February 03, 2017
We are a region with such variety of experience and such particular history that it warrants study. As the cultural pioneer and visionary Stuart Hall so often put, we are a region of people 'from elsewhere' - that idea of a lack of origin is in part what sets us apart from the rest of the world.
"One of the senses in which the Caribbean can be considered modern is as a space of what I would call 'cultural translation.' Most of the people in the Caribbean were not originally from that area.... It's not a question of what is in people's consciousness so much as the constitutive space they are obliged to address, whether they want to or not." (Hall, Introduction to 'The Caribbean: A Quintessentially Modern Zone,' 2002)
And with Hall being counted as one of the 'founding fathers' of cultural studies, it would only make sense that someone from our beautiful little pocket of the planet would be so keenly interested in culture and identity to try to give it form in language and literature.
The Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) convenes for the 42nd annual conference this year here in Nassau at the Melia, under the theme 'Culture and Knowledge Economies: The Future of Caribbean Development?', taking place June 5th - 10th. This gives us a moment to think of just where we see ourselves going, or where we want to go as a nation and as a region. Thinking of the future here is almost a kind of Afro-Futurism, imagined black futures - except this isn't Sci-Fi, it's our very real, very near future.
'We don't think of the future!', 'this plan is too myopic, too close-minded - we need to think out the box!', or 'this is only a short-term fix, how is this helpful for the long-term?' These utterances are all too common in many a new venture springing up in this country, be it government-driven or privately owned. There is a clear need not only for forward-thinking but for lateral thinking too, for thinking about things that exist just outside of what is directly in front of us and outside of the obvious. The possibilities emerging are exciting and vibrant as they can lead to possibilities that extend outside of the norm.
This is why the CSA has teamed up with the NAGB to bring the creative arts purposefully into the fold this time around. With visions of an exhibition and a collection for the association in the future, CSA President 2016-17, Keithley Woolward, is truly bringing the sentiments of the association's mission forward. "In the long term, I envision the CSA building a collection of artwork, with a view to exhibiting works from this collection to serve as a visual introduction to each conference that can travel as the conference travels. We can build a body of work that will allow us to track the history and evolution of art practices in the places that we've been to. I'm sure if we had started this from the beginning of our existence we would see intriguing trends in the visual and cultural arts."
This collaboration has brought forth a competition for the book cover of this year's conference, with the deadline coming up February 28th - with a prize of $1000 for the selected artwork. This does not, however, render the work selected as a mere illustration for the branding of the competition - quite the contrary.
Seeing how people engage with their life here in a visual way provides just as much value as the scholarship and literature around the same subjects, and CSA is making a concerted effort in showing the value in the visual culture and how that operates in the wider economies and culture of the region. This begins with using the arts as a way to provide a more holistic way of thinking about the topic at hand, and with treating the chosen artist appropriately by compensating them for their work and providing an appropriate vehicle for display and dissemination of the work to wider Caribbean and global audiences.
Woolward shares, "The CSA executive some years ago made a commitment to have an impact in the communities that welcome us for our annual conference above and beyond just occupying hotel beds and contributing on the level of economic advancement either by booking hotels and paying for taxis, etc. We wanted to actively engage the artistic and creative communities in ways in which we organize our conferences."
This ethos of integrity to ourselves as Caribbean subjects is, and has been, the driving force behind the organization and, I daresay, behind Caribbean Studies as a subject of study in and of itself. For the NAGB's Chief Curator, Holly Bynoe, this is by no means her first experience with the CSA, as she recalls her experience in 2012 as the conference met in Grenada, totally transforming one of the forts - Fort Matthew in St. Georges - to set the appropriate environment for this exchange of ideas. "As somebody who was operating as a curator, instigator and a publisher thinking about activating the Small Island Developing States, it was essential for me to gather a different understanding of how artists from these smaller spaces are playing into the picture of what Caribbean art is and how we can build experiences to make the work be more of an experience than anything else."
The conference includes all manner of Caribbean thinkers, from the institutional academic to the investigative blogger - and all of it is vitally important. Bynoe continues: "Professionals like Yvette Romero who runs the cultural blog Repeating Islands - she's been a pioneer in publishing, blogging the Caribbean experience but also looking out and rooting for the underdog. She scours, she's really in there getting information in places that are even black holes to me." This cross-pollination of Caribbean experience and ability to provide open spaces for dialogue and engagement is the lifeblood of this kind of work - be it visual or literary - in understanding ourselves as Caribbean people, through our similarities and our differences, through shedding light on practices that might not ordinarily be quite so visible to us. It's a sharing of local knowledge
to engage on the wider regional scale, with a view to helping us understand not only who we are but also how this informs how things like art museums should function in the region - and for whom?
"So thinking about these parameters, I think it becomes really important for us as an institution to define that Bahamian-ness because it's something we also come up against in the institution or its something we have to reckon with over and over, the alienation of who belongs where?"
Conferences like this help us to get away from our national insecurities of identity, from feeling threatened by the idea that we aren't individual as a country, that we are too similar to other countries in the region to feel a sense of distinctiveness. We have such similar histories that we can't help but identify with our other Caribbean sister islands, and the beauty of this similarity is that we still hold such a multiplicity of experience. We can even see this diversity of experience in our countries, one look at the NE8 (8th National Exhibition) can show you that. So then opening up the lens to the area just around us, looking regionally instead of locally - looking laterally, can help to reinforce the projecting and building of this image and thereby our identity.
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February 03, 2017
Social performance art is a dynamic and changing social practice that breaks many of the traditional boundaries between the every day and the hallowed museum/gallery space where many people feel that are not welcome. It brings art and cultural expression out of these limits and opens it up to communities that may feel socially excluded from places that were seen to be reserved for the elite. Social performance brings exchange and interchange into stilted spaces, by breaking boundaries it opens up spaces, eyes, hearts and souls to the potential of art and artistic practice. It can also show how significant literature and art are in determining how people are viewed and how they view.
