchers whose work traverses into inter-disciplinary practices. Not only can pieces like “Island Maid” and “1492” be used as tools for education, but Williams is also bridging the gap between art and politics. Stemming from a crucial theoretical basis the work shows an understanding of empirical and conceptual importance within a democracy.
His oil painting “Black Tuesday” brings to life the significance of April 27, 1965. Typically referenced only through the black-and-white photos of the street protest, Williams allows us to appreciate the passion and patriotism of that special day that wasn’t documented through a lens. His attempt to capture the critical moment of the Opposition Leader, Sir Lynden Pindling, throwing the mace out of the window of the House of Assembly is layered with so much emotion and vigor.
This exhibition challenges the viewer to reflect and consider one’s personal and civic trajectory in preparation for this new national journey. It underscores the age-old saying, “You can't know where you are going until you know where you have been.” Williams asks that we consider what we have endured and how we can learn from these experiences.
One of the featured pieces in the exhibition is “3 Generations,” an oil painting that depicts a mother embracing her daughter, who has given birth to her newborn. Being the eve of Mother’s Day, it would be remiss to ignore the obvious celebration of motherhood and the “passing of the baton” through time, responsibility and tradition. Set in the post-colonial period we see—despite societal oppression and poverty—a sense of joy and unity prevails. For Williams, the piece exists as a symbol of appreciation and regard for our ancestors who endured tougher realities. “This painting shows how tough these women were to survive for so long in the absence of the privileges and resources we have today.”
ow do we forget that when we lose our tangible culture, we actually also lose our intangible culture? They usually go together. Culture is not just a product that we package and sell. It is actually a process, a way of life, a rhythm that is embodied in a place. Exuma and Long Island, Acklins and Bimini have very different rhythms. They do not all practice Rake 'n' Scrape the same way, nor do they cook the same dishes in the same fashion. Boat building on Abaco is different from boat building in Long Island; each community has its own identity and rhythm that does not conform to national structures.
As we travel around the country, touching down in various islands and moving from settlement to settlement, we begin to see the major impact time has wreaked on local development. It is neither a pleasant nor positive sight. Many communities that would have been thriving hubs of life, the passage of time, fortune and misfortune have altered them to the point where they are almost unrecognizable when compared to their former selves.
Many settlements have been utterly depopulated and the intangible culture that resided in those spaces has been left to die with the decaying infrastructure and crumbling ruins. Ironically, we invest so much time in promoting culture and The Bahamas to an outside audience that we forget what and who we are and how we live. As we drive down Queen’s Highway on Long Island, for example, we no longer see the thriving and burgeoning development on the island that would have been evidenced after the 1992 change when electricity and paved roads became more common realities. A government had been in place for over 20 years that had almost killed a community. Yet that community insisted on its continuity. The turnaround visible on Long Island after that change of government was amazing: people started returning to an island that had once thrived, but was encouraged into decline through depopulation and disenfranchisement.
The burgeoning development was soon eclipsed by the nightmare of two extremely destructive financial recessions, one in 2001 and the other in 2008, and that showed we should not put all our eggs in tourism’s fickle basket; when recession hits, tourists stop coming, people lose jobs, homes and communities disappear. This devastation was then compounded by the destructive Hurricane Joaquin, which left serious and deep scars on the already-marked island geography. Homes stand empty, some roofless, others have only front walls, windows are gone and others are being rebuilt, slowly, but the island communities of the 1990s and early 2000s are shadows of a former vibrancy.
As we progress, we have soundly destroyed many unique cultural aspects of island communities. Many communities have been erased by the march of time and the vagaries of the market. Music used to attract people to Bahamian shores, yet it has been neglected by a government that has accordingly promoted the culture of The Bahamas. Nassuvians often talk of the Family Islands as if they were countries separate and apart from the capital and of the people who migrate to New Providence from them as strange beings, they speak differently and do things differently. We refuse to recognize their cultural agency and uniqueness when we talk of Bahamian culture.
