June 16, 2017
The interpretation of abstract art entails an inventiveness that allows you to discover for yourself the meaning behind the work. It's an organic process, it has no equation or set of rules --the art presents itself and you are left with little information to process it. For many, this is unsettling. As humans, we yearn for understanding - we desire clear, detailed instruction. Abstract art provides none of that.
Revolutionary color field painter Mark Rothko says, "Art that truly engages us is felt even when you have turned your back on it." There's something really special about that -- about feeling the sensation of a work beyond its physicality. It's when you can feel the strength of the painting from across the room. You can stand in the space the artist once occupied and imagine him or her in that same spot, debating over the next smear of black or red pour or blue dot. Similarly, Jerry Saltz says, "Abstraction disenchants, re-enchants, detoxifies, destabilizes, resists closure, slows perception, and increases our grasp of the world."
Bahamian artist and educator Michael Edwards presents us with "Untitled II," a monotype that employs the techniques of painting, silk screening and embossing to create a non-objective mixture of intentionally placed color, line, texture, and pattern. Edwards brilliantly captivates the language of painting in this work, exploring the way in which a mark can exist and how it changes when paired with colors or textures or gradients. How does a translucent red transform when placed next to a deep black or on top of a blue and yellow pattern? Can a sense of unity still be achieved within the diversity of this work through a commonly-shared direction? Although there is great diversity within the work, it follows a vertical orientation, flowing from top to bottom.
The eye begins at the top of this composition, circulating through a thin layer of red that delicately lies above a series of rapid patterns. The first set of patterns appear to be deep blues screened over a solid yellow. Edwards' handwork here is energetic - the work itself becomes evidence of his interaction with the material. An organically-printed rope pattern delicately sits on top, creating a type of grid that provides some form of structure. The thin red pour sits in the grid with a sense of urgency that captures you once again and draws you down towards the centre of the work. One might expect that the red would delicately turn into the black, seamlessly transitioning from one color to the next, but it doesn't happen that way. The clumsy interruption of a paper seam catches the eye and abruptly stops you. Here, a clear insight into the materiality of the work adds an intense layer of contrast to what once appeared to be so delicate.
Edwards has intentionally emphasized his material, providing insight for the viewer in understanding the process of this craft. There is a slight shift in the way the form continues down; it is similarly shaped but offset ever so slightly. This shift stimulates the eye in a way that brings the work great unpredictable complexity - and we are suddenly left with what appears to be an infinite black. It is rough with drips and smears and emphasizes the characteristics of ink and its relationship with gravity. Edwards has effectively captured a sense of space through his use of color - the black feeling as if it is occupying the foreground, up close and personal, while the grey tones recede into the distance.
One may begin relating this to something within one's physical reality - a sense of 3-dimensionality, if you will. But when we step out of the print again, we realize it is merely color and shape and does not provide any detail to help us in the understanding of what it may be. And that is all that it is. Without any answers, the eye is left to circulate the work again, hungry for clarity. When yet more questions arise, the work has done its job. I remember turning my back to it and still feeling its presence, trying to continue deconstructing it, and then finally accepting its ambiguity.
According to art theorist Stephen Knudsen, the intensity of a painting lies in its ability to exert great energy, strength, depth and emotional force. The complexity of a painting, similarly, involves building variety within and among formal elements of a work: line, shape, value, hue, saturation, translucency, opacity, textures. And then, he also rightfully states that unity is the combining of elements within the painting into an effective whole. In this work, Edwards captures intensity within the layering of diverse mark-making, pattern and form. He presents a close relationship between opaque colors hiding beneath translucent pours, weaved with organic lines. He dictates the speed and direction of our eye, moving from north to south slowly, stopping, and then continuing rapidly until our vision runs off the surface and we are forced to start again.
The understanding of this work lies in the acceptance of not knowing entirely, in the appreciation and celebration of craftsmanship, and in the power of the creative sensation. Edwards has so masterfully achieved a sense of intensity within this work that we cannot help but revisit it, delightfully finding new fragments with each return.
"Untitled II" is currently on view in the NAGB's Permanent Exhibition "Revisiting an Eye for the Tropics" through February 18, 2018.
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June 16, 2017
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.