Last week we explored Meris' work in the Project Space Room at the NAGB. There are always many things left out when one explores work, show, music performance, play or film. So this week I want to approach Social Performance Art and the gaze from another perspective. And that serves as a warning, some of it will retread old ground, but in walking around the gallery with a class of students and in the discussions that predated this visit with other students, it has become painfully clear that the generation that is already working in the country but not out of college, have little to no idea of anything to do with Bahamian culture.
We have been bamboozled, run amuck on, hoodwinked and frankly blinded by our supposed First World Status. The First World is however reserved for those foreign-direct-investment-owned hotels that continue to exploit Bahamian workers and leave once they 'see' that they can no longer reap large profits off poor people.
I have been trying to figure out how to approach this discussion and can't because it is too complex and involves so many layers of silence, misinformation, and disinformation. We know that the educational system has failed when young Bahamians are unable to say where Preacher's Cave is, they may 'recall' the Eleutheran Adventurers but have no other context for them or the importance of that island in Bahamian history and to Bahamian development and identity. Cupid's Cay and Governors Harbour are places without any relationship to governance or development. We have apparently been westernized by our education to see ourselves as they see us or don't at all. In the preface to the 19th century The Land of the Pink Pearl states when asked about the Bahama Islands:
As my friend says, ** they are as little known in the West Indies as an Irish village,** whilst in the mother country their name is never heard outside the walls of the Colonial Office, unless it be among the supporters of the S.P.Gr. or the Wesleyan and Baptist Missions.
It is an epic tragedy when our students on whom the future of this 'backwater' rests are as ignorant of this postcolony as those who read about it as a place somewhere out there and whose vision of it was determined by the recountings they were sold from travellers who held it in a gaze that reduced it to blackness and mimicry. We have become our own worst enemies.
I found that Meris' work pulls this up short. Much like Swaby's work on her hair and her exotic being, we as Bahamians have also sought to exoticise those of us who do not have the same hair texture as the 'majority' or to render it almost unthinkable that we should not want to chemicalise, hot-comb or hide under weave our natural tresses. It is interesting that as the 19th century wound down, the works produced by these masters who controlled the image of the world and who would render pictures such as putting a black child into a tub of water and soap and have him emerge 'cleansed' of that dastardly darkness, somehow continue to hold local currency in a black people who do not care for things that might be too black.
We are taught to believe that negroes are lazy and have bad hair. We have been beaten, perhaps to death, into accepting the dominance of whiteness and light-skinned-ness. Our media sells nothing else. In the independent Bahamas, it is interesting that so much of what was soundly criticised during colonialism, as is seen below, remains:
With regard to free and independent representative institutions, if I have spoken the truth in the ensuing pages, it will be seen that they have utterly failed in The Bahamas, though they have certainly not had the result anticipated by Mr. Froude, for so far from the African race having become dominant, they are ground down and oppressed in a manner which is a disgrace to British rule.
The Froude mentioned above is the infamous James Anthony Froude who wrote The English in the West Indies. He argued that the blacks were unfit for much more than to be guided by the English, without whom, the blacks would have been destroyed by their weaknesses. What followed was a project of intense colonialism and religious indoctrination, so that we have arrived at a place where most young people no longer understand the intricacies of Bahamian culture or that it is distinct from one settlement or island up and down the length and breadth of the archipelago.
Mr. James C. Smith once asked me to come with him and see what "a lazy nigger could do with a bit of coral rock." He took me to visit one David Patten, a full-blooded African, who has created a farm of a few acres, on which he success- fully cultivates a great variety of things. But then he has been a well-to-do and well-fed man for years, and there is more in this question of feeding the African than appears at first sight. It is all very well to call him lazy, but he is by nature a large eater, and unless he gets a considerable quantity of food he cannot work. The present race are poorly fed, and their condition in this respect is not likely to improve. The casual observer imagines them to be well-to-do because in the Bahamas the negro can exist, and laugh and sing and dance and appear contented and happy and jolly on very little.
We as a people are rendered as a group who are happy with little and will sing and dance for the tourists, no matter how bad things get. We are bullied into performing for the tourist gaze. As Freeport falls apart and local production (of produce) is utterly devastated except through the foreign-invest direct saviour, we are faced with the inability to see ourselves other than as what we are told we are.
What we see now is a generation of artists who are using social performance art that redefines the strictures of performance and art, though building on both. In National Exhibition 7, Dionne Benjamin-Smith work "Beauty for Ashes" harkens back to colonial times and the creation of product marketing schemes that relied heavily on blackness and its obvious unnaturalness and inferiority to sell their products that proved their weight in gold by 'cleansing' the darkness off the darkies. Social performance art has begun to challenge this, as we see with Gio Swaby's NE8 project "I learned in passing."
However, we live this daily, notwithstanding the politics and policies that deny us space to be free and who say that we are anti-nationalists if we attempt to speak out. If we wear a puff or have hair that is less 'kinky' than some but kinkier than others, then something is wrong. We accept only some types of blackness, and these are always predetermined by the white gaze as established by Victorian cultural mores.
As we see the losing ground of Bahamian identity though some areas of music and art are resurfacing that deny the virtual strangulation of authenticity through cultural nationalism, we find people who open the ways for discussion.
When we have young people, who believe that women should not be 'allowed' to regulate or control their own bodies through birth control and that the state should prevent them from 'breeding' we have a problem. When the works of the Minnis sisters shows, we are reeling under the heavy pressure of poverty, the failure of the independence promise to not gentrify but promote social equity among Over-the-Hill dwellers and Front Street power brokers. Where we 'see' the realities that bring about school murders and gang warfare without judgment or the decree that young black men need to be imprisoned because we know this won't work to do anything but further destroy the social fabric that is unraveling through poor self-image and even worse exclusion from the national narrative.
In a world that defines us as dumb black folk, who need to be cleansed of our blackness or whitened into acceptability, as demonstrated by the Victorian images for Pears' Soap and Sunlight Soap which resonate with bleaching cream ads and ads for relaxers and 'straighteners' that wish us to wash that kink right out of our hair, skin, bodies, we are rendered silent and invisible.