On Exuma, communities in Forbes Hill and Williams Town stand in ruins, save for a few individuals who resist the push out. At the same time, we have built developments that attract exclusively foreign residents. These communities are not a problem per se, but when they become the de facto representation of a place, we should understand that local development has been eclipsed.
Money is withdrawn from small indigenous communities, schools, clinics, community centers and churches that fall victim to central government decisions to move benefits to the off-shore communities, who temporarily come in and bring their own culture with them. The cultural impact of this shift is devastating to local identity. We embrace them, but when government defunds local development and hurricane relief funds evaporate without touching devastated communities, something is wrong.
As we explore Junkanoo and Rake 'n' Scrape we should see that not all communities practice these the same way. Some spaces use saws some use bottles and spoons, a few do not celebrate Junkanoo, and others do. As elders die out, the old story talk and community tales of events and the folklore of place are quickly lost to the pervasive culture of Westernization. Many students on these islands no longer know that plantation ruins exist. They have no knowledge of indigenous plants and curative practices because these things are old people stuff, and actually, as land is cleared for gated communities on islands with minute indigenous populations, the medicinal plants, rocks and sands used to perform certain cultural practices become harder to find and are lost forever.
We have been quick to get rid of personal identity unique to Bahamian spaces and places. We must always be cognizant that spaces create identity, because identity is space and time based and specific. The identity that one has here on the mainland is not the same as the identity in Mangrove Cay Andros or in Deadman’s Cay, Long Island. However, we have taken on this broad-brush approach to Bahamian identity that negates the cultural specificity of the individual experience. We have determined as a people that everyone should be cookie-cutter uniform. This idea has given rise to an exclusive focus on international tourism as the savior of the country.
As we document cultural practices, we find it increasingly hard to find living sources of the same. The displacement of the clapboard shack, the small two room block house to accommodate the five-bedroom, air-conditioned generator-powered, tropically flavoured house occupied every few months for a brief period, much like the now ubiquitous sailing yachts and marinas filled with sprawling luxury yachts, have become the local landscape. The Bahamian vernacular has changed. In short order, it will be lost to an international vernacular that focuses on tropicality, with little Bahamian authenticity. It is not to say that the two cannot co-exist, but the one cannot replace the other without erasure of cultural heritage. The work of national entities such as schools, galleries, museums and clinics is to give indigenous Bahamians access to their cultural history and a past that is running quickly down the drain. Museums and libraries that have been destroyed or damaged, clinics and schools that are ‘waiting’ to be reoccupied quickly fall apart and result ultimately in indigenous cultural erasure. This view is not for me, but for someone who does not see me other than as a person to serve them. We are losing small communities rapidly and with them go many elements of cultural heritage.
Antonius Roberts is known as one of The Bahamas’ leading artists, exploring themes of nature, humanity and spirituality through a diverse range of genres. Roberts focuses on sculpture, furniture making, and painting, as well as teaching and mentoring. Through his involvement with the arts community, Roberts inspires and supports emerging artists and scholars, providing a platform for defining the meaning of being an artist in this country.
No matter where you go in New Providence, you are likely to be surrounded by one of Roberts’ works, whether it be on a bench by the beach, in an institution, or in someone’s home —Roberts has contributed enormously in outlining the language of Bahamian art. Although most of his works are Bahamian based, Roberts is recognized widely for his vibrant color palette, brilliantly applied to the canvas, thin and thick, allowing a unique complexity to the surface of his works. His woodwork imitates his appreciation for the land, conserving Mother Nature’s organic forms and deep, rich, wooden colors. Roberts has exhibited his work in many countries with both solo and group exhibitions.
Roberts was born in 1958 in Nassau, Bahamas, and received his BFA in Painting from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Roberts played a crucial role in the conservation of the former Villa Doyle and its transformation into what is now the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. Amongst many things, he is currently the Curator of the Central Bank Art Gallery.