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June 09, 2017
"A Native Sugar Mill" (ca. 1901) by William Henry Jackson is part of the suite of historic colonial photographs in the National Collection. Jackson was an American who started a photo studio here after emigrating from New York in the 1870s and is one of the small group of colonial migrants whose pictures help us piece together part of the story of the time. According to the catalogue for "Bahamian Visions: Photographs 1870 - 1920," curated by Krista Thompson, Jackson first came to The Bahamas at the request of the governor at the time, Sir William Robinson, in 1877. Since around 1856, Jackson worked as a landscape painter, colorist of photographs and also owned a studio specializing in Daguerreotype photographs. In addition, he manufactured albumenized paper, managed a stereoscopic printing shop and had even worked as a civil war photographer. Many of these things seem very far removed from us now, but they were staples of photography at the time.
"A Native Sugar Mill" (ca. 1901) shows a young Bahamian man of African descent, perhaps no more than 15, chewing on sugar cane --part and parcel of the culture here and one of those indulgences in summer. Sweet cane, chopped up and stored in the fridge so it's nice and cold, any Bahamian can relate -- even if things were more than a little different in this young man's time. If the title of this photograph is amusing to you, or if you find it disconcerting, then that's precisely what this piece is about: the complexities of language and perspective.
There is a lot of contention around the word 'native,' and rightfully so given the context of how it has been used throughout history to denounce indigenous peoples as lesser, as 'savages' when compared to the 'civilized' European populace of old. We still feel the sting here as Bahamians with roots to West Africa--although we are not the 'original' Bahamians here since that esteemed position goes to the Lucayans and Arawaks, who were decimated during the first unfortunate wave of colonial activity. Looking further, the idea of giving a name to a photograph and insinuating that a black boy is a 'sugar mill,' given our regional history of slavery, it is clear that this naming does not acknowledge the humanity of the boy's presence or allow for him to be read as a legitimate subject. The racist undertone of this is impossible to ignore making things even more difficult to swallow.
The word 'native,' from the mid 15th century, was generally meant a 'person born in bondage or servitude' or, in the 1530s, as a 'person who has always lived in a place.' There's a rather big divide there in meaning and that only became more complicated in the mid-17th century, when it was used to convey a difference between original inhabitants of non-European countries where Europeans held political power - particularly when thinking of First Nations peoples in the Americas. It became a derogatory way to refer to local people. So here we see that from the early 15th Centuries, hundreds of years before this image was taken, the word "native" takes root in some very unfortunate connotations.
The young man we see holds his gaze to the lens, which can almost be seen as defiant, cheeky even, and yet he is still posed - because, really, who eats sugar cane like this? It isn't practical, for certain. This plucky youth still holds his pose, still looks at the camera, but he seems to have a confidence or blissful ignorance about him - was he so used to the way he was looked at by the gentry or the upper classes that this seemed normal? Was Jackson kind in the way that he spoke to him? Was the young man entertaining Jackson because their races didn't ordinarily mix and he was being asked to pose for the camera - for what was perhaps one of the first and only pictures in his life? There are so many questions to be asked and to be answered.
There is always this assumed sense of 'objectivity' with lens-based media - cinematic and photographic-based images, produced on film or glass plates originally as this work is. It's odd, really, because when we see our world reflected to us we assume it is a mirror and not a lens. Mirrors reflect your image back to you and so can photographs, that's for certain, but looking through a lens and looking into a mirror are two entirely different activities. Mirrors frame your image in real life to you, and the lens is something you frame yourself, choosing what to photograph; you choose what moments are worth recording, you choose just how you want something to look. Media is not a mirror.
On the popular medium of TV, we see ourselves as Caribbean people represented as Rastas, with Jamaican accents and either wise givers of knowledge or as drug-running gangsters - oh yes, and of course marijuana and rum, we mustn't forget that the image isn't complete for us without some form of intoxicant to denote how the islands are such a 'good time.' If we can see that this image isn't really us in our complexity, why do we look to these old photographs as truth?