Our job to undo so much of colonialism's deeds and, as Derek Burrows' narrative-destabilizing documentary on colourism, Before The Trees Was Strange highlighted, the postcolonial rule of tourism has managed the population into increasingly deeper submission, as Dr. Krista Thompson demonstrates in her book An Eye for the Tropics. It is also interesting that Lutz & Collins (1993) (The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes. Reading National Geographic) speak to this, but their work can also be used to challenge Caribbean development policy that makes us walking billboards for tourism's success and our submission.
The fact that so much of Bahamian culture is being erased from the minds of the young and that many of them will have to travel far away to find themselves is troubling. Our hair, lips and faces cannot measure up because we are too dark, too unruly, too wiry, too black, too unkempt, though as India Arie attests, 'I am not my hair.'
Social performance art may stand more chance of breathing life into the revelation that we can be people without tourism and the fact that we are ground down by unchanged colonial policy remains as true today, as it was when Powles' condemned it in the 19th century. Social Performance art and social practice have very important places in the world and the lives of Bahamians and we hope will positively transform lives. Perhaps Social Performance Art can break the barriers between blackness and anti-black whitening and lightening as evinced in ads for Sunlight Soap and Pears' in this our postcolonial reality.
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January 27, 2017
Itchy white lace, decorative candles, pristine stockings, crisp gloves and fine gold chains. These three little brides - being married to the good Christian church they inherited as newfangled Bahamian post-colonial subjects, are a vision of all that is respectable and good and expected of a Bahamian of this time. Taken in 1978 by Sanford Sawyer, one of a few memorable Over the Hill photographers during the pre and post independence years, this image speaks volumes for what might seem so commonplace to us.
Pictures for a christening or any such ceremony are common, and many of us are the subject of staged photos throughout our lives - particularly as children. It is part of the Bahamian every day and ironically helps to show the mundane in spite of how produced these images are. This image is one of the lesser-known, and less visible parts of the National Collection - unless of course, you had the chance to see 'Developing Blackness' when it was shown at the NAGB in 2008. Curated by Krista Thompson Ph.D., the show contained work by Sawyer, as well as other photographers of the era including Cleveland Eneas, Antoine Ferrier, the aforementioned Sawyer, and Maxwell Stubbs, some of whom worked through 2008.
Why then would these images be considered artworks forming part of our National Collection when they are so clearly relics and memorabilia of someone's personal collection? How is something so seemingly commonplace worthy of such scrutiny, devotion, and scholarship?
Dr. Thompson has for much of her career investigated and articulated our collective image as an Anglophone developing nation for much of her career. These snapshots of life from the 1960s through 1980s help us to have an idea of the visual notations of the period and give us a moment to pause and study what exactly was going on in the public psyche at such crucial points in our history.
How we viewed ourselves in the run-up to independence - with stirrings of liberation in the region as other countries declared themselves free of the colony title - and how we position ourselves immediately after. Now almost 44 years later, it's interesting to see what legacies continue to thrive.
Bahamians, and in particular those of African descent, are no strangers to sitting for portraits. Most of us have had the bright lights set on us in one of the many photo studios throughout the islands.
From the time of Jacob Coonley - whose images are roughly a century earlier than this one we see now - Bahamians have been subject to knowing ourselves through a very particular, very colonial lens. This is in no small part the reason we are so subject to 'respectability politics' - that is, we have a certain compulsion to always 'look the part' and act like the paragons of good black folks. It is not lost on us that the signs of what is counted as 'respectable' were handed down from British Colonial rule, we know what it looks like: well spoken (no vernacular!), well groomed and aptly dressed to look the part with no regard for the sweltering hot weather. If you don't have much money, you should at least look like you do.
This is precisely the reason why these prepubescent girls are dressed to look so virtuous: not only are they supposed to be the epitome of grace and innocence within the church, but they also must 'play their part' as young Bahamian girls of African descent. This is one of the relics of our colonial past that we have clung to, using Christianity as a way to show our moral repute. It also provides another reason as to why this image is interesting. Though many during the 70's and 80's in The Bahamas were shaking off the colonial shackles and embracing the unabashedness of black American culture, these girls still quite literally hold a light to the past.
How we frame our children in staged photographs like this, says a lot about how we wanted to set the stage for our hopes and dreams as a people trying to find themselves and their identity at a time when knowing yourself as a nation felt much like walking through quicksand. It was treacherous territory indeed. At this time we most easily embraced our African roots through American-mediated expressions of blackness, when previously we had only come to know ourselves through a British gaze - which, quite frankly, didn't quite fit us either. We were no longer British, but what were we? Certainly not American either, but the celebration of afros and Afro-centrism amongst the black populace helped give us a glimpse into what was possible, and that was the point - we needed to think of possibility, of potential.
In this way, we can look at this portrait of the girls as a narrative of the time, as a gleaming white beacon of hope we had for our virtuousness and prosperity as a nation being born through independence. Portraits can act as just that, as a way to tell stories and to know a place and a people from a time long gone. Landscapes taken in real-time, however, can offer us an insight of our lived and felt realities, the palpability of our experience - as we can see in Tamika Galanis' documentary images of Over the Hill communities the National Exhibition 8.
Little boys with ice-cream around their mouths who don't want to smile for photos because they 'ain' soft,' because they 'is man' despite their youth: it's an entirely different vision to the young brides pictured in the 1970s. Painted Colonial backdrops from the 1870s showing English stately homes gave way to curtains being drawn over them 100 years later, which then gave way to the lived cultural backdrop we see now. The curtain was literally closed on colonial backdrops during Sawyer's time as we tried to renegotiate our sense of self, and while we know and accept that it is part of the history, almost 50 years later we are using our backdrops more now, setting our stage, or not setting a stage at all: Galanis merely watched, spoke, and waited for the right moment to offer images of our lived truths, and that is perhaps something we never quite imagined we would witness 150 years ago.