Roberts created ‘Sacred Space', a site comprised of twelve women sculpted out of dead casuarina trees overlooking a cliff on the western end of Nassau. The site was once the landing point of slaves traveling from Africa. The repetition of women seen in Roberts’ ‘Sacred Space’ directly correlates to ‘Procession of Females in White Uniforms’, an oil painting depicting a group of women walking in an orderly fashion, as if part of a ceremony or procession. Roberts frequently revisits the female form, drawing light to the overlooked importance of women in our society and around the world.
The painting highlights a moment that seems mundane, eight women marching to their daily task in a way that feels structured and controlled. The identities of the women depicted are not unique — they each carry equivalent quiet expressions, similar body structures, and an identical wardrobe. This aesthetic choice highlights the idea of the workforce, a body of people who participate in labour as if just another part of the machine, working hard without any consideration of the individual's hopes, dreams or aspirations.
The women are dressed in traditional colonial nursing uniforms, comprised of all white garments from head to toe. The traditional nurse uniform from Great Britain consisted of a white dress, apron and cap. This style was derived from the nun’s habit, as the nuns took care of sick and injured people before the 19th century. The uniforms also consisted of a nursing pin, a type of badge worn by nurses to indicate the nursing school in which they graduated. Most pins had a symbolic meaning, representing the history of the nursing program for that particular school. In the painting, Roberts only provides the blue and yellow colors of the badge. These two colors are indicative of the Bahamian flag – representing a workforce of individuals who have emerged from the Bahamas and are patriotically continuing to benefit the country with their labour.
The background color palette seen in this work is suggestive of the 1801 building located on Duke Street, now known as the Government House. It is comprised of a conch-pink and white trim, a perfect example of the merging of British-Bahamian and American Colonial architecture. Roberts has masterfully imitated this specific pink to directly reference the Bahamas, its Government, and the many years of British colonial influence.
This painting exceptionally captures a mundane march toward labour, erasing any individuality that inevitably comprises these women. It highlights society's expectations of women in the workforce to be strong and loyal to their trade, to dress properly, to be clean and tidy, and above all, to continue without individuality. The job at task is the government’s priority, and its execution rises above any woman’s desire for independence. It is my hope that the viewer of this work can understand the danger of this mentality, and strive to inspire young people to question and exercise their uniqueness.
A great deal of contrast is exemplified through the imagery of this group of Bahamian women dressed in traditional British nursing garments. It seems uncomfortable, as if Bahamian cultural aesthetic was not regarded and that the British way was the only way - a colonial ideology that still somewhat exists today. But what is the Bahamian aesthetic? Years of continuous British and American influence has us still wondering - it is through art and community and discussion and education that we can indeed continue to appreciate our neighbors, but strive for individuality that comes from an authentic, deeply Bahamian place.
Bain Town is a space of much notoriety these days, as a number of historically freed slave villages on the island have grown to be, but it wasn’t always so, and there is certainly a need to celebrate the history of these areas, and the sense of community and pride amongst those who remember how different the place was merely a few decades ago. So many of our major artists in The Bahamas came from Over-the-Hill, perhaps most notably our beloved Maxwell Taylor, and embracing the greatness that comes out of these communities is important.
We look into the oil painting showing this area, entitled “Bain Town” (1984) by Dorman Stubbs, a part of the National Collection, to see if it does, in fact, embrace this place, or whether it is merely playing into that age-old tourist propaganda of painting ourselves as something that is beautiful in a way that isn’t quite real.
Dorman Stubbs has been a fixture in the Bahamian art scene for quite some time now, starting in his youth with his depictions of the markets downtown where his parents worked as fruit vendors. During his high school experience, he was taught by another well-known name in Bahamian art, Homer Williams. Stubbs also took part in the FINCO Summer Art Workshop, as so many of our prominent artists in the community did while it was still in operation. In fact, ‘Bain Town’ (1984) was commissioned by FINCO and marked one of the first works in his career as an artist, outside of seeing art as a hobby, and was the start of his concerted effort to be viewed as an arts professional outside of his teaching experience.