This technology of the time was the way we could send information and thus dictated what was recorded. As Donna Haraway, the feminist scholar, illustrates to us in her text 'Situated Knowledges' (1988), "Technology is not neutral. We're inside of what we make, and it's inside of us. We're living in a world of connections -- and it matters which ones get made and unmade." Much like historiography - the way history gets written rather than history itself - it is rooted in its subjectivities. The idea that anything human can be objective is a falsity, as we are all shaped by our experiences, privileges (and lack thereof), and interactions throughout our lifetimes in an intertext of human relations. The significance of certain representations relates more to what groups held power in history than of what was truly 'important' to the masses. The 'how we were seen' rather than the actuality of how we truly 'looked' at the time.
Further, as John Berger had put in "Ways of Seeing" (1972), we forget that what we take as default is always our social conditioning - and more often than not, for the worse of our fellow man and woman. "You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting "Vanity," thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure." Had Berger been looking at Jackson's photo, he could perhaps say "you photographed a young black man because you enjoyed looking at him, put the cane he grew for you in his hand and called the photograph "Native Sugar Mill," thus condemning the boy whose blackness you exoticised for your own pleasure."
'Native' to this young man - unnamed, as so many everyday people were in this time - compared to how Jackson would have viewed the word were two entirely different things, let alone how that word fits into our personal contexts now. In Jackson's time, there was this prevailing idea that brown peoples were 'savages' and 'uncivilized' - though how the idea of barging into someone's homeland and telling them to believe what you believe and how to behave in their own home as a way of being 'civilized' or as 'civilizing others' is beyond many of us in this era.
Still, certain things don't discriminate and certain foods definitely humble us all. Nobody looks elegant eating sugar cane. Juice drips down the most dandy of chins and jaws gnash away at the fibres regardless of creed, class, or color. Cane don't care and we would do to remember that in our own lives.
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June 09, 2017
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.
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June 09, 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.
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May 26, 2017
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.
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May 26, 2017
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.
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May 26, 2017
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.
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May 19, 2017
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.
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May 19, 2017
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."
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May 12, 2017
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.
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May 12, 2017
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."
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May 12, 2017
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.
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May 05, 2017
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.
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May 05, 2017
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.
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April 29, 2017
Thierry Lamare's 'The Liberal' (2002) is one of those works in the National Collection that commands attention. This realistic depiction of one of Lamare's muses, the force that was Joyce, is currently on view at the NAGB in the recent unveiling of our spring exhibition, "Love, Loss and Life," a retrospective featuring over 111 works by Lamare.
Joyce stands center stage and packs a lot of presence. She is almost confrontational with her arms folded as she looks straight at you, eyes meeting your gaze with a face that has a mouth set stern. It makes you think that perhaps she didn't want you looking at her at all, but in growing to understand Lamare's practice, we know he wasn't quite one to just take a random snap of an out-islander and bring home that treasure from his expedition to render. No, he holds a certain kind of closeness with his subjects where they don't become subjects at all but friends, comrades, and companions. As Ophelia -- one of his other muses who (like Joyce) called Long Island home -- became an 'eternal' part of his 'art and heart,' Joyce is forever immortalized as one who touched his soul, and it shows in his work.
Lamare is French by birth but has spent the last 30 years devoting his time and creative efforts to inserting himself into the Bahamian narrative and finding a way to help us record and tell our stories with a sort of integrity that we often find ourselves dubious of for non-native Bahamians. Lamare is very much Bahamian and French, holding a dual sense of national identity to himself, as both landscapes have so irrevocably shaped his life. Even before he could fully move here, half of his heart remained in the islands with his wife, Joie, and his care for the culture of the islands and its people is made clear in his almost dutiful practice and precision in presenting aspects of Family Island life.
Joyce, in all her commanding presence and the gravitas she holds, is not merely impressive because of how truthfully she has been rendered -- to the eye and to what one would understand her personality to be -- but also because such a strong work has been rendered in watercolor. As a medium, watercolor is associated with a sort of softness given its translucent quality, but here it is made bold, given depth, and the transparent quality is not so much in the paint as it is in his honest depiction of people. This can only be achieved by truly looking, and by truly getting to understand and know the person before you who you are attempting to immortalize in work. The medium inherently holds a sort of honesty -- mistakes, pencil marks, all of your 'working' as it were, are laid bare with watercolor, and this feels conceptually sound given his personal and sincere methods for choosing subjects.
The work holds a certain sincerity that we often painfully find missing in those 'transplants' like Lamare who have come from elsewhere. We are not exoticism here, we are told in our truth and elevated. Devoting so much time and care to depicting everyday people is an act that is as much political and sincere.