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January 27, 2017
Haitian-born, Bahamian artist Jeffrey Meris opened his project 'Asue: 20/20' in the Project Space Room of the NAGB on Saturday, January 21, and it drew a sizeable crowd who came out to see how the word "Grace" would be interpreted. We often forget grace, and rather focus on the hard punishing kind of Christianity that is all about cruelty and refusing love, unlike the honest message of Christianity to give love and acceptance to all.
'Asue 20/20' explores the much-disparaged part of our culture that has allowed so many blacks to survive the cruel hardship of slavery and colonialism. Meris combines the commonplace with the not so commonplace; the odd, almost forgotten parts of our lives. He underscores the dichotomous reality of technology that brings us closer together, while simultaneously distancing us when we are congregated in the same place. It has also removed so much of our tactile lives from us. Many of us no longer feel the need to interact with those around; we do not see others as we walk consumed by our mobile devices that dictate events and guide our physical journeys, even when Google maps is often totally wrong and does not know that one road does not run straight through an area. We are almost unable to exist without the smarts of awareness and local tacit knowledge, but we do not realise the extent to which the local has been eclipsed by the distant, now close.
Meris' exhibition is an interesting eye on what we are losing - trust and community - and what we are gaining -distance and technological connectivity. At the same time, during the talk, he expressed how his mother put her children through school by selling peanuts, dark roast, medium roast or light roast.
A daily part of our Bahamian culture that many of us do not see is the local peanut seller. Usually, a Rasta stationed at a light or intersection, walking through traffic, arm raised with small brown bags of peanuts in them. Some stop and buy, others close windows and lock doors because they are worried about safety and the extreme violence that has consumed the island. We often forget that this violence stems from somewhere. It is historically rooted in slavery, colonialism and the failure of the state to defend, equitably represent its citizens and a disempowerment of the local over the global. The forced and enforced separation of blacks and whites have created a cultural divide that is threatening to undo our national balance, not because it officially exists today, but through the legacy that has remained entrenched in legislation and leadership.
As an ongoing part of slavery and the structure that allowed it to thrive were laws and regulations that strictly enforced how the enslaved Africans and freed negroes could operate within the colony. There were laws that clearly outlawed many aspects of African culture. This was often in response to a threat that the blacks posed to the white structure, according to historians and sociologists. So, as the Haitian Revolution succeeded, greater efforts were made to silence it so as to prevent the workers in other colonies from hearing about it, lest they get the idea and also stage a revolt.
There was always resistance to slavery, unlike so many reports that rendered African slaves as passive and docile people who accepted their servitude.
This was well documented by persons such as Michel Rolph Trouillot in 'Silencing the Past.' In many places, these efforts included laws that made negro gatherings illegal, as well as laws that outlawed negro societies that would create cohesion and allow better, easier survival. The anti-Obeah legislation would be a part of this as it showed a fear that was used to make all African religious practices seen as bad or evil. What these reinforced was a deeply divided world where negroes, even after emancipation and well into the 20th-Century, could not hold bank accounts in commercial banks, for example. These same banks that now mercilessly tax many locals unlike their branches in the centres of power that do not charge for deposits, for example.
To survive the horrors and ordeals of post-emancipation anti-negro realities and colonialism's exploitation, many blacks would create groups like friendly societies, burial societies, and lodges that remain demonised in the public eye. The gaze established by the European norm determined that these black practices were evil and this has transferred into the post-colonial Bahamian psyche.
Under colonialism, we so often neglect the obvious parts of our Bahamian culture hoping that they will disappear through neglect. According to newspaper articles and scholarly work, one of the big debates around independence was the African past. Some thought it should be embraced and others thought it would be too 'black' and too reductive. The nationalist project in the Bahamas took an interesting turn after 1967 and especially 1973 when the 'black' nation began to exclude those who were not black.
Whites were excluded in the national narrative that argued for the empowerment of the once discriminated against and excluded black Bahamians through legal and political change. However, as much as this sounded promising, so much of the old legal system was never changed, thus never made to truly empower Bahamians, as it was said it would. When international companies applied for work permits for managers, the premise was that they would work for a certain amount of time while training a Bahamian to do their job, and then they would leave. Many of these workers never left, few Bahamians were ever trained.
Today, we are less able to apply for those same jobs notwithstanding more people being more educated. Yet, the cry is always that there are insufficient and a lack of adequately trained and prepared workers, so thousands of work permits are applied for and granted annually. While claiming to be empowering Bahamians through meaningful employment successive governments have continued to work with the old colonial stereotypes and language that cast black Bahamians as unable to work and in this case violent and antisocial folks.
As we discussed last week about the lack of power to own or control one's image, this overlaps with the selling, silencing and sanitization of the African past. While the Ministry of Education created the famed, ill-fated Jumbay Village on Baillou Hill Road, where the present day headquarters of the National Insurance Board stands, along with the commitment of key figures like Edmund Moxey, the project was quickly and soundly undermined by government less than eager to promote these black or African-derived aspects of Bahamian culture. We still hear how demonic lodges and burial societies are. The damage to the collective is done. Asues are being discredited because they are untrustworthy.
It is rather ironic that given the deep investment in survival mechanisms such as asues, what is known in the Eastern Caribbean as susu, were widely practiced in The Bahamas by many middle-class families. These were especially popular among women who would hold asues and pay large expenses when they got their hand. People were known for being honest holders of asues and that would draw a good crowd.
The power of art to unsilence and unearth is amazing. The quotidian/daily 'stuff' of rich people that can be used to create wealth for poor people cannot be forgotten. Meris creates a powerful though understated and seemingly unrelated gathering of historical moments and articles.
How can we survive cultural erasure that works unobserved through policy and regulation that disempowers folk and is used to empower those who claim to be the servants of the people? It reminds me of going to Crooked Island in the 1980s and being told that people no longer remembered old stories. After digging deeper it was a matter of the stories being in the church, and the church had decided that these were lies and lies needed to die. Cultural death is always the end of a community. Meris speaks to a past and present that is almost lost and to a future where we cannot see those around us for those in the global reality of the Internet. Asues are a historical reality that can be used to empower people, but they require the rebuilding of community and trust. Grace! Matthew may have physically threatened us, but the day to day totally undermines our being.