The works in our collection gifted by the Finance Corporation of The Bahamas (FINCO) hold a certain significance in the National Collection, as a result of their concerted effort to facilitate Bahamian artists in the production of work to document our history through art. In 2002, FINCO gifted twelve works from their collection to the gallery. The first six coming from a set of works commissioned in 1979 to document and showcase historical buildings in The Bahamas, and the last six from the second set of commissions in 1983 specifically inviting artists to document scenes in the Grants Town area. This is, of course, how the gallery came to own Stubbs’ ‘Bain Town’ (1984) as part of the collection, as he was chosen to be one of the 23 artists selected to produce work.
Of course some of the works from FINCO can be seen as somewhat problematic, as many of the artists chosen were selected based on their ability to depict the ideals of beauty in the Bahamian landscape, ideals that proved to be a vital part of the reframing of the nation as part of the colonial tourist machine throughout the region. This is also precisely why this work was chosen to be part of the 2017-18 Permanent Exhibition, “Revisiting An Eye For The Tropics”, which is based on the text by Dr. Krista Thompson “An Eye For The Tropics” where she outlines the way that the modern Bahamas was forever changed based on the colonial tourism of the 1800’s-1900’s, and, in particular, the shaping of The Bahamas as part of the Caribbean picturesque.
We could never hope to fully fit the ideal of luxuriant rolling green hills with an abundance of exotic fruit, but we did certainly have the azure and pristine water, and with just the right angle on the colonial photographs that were widely distributed, we could almost, almost, look like our volcanic cousins in the Caribbean. This picturesque ideal set us up for failure in tourism, which is what makes the exaggerated beauty of the islands in paintings problematic in part, but they are more problematic still because we continue to push forth an image that isn’t authentic. And herein lies the difficulty in painting our landscape: we want to show our beauty, but we are so influenced by established ideals on what our beauty as a nation is that we often fail to show our truths and tell our stories.
So then, is Stubbs’ depiction of Bain Town something that could be considered picturesque? Or does it hold a little more authenticity than that? For starters, his chosen medium is almost always oil paint, and that in itself has a certain significance. He is known for painting scenes of picturesque beauty, that is for certain, and we know how that plays into the - often forced - ‘picture-perfect’ Bahamian image. However, when we see his paintings of people and scenes of true Bahamian life - our landscape as it is lived with real people and bodies and homes within - they are perhaps less so.
Oil painting as a medium has a dense history, almost as long as painting as we know it today, some might argue, and with that history comes a lot of weight and gravitas, and this weight can be instantly injected into what is shown. The choice to paint in oils, particularly in this traditional sense and use of the medium, has this instant way of elevating the subject because of the way it plays into the context of the history of painting and oil painting as a whole. Oil painting has a richness to it that seeps into the subject depicted, and in Stubbs’ choice to convey the Bahamian every day in oils he elevates those we often think of as lesser, marginalized or the ‘lowly’ of society.
“Bain Town” (1984) is rendered beautifully, but also in a gestural way, much in keeping with Stubbs almost impressionist style of working. The lush greenness of the work is something we don’t often think of in these more impoverished areas and speaks to a kind of hope for growth. It is beautiful, but it is not picturesque in the same way that the old colonial watercolors of yesteryear are.
Colonial era expatriates such as American painters, Armin Buchterkirch and Hartwell Leon Woodcock, who largely painted in The Bahamas during this period (though they have worked in other parts of the Caribbean), often depicted the perceived ‘quaintness’ of Bahamian ‘native’ life, and played into this idea of the picturesque being built around the region. More problematically, they played into the idea of native Bahamians being ‘respectable’ and ‘docile’ blacks - as if these things were somehow exemplary, uncommon and the property of whiteness alone. Of course, they did live in a completely different era, where that power differential based on race was still very much established openly as ‘the way things are’, as opposed to the deconstruction of this archaic hierarchy that people are working so hard on today.
We do not often see these areas in our everyday lives as places filled with greenery, as many living there can speak of the dust that gets stirred up and subsequently settled on everything within reach. But Stubbs chooses to have us notice the green, to show signs of life and productivity, to show us that things can indeed thrive here if given a chance and given the water and care that its residents are so often lacking.