The title alone shows a sort of elevation. 'The Liberal' (2002) could be a liberal in terms of politics, regarding the notion of freedom, or even in terms of giving. Perhaps it is the sternness of her face that makes us able to think of her as some hardened, matriarchal politician. Perhaps it is the aura of strength she exudes, the strength someone can only attain by being tested and by living a hard life, that alludes to her liberal quality of being someone with freedom -- because perhaps this hard life is the cost of being free in a sense, of living untouched by external forces other than nature where you live off the land. And perhaps she is liberal in the giving sense of the word, because she is like so many black women in this country's history, working and giving so much of themselves to everyone else. It often feels that Joyce, as one of his muses, rendered in so much detail and in such a variety of ways that we specifically feel that we know her in her individuality -- as a stalwart, screw-faced woman -- but she still feels like she could be any of us. And this is some of the magic in his work.
Though the current retrospective of his work holds only a careful selection of just over 100 works out of the body of at least 1500 in his creative career, Joyce is a recurring theme and her contrast of sternness in comparison to the sort of wind-beaten softness of Ophelia is telling of what the struggle of life in the Out Islands, in living the traditional Bahamian way off the land, can do to shape your life. Ophelia becomes the softest kind of leather -- where life's struggles have hit hard but left us with a suppleness that is unsurpassed, whereas Joyce becomes the resilient and hardened driftwood, worn smooth by the tide, hot sun, and salt.
We all know that traditional island life here, as so many of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents can attest to, can harden you or soften you in ways you just don't quite get from anything else. The hardened, tough-as-nails Joyce becoming driftwood, like the frames Lamare makes which are so much a part of the work, makes us think that a little piece of her is really in all of the works he frames from this found wood on the shore.
Even though she nor Ophelia are present any longer, it is undeniable that their presence remains and reminds us that all forms of our strength and the way life here shapes us are not only valid, but make us a force of strength or softness to reckon with.
Thierry Lamare's retrospective, "Love, Loss and Life," is on view at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas through September 10. As a reminder, the NAGB is open on Sundays from 12 p.m - 5 p.m. and all locals are welcome to our Free Sundays.
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April 29, 2017
Sue Katz Lightbourn's exhibition, 'Exposed', opened at Antonius Roberts' Hillside House Gallery on the evening of Thursday, April 13th, 2017. The show is a fun, thought-provoking, yet challenging journey through a world of images collected and reassembled out of context and time. Collage and assemblage lend a great deal of lightness and offer accessibility to the serious discussion of women's roles in society and the mental, physical and emotional controls society places on them.
Katz tackles this minefield of gendered programming and the women who blaze a trail through space and across boundaries, very much in the manner of Virginia Woolf's 1929 essay 'A Room of One's Own', that declares the need for women to have a private space where they can create and simply be. Women are always being told how to look and how to be in order to be pleasing to the proverbial male gaze.
The entertainment, publicity, and marketing industries all send powerful messages of what is "normal" that make us judge ourselves and others based on entirely artificial and materialistic ideas and images. Katz captures the innocuous, unrelenting attack on our psyche that is so often unperceived. We become embroiled in a world of images that dictate how we think we should look and how we should behave. Of course, one of the big ones is diet and being the right size and shape. Although no two people are created the same, we are meant to be ruled by an image of what is standard and acceptable beauty in order to fit in. Girls are taught to starve themselves in order to be pretty; boys, too, are increasingly led down this road, particularly with the pervasiveness of social media and pernicious cyber bullying.
Katz encourages equality and empowerment for women who are usually the objects of greater inequality and scrutiny than most other groups. To be sure, the images are overwhelmingly from American popular culture and focus on the need for women to be beautiful, slim and malleable. The violence implicit in the project is never focused on.
Katz's show brings back memories of the television series Mad Men with the world of advertising being revealed on screen and the sexism and bigotry that it espoused and marketed. The program explored the social mores of early 20th-century America. It also demonstrated how active the advertising industry was in building, shaping and then upholding those stereotypes, and how the industry changed with the times. Advertising has a great deal to do with social programing, as demonstrated from episode to episode, with Don Draper and his team building ad campaigns for big companies and all their escapades. It was the time of women's liberation and Black and Jewish empowerment. Most of these struggles are little talked about today because they are too "indelicate".
