July 28, 2017
Three weeks of Italian summer and being surrounded by art professionals sounds like a dream, and in many ways, of course, it is. From the "shallow" things--like eating gelato for breakfast (which, I'll have you know, is entirely civilized)--to the deeper stuff, of discussing intense readings around the purpose and history of curatorial practice and being able to view Caravaggio paintings in resplendent old buildings, the Goldsmiths 'Curating The Contemporary' summer art intensive, hosted at the British School at Rome, was an education, and in ways I had not anticipated. I was supported by the Charitable Arts Foundation as well as The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas to embark on this journey of professional development that would prove to also be one of intense personal development.
We were a troupe of 17 delegates all from different stages of our careers (some only just considering embarking on a curatorial practice after finishing Fine Arts studies, some long established) and we were also from considerably different backgrounds - all, however, were women. There was a large European base of participants (from Poland, Denmark, Germany and quite a few UK citizens), but also a few American women (who ranged from recent graduates to Whitney and Guggenheim employees). There was also a contingent of us from the peripheries of the world, including myself, a Portuguese director of an
institution in Macau, and a Columbian university lecturer. This was, no doubt, a way to try to ensure a diversity of experience and opinion as we went through discussions on the best practices of curators, what curatorial practice is, what it should do, and the difficult political history of 'the museum' as an institution.
Perhaps, at this point, it might be apropos to explain just what exactly curating is. The course has problematized the way I feel that I can best elucidate it, but while that aspect might be difficult it has, however, made clear to me what I feel my role as a curator is and should be. Simply put, curators are often exhibition-makers (though that is now often used as a term in itself, hence my problem) as well as the caretakers of collections. This means that the role of a curator can span anything from cleaning and arranging the care of a damaged work, to installing artwork in an exhibition, to working out the logistics for shipping out work, to researching artworks and coming up with the theoretical framework to ground an exhibition. It should become obvious, then, that curators are Jacks- and Janes-of-all-trades wrapped into one.
For myself, the most important part of being a curator is knowing how best to support the arts 'ecology' and environment in which you work. Supporting artists, letting the work lead, is all part of it. To curate comes from the latin word 'curare' which means 'to care.' Many of us have lost our care and have put ourselves in a position of irrefutable power, to the detriment of ourselves and the community of artists and people we serve - and more still, some of us forget that we cannot and should not speak for people whose experiences we know nothing of. Support is meant to be the order of the day here.
It may be quite curt to say, but I find myself quite disillusioned with the institutionalization of art - from the indoctrination into what 'counts' as art that we receive in university to the way that certain institutions become validators of what is 'good' contemporary work. Even people themselves become a sort of institution, or biennales become an institution and 'tastemaker' for work. Don't get me wrong; I had brilliant tutors at a small university who cared deeply enough about my experience and potential to give me what tools I needed to make up my mind about my position in the world and therefore my position within the art world. However, even they are subject to the pressures of academia and how to prepare students for life outside of the cushioned (albeit perpetually broke) life of university. They delivered to me the information about art theory and practice that is so rooted in problematic ideals of the Western art world, with not just a heavy pinch of salt, but full-on seasoning that would satisfy any Bahamian. They didn't just tell us that "Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are important" but also that "Foucault and Derrida have great ideas but are entirely inaccessible to the larger public and what does that do for us? Who does that serve?" For that, I will be forever grateful. They had, at least, sparked that seed of doubting who and what counts as important, allowing me to make up my mind about what was important to me and so many other people like me.
In many ways, visiting the Venice Biennale at the end of my trip helped further to crystallize this. The pomp and glamour of the almost 200-year-old art event - one of the biggest for the art world - seemed to me akin to playing dress-up. That is particularly facetious to say, of course, but there was in the main grounds of the Biennale this feeling of trying too hard that I couldn't quite put my finger on. This was not my first time at the Venice Biennale, my first experience had been in 2011 as part of a university trip, and the whole thing changed my life and view of art forever. But while nostalgia and my ignorance at the time might be bathing it in a rosy glow, there was something that happened there that I did not feel this time.
Maybe this is 'growing up' in the art world, but something was missing and something felt forced, that is until I left the main grounds to view the smaller independent pavilions throughout the city. Mongolia, for example, had a small pavilion that was entirely funded by the artists (whereas most national pavilions are at least in part government-funded, and the politics inherent within this becomes apparent), and it showed. It lacked the sleek polished finish that the main spaces had and it had an honesty in its articulation that shone through.
"I cannot create as a curator." Beatrix Ruf, a German curator and the current director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, said this to us during one of the many talks we had with a number of curators from different stages in their career. Ruf is quite renowned and for good reason. She is an absolute force of a woman and at the heart of her curatorial practice is the artwork and the audience. She spoke of not being able to "create" because for her the role of a curator is to see what is there in the world and to highlight it - which, ironically, sounds like how many view art practices now, and I certainly do. She pushed the idea of not turning artwork into 'documents' that illustrate our ideas as curators; she stressed the importance of not silencing work.
"You can always trust your audience." The Mongolia pavilion certainly did. Ruf was adamant that no matter how experimental an exhibition or work is, quality always comes through to people. Adding to this, I would argue that honesty always comes through to people. Trust is what we need to make any art environment thrive and it is something that many feel the art world is lacking.
The content of the discussions and readings were stimulating and I don't believe I will ever be able to live amongst a more eloquent and empathetic group of people in such large number again. However, what I learned most from this course, from this journey I dare say, was through my introspection and the treading of a difficult line as someone who is both of European descent and who is Other, existing outside of that Europeanness. I have gained more in insight than any book could give. My personal conclusions at the end of this course: I know myself and my ethics in working in more acute detail than ever before; the art world is struggling under the weight of its own difficult and dominant Western, Eurocentric history; and lastly, the care in curating is still there - we just may need to look South to find it.
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July 28, 2017
Five days a week, you'll find Bahamian ceramicist Jessica Colebrooke in her Nassau studio, which is tucked away behind her home in the Gleniston Park community. 19 years ago, Colebrooke started out in a 10 x 10ft room with a sheet of plywood on two crates and a small kiln. Today she owns and manages "Jessica's Tileworks Studio," one of the leading ceramics and tile manufacturers in The Bahamas. As a mother, wife, educator, artist and entrepreneur, Colebrooke has committed her life and work to supporting and nurturing a culture of creativity.
Keisha Oliver: When did you first realize you wanted a future in ceramics?
Jessica Colebrooke: I realized my love for ceramics when I was a second year student at The College of The Bahamas (COB). Since high school, my love and passion for painting was always drawn towards realism. To visually see something and to recreate it exactly was a challenge and I love challenges. At the time (early '90s) I researched and met some of the major Bahamian artists including Brent Malone, Antonius Roberts, Ralph Harris, Eddie Minnis and others. I enrolled at COB still in awe of realism, but I found myself surrounded by students and emerging artists with interests in abstract art and educators who were pushing for students to embrace a wider variety of art forms. I appreciated the styles but they weren't for me. In my second year at COB, it was in my ceramics course that I realized how much freedom the medium gave me.
KO: How would you describe the emergence of ceramic art in The Bahamas?
JC: Our history dating back to the Arawaks and Chelsea Pottery in the '50s is fading, because there is not much reference material left from that time. So, I've always quoted Denis Knight as the driving force of ceramics in The Bahamas. Knight lived and worked in The Bahamas since the '50s teaching in the public schools and at COB. Unlike, Chelsea Pottery, which was known as a space for producing commercial pieces, Knight pushed ceramics in the arena of fine art. His work always had a unique and expressive quality. In the '90s, just before I left for Rhode Island School of Art and Design (RISD), the artists who I knew were practicing included Joann Behagg, Sue Bennett-Williams, and Sabrina Glinton.
KO: You are known as the first female tile manufacturer in The Bahamas. Why do you think there seems to have been a shift from the Denis Knights, Maxwell Taylors and Brent Malones to a modern reality where women dominate the ceramics practice?