We are happy to erase the history of black presence as long as it cannot be used to sell a destination. The representation of a history bereft of people and struggle is what apparently sells, except that people come to see monuments and experience a past that inhabits these places that are under state-sanctioned and capitalist driven erasure.
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January 20, 2017
Images have always been controlled by those in power. They have been used to represent us in particular ways that we usually have no control over. During slavery, blacks were depicted in a specific manner, and black women were always rendered either as workhorses, conniving thieves, jezebels, or wanton women, , who could not control their bodies.
These women belonged to slave masters and mistresses who abused them, as we can see in a text like The History of Mary Prince, a slave narrative that communicates Mary's experiences in Turks Island, London, and on a salt farm in the southern Bahamas. Mary is allowed to speak as an enslaved African woman to forward the abolitionists' agenda to end slavery. The story was carefully 'controlled' or 'managed' so as not to come across as too strong for public consumption and thereby to upset people's tranquility.
Enslaved women were always trying to provoke their master's sexual desires because they were vixens. According to many sources such as the masters' wives and other upstanding folks in the colonial community, who saw the danger of blacks stealing the heads of otherwise good and noble white men. Thomas Thistlewood's journals say otherwise, however; they demonstrate how the overseer was carrying on with these 'terrible women' while they were blamed for their animal-like desires. This image and perception continues today and it is a representation of black women, especially black, Caribbean women who are shown to be hyper-sexualized and lascivious.
This representation is constantly at odds with other versions of facts, as experienced by those victims of representation and the colonially-biased images deployed to render the Caribbean subject easily controlled. This project is even more insidious as it also finds its way into formal and informal representations of life in the tropics, as Bahamian Art Historian Krista Thompson discusses in her book An Eye for the Tropics. These images were used to sell the tropics as a safe space for European exploration, where blacks were servile, and the landscape was succulent.
It is by no accident that after 50 years of Majority Rule, these same images are redeployed to attract foreigners to come and experience the pleasures of The Bahamas. The words may have changed slightly, but the message remains the same: "We are here to be explored," read: "enjoyed and exploited." According to the same representation, our perverse ways continue and our inability to control our animal instincts are renown.
Edward Said and Stuart Hall have done groundbreaking work that exposes these images and projects, yet still they circulate. Internally, given the politics, seats of power and history, we know little of this. We may get glimmers of an idea but the full weight of the historical disempowerment through dangerously biased representations is often overlooked because of the way history is taught. Compounding this is the lack of knowledge of Bahamian history and the deeply flawed ways as to how it has been taught. We are unconscious of our co-opted vision and rendition. We are then shocked when we venture out of paradise to find that 'folks' out there believe that we live in grass/thatch huts and do not have electricity or running water; yet, they can drive to Paradise from the United States and they will be treated like kings when they arrive here. We will lay down for a dollar and satisfy all manner of fantasies that have been packaged for "The Caribbean Dream Re-sale."
One project in The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas' National Exhibition 8 explores this scenario. Giovanna Swaby's 'self-portrait' as exoticised, rendered subject to others - see Moira Ferguson's book on women in the 19th Century - by the re-engineered colonial gaze that holds non-white women, especially those of Caribbean descent as sexual savages and salacious women.
Swaby 'discovers' or 'uncovers' her 'identity,' the identity that was allowed to her by the 'west' while she resides in Western Canada. Ironically, the Western Canada of the 1980s was not as aware of these politics as it is today. As a teenager, who previously occupied that locale, it shocked me that the images and knowledge of The Bahamas has changed. By the 1990s, when I would buy a ticket to fly home, the response was, "Why would you want to go there, it's lovely, but they all sell drugs and harass tourists." We learned quickly how little others know about us, but how much we may think we know about them and ourselves. When met by the disjuncture between what we think we know about ourselves and what they 'know,' we are easily perplexed.
The power that has created this image - disembodied, de-contextualized and deeply dehumanized - has remained out of our control. It is managed by a machine that deploys messages that sell a place through very limited and essentialised visual imagery and iconography. We, as representatives from that place, then become defined by its marketing plans and strategies. So, as The Bahamas sells itself overseas more aggressively, not as a space of reality - where real people have bad hair days and nights, or a place where people are troubled because of hours-long power outages and gunshots disturbing slumber - but as 'tax haven-cum-paradise,' this monolithic narrative continues to be perpetuated. This narrative stems back to a moment in the '70s and '80s where, as recently declassified CIA papers show, the country became a den of iniquity and lawlessness, encouraged by powerful people who held the sway of the nation in their hands.
During the 1980s, the world was deeply Balkanised, and many places would not receive media images until later, well into the '90s or '2000s because globalization had not come into its full impact. This is similar to the delay in images gaining currency from colonial times, given the long travel time getting from place to place required, information spread far more slowly. This meant that old images died hard and that new images were very late in arriving and then being taken up as fact and then circulated.
Remember the Club Med 60-second ad slots? They were a big part of the company's marketing scheme and they rendered us as a fabulous, hot, sandy beached, blue-watered dream in the middle of winter. We became even more deeply exoticised by these ads, though they only sold a product.
As Swaby's work demonstrates, we must leave home to become aware of how we are seen and how deeply nuanced, entrenched and timelessly managed our exploited image is. We do not own our image. Our representation is owned by a colonial government, travel company, plantation owner, colonial travel writer who 'saw' first hand what we could do.
Today, marketing companies in New York work on behalf of postcolonial governments and FDI corporations to deploy these deeply sexualized representations and they are rewoven into the historical text of lascivious and muted black women who will throw themselves at the feet of any white man for a dollar.
Come to The Bahamas, and if you see me where you are, you can dream about me there too. Swaby's work tackles this head on. Can we ever exist outside of that frame?
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January 20, 2017
For far too long, creative communities in the Caribbean have danced around the notion of art criticism as a form of public discourse. For the professional artist and writer, who as students valued peer feedback and professional assessment, how is it conceivable to be expected to abandon the very thing that allowed you to grow? Art criticism by no means exists as a direct attack on the artist, but is an immediate response and personal interpretation of creative work. By providing authentic reviews to visual art, films, theatre, music, and literature, the critic creates an open dialogue making the arts more accessible to a wider audience. Without this critical discourse, our cultural ecosystem will disappear.