Katz fabulously explores many taboos through the loud, bright, active, though sometimes somber and dark, collage and assemblage works. There's usually nothing subtle about the work, though the message may not be grasped fully at first glance. However, the work is truly accessible, as much as Wonder Woman is a visual icon for people born in the 1960s and even 1970s.
To be waiflike, wispy and pretty is to be accepted. However, the world is too diverse for that. Not everyone will want to or can be Barbie. Yet media and social programing continue to deploy inflexible messages of celebrated and normative beauty. As much as we have moved into consciousness and social awareness, the same images and messages continue to circulate.
Katz's collage practice creates a lovely burlesque box. Ironically, in that box, society sends mixed messages about that as well. We hear that it is good to be sexy, but not good to be sexual. We do not want to talk about safe sex, but we do want to talk about sexual exploitation. We refuse to discuss power asymmetries, yet celebrate motherhood, not womanhood -- except and only when it is subordinate. Women are encouraged to be skinny, to diet to get down to a size 2 or 3, which is usually still too big. We go into shops and the sizes are all different. What results is a misguided self-image that sees fat and creates numerous physical and psychological challenges to attempt to control eating habits, appetite and body size.
The exhibition throws light on the troubles women face with a manufactured body, beautiful for an industry that really does not like women, and a world where women are usually told to be submissive and to submit to all kinds of male authority that wishes them no positive outcome. It is about control and the power to control, which are two different things. It is not insignificant for all those people who think that simply because a woman takes over a business or steps into political office, she will have women's best interests at heart and on her agenda.
Margaret Thatcher, for example, notwithstanding the fact that she was a woman -- and reportedly a strong women -- did little to nothing to further women's legal or social empowerment. Media still insists on depicting women as merely sex objects and sex symbols, even if they are dressed in power suits. I think Katz works with these images and shows how controlling and damaging they really are to young women's self-esteem and self worth. It is not enough that all women are cast against a cultural homogenous mold of femininity that disallows individuality of personhood or cultural diversity. Ethnic and racial differences and geography tell us that women experience their lives and their sex differently. Yet advertising and many aspects of mainstream Western culture determines that they should all fit in the same pair of Calvin Klein jeans for the young Brooke Shields, or the same skimpy outfit to perform at a rock concert that is tailored to a particular audience.
Many women have taken the lead in organizations, yet the images and the messages remain rather the same as when marketing and advertising were run exclusively by men. Again, Mad Men provides a bird's eye view of that world. It also offers a serious statement of the contradictions involved in social and financial advancement that render humans unable to move beyond the control of social media and advertisement traps. We have become victims of the world that sells us and then tells us how we should continue to be, or else suffer the fate of being unacceptable.
Art, while being pretty, really has a place in social commentary. Katz's show, I think, has a solid place in creating dialogue locally about issues around exploitation, mental control and equality of access, to being in this world. It is a show with a well-thought-out message and the media through which it is displayed can speak to people without threatening their unobserved biases. Katz's work demonstrates the "Enlightened Sexism" that Susan Douglas critiques in her book. The subtitle says it best: 'The seductive message that feminism's work is done. In this case, the work explores all the images on screen and in glossy magazines that lend credence to the belief that by simply donning sexy garb, going to work and being a mother, women have achieved equality'.
Sadly, the real message is that, especially in certain countries, women's ability to access rights and to be paid the same as men for the same job, especially when they have the same qualifications, is seriously undermined by legal and customary blocks that empower attitudes that keep women "barefoot and pregnant". Ironically too, the idea that women have become more comfortable with their bodies or that society has become more accepting of women's bodies, their independence and their power, is poorly realized in most countries.
In a world where we try to raise healthy, self-assured, independent, self-possessed daughters, nieces, cousins, or granddaughters who should not have to fear walking out the door or what they watch on TV or read in magazines that tell them how to be the best submissive girl they can be. How to win the boy's eye, to get the right match and live happily ever after, without surrendering self, though every message driven home is that they must become second to their lord and master, according to the local understanding of biblical verse.