JC: When I was a student at COB, there were a few practicing, female working as ceramicists like Joan, Sue, Sabrina and even Sonia Isaacs. So here you had these women who were making their contribution, but rarely recognized. I've realized one of the main reasons is that male artists tend to self-promote more than women. From my experience the woman's role as a mother, wife and homemaker has played an important part in why women are not as visible in ceramics and the arts in The Bahamas. A lot of women of my generation and before had to wait until their children were grown to focus on their creative practice. So, while a male artist may spend a lot of his time in his studio a female artist is divided. I'm divided. The reason why I'm able to get my work out is because I sacrifice the time and spend many nights in my studio.
KO: What do you feel are the qualities that determine the success of an artist in The Bahamas? Do you feel biases in gender, age or otherwise exist?
JC: Success is a personal thing. Once you've set goals and achieve them you are successful. A Bahamian artist who may be living and working abroad is not necessarily more successful than the artist who is doing the same here in The Bahamas. Biases like racism will always exist. These are hurdles that we should learn from. I have experienced gender bias in the art community. Individuals and entities that should be neutral in providing equal opportunities often lean toward promoting and supporting male artists more. My advice to women is to focus on what you are doing, promote and invest in yourself, and be dedicated so that you can navigate your progress and positioning in this community.
KO: Is there a market for ceramics in The Bahamas? Does it have a sustainable future?
JC: Before I went off to RISD there wasn't. In Nassau artists were only holding exhibitions, but in Treasure Cay Karen Mcintosh had been running Abaco Ceramics a commercial ceramics studio since the early '80s. While finishing my degree, I grew spiritually and one of the things I asked of God was that I wanted to return home to be more than simply a teacher, I wanted to be a working artist like Antonius Roberts and Brent Malone. In my senior year, I studied Henry Mercer for my thesis. He was one of the founding fathers of the arts and crafts movement in the US in the late 1800s. He also created a sustainable market for pottery and tile manufacturing. I realized that his model was something I wanted to bring to The Bahamas.
My vision for "Jessica's Tileworks Studio" (JTS) started there. I wanted to bring a unique artistic flair to the commercial products. After returning from RISD there was a blossoming season. The pioneers like Sue and Joan still practiced, but artists like Imogene Walkine, Trevor Tucker, Katrina Cartwright also emerged. There is still a lot room for the industry to evolve. I see Bahamian artists like Anina Major and Alistair Stevenson as contemporaries who are working toward this. The financial and technical obligations to the craft make it an unattractive venture for many, but slowly we see through exhibitions and manufacturing there is a market and a future.
KO: How is your studio organized?
JC: JTS is a two-story facility with a ground floor production area, an outdoor kiln area, and an upper floor gallery and showcase space. I work more than I play, but always make time for my children. I work alongside a team who focuses on the commercial brand, but I also contract artists and students to work on specific projects. I was commissioned to produce tiles for the Stix Noodle Bar at Baha Mar. A small group of artists worked on this project with me. Those are the things I'm concerned about, creating creative and financial opportunities geared toward collaboration.
KO: What are you currently working on in your studio?
JC: The studio is always busy. I'm working on developing a collection for a 2018 exhibition, my team is filling orders for clients and distributors, and we're working on a new project with Atlantis. The resort has been recently promoting and supporting Bahamian individuals and businesses and I was commissioned to produce pieces for its' Earth and Fire Pottery Studio. The venture is going well, because I think tourists realize that they aren't just acquiring a souvenir, but buying an authentic Bahamian piece of art they aren't able to get anywhere else in the world. Here you have this corporate giant identifying a local artist they want to take a chance on. I'm excited about this partnership because it is a challenge that introduces the JTS brand to a new area of manufacturing.
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July 21, 2017
The dream sold is of young men being told that they are prosperous, only to realize that they are imprisoned in a tangled web of failure or underachievement. Young men from the inner city, once the thriving home of Blacks -- forced by segregation and reduced circumstances to live in particular parts of town -- is cast as the worst place in the country, a place that only produces criminals.
These young men are taught they are not allowed to demonstrate emotions other than anger and are to be "hard" young men, which means to procreate, while collecting and discarding women. They come from broken families where no one has the time to talk, to share and they are expected to support the family in early adulthood. Such is the stereotype of the young, poor, Black male.
Gender constructs become a social prison in this environment that compound development and produce cultural norms that undermine national progress. Normalizing this kind of gendered behavior reduces a young man to a violent body expected to feel only through deriving sexual pleasure, never providing the same. The Caribbean boasts this kind of set-in-stone male stereotype, where men are seen as soft if they are educated and causing many to join gangs as a form of identification and belonging.
"The Ballad to Deangelo Johnson from Quakoo Street" is much like Diana McCaulay's 2010 novel "Dog-Heart", only installation art is different from literature and poetry, is distinct from prose; it is also set in The
Bahamas as opposed to Kingston. All the same, it is much like a trap that devours young people through the hard and fast playing out of stereotypes and racialized behavioral patterns that negate any individuality or soul.
In a deeply colonized, fervently Christian, deeply corrupt and class-stratified society, the ability of poor young men to ascend out of the limitations is almost impossible. They can be gangsters or basketball players, and they must work hard to rise out of the swamp of peer-pressure if they choose the latter.
In the exhibition series"Double Dutch" the latest edition of which opened yesterday, Friday, July 21st at the NAGB brings together two artists, one from The Bahamas and another from elsewhere in the region. This iteration of Double Dutch "Of Skin and Sand" focuses on Bahamian Edrin Symonette and Jamaican Leasho Johnson, who use different media to communicate a similar message. Although distinct in their work and their depiction, the overlaps between these two young men are quite interesting. Masculinity and the cultural tragedy that destroys it, similar to Ian Strachan's play "Gun Boy's Rhapsody," break silences through visually disturbing the view, first through nudity and then through masculinity on display.
In 2017, the severely damaged national fabric as shown in these works is not unique to The Bahamas but is regional as can be attested by Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados. It is no accident, however, that The Bahamas has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the region, even though underreported especially when men are expected to behave in said fashion towards women. The system in our countries is deeply dehumanizing and although often romanticized as a friendly paradise, it is not paradise for those who inhabit Over-the-Hill with their strict codes of conduct, their limitations and their crushing social constraints that reduce masculinity and femininity to what tourists want and so we are produced for consumption by those who come to revel on our shores.
Earlier this year, Sue Katz Lightbourn showed her work on images of women at Hillside House, which critiqued the sexualization and objectification of women in popular culture and media. These two young men work with similar images, but this time more focused on males and masculine stereotypes and identity.
At the same time, Johnson depicts images of 'typical' Black women in other work displayed in Jamaica. His 2015 "Back-fi-a-bend," created with yeast paste on a wall in Kingston, Jamaica, presents the image of a Caribbean woman, who Zora Neale Hurston in her anthropological work such as "Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica," (1938); "Mules and Men," (1935), "Dance Songs and Tales from the Bahamas," in the Journal of American Folklore (July-September, 1930, issue) would have called a beast of burden, carrying bananas on her head and her back. The first part of the images in Johnson's work is of women fully be-gowned and crowned with the emblematic fruit of Caribbean servitude, the Banana. The last in the sequence is of a woman bent over, naked with the bunch of bananas on her back. Although all images depict servitude, they also show a degree of resistance to that servitude. However, in this show, Johnson approaches the work from a different angle, examining more the images of human sexuality, perhaps better said is the idea of beastly sexuality and masculinity. To join this Symonette's installation presents a male body prostrate on the ground covered in sand and sawdust with genitals exposed.
In The Bahamas, although silenced, the fact that no other real or sustainable form of national economic dependence is ever mentioned other than banking a pipe dream sold to a largely minimally functionally literate audience, where people are to be servers in the air-conditioned bliss of resorts while ignoring the exodus of banks. The new focus on Tourism and its plantation-based economic model is fully explored in the play "Smile Orange" by Jamaican playwright Trevor Rhone. Originally performed on stage in Jamaica in 1971, it captures the insidious exploitation with which we are complicit victims, according to Rhone. It is not ironic that some 40 odd years later, the paradise dream or myth is even more entrenched and the population less aware of the social and economic degradation that partners with tourism.
Art is not meant to cajole us into comfortable acceptance, though for some people a pretty view is all that art should be decorative. At the same time, the social praxis is often expunged from the work because it makes people uncomfortable. This show is uncomfortable. It exposes the world's view of Caribbean masculinity, indeed Black masculinity as nothing but a penis used to sire more bodies of labour or to provide pleasure for those who come for a few days of paradise sunshine.