Last week, eleven arts writers from Barbados, The Bahamas, Dominica, Jamaica St. Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago participated in a five-day creative journalism workshop that challenged this issue. Hosted by The British Council in partnership with NGC Bocas Lit Fest, and the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Jamaica, the workshop addressed the shortage of trained arts writers and culture journalists across the Anglophone Caribbean.
Lead facilitator, Claire Armistead, Books Editor for The Guardian and Observer in London, UK was joined by Gean Moreno, founder of [NAME] Publications and curator of programs for The Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, USA, along with event partner Marina Salandy-Brown, founder and festival director of NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad and Tobago.
Moreno, who serves on the editorial and advisory committees of several publications and foundations, namely the 2017 Whitney Biennial focused on art criticism and the critic's obligation to authors, artists, and their audience. "Your responsibility as an art writer is to build visual literacy to engage your audience. If you don't follow a generation of critical writers that created this by default this becomes your task." He also touched on the importance of making information accessible to the audience. "In terms of democracy and accessibility, they function differently. Democratic principles in art writing are really about the way you write, not your use of language, but about the way you engage the work. This starts with the responsibility you take for the object."
Armitstead also brings with her international experience as a literary and arts editor, focused on the styles, forms and new media associated with arts journalism. Providing insight into subjectivity and objectivity when writing on the arts she said, "Arts criticism is news reporting with an opinion, it should always have an uncomfortable relationship with the features and marketing culture. The publicity machines tell us what we should be interested in, but in comes the critic who has to somehow stand independently from that machine." Armistead lead the group through a series of intense writing exercises that responded to visual and literary material including a selection of Jamaican art and short stories by Caribbean writers Sharon Millar and Jacob Ross.
Beyond its rigorous curriculum focusing on critical responses to literature and visual arts, participants benefited from an invaluable cultural exchange, professional networking, and information sharing experience. From academics to poets, to designers, to curators, there was an abundance of knowledge stemming from all parts of the region. While UWI's Mona campus remained the learning hub that provided a safe space for sharing and enquiry, the workshop also included field trips and a guest panel discussion.
The group's first visit included a tour of the National Gallery of Jamaica's (NGJ) current exhibition 'Spiritual Yards' which explores the spiritual yard tradition in Jamaica, through ten Intuitive artists. The group also attended "Actions Between Territories" a public lecture by Trinidadian artist, writer, and curator Christopher Cozier at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMC). Cozier discussed the potential free spaces Caribbean artists are constantly imagining, constructing, and navigating, including his creative practice and the independent informal art space that he instigates, Alice Yard.
The highlight of the week was a panel discussion on the role of Caribbean arts journalism and the state of its cultural ecosystem with special guests from the Jamaican journalism and publishing community. Two speakers touched on the forgotten identity of writers, their history and the history of their art form. Ian Randle, Founder of Ian Randle Publishers, shared, "I am disappointed that unless you have a personal relationship with these people, Caribbean authors are faceless and nameless people. We don't write about or discuss them." Mel Cooke, Arts Journalist for the Jamaica Gleaner, supported Randle. "In reporting sometimes there is a lack of a sense of duty and history of the art form and its personal and national value." Dr. Kimberly Anne Robinson-Walcott, Editor of Caribbean Quarterly and the Jamaica Journal and Tanya Batson-Savage, Founder of Blue Moon Publishing emphasized the lack of reviewers for both fiction and non-fiction publications. Batson-Savage said, "The region desperately needs good reviewers who are not afraid to be honest."
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January 20, 2017
There is a very specific kind of uneasiness in black Bahamians as we try to translate our blackness when we move into other spaces, and it is most felt and visceral when we emigrate. While the African diaspora is very much real and very much alive, there's often this unspoken but palpable sense as Bahamians - given our history - that we can't quite always tap into our blackness when we're placed elsewhere; that we don't quite feel a part of the main. We feel that our ties are tenuous, and when you add in the complexity of identifying with black womanhood on a global scale, the waters become more muddied.
For the eighth National Exhibition (NE8), Giovanna Swaby addresses this discomfort directly in "I Learned In Passing" (2016). Through this displaced domestic setting, Swaby builds up a narrative that so many of us can identify with as black Bahamian women travelling abroad. There are framed images including snippets of dialogue outlining incidents of racial microaggressions: those lesser-known, smaller, but more insidious moments of stereotyping practices that can so often be left unaddressed because they are seen to be 'harmless' ignorances, rather than a big part of the patriarchal machine. Ornate wallpaper and frames make an intimate home for the project in the ballroom of the NAGB. It is an unabashedly and unashamedly domestic, feminine space.
Swaby outlines the difficulty in her move to Canada for university. "A lot of it had to do with the vast difference in culture in general. Vancouver has a very strong sense of politeness that isn't as much to do with friendliness all the time and can feel quite passive-aggressive."
The work deals very openly and honestly with her experience and that of other women in the same situation. "I just find it kind of strange to navigate spaces as a black woman here, knowing that a lot of the people I come across won't have encountered many black people in their lives. There's this level of curiosity, and that's difficult for me to deal with, and that seems difficult to satisfy on their end. I feel like I'm constantly walking a line of trying to figure out in each instance if the curiosity is innocent or harmful - and that's one of the things I've been trying to address in my work. When do people cross the line from being curious into being harmful or offensive?"
It's an utterly uncomfortable experience being seen as Other at best, and unfortunately often violent at its worst. To be Other is to be foreign, unfamiliar, to be exoticised and an object of curiosity as Swaby describes, or to be feared. How can we find strategies to combat this? This is partly how the work functions for her, as a tool to attempt to correct some of these issues.