Tragically, the message that women do not have to worry about body image because there are positive options out there is woefully under-gunned, to use masculinist language, when it comes to competing with the all-pervasive images that permeate through social media and cyber bullying. It is far too common for young girls to be socially bullied virtually for not having the right body. Yet no one discusses this.
The art that this exhibition brings to life is a message of how far things have come, but oh how much further we have to go to get beyond the horrible objectification of women that penetrates all social strata and societies in the global South as much as in the West.
When Edward Said took on the battle against images of a feminized orient, he was working, much like Katz, to debunk old and very well-functioning, fine-tuned myths, stereotypes and images that circulate to hold societies prisoner. As Edwidge Danticat argues, create dangerously, or be consumed. I would venture to say that Katz does that. We need more discussion of the dilemmas that harm our girls, young women, middle-aged women and older women who are made to be less than they are by an image that is airbrushed, Photoshopped and tweaked into unreality.
It would be truly exceptional if this work could move beyond the gallery space, (that seems to already create an idea of separation), to allow people to really be a part of the conversation. Even if they resist the message, they will have seen the control that is placed on their image and themselves. Can we start to have a serious discussion about cyber bullying, fat shaming, body shaming and all the eating and psycho-physical disorders that this exhibition throws light on? This work makes the discussion possible.
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April 21, 2017
Kendra Frorup's 'Domestic Chickens' (2007) installation is one of the lesser-known pieces in the National Collection. The 2017-2018 Permanent Exhibition, 'Revisiting An Eye For The Tropics', is a departure point for us to look to the way the past has informed the present aesthetic in Bahamian artwork, and also importantly to showcase the works in the National Collection and remind us of what we have ownership and pride over as Bahamians.
For us here at the NAGB, it was originally installed in the Project Space Room of the Gallery, back when it was still known as the 'Inner Sanctum'. It is at first glance a quirky work, and though the format is different from what we expect from Frorup, it is very much in keeping with her practice through its use of the symbolism of the chicken. In context, the image of the chicken holds a certain function here given that we see them both domesticated and wild so often throughout the islands. However, we also understand the stereotypes associated with our black American neighbors.
The work originally included row upon row of the strange, box-like, chicken-footed marionette sculptures, but for this current Permanent Exhibition, we have pared it back a little to fit in the cozy niches in the North-Eastern gallery. It has retained its gravitas and presence, for certain, but the drama of how it was previously lit -- in darkness, with theatrical spots -- has been presented in a slightly more intimate manner. The chickens here 'behave themselves' and fit in with the abstract works of the 'Resisting Representation' room aptly.
It is only fitting really that the work functions in this way, with the name being indicative of the behavior expected of Frorup's headless chickens. The idea of domesticity is often laughable in relation to her work because while she does, of course, make prints that have such a delicacy to them, she is more often than not an architect of grand, weighty objects - wood, iron and things lost and found. She constructs hefty things with their sense of self and confidence in their bearing. Still, something of that symbol of the chicken provides an idea of the domesticated and something more wild and untamable. For the average Bahamian, the image of the chicken calls to mind, not just tasty dishes, but also the wild fowl that run free in settlements throughout the archipelago, but particularly in many areas in Nassau - most notably areas that were former slave villages.
This chicken then becomes problematic, as we all know the stereotypes surrounding black folks and chicken. To many, it seems harmless at first, but of course, this is hardly the case. This stereotype comes from a long line of similar images: grape drink, watermelon, we know the types from American media, fried chicken included. However, it is predicated on the notion of black people being easily sated, and more specifically from black slaves being easily placated by food, being 'simple' creatures, subhuman and easily rewarded with food. This easily recalls historical racist iconography; those painfully ubiquitous images of black caricatures with oversized lips eating watermelon. Suddenly the image becomes less 'harmless joke' (as if it ever could be) and much more sinister when a little light is shed on this truth and this history.
In spite of this, Frorup has taken this image and re-presented it for our consideration in a more nuanced way. The domesticated chickens become us in their own way, and this domestication is something to re-assess in the way we think about the respectability politics here and the way we view the things that make us 'civilized' in the eyes of the world, the way our work can define us.
These trousered-chickens are strung up, but who controls the strings? Awkward legs buckle under their weight. This balancing act is so akin to the various roles and images we have to manage as people of color, as people in a postcolonial society, as people who are still trying to figure our identity out in the setting of this uncomfortable in-between-space.