Patricia Glinton-Meicholas's "No Vacancy in Paradise" (2001) and Ian Strachan's "Paradise or Plantation" (2003) form a dangerous alliance with Jamaica Kincaid's caustic little book "A Small Place" (1988), that exposes the underbelly of Caribbean life, and it is even thrown into sharper focus in her "My Brother" (1998), penned 10 years later. These works, pave the way for what Symonette and Johnson capture in their installation. Though the region has become less pithy and less critical of its unholy alliances, it is still deeply invested in self-exploitation through romantic self-selling. Perhaps the best way of examining an absurdity palpable in Rhone's play is through the ironic images of Caribbean alterity deconstructed and critiqued in Dr. Krista Thompson's "An Eye for the Tropics," (2007).
It is also ironic that 44 years of independence has produced a far less self-critical group of leaders that were perhaps satirized by the earlier Caribbean artists and thinkers but are far less criticized today. Although problematic, V.S. Naipaul's "The Mimic Men" (1967) soundly castigates these leaders who become the same colonial masters from whom they saved these small post-colonies. Rhone's play shows how merciless writers and artists were in the early days of idealism and social reform. Today, we are made uncomfortable by nudity, even while we celebrate the prostitution that tourism embodies. Governments come and go, yet tourism, notwithstanding all discourse of sustainability and nationalism, remains the fatted calf that cannot be criticized.
What is so oxymoronic about the nudity and the use of the Black body, or even more pointedly the mulatto body is its silence. We choose to ignore the selling of souls. We are so closely monitored and tightly wound in our Christianity closet that we dare not discuss sexuality, sex, sensuality and commodification of the body. We cannot contain our delight when it comes to bashing art or the possibility of women achieving some degree of equality. We have become so consumed with an irony of the tongue cocked solidly in the cheek that we cannot even see the glaring irony, painful paradox and (a)cute oxymoron of morality in paradise. Paradise is always deeply sexualized and always ready to be exploited.
The artwork produced for "Of Skin and Sand" is so wonderfully disturbing and yet so quiet, except, of course for the minor problem of a male member being exposed in the set. Do we not get the awful political correctness and lack of awareness being produced by a people who can no longer see nudity without cringing but can walk over, by, past poverty and death without batting an eyelash? It would have perhaps been truly pushing the envelope if the tone and metre of Rhone's play and Walcott's work could have even been approached by these two artists.
We can talk about women being beaten, about not challenging men and their need to behave badly, about the patriarchal privilege of leadership and the use of the penis to rule over an entire community, but we cannot discuss the objectification and the commodification of bodies who barely matter to those who lead them. Sexual violence and sexual exploitation thrive in such inequalities and silences. We are the beach on which other people's dreams, fantasies and even perhaps nightmares are played out, especially when deposits of semen are left behind, though we daren't mention such. It is not ironic that we are bent under the weight of the paradise myth and the continued sexploitation of "Otherness" and the inherent loss of identity that occurs through national erasure of multiple stories.
Johnson and Symonette show us so many deeply silenced and nuanced stories that we can choose to ignore the penis lying there. It is also not ironic but tragic that all most people care about is buying into the myth of Black masculinity perpetuated by a long-lasting stereotype that all Blacks and especially mulattos are only good for....
I appreciate and love the work and the discussion it can produce, but also the damage to personal and national psyche it demonstrates. Similar to Katz Lightbourn's show, this work deconstructs how we see masculinity and femininity and shows us that we are being sold off at an amazingly low price, yet we see nothing wrong with the packaged deal. We are the silenced subalterns in 'Stella Getting her Groove Back' who are not even aware of the damage done, but who serve other people's hang ups and downs.
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July 21, 2017
The title is undoubtedly provocative, given the Bahamian bent toward Christianity, but "Let Us Prey" (1984-86) is, quite literally, a gift. Donated by Dave Smith in 2007, the work is at once an act of good faith while simultaneously critical of bad. It's another painting from the National Collection that we have given some gentle care to and put on display for the current Permanent Exhibition, "Revisiting An Eye For The Tropics", and fits into the theme of the Bahamian everyday that works within this exhibition.
Dave Smith is a British artist who moved to The Bahamas and spent 17 years here before moving to the U.S. Arriving on our shores as an abstract painter, he is now hailed as a home-grown Pop-realist, with Smith's paintings depicting the Bahamian every day in the style of Pop Art. Art can become a way of knowing a place and Smith's way of looking at our struggles and idiosyncrasies comes from a position of one who is simultaneously 'inside' and 'outside'. He no doubt has strong ties and feels at home here, but he is also from an entirely different cultural background to many of those living in these Bahamian scenes that he paints -- this duality of being familiar with 'The Bahamian', whilst concurrently holding his own Britishness, gives his works a very particular perspective in viewing our society. Certain things seem curious, like the old cinema titles he so carefully renders in his work, but his attention to the minutiae of our lives are shown in such detail it can only be an act of care and consideration.
Smith captures the strange and sometimes the uncomfortable beauty of the place in which we live -- outside of tourist ideals. Tacky figurines with strangely European scenes of dogs catching fowl hunted by humans, distorted TV screens, and shiny pink cars with headlights rendered meticulously -- all this alongside hastily-painted but carefully crafted clapboard. It's a snapshot of Bahamian life in a nutshell. Our obsession with the news, with strange customs and tendencies toward U.S. and British culture, the love of cars and looking like you 'have arrived', all against the backdrop of the classic clapboard house to root us again in our history, it's all here in "Let Us Prey" (1984-86). By building the symbol of a home in the work, he is helping to visually build our world as we know it in the form of an artwork, an object up for consideration by us and, as such, he helps build the arsenal of images depicting Bahamian life.
The advent of Pop-Art after World War II marked a period of art investing itself in the mechanical production of the West as it rebuilt itself and a pointed move away from art being for 'the elite.' Art began to make use of the everyday and of 'kitsch,' thereby making itself a product of the people - and it was certainly a product, commenting on the consumerism of the art market by having work made largely by machines. It became less about the hallowed idea of the 'original' work of art and more about people, the quotidian and what we see on a daily basis. By moving away from the elitism around the 'unique,' it made itself no longer out of reach for our growing consumer populace. This is a genre that Dave Smith still finds himself in years later because it holds a certain relevance to us. It helps us to see ourselves and what surrounds us in an accessible way, in a way that we are familiar with.
"Let Us Prey" (1984-86) sounds like a warning and a command in one and this simple play on words speaks volumes, chapters, tomes - just like the verses and books of 'The Book' that many of us read from on Sundays. The ironic play on words of 'pray' and 'prey' might cause some to bristle at the thought, but this is not the work of a heretic so much as a critique of how we have come to know ourselves and our sense of compassion. On the one side of this work, are the articulately detailed images of those things we find ourselves concerned with - and they all have to do with image and how we represent ourselves. Figurines and other material items with which we present our homes, the pastor screaming aloud on TV, and what looks like a shiny Cadillac below, are all symbols for how we value what image we put forth to the world. We show ourselves as proudly Christian and, as the clapboard on the right of the work might suggest, we do very differently behind the walls of our homes and within our hearts. If it is all for show and we are too caught up in material goods and appearances, then we truly have turned our 'praying' to 'preying' upon each other - as the only thing that can come out of keeping things up for appearances is to bring others down.
From the time of this work's creation to now, we still turn on the TV to consume the horrors of the world, albeit told from our very specific perspectives and biases, but they are horrors nonetheless. The screaming face, genderless, and rendered in the scratchy lines of TV 'back in the day' would hold good competition with the iconic painting "The Scream," by the Norwegian Expressionist painter Edvard Munch,,- which the advent of mechanical reproduction made available on everything from posters to mugs to tea-towels. Some might say, why shouldn't it be? Whereas Munch and other Expressionists looked inwardly to provide visual displays of intense emotion, Pop Art had a more outward mission: to make art familiar and to collapse some of the perceived mystery or boundaries seemingly inherent in artwork.