"The work is a little bit of an educational experience. In the first showing of the piece in Vancouver, most of the audience obviously wasn't going to be black, and in fact, the Vancouver audience is mostly Asian people or Caucasian people who can't relate to this experience of being a black woman in a mostly non-black space. In some ways, it's a window for them into this experience that they would never otherwise be privy to. That's important because it heightens a sense of awareness in their future interactions and how they might manage this, or perhaps it can highlight something that they may not have realized was offensive previously, something that they thought was normal or 'okay' that could so easily make someone uncomfortable as a black woman being approached this way."
Translating your experience and learning to navigate new spaces has much to do with language and with these conversations occurring. How else can we get to know ourselves if not through interactions with those different to us? This kind of work runs in accordance with a strong tradition in black feminist work and the idea of portraiture as a way to reclaim narratives, and at the end of the day, Swaby's work serves a rather large, involved installation that acts as a self-portrait of her experience and this shared experience we know so well.
"As for the aesthetics, I chose to not shy away from the feminine. It's very much about blackness, but it's centered on womanhood as well. There's a lot of fabric and sewing involved in the work; a very matriarchal practice or trade passed down and on from generations of women. I learned to sew from my mother and she from her mother. I don't see a weakness in femininity, and I find the history of it to be very strong and dominant. I wanted to carry that on through my work instead of dismissing it - which is so often done in hopes of not being labelled as 'artwork done by a woman' or overtly feminine. I'm not interested in not identifying with this; I'm all about embracing this to learn more about it and continuing that history."
This portrait of the life of a black woman moving and becoming a minority elsewhere is an idea we know all too well, through different interpretations. From the vital work of American artist Lorna Simpson - with her portraits of black women and men who could so easily be translated into any of us, into any of our experiences - to the work of artists closer to home, like Jamaican Ebony G. Patterson who bombards us with garish, beautiful, over-embellished installations investigating blackness in the Caribbean.
These works act as part of a bigger conversation, and a conversation needed, in how we are represented and how we are seen to the rest of the world, and most importantly, how this affects the way we are engaged with on a human level as much as the systemic problems we encounter.
The more we open up this dialogue, the more we can work to build our narratives - as these women have done - and the more we can build our stories told from our mouths.
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January 13, 2017
The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) has created a show we call the National Exhibition, now on its eighth run. This year, the event that opened on December 15 and 17 2016 has also been installed at a satellite location - Antonius Robert's Hillside House Gallery. It would have also been presented at PopopStudios had Hurricane Matthew not done his dastardly deed in October. The NE8 offers local artists and artists of the diaspora a space to express their ideas and thoughts, concepts and theories, but does not earn income. The artists do not sell work at the NE8, as the space is expressly to show and provide a voice for local art, artists and cultural practitioners.
It is an investment in the national development of the arts and Bahamian culture. A part of this year's exhibition is work by Nassau-born, North Carolina-based artist Tamika Galanis, who examines the danger of cultural loss we are facing as a country that grapples with huge cultural and structural violence. We talk about exceptional violence because the state responds to the street violence as if it were an exception, though, much of it arises in responses to the state's imposed structural violence on the bodies pictured in the work.
Galanis has two parts to her work; one is a photographic display of transformation as we speak and the other is an installation of 3D printed hybrid coral heads. Both aspects of the work trouble the waters and take a significant step in discussing what we as a people are not discussing: the real danger of national loss concomitant with climate change or what we call global warming that encompasses sea level rise of massive proportions as well as freak and dangerously strong and devastating storms, as embodied by Matthew and Joaquin, and the man-made dangers of violence.
The government speaks of the National Plan, but the real question is, what concrete steps and strategic plans, action points and achievable, measurable goals and targets with a timeline have been included in this much-publicized plan? Without these things clearly and obviously delineated and the responsibility for them being obviously identifiable, there is little to no hope of success. It is like having a plan without identifying anyone who will be responsible for carrying it out or saying how it will happen. In a country that has developed an aversion for accountability, this is heaven. What are we doing about the potential and real loss of us? What are we doing about the loss of cultural expression due to land tycoons developing paradise for a few jobs while paying thrupence on the pound?
Galanis' work, much like the work of John Beadle, Lynn Parotti, Jordanna Kelly, Keisha Oliver and others, gives us food for thought as we celebrate 50 years of Majority Rule. A movement away from slavery that legally ended in 1834 with a period of free labor between 1834 and 1838 and a further period of exploitation through credit and truck from that time until then.
These communities captured by the lens, are the most afflicted by these cultural policies and legacies. The system and ways of exploitation may change, but the result hardly does. What is so poignant about Galanis' work of the documentation of Grants' Town, is that this area was the real seat of local black development, activism, mercantilism and intelligentsia in the mid-twentieth century. It is also where most inequality, violence, and disenfranchisement thrive.
The story of The Bahamas would be altered without this area; one can hardly conceive of the development of Bay Street and other areas without contributions from the inhabitants of this area. We tend to forget that this is the place that provided the leaders of today. Nothing has changed, except that resources were abruptly withdrawn from the so-called inner city/ghetto, so as the human flight occurred so too did the resource flight. What we see now is a community at odds with itself and its neighbors, challenged for its very survival by the political economy of a colonial, postcolonial, neocolonial and neoliberal state where violence is exceptional but always justified when used by the state.
Ironically, members of the same community, deeply invested in their weave and go style, their bling culture and their images being on fleek, are controlled by a discourse they think they manage but are being so undermined by that they have fallen victim to the false promises made by a savior in white.
The problem with prophetic saviour in white is that the damage done by them is greater than that done by the so called 'black' plague.
However, we must look beyond race and see where the real problems lie and who to challenge when we talk about power. Power rarely if ever resides in the spaces perceived as powerful. We forget that power resides in us, but it is always undermined by the power and ability to control through oppression.
The Arts work against this.
Creating a national discussion of how we see ourselves causes discomfort, but that is what art is for. We cannot as a nation think that everything will be nice, soft and fluffy, especially as the threat of financial instability and sovereign devaluation looms large. The representations in the work are truly unkind sometimes, and when they are kind, we choose not to see the kindness because they disrupt our self-image. Our self-image that is covered over by cheaply engineered colorful bondo that hides our imperfection only as long as we continue to apply it. But who are we hiding from?