And who pulls our strings? We are stretched thin, being pulled in the direction of old ideals for what we need to look and act like to make us respectable as black folks while being pulled another way by this need to make a living after the years of subservience under colonialism. Thus only to be left with service industries to sustain ourselves, which is all terribly hard work - let alone dealing with our actual jobs.
The found wood used to top these chickens and connect them to their strings provides a kind of parallel for the way these domestic chickens function. The wood is something natural that has been taken and formed - at once natural and manufactured, and it reflects the balance of the fowl so well. Something about the found nature of it offers a resistance that shows that while the chicken is domesticated, it is not completely under our control and hence cannot be controlled, and cannot be removed from where it came from.
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April 21, 2017
The University of The Bahamas and the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas have created an open space for group discussion that allows students to benefit from the offering of both spaces. This relationship allows culture to truly be highlighted. As much as we talk about culture, we often disconnect our experiences from talk. These lectures are designed to promote thought and unshackle minds blinkered by a dysfunctional system designed to create workers without a sense of self, or an identity that can transcend the 9 to 5 and the 21 by seven of the mundane.
The talks blend history, art, culture, sociology, architecture and create a dialogue to facilitate learning beyond the classroom. The gallery and the university work together to expose students to many different thought processes and realities, provoking thinking and thoughtful creativity. It is significant that the talks take place in the space of art, where so much of the discussion is concurrently witnessed by the works on the walls and by the building itself.
Last week, students walked through Edrin Symonette's installation "Residues of a Colonial Past" now housed in the Project Space Room and others left at the end of the talk to wander around the recent re-hanging of the permanent exhibition framed by Dr. Krista Thompson's "An Eye for the Tropics", which focuses on the ways the islands and their islanders are represented by renderings of visitors, tourists, and residents, that typecast and stereotype. The displays of old, hand-painted/drawn postcards are a salient part of art, history and art history that serve to inform so many discussions of our past, present and future.
The inclusion of distinct experiences and approaches to art and design is important when being asked to design to meet the needs of the next half century. With that, however, students need to understand the history of architecture and design in the islands; why, for example, houses had swing-out, louvered shutters on windows and doors that provided shade and protection. In the case of a storm, any inhabitant could simply close the shutters against the storm and they were reusable, non-damaging to walls and lasted decades. This is an example of cultural sustainability and learning from the past. Awareness of the past commixes with the importance of moving beyond the now, mentally, imaginatively and physically, though innovation is obvious when we understand that we are a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) threatened by rising sea levels, extreme weather and changing patterns.
A great deal of focus has been given to Expo 2020 in Dubai and The Bahamas' role in the event. Students have been working through and creating designs to be selected as finalists by the committee in Dubai ahead of the Expo. Students, faculty and other partners such as Ambassador Tony Joudi, Michael Diggis Associates, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have come together to ensure the success of the project. Students build a chair out of one piece of cardboard and are challenged to work with light and dark, black and white, to think beyond the limitations of color into the potential for the future based on understanding the past. They create art that is not constricted by ideas of what Bahamian art should look like, as Dionne Benjamin-Smith's work in the permanent exhibition articulates.
The talks address the built environment and work to elucidate the overlaps and synergies that have often been eclipsed by scarce focus being paid to all of these areas of Bahamian culture. Speakers have been as diverse as Dionne Benjamin-Smith and Patrick Rahming. The discussions serve as a way to reignite cultural awareness through dialogue with artists, writers and other creative practitioners. This term's events have led to an interesting combination of art classes and classes on Bahamian culture, that have allowed the interstitial nature of art, culture and everyday life to reveal itself.
Pat Rahming raised significant awareness of this through his talk on the built environment and Bahamian culture. A man of many talents, Rahming read his poetry, discussed his work as a designer and the disconnection between what we espouse as a body politic and what we do, our institutions and our lack of support for them, as well as his experiences in life that have created him and served in his cultural development.
Rahming's insight on the part of the artist/creative practitioner to speak to the future, to create the vision, encourage a visioning unfettered by international and non-culturally appropriate influences that serve only to change us into a bad copy rather than a stunning original. For example, building on the ground without elevation, rather than building the foundation up to allow for flooding. In the past, houses were kept cooler by allowing air to circulate under them. Today, materials are different, but houses should still be elevated so that they do not flood, as we see whenever the rains conflate to work against the built environment.