Works do not ever solely exist in the time they were made--the context is undoubtedly important and is part of the meat of the work--and meanings and significances accrue throughout time that can make work relevant and meaningful in the present. "Let Us Prey" (1984-86), viewed in the context of the citizenship and gender equality referendum, for example, can serve as a poignant reminder of how we 'preyed' upon those more disadvantaged than ourselves, how much of the debate around the referendum became a class war and a matter of, "How can you possibly think this way!?" from both sides, and how the church became once more tied up in state affairs.
Its relevance runs deep, and this is why these works have lives of their own that continue to add more to our own stories as Bahamians as much as it might add to their own as an artwork and as a lens through which to examine life.
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July 21, 2017
Interdisciplinary artist Lavar Munroe grew up in the Grants Town community of Nassau, The Bahamas, and has lived and worked in the United States for over thirteen years. Munroe's work exists as a reflection of the environment of his upbringing and presents an ongoing critique on contemporary society and its relationships between the people of the ghetto and the 'others'. He maps and celebrates his personal journey of survival and fortitude from the heart of the Over-the-Hill community whilst confronting broader issues concerning social stereotypes.
Last month, Munroe returned to his childhood home through Milton Street to reclaim a new studio space. Hosting one of few studio visits since re-acclimating himself with this environment, Munroe shares his journey and new body of work for his upcoming show 'GUN DOGS', which opens October 3rd at Jack Bell Gallery in London.
KO: What has been the driving force behind your work over recent years?
LM: It started off with interests in animism and religion with a focus on the pre-historic man. My research led me to critical reading into the work of Carl Jung, Edward Tylor and a few others. I then looked into the broader themes of mythology and religion and tapped into Joseph Campbell's writings on modern mythology. I came across a term he invented called 'monomyth' or 'the hero's journey' and this concept is the premise for much of my recent work.
KO: What is the hero's journey to you?
LM: I've deemed myself in many ways as a societal hero, but not in an arrogant sense. A lot of people who I grew up with have either passed away, are in jail, or on drugs and most persons I come in contact with rarely believe that I live on Milton Street. Not only in The Bahamas, but internationally, if I were to bring someone to this space, they wouldn't believe I called it home. I pride myself on being from the ghetto and challenging the stigma and stereotypes associated with such places. The space speaks of humble beginnings and oftentimes the presence I have as an artist is nearly grandiose. Exhibition time is like show time, so it doesn't really level off in many ways. I think for that reason it baffles many people. Even though I've grown up in this community, I've always been fortunate.
KO: What has been your journey toward success? How do you think living and developing your career in the US has impacted your practice as an artist?
LM: I always intended to become a successful artist. By the time I was ready to be successful in the US, I was already successful in The Bahamas. My career as an artist started just before pursuing my studies at Savannah School of Art & Design (SCAD), when I was an art student at The College of The Bahamas. At the time, I had my first studio through Laird Street, a space where my friends and upcoming artists Elkino Dames, and Jackson and Bernard Petit would spend summers painting. Elkino and I would often take my aunt's car and head East or West to knock on random doors with hopes to solicit my work. Every weekend, we were sure to sell at least one painting. These sales along with my early exhibitions allowed me to develop a following of local supporters and art collectors.
Once I left for SCAD, I began a trend of bringing work home during my breaks to sell. I've always had this drive not solely to make work, but to make a living from it. After my undergrad studies, I worked as an illustrator for 3 years and decided to shift my focus toward digital work, which I did for a year. Later, I enrolled into grad school at Washington University in St. Louis and the rest is history.
KO: Is this new studio experience very different from what you are accustomed to in your Washington D.C. studio?
LM: The main difference between my studio in Nassau and Washington is presence. This studio is more of a communal space, something that is new for me, because in DC there is more of a sense of isolation: just me and the work. The most traffic I have is studio visits with curators, but these are very strategic. In Nassau, my studio exists in a residential community where people are more likely to pass through randomly. At first I was uneasy with it, but with time I realized it would be selfish of me not to open up and share what I'm doing with people who are genuinely interested.
KO: Given your involvement in Junkanoo over the years, how has this art form played a role in your creative process?
LM: It is very rare for me to want to speak about my work in the context of Junkanoo, because it's expected for me to speak about it. Yes, I borrow from Junkanoo, but each material has its purpose. Cardboard for instance is the root material of Junkanoo, but when used in my work I'm thinking if it as a material by which the upper and middle class transport items like furniture and appliances. They then excrete the cardboard into the world where for homeless people it becomes a living space, a bed or toy; and this is what I'm really interested in. So it's nothing to do with Junkanoo at all, although I am borrowing from how they construct objects.
KO: Is your work most concerned with form, concept or process?
LM: It's about the concept of the material. I'm always thinking about alchemy, the trickster, the shape-shifter and making something valuable that's not valuable. So the work is a critique on the buyer or collector, who can afford the luxury of art. It looks at how wealthy people can ignore the homeless guy. My work also asks the question: How can we make regular materials we ignore every day perceived as valuable? Is it simply by spraying it gold? Is it--like we say in Junkanoo--by adding a few tricks? I'm asking the questions of myself, my audience and of my collectors. I'm also thinking of the material as one that doesn't last a lifetime.
KO: Tell me about the body of work you are creating for your upcoming show 'GUN DOGS'?
LM: I'm now looking a lot at Greek mythology. I'm most interested in their use of dogs. These myths often focus on wars, which involve dogs attacking humans or gods. The painting I'm working on at the moment uses an ancient Greek vase as inspiration. It depicts a dead dog with a person standing over it, but this is still an early stage. Usually, I start off with a point of reference and it grows into something else.
This collection of paintings and sculptures is multi-faceted, investigating the presence of hunting dogs. Starting from the period of slavery where they were used to attack and capture the oppressed. Thinking about dogs in law enforcement, who are trained to pursue the criminal and civilians who are randomly attacked by dogs. The work is confrontational. Then again most of my work is.
The title 'GUN DOGS' kind of gives the audience an entry space into a deeper conversation. Yes, they are attack dogs, but who are they attacking? The success in the work happens when questions are being asked. I think the work will be pointed to 'the hunted' so the audience may feel like the victim or they will associate themselves with or be compassionate with victims of such attacks. Compassion, guilt and fear are all things I feel are tied to this work and much of my recent work. It humbles people. In this case knowing what it is to be confronted by dogs by looking at a painting. All of these things are intentional moves I'm making to critique a larger conversation. My intention in this work is to spark dialogues related to notions of "animal as totem," and to question the term "To Protect and Serve," as it relates to those deemed in authority.
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July 14, 2017
The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas opened on July 7, 2003, just three days before the country would celebrate its 30th year of independence from the British. Nearly a decade in the making, the NAGB was mandated with the task of preserving and propelling Bahamian culture through the visual arts.
As a nation, we wrestle with the vestiges of a difficult past that is both wondrous in its resilience, beauty, non-violent resistance and depth, and then incredibly painful in its treatment of the predominantly African-descended population, the misuse of its natural resources, the violence and displacement of the poor. It is a story and series of stories that are frequently told on the walls of the NAGB by Bahamian masters like Max Taylor, Amos Ferguson and Jackson Burnside as well as the next generation's practitioners: Dionne Benjamin-Smith, Lillian Blades and Jeffrey Meris, among others.
However, the walls on which the artworks hang also tell a story. Villa Doyle, the facility wherein the NAGB is housed, was the built in the 1860s by the then colony's first Chief Justice, Sir William Doyle. It was later expanded in the 1920s to include a ballroom, among other features reserved for the elite. Over time, it was sold, abandoned and fell into grave disrepair. Before 1997, when the seven-year restoration began, the grand colonial home atop the hill was a shadow of herself, a ghost. But next door was a lesser-known yet equally haunting narrative.
Affiliated with the country's first African hospital, which was constructed in the 1700s, there is now only one structure that remains and might be part of that history. The cut limestone walls that enclose the mound of earth and fallen masonry and separate the hospital from the Lane that bears its name, was constructed with the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the enslaved and also the free settled Africans who built them. Like its neighbor, in time, the property was abandoned, eventually becoming an overgrown dumping ground for the Villa Doyle, historically and more recently for any dubious person with a stolen good or trash bag they wanted to lose.
Today, the space is being resuscitated: day by day, week by week. The NAGB Sculpture Garden, which recently installed its first sculptural exhibit, is continuing to take shape thanks to our partners; The Bahamas National Trust, The Leon Levy Preserve, The Bahamas Horticulture Society and the countless volunteers, who have dedicated time to the process of healing a wounded space that once literally healed others. In addition to the Garden, the Gallery has broken ground on its Amphitheatre. Burrows Development, the general contractor and Alexiou & Co, the architectural firm on the project are laboring to complete the project before the year's end. The new edifice will not only provide a dedicated space for films and talks, it will serve as a true point of intersection for the fine and performing arts. Yet another facility--overseen by Anthony Jervis Architects, Ltd.--is also in the planning stages, to extend our ability for education and conservation.
The trappings of color, class, national origin, orientation, and status: old ideas and modern tropes act more as cages, trapping us, however metaphorically, in our respective predilections, pushing us further away from each other. But art has the power to bring us together. So, we are working tirelessly to break down those barriers by offering a holistic experience that is as evocative as it is inviting. Bahamian visual arts, like the country it represents, is the culmination of countless narratives that the walls - the people, our communities, tell. At The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, we are listening.
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July 14, 2017
"Built on Sand," (2003) by Dionne Benjamin-Smith, is in some ways the sister work to "Bishops, bishops everywhere and not a drop to drink" (2003). Both works are of the same dimensions, which instantly makes us as viewers try to compare them and view them in the same plane when they are placed near each other, but, it is the critique and use of religion as their subject that makes them read like chapters in a book, feeding into each other and helping to inform a greater whole.
Also, acquired in 2003 at the inception of the NAGB, "Built on Sand" is a testament, if you'll forgive the pun, to Benjamin-Smith's work in regards to her criticality of Bahamian social conditions. As mentioned last week, she is a creative practitioner who works as both a visual artist and a graphic artist, and who proudly identifies as Christian, as so many Bahamians do. She has an accessibility in her spirit and life as well as her practice, and communication is, of course, key.
The piece started out of ruminations on an article that Benjamin-Smith read in the paper featuring a photo of an Eleutheran church that "developed a large and devastating crack" that extended from the foundation to the roof. How could something so symbolic not call for artistic interpretation and metaphor?
Speaking with her she shared: "The crack that broke this church in half was indicative to me of the state of affairs of "The Church" as a whole in The Bahamas. Between some "men of God" being exposed as adulterers and paedophiles, to church-folk back-biting and tearing each other down, to pastors leading their flock into all kinds of questionable dogma and situations, there was very little Christianity being demonstrated anywhere."
The image itself looks post-apocalyptic, with its grey and washed out sepia tones and the striking red lettering between. Putting an image like this and having it printed on canvas acts as a statement on the history of art and religious iconography. We think of the way that paintings of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment in Europe painstakingly depicted Christian scenes in oil on canvas (as well as illuminated manuscripts or on the ceilings of churches) as a way to help us imagine the divine and to see it for ourselves. It's quite biting that she uses canvas in this way, given this history, and helps drive the critique further home. Fitting it into even deeper context, the fact that it is currently displayed across the road from a historic church-St. Francis Xavier Cathedral-makes it feel even more pertinent.
"(The) article and photo represented the state of affairs as I saw it. The words of the article are showcased (in the work), and certain words are highlighted for added meaning. As relayed in the Bible, a house that is built on sand does not stand. The actual event of this little church breaking open from its foundation is almost prophetic and is representative of this scripture - the church falls apart when its teachings and true purpose are cracked and warped."
When looking to the corruption inherent within the religious figures imagined for "Bishops, bishops... ", and the statement of the cracked, corrupted church of "Built on Sand," the works reinforce each other and bolster each other's messages in a strength, almost functioning as a diptych (a single artwork made up of two separate pieces that function together as a single object) . The church, as many of us learn, is the people not the building - but the building is representative of the coming together of the body of people, and is the vessel that houses this community. When the body is "rotten," not unlike the portrait of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's tale, we can only hide the decay for so long before it becomes apparent.
It feels taboo to discuss this in "polite company" and, as a people, we often hold such pride in our faith that we find it hard to critique the problems inherent within it. Benjamin-Smith's work acts as a site of faith in how it opens up discussion and discourse on the problems of the Christian faith here - and for more than a simple acknowledgement. Her works become discussion pieces and that discussion is how we begin to find ways to move forward, to accept difficult histories, to try to change.
Art isn't always the activist it's intended to be, but it would be remiss to think that making bold statements like this don't cause some change, even if it's just on a personal level by experiencing it in a gallery, a 'sacred' space of thought for some. Silence is violence, as they say, and opening up a place for dialogue and laying bare the problems we face a good place to start.
We can sometimes feel that this dominant faith in the nation is itself built upon sand, given its difficult colonial history and our lack of historic ties to those practices on the part of our West African ancestors or our indigenous people, but it is also a metaphor for the shiftiness of where we place our identities in this history as well. This movement of sand, washing with the tide, accreting with new material over time, is a poignant message for how to view ourselves.
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July 07, 2017
Works dealing with the divine, with Christianity, with the spiritual, are very much rooted in what we consider to be part of our representation of Bahamianness. In looking to the work of Dionne Benjamin-Smith, an artist and graphic designer known for her pithy and no-holds-barred practice - and very informative and inclusive newsletter designed and created by herself and her partner - we can see a proudly proclaimed Bahamian woman who identifies with her Christianity taking acute aim at problems with the way we view religion in our country.
Originally shown in an exhibition at Popopstudios in 2003 called '24 x 24' and including a contingent of Bahamian artists who attended the Rhode Island School of Design, "bishops, bishops everywhere and not a drop to drink" (2003) was accessed by the 2003 Collection Fund at the NAGB. Both 'bishops, bishops ...'(2003) and 'Built on Sand' (2003), while they can indeed exist on their own, generate a stronger message when paired together. Context is, after all, incredibly important to the way we read and understand artworks, and sometimes the works themselves can be thought of as key, autonomous ideas existing under the overarching conversation umbrella that is the exhibition. Artworks don't always exist in exhibitions of course, but in this particular context, it is useful to think of them in this way.
These works are currently displayed as part of the "Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics" rehang of the Permanent Exhibition at the NAGB, and they are part of the National Collection. Being a part of the National Collection denotes a sort of significance and importance not just to the work itself, but how it functions as part of Bahamian art history.
For Benjamin-Smith, "This piece reflected my disenchantment with the modern church and the proclivity amongst some of its members towards tyranny, elitism, judgement, hypocrisy and high-mindedness - thus poisoning the minds of people and further alienating them from God and His message of love. Years of guilt-ridden membership in the Catholic church, witnessing pharisaical behaviour from other church leaders and receiving un-Christlike doctrine full of condemnation proved burdensome to me as I was in search of the joy and love my spirit knew existed out there somewhere. It was only until my conversion was I able to discern what the word Christian should mean and what the Church should represent in our society."
The work was not intended by the artist to act as a specific judgement or 'calling out' of particular religious personalities in the Bahamian Christian community, but rather a way to show that "We are all human and we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
It simply relates experiences and incidents I witnessed and reflects the kinds of dangerous attitudes and actions which are prevalent in the Church worldwide and of which the Church should be careful and quick to change."
Exhibiting works that look to Christianity, in an exhibition dealing with the way that colonial tourism shaped our representation as Bahamians, the way that the nation was 'produced', shows that we are trying to bring up the difficult, perhaps contentious subject, of how our Christianity fits into our colonial past. Religion was one of the tools used to justify the colonialism of our region (both pre and post-Columbus) and the slavery that was used to displace and oppress the West African people whom many of us are descended from. So why then, do we subscribe to this religion so strongly, and for a lot of us still, without question and doubt?
Benjamin-Smith is very openly Christian in her beliefs, but also very openly critical of the corruption within the church and calls for change. It might appear initially strange to have such opposing beliefs: the upholding of a religion that was instrumental in the suffering of one's ancestors, but also the criticality of the current corruption you are dealing with in the church in its present, various forms. While we cannot solely associate the faith with the way people in power may have used it, it is also an inescapable association we have with our past as a country. Her depictions of distorted, grotesque Bishops and pastors and priests are concurrent with the idea that is indeed 'gross' to see someone intended as a religious leader, someone intended to be a symbol of goodness and an example, be so subject to such unethical, immoral behavior.