Rahming challenged students to think about things differently; to not be bound by artificial lines of demarcation created to empower parties but disempower national development. His insights were surgically concise and well delivered. His presentation fits in well with the thrust to rethink the way we develop ourselves and our country. His insights work with the opportunity to promote change and transformation on the table now with Expo 2020; the World's Fair offers the nation a year on the world stage and the chance to rethink all the poor design and implementation we have simply not used, such as The National Development Plan of New Providence Island and the city of Nassau, developed by Columbia University Institute of Urban Environment and Division of Planning in 1968, EDAW's Nassau Harbour and Bay Street Renaissance Programme, (EDAW is now AECOM) to Jackson Burnside's study and plan for Historic Nassau. Many plans have fallen victim, or better stated been devoured by political 'pastfulness'.
In the 1990s, Pat Rahming worked along with Jackson Burnside to design waterfront possibilities for Nassau, yet these have never been implemented. As art and design need to be coupled, we now need to uncouple ourselves from the lack of political will to truly develop a vibrant city centre.
The Nassau Urban Lab Report does a great job of bringing things together and offering excellent recommendations for revitalizing Nassau and rebuilding Over-the-Hill. However, does it go far enough in its cultural consideration? Will anything come of this plan and can it or will it work with the National Development Plan to truly move us forward? What we in fact need is planning that jettisons us into the next half of the 21st-Century. The 20th Century is over and gone, yet our thinking seems to be steadfastly stuck somewhere back there. The opportunities afforded us at this time are tremendous, let us try not to squander them as we have with so many others.
Opportunity to think, opportunity to build, opportunity to grow.
By creating opportunities through education and cultural awareness, as the talks at NAGB do, we are not washing away money. The UB/NAGB talks build our capacity for the future. They allow the students to engage with history, creative thinking and problem solving, national requirements for success, especially in a small island developing state seemingly unable to recover from one hurricane before another hits. Hurricanes are not a fluke.
We often hear of our bounty compared to Cuba, yet a great success has occurred there. Cuban culture thrives, not because of limitations but despite them. We have been spoilt into thinking that we can produce like Cuba, but we have also been taught that to create we must tow the government line. In Cuba, art and culture often develop despite government controls. The only way Cuban artists can thrive as they do is because of their incredible creativity, their massive ingenuity and their amazing dexterity and resourcefulness. Bahamians have been taught that tourism will provide all that we need.
We do not expect tourists to come and see what we have to offer. Instead, we create artificial places and destinations for tourists to come and stay outside of the nature and culture of The Bahamas, using the country as a backdrop. We do not build rooms to support our geographical wealth and natural gifts. We are unique in the Caribbean, and frankly, in the world, yet we choose to criticize our youth for imitating too much American ethos, yet we tell them that this is what tourists want. We insist that young people not critique or challenge authority; they must learn how to fall in line, and then we criticize them for not being capable of critical thought or for under producing in less than ideal conditions.
Expo 2020, the work of Creative Nassau, the thinking and implementation of creative practitioners like Pat Rahming, art students from underfunded arts programmes, and the designers and artists who work tirelessly behind the scenes and study to inform their practice understand the importance of decoupling from the government to succeed. Expo 2020 provides a formidable opportunity to prosper through design, connectivity, mobility, opportunity, and sustainability.
Sustainable Nassau is another feeder opportunity that can create a vibrant Nassau. However, we must remember that the Bahamas is larger than Nassau city, we have a unique culture and environment that must be protected not because it is to be fossilized, but because the country is fragile and as long as we live here we are constantly threatened by natural and unnatural disasters.
Works of art attest to this, they also attest to the amazing creativity resident in the country. However, we must delink learning from the government. The government does not design for the future; if it has its way, it would rather reside in the past because politics lives in the past.
The University of The Bahamas can take the current opportunity to become a place where design happens, not a program that is loosely managed, a place where government is informed of what the future holds by the thinkers and creative actors, the students. NAGB/UB talks, Expo 2020, the potential to partner with BAMSI and the confluence of other events and programmes serve to move the country forward into the next millennium.
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