No, this is not all bishops or religious leaders for certain, we must make that clear, but the fact that the position has such power and the abuse of this misuse, violation and the exploitation attached to that power is precisely the problem. Benjamin-Smith calls for us to remember that while so many atrocities, both on a local and global scale, are attributed to the Christian churches throughout history, we must not forget the foundation of what the message is meant to mean. It is a faith, and we must not lose this faith: in our brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, even our enemies. We must be confident in demanding to be treated in accordance with these beliefs, should you be a follower, and we must also not forget the song that is constantly sung, if not followed, in Christianity is one of love, tolerance and the betterment of your fellow human beings regardless of background or past transgressions.
Art exists between the different meanings and relationships it has with people, what it means for people and the conversations it brings up. Benjamin Smith's work often very openly and explicitly tackles the difficult conversations and her work, having this background of communication from her design training, helps to do just this, to communicate and to give a call for criticality and action.
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July 07, 2017
Bahamian artist and icon, Amos Ferguson radiantly portrays the spirit of Junkanoo through an energetic array of repeated imagery and texture in Junkanoo Cow Face - Match Me If You Can, an iconic piece in the Gallery's National Collection. His interest in flattening the picture plane and depicting a graphic quality to the work is evident in this work, nodding to the style that he became widely known for. Ferguson used color and repetition of form for impact and clarity. Arrangements of patterns flood his paintings, a visual language closely related to that of Bahamian culture, and in particular Junkanoo.
Amos Ferguson was born in a small village in The Exumas, Bahamas on February 28th 1920. He grew up on a farm as his parents were sharecroppers - humbly living amongst his six siblings with no electricity. His family primarily grew sugar cane, beans and corn, selling the crops at the local market. Ferguson's father was also a preacher and the pastor of Palestine Union Baptist Church. He was very close with his father, and spent a lot of time reading the bible and praying. He gained a deep appreciation and understanding of God through his relationship with his father, and grew into a deeply religious man. According to Ferguson, "See, I stick with my daddy. He was a religious man, and I stick with him. All he into, the bible. Speak good 'tings, tell you good from bad." Many of Ferguson's paintings were heavily influenced by his religious background.
Bloneva King, also known as Bea, worked nearby Ferguson in the Nassau straw market for many years selling traditional woven baskets and hats. Ferguson and her collaborated in their craft - her baskets with his painted pictures set her trade apart from the other venues in the market. Bea became Ferguson's wife and artistic mentor, supporting his talents and later assisting him with the marketing of his work. It is said that his folk and intuitive art style grew from the time spent at the straw market, influenced by decorative and craft works that he encountered.
Folk art encompasses art produced from laboring tradespeople or by peasants. It is said to be primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic. Perhaps the early works of Ferguson within the straw market context fit under the folk genre, but pulled away from that as his artistic career developed into a deeper intuitive art practice. However, the aesthetic of folk art continued to weave itself within his work. Many of Ferguson's paintings include hand-painted text with the famous words "Paint by Mr. Amos Ferguson" - shining a light on his decorative and natural approach to painting. The writing sitting directly on the work changes its formality, giving a large variety of audiences insight into the work and into his thinking.
Throughout Ferguson's life, he also worked as an
upholsterer, furniture finisher, and house painter. Evidence of his carpentry background are manifested in his paintings, primarily using house paints and found materials as his central medium. He achieved many of his dynamic pattern work with the tops and ends of nails dipped into paint. Ferguson also used house boards as a surface for many of his paintings.
Junkanoo was a central recurring theme in many of his works. Junkanoo is a Bahamian national festival consisting of a medley of colours and sounds. The vivacious sounds of goat skin drums, whistles, brass instruments and cowbells flood Bay Street in New Providence and other Family Islands during the early morning hours on Boxing Day and New Year's Day. Brilliantly colored costumes are tediously constructed in shacks throughout the year to be worn during the festival. They come alive through the rhythmic movement of dancers wearing them, intensively animating the brightly colored designs.
Traditionally, Junkanoo costumes were made with discarded or recycled items - rags, newspaper, sponges - and later developed in the 60s to crepe paper and cardboard. Today, Junkanoo costumes are constructed with a magnitude of craft material ranging from rhinestones to feathers to glitter. For that reason, viewers may not immediately draw a connection between Ferguson's work and the festival. The animal faces evident in many of his Junkanoo themed paintings are reminiscent of Junkanoo's original roots as a West African ritual in which people wore masks with large tusks on their heads and stood on stilts. Often times, real cow's horns were attached to the headdress and tied under the chin, along with a black jacket and a tail called Reel-A-Tail, made out of empty bobbin spools.
Ferguson's repetition of imagery, color and texture in 'Junkanoo Cow Face - Match Me If You Can' captures the spirit of Junkanoo - the rapid beats, the rhythmic dancing of the rush out, and the sea of craft that lights up the dark, early morning sky.
Six cow-faced humans occupy the composition of this painting, three lined horizontally at the top standing tall and three beneath, parallel to the top crouching down. The first figure appears to be holding a trumpet, although it is hard to distinguish at first look because of Ferguson's preservation of flatness. He uses no sense of perspective, further flattening out the picture plane and adding to the brilliant abstract quality that his paintings obtain. The figure is a brown tone, contrasting beautifully with his highly colored and patterned attire, which appears to be a robe of some sort. Through tediously spotted marks of different colours, Ferguson achieves a sense of texture that is also repeated on the figure's headdress. Two pointed horns begin at the head and bend around as they ascend, mimicking that of a real cow. The figure is gently smirking, revealing a light-hearted and celebratory expression.
The following five figures are dressed the same with similar expressions - the only change with each is the instrument in which they hold. The second is tenderly holding a drum, the third a cow bell, the fourth another cow bell, the fifth a trumpet and the last one a drum. The repetition of form, color and imagery in this painting effectively mimics the repetitive nature of a Junkanoo procession and the beat of a rush out and even as far as a pattern engrained in a costume. The visual recurrence in this work imitates the nature of Junkanoo, without the imagery needing to be there at all.
Ferguson's iconic polka-dotted textures are similar to those of contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, known as the "Polka-Dot Princess", who is interested in psychedelic colors, repetition and pattern. Kusama creates installations, paintings and collages all revolving around the repetition of vibrantly colored circles. Similar to another Bahamian iconic artist, Kendal Hanna, Kusama's interest for polka-dots revolves around her suffering from a mental disorder that consists of intense audio-visual hallucinations.
These are just a few examples of the overlapping between artist, their life, and their art. Hanna's schizophrenia and his ability to freely experiment with abstraction, Kusama's hallucinations and obsession for polka-dots, and Ferguson's love for the Bahamian culture. No matter how radically different, each artist correspondingly weaves his or her life experiences within their art practice.
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July 04, 2017
Over the years, Bahamian Art & Culture has featured the work of innovative inter-disciplinary artist Anina Major, who primarily works with clay. She studied at The College of The Bahamas, earned a Bachelors Degree in Graphic Design from Drexel University and has recently graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design’s MFA Ceramics programme. We are honoured to feature her most recent body of work that was created specifically for her graduate thesis. It is entitled “In The Marketplace” (2017).
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June 30, 2017
A national institution of art coming together with one of the biggest hotel corporations doesn't sound like your usual pairing -- but public artwork has no prejudices, no bounds, and as such, the most unlikely collaborations can often be the most fruitful.
The NAGB, along with Sandals Royal Bahamian and the Sandals Foundation, have teamed up to bring forth a lighthearted public project with a serious message.
For World Oceans Day, established visual artists in the community were commissioned to produce a vibrant wall mural with the idea of drawing attention to the need to not just protect our waters, but to truly care for them, as they are such a strong part of what makes our country the place it is --in geography, in culture and especially in our history.
Dede Brown and Dylan Rapillard -- both strong artists in their own right, but certainly a dynamic team when paired up for projects such as this -- produced an 80-foot-long mural along West Hill Street, assisted by Shardae Pratt and Emily Voges, by working together. The resulting product is a turquoise and teal patterned painting to behold.
The mural doesn't just catch the eye and help to illustrate the all too important message of saving our seas; it also helps to add more public interest to a historic area currently undergoing renovations, which all serves to rejuvenate Downtown as a whole.
Public artwork is regularly employed, particularly in cities, as a way to engage 'dead space' -- that is, wide expanses of blank walls on buildings or open areas that could easily hold large sculptural structures.
When we spend day in and day out trudging along the concrete, why have a wide expanse of concrete and a gray place when you can some add color and humanity back in?
The studies on how public works of art can lift not just the mood, but the mental and emotional well-being of those engaging with it, are vast, let alone its potential for increasing awareness of any number of problems we face as a people that need attention.
There is indeed a reason, so many hospitals implement art programs and curate work in their spaces. And, here especially we often see hotels making great use of having artwork in spaces as a way to bring up the social value and significance of a space.
"Space is a social morphology: It is to lived experience what form itself is to the living organism, and just as intimately bound up with function and structure."
Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991), a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist, marked out different types of space and place in 'The Production of Space' (1991) and theorized that each society produces its unique kind or quality of 'space'.
What, then, does Bahamian space look like for us? What could it look like? Public art is nothing new for us, and it is often driven by the tourism that supports so much of our economy.
But when we take murals to historic buildings, it begins to help us reclaim these places for the majority of Bahamians, and we can begin to turn them into social spaces of openness.
Both Lazar Delorenzo Charlton (PR, Sandals) and Amanda Coulson (director, NAGB) felt the need to reach outside of their institutional walls as a way to open themselves to the surrounding community.
Here at the NAGB, we still have some Bahamians who feel uncomfortable with making their first trip to the gallery.
It is, after all, a large, grand-looking old colonial manor, and historically the space was domestic, private, and deemed a place where one might 'trespass' by entering.
But many of our ancestors laid the blocks for buildings just like this, or worked in them, or lived in them - and the artwork in it is very much ours, part of our patrimony and culture.
In some small way, having bright and colorful walls with a message we can all appreciate is a way to lead into spaces whose edifices might seem a bit too daunting on their own. Color can bring comfort.
It's quite a nice tie-in when we think of the way that our oceans are also our public space that could do with a perk-up of its own.
Initiatives for beach cleanups and practising good, sustainable fishing practices are all happening and necessary for preserving our marine heritage - because, the waters around us, while steeped in difficult history, are also what we should consider part of our legacy and heritage as Bahamians.
The mural shows how tied we are to the water, with a succinct, but encompassing sentence scrawled across the top of the wall: "The ocean gives us air to breathe, food to eat, thousands of jobs, and a place to play. It's my ocean, and it's your ocean, and it is our responsibility as Bahamians to protect it." - Nikita Shiel-Rolle, founder and executive director of Young Marine Explorers
Just as our history was irrevocably linked to the water, so is our fluid and ever-changing present but the water remains the constant current within it, and even around it.
The sea is a livelihood for so many and we'd do well to protect it as best as possible. Considering the country's name quite literally derives from the term "shallow seas," with the imminent threat of rising sea levels and the effect of global warming on our coral reefs, which are integral to our marine ecosystem, we should at the very least do what we can to nurture the very thing that nurtures us.
The shoal of colorful fish that run the length of the wall, the bearded man in the dinghy with his hook and line: They might be rendered in a stylized, graphic manner, but they are real to us.
Brown and Rapillard's mural reminds us of those things we learned in school and seem to forget - for instance, that our waters play host to the third largest living organism in the world (at 190 miles long), namely, the Andros Barrier Reef, which is the world's third-largest fringing barrier reef.
Hailed by astronaut Scott Kelly as the "most beautiful place from space," our banks and reefs look like paintings themselves, and the palette chosen for this mural pays homage to our often coveted greens and blues.
We don't always think of our ocean as our history in the same way that we think of buildings, because of the flow of water, the way it constantly changes and changes our very landscape. But, as Lefebvre states, "Nothing disappears completely ... In space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows" (1991).
History itself is a flow and changes us as the tide and crash of waves can.
Just as we have tried to protect our historical sites, so should the ocean be considered in this endeavour. The more we have public art projects to not just 'beautify' an area, but to open up discussions - both lighthearted and more sombre - the better.
And truly, is that not the purpose of so much art from the region?
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June 30, 2017
Lynn Parotti is a Bahamian artist exploring themes of natural and biological landscape, those surrounding us and within us.
In "The Blastocyst's Ball," Parotti displays a triptych of non-objective form and color, alluding to something that may exist within biology or perhaps, more specifically, in our bodies.
Each piece shows a unique arrangement, but commonly shared hues and rigid texture created through repetition generate a strong sense of unity between them.
Organic form in reds, whites, purples and browns occupy each composition.
Some forms are stacked, building up masses that blend each curvilinear line into a whole.
Others sit next to one another, actively dispersing into space to reveal their individuality.
The last panel exhibits similar forms wrapping around to create a single circular shape, an opening of some sort, and the uniqueness of each mark disappears again.
Parotti portrays a plethora of organic form and line, specifically those of a circle. In the first piece, the repetition of curved lines creates an imperfect circular shape.
Circles have neither beginning nor end, and for that they often represent the eternal whole.
They are used to suggest familiar objects by relating to our natural surroundings as well as to our bodies. To some, their curves are seen as feminine.
There are no concrete rules about what colors are exclusively feminine or masculine, but there have been studies over the past decades that draw some generalizations.
A study, executed in 2003 by Joe Hallock, compared color preferences among various demographics. He surveyed 232 people amongst 22 different countries around the world.
The study showed that women preferred colors that are closer to the red end of the spectrum. For that reason, we tend to associate reds with femininity.
Parotti's consideration of warm hues not only acts as a reference to the body, but also implies a further indication to specifically female biology.
Red is the hottest of all primary colors, making it highly stimulating for the viewer's eye.
It is a color that tends to stir up passion, both in a negative and positive light.
Being the color of blood and fire, it may be associated with meanings of love, passion, desire, heat, longing, lust, sexuality and energy, to name a few.
It is an emotionally intense color that is said to enhance human metabolism, increase respiration rate and raise blood pressure.
The effect this hue has on our bodies directly correlates with the subject matter that Parotti presents, adding a dynamic layer of context to the work, and to the experience between the viewer and the art.
Besides formal interpretations of the piece, the title provided by Parotti is a direct insight into the content of the works.
They abstractly portray the process of assisted reproduction, or in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), in which several eggs are removed form the ovaries, externally fertilized and then--as embryos--are returned into the uterus in the hope that they implant and become a pregnancy.
Woman having IVF are given special reproductive hormones to encourage several eggs to develop in the ovaries.
Final maturation of the egg itself is induced by the administration of a further hormone. Thirty-six hours later, the fluid containing the eggs is drawn from the ovary with a needle, this is usually performed under light sedation with a doctor using ultrasound to check proceedings.
The eggs collected from the ovary are then mixed with a sample of the male partner sperm, which has already been washed and concentrated.
The eggs and sperm are left in an incubator set at 37 degrees for 24 hours so that fertilisation can take place.
During this time, only one of the many sperm cells will penetrate the outer layer of the egg and achieve fertilisation. Following fertilisation, the cells divide and multiply and form an embryo.
After two or three days, a healthy embryo will comprise around eight cells. It is then transferred to the uterus using a thin, flexible tube where it is left to implant and form a pregnancy.
Although IVF is a helpful tool for infertile couples, there is some controversy with the misuse of this technology.
Aldous Huxley suggested that "test tube baby" technology wasn't actually about infertility, it was about eugenics.
Eugenics is a set of beliefs that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population. IVF was about making super-babies: Better babies, stronger babies, smarter babies, with an aim to make the perfect baby.
Rather than it being of interest between infertile couples, it would be of interest to government and authoritarian states.
Why would we allow any ordinary people to fall in love and have babies? There is less control that way.
Could we control the process in a test tube and select specific traits in children that would be useful for society? The concern of this technology is in its misuse. Through IVF, are we going to breed ourselves to improve ourselves?
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June 30, 2017
The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas' (NAGB) Mixed Media Summer Art Camp (MMSAC) is a program designed with creativity, discovery and fun in mind -- every day. A blend of art exploration and classic camp activity, the MMSAC serves as a space where young people are learning without even knowing it. From the very youngest to the most senior participant, the goal of the camp is to encourage our campers to express the full range of their creative ideas.
So often, children are asked to answer only with the responses that we, as adults, want to hear. They are encouraged (and in many cases, rightfully so) to respond with a specific set of ideals and expectations. However, sometimes, the expectation that young people should consistently speak the words we give them, express the ideas we approve, and desire to do the things that only we understand and value, gives way to a stifling of analysis, critique, problem-solving, and the mental dexterity to contemplate a solution to a new challenge.
Art teaches us that we can all look at the same object and express completely different perspectives and that sometimes there are no right answers. It compels us to feel the discomfort of a never before attempted lesson, work through that mask making, sculpture building, or painting project -- all the way to its eventual conclusion -- and even in that discomfort, commit to a new way or approach to completing the task. It is in the discomfort that we grow.
Art bestows both the confidence and the humility to move through a process and find what is on the other side, even while simultaneously creating it. Art inspires the introvert to express themselves openly. It compels the perfectionist to accept their mistakes and, if they need to, to start over and to know that starting over is ok. It teaches us that to create is to make mistakes and that there is beauty in the unexpected. Sometimes, the beauty is the mistake. These are invaluable lessons that transfer from one specialized subject -- art -- to other areas of study and into one's life.
It might seem as though a summer camp would find it difficult to facilitate all of this in a span of three weeks. Yet, it does, or at least, it can. Since its redesign in 2015 by Community Outreach Officer, Abby Smith, not only has the camp's breadth of activity deepened, so too has its availability to a broader audience. As a result, children's lives have been changed. Middle class. Working class. Underserved. Wealthy. Every camper is meant to feel and know that they are safe to be the best of themselves, even when they are still very much figuring that out. New Providence. Andros. Eleuthera. Abaco. No matter the island, every camper is welcome with open minds and arms.
Thanks to the commitment of the gallery and MMSAC summer staff, the artist community, our generous sponsors and partners, every year the camp and its campers make new and magical memories; lessons and laughs for a lifetime.
The mixed media summer art camp's second session begins on July 11, 2017, and is available to children ages 5-18. The full day art camp experience lasts three weeks and is punctuated with an art opening highlighting the wonderful work of the campers. Space is limited. Visit nagb.org.bs/for-families/ to learn more and to register.
The NAGB thanks the Lyford Cay Foundation, New Providence Community Centre, Mr. & Mrs. Paul and Barbara Hepburn, Graycliff, Mario's Pizza, RBC, ALIV and our many donors and friends for their generous sponsorship and support.
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June 26, 2017
Outside her ground-floor apartment in Kingston, hairstylist Jody Cooper sits on the bright blue bench that serves as her makeshift salon. The 22-year-old native Jamaican is flipping through photographs of herself—there she is a few years ago in a studded monokini, with strawberry blonde hair and blue eyeshadow, her skin several shades lighter than it is now.
Cooper doesn’t remember making a conscious choice to bleach her skin. Growing up, everyone around her was doing it—her school friends, her mom, her aunt. So she did it too. For nine years, she rubbed creams on her face and
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June 16, 2017
Heino Schmid's practice can perhaps be described as slippery or amphibious -- and it's not so much to do with the water as it is to do with his fluidity in dealing with the bounds of what we believe to constitute drawing, sculpture, and painting as separate genres -- the proverbial lines in his practice become blurred. This movement between the medium and the means is why "Temporary Horizon" (2010) was chosen for the current permanent exhibition, "Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics" on display at the NAGB.
"Temporary Horizon" (2010) is what initially appears to be a delightfully simple video work that shifts at one moment from performance -- with the artist clad in a white shirt and jeans (a sort of uniform of modernity for many of us) as he attempts to place the bottom of a Kalik bottle on the neck of another lying flat on the table. It then shifts to a still-life of sorts, as, almost impossibly or by magic, the bottles balance on top of each other and remain unmoving for what feels like eternity. Of course, nothing lasts forever, and the bottles eventually become re-animated and topple over before rolling off the table in the video.
The work is displayed across from a newly created work by Schmid for the exhibition, "Pull" (2017), almost as if they are in conversation with each other. The works in this particular section of the exhibition, entitled "Beyond The Tropical", deal with the way Bahamian contemporary artists are moving past the manicured tropical image of Caribbean paradise to produce work that engages with our specific regional and international context in ways that challenge these notions of the picturesque. Schmid's work typifies this in many ways. The artist and educator, currently Associate Professor of Art at the University of The Bahamas, uses found objects and materials from our everyday environment to re-inform the way we view our surroundings. His work provides us a moment of unfamiliarity wherein we have to re-navigate what we thought we knew our surroundings to be.
This is in part achieved by his work often operating in 'white cube' spaces, much like video displayed in this white background and on a white table -- they both blend into each other before Schmid activates the space in the video by entering the shot. The 'white cube' is the default we often think of in regards to most gallery-based contemporary art work. White walls are meant to indicate a blank slate, tabula rasa, and clinical quality, an idea of a neutral space --but, as the world of art is built of symbols and histories, the white cube is of course anything but. As Brian O'Doherty, the Irish installation artist and critic known for his seminal text "Inside The White Cube" produced in 1976, the white cube is not neutral at all, it is an art-historical construct. The history of the white cube is one that elevates anything within it to be considered art -- hence the problems we have with people thinking that fire extinguishers are being exhibited rather than their proper placement as protection from fire hazards.
The neutrality desired by the construction of white cube spaces is best thought of as setting a stage, it creates an environment and set of social rules for how to engage with the contents of the space in a particular way. That being said, as Caribbean and postcolonial subjects, given our mixed heritage of European, indigenous and African ancestry, with a healthy dollop of globalization and American influence, our art history is a little bit all-over-the-place -- and that provides a beautiful freedom in many ways. We are not bound by the rigidity of being boxed in by "white" as many other Western practices are, because while we are Western, we are also not. We have the freedom to move between different historical references, but
not in a neutral way, we carry our history whether we engage with it directly or not. Schmid might be in a white shirt and jeans, and in a white space -- he could literally be anyone by these listed signifiers -- but he cannot escape the racial ambiguity of his skin in the image and what curiosity that piques. He is a trickster not just by the act performed, but by his movements between elements of blackness and whiteness as his mixed Bahamian and European heritage allows.
There is both a tension and contention for bi-national and mixed-raced subjects, wherein there is a perceived privilege of being able to move between whiteness and blackness, an implied ease of sorts that isn't afforded to most black folks. This is not, however, quite true in itself. Being a black and white mixed subject means that while perhaps a certain whiteness might provide some privilege of moving in primarily white spaces that other black bodies may not be so lucky to do, there is also a distrust that becomes present on both sides and a displacement that can never quite be reconciled.
Caribbean work in the white cube space can also feel this displacement, a feeling that harkens back to some difficult parts of our history as a people descended from all manner of migratory bodies: displaced Black Africans, European colonizers, Chinese, Greek, and South-Asian migrants brought in or moved for opportunities in new lands. We feel it all.
Angelika Bammer, the feminist scholar of "Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question" (1994) describes our plight as the "deconstructive dilemma of needing to step outside and remain inside the same systems". She states that "Identity is at times about what we are essentially not, but are also not free to dispense with." The tension of the beer bottles elucidates this in an understated and succinct way: if we take them to be the fragile balance of our European colonial history and African ancestry, the way that we try to reconcile these two sides of our heritage, and the loop of this video in the way we must gently balance them, hold this balance for as long as possible, and watch as the bottles collapse before we must loop back and do it all again. It feels true to the constant push and pull we feel on our identity here, amidst this displaced backdrop and new territory we are forced to navigate.
The magic of Schmid's trick lies in this balance, and become more real than imagined if we use it as a metaphor for the way think and come to know ourselves. The balancing act is difficult, it may occasionally feel like a performance, but it is an exercise we are much accustomed to. And just as the video- while filmed in a white cube-is displayed in a space with richly colored walls in a building with a history just as richly colored - perhaps we just need to look outside the bounds of our personal frame of reference and add more color to this clinical space to begin to move past these difficulties.
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