Galanis' work is incredible, troubling not only because it captures the day-to-day lives of a people the state blames for every evil in their national development agenda, gang crime, murder, rape, and poverty, because we know that poverty is a "choice", according to some, but because the community has lost its cohesion and is divided against itself. The work blows these images up. When put in conversation with the other projects in the NE, it destroys an image of weaved beauty and acrylic brilliance that now embodies us as a people, so much so that we may not be able to spell or count, or produce anything in our government jobs, but we sure can be on fleek.
Meanwhile, we hate women. We choose not to discuss these thorny issues. They make politicians unhappy and they, supposedly, pay for us to be here, so "I ain't speakin bout nothing," say people on the street.
In a disturbing turn of national events, we seem to have lost our way. As gang violence takes over the streets and some neighborhoods, especially those referred to as the inner city, a way of life begins to vanish through fear.
The images captured in Galanis' work show cultural moments that are fast leaving us as crime encroaches on our lives; government talk becomes less about people and more about jobs, all the while climate change threatens to pound those homes that can least afford it into oblivion. Many of these will never be able to rebuild.
Some of the characters serve to remind us of life's simplicity and the need for community. Others remind us of a rapidly changing landscape that is further being undermined by social media, where so much is played out beyond the street life of those persons in the photos. Social media changes life and as climate change impacts the way we interact so does social media.
Sadly, few are having these conversations. We no longer speak to one another but are told what to do, how to think and when to think. The government has used some interesting bullying tactics that have been adapted by those in the most precarious of positions because they see this as their only way to survive. Social empathy and local relationships are being lost. The images capture a way of life rapidly disappearing through multifaceted 'things' beyond our control but fairly easily mitigated against through more empathy, awareness and the refusal to be bought for a song or thrupence. Today's plight is that we are more interested in transactional relations over beneficial community strengthening and self-reliance, self-sustaining engagement and development.
Perhaps the best way to explore our identities, cultural, collective and personal is through the expression of culture and to allow the images to speak for themselves. These events and the spaces where they occur allow dialogue, and dialogue is essential for cultural survival. This is not simply about being sold out to the newest resort development that will destroy local development by diverting water, electricity, land and other natural and manmade resources from the local space into the hybrid space, that, when crisis threatens can up sticks and leave us to our devastation and ruin.
A population without access to land, for example, is a dying population. A population without access to empathy and community is a population, as Glissant states, on the verge of erasure. How do we float and become sustainable? We must begin to see what lies under the cutter special and the bondo mask that does not allow us to prosper. Art opens that up.
We must move beyond the weave and the appearance where we talk a great talk, dance a super dance, shuffle a lovely slide while are streets are being washed out by storm surges, houses being washed away by an ocean, much like gang violence and community erasure that threaten the very lives of the youth pictured here, we either learn to retool, or we disappear.
How are we looking, listening and taking action?
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January 13, 2017
One of the great joys and privileges of working in the art field is the necessity of travel to meet colleagues, see exhibitions, do studio visits and, most importantly, create the networks necessary to support our artists. In the Caribbean region, this is even more important since we are -- by our natures as island nation -- more apart than together in terms of a regional identity. Exchanges -- between artists, curators, writers and other professionals -- are an incredibly important way to continue increasing one's professional knowledge and also to disseminate information on what is happening in one's home country to the outside world.
It was a delight, therefore, when The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas was invited by The National Art Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) to be a participant as a selector for its upcoming biennial, giving us the opportunity to do research into contemporary artistic production in Jamaica, learn more about their history and development as a national institution, and forge closer bonds with our colleagues.
Firstly, it is always interesting to compare and contrast one's institutional history with that of one's peers. The National Gallery of Jamaica was founded in 1974 in Kingston and is the oldest and largest public art museum in the Anglophone Caribbean. Having started out in an historic home, Devon House (not unlike NAGB's Villa Doyle), the challenges of a domestic space proved difficult to manage and it moved, in 1982, to an unused department store of modern and spacious design. It currently has a massive 30,000 square feet of exhibition space (compared to NAGB's 4,500 sq.ft), not including its annex, NGJ West, in Montego Bay (3,500 sq.ft).
The NGJ has a comprehensive collection of early, modern and contemporary art from Jamaica, along with smaller Caribbean and international holdings, an extremely interesting divergence from our mandate at the NAGB, which focuses on solely Bahamian art. The NGJ is a division of the Institute of Jamaica, Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, the title of which also speaks to more inclusivity.
A significant part of the NGJ's collections is on permanent view and being able to look at a range of works--from wooden Taino artifacts; to oil portraits of aloof Englishmen, from the late 1700s; to the stunning Isaac Mendes Belisario hand-colored prints of their "John Canoe" (1837-38); to modern paintings from both Jamaica and other countries--certainly gives the visitor a much broader and firmer foundation and context in which to view local production. It does pose the questions as to how "national" a National Gallery must be: can one truly understand one's artistic output without looking at work by others and understanding the full range of global history in the arts? Can you understand Max Taylor without having looked at African tribal masks or Picasso's early Cubist period? Must being "national" translate into being exclusive and non-inclusive?
The NGJ has an active exhibition programme, which includes retrospectives, thematic exhibitions, guest-curated exhibitions, and touring exhibitions that originate outside of the islands. The NAGB can say the same and, conversely, the plus side of not having a huge historical collection to take up space and time to care for means that we can stage more local shows. Comparatively, the NAGB has a high turnover, which has translated into increased local buy-in. So, as one sees there are pros and cons.
The NGJ's flagship exhibition is the fairly recently re-branded Jamaica Biennial. This event was birthed in 1977, inaugurated as the Annual National Exhibition, not unlike our national exhibitions, such as that currently on show at the NAGB (NE8), which is generally an open call survey show. Having existed for 25 years, the Jamaica's Annual National show became the premier art exhibition in Jamaica, although it comes with some challenges. In the early days of the growing art scene, it was extremely important to encourage people to dedicate themselves to art and, as such, to support all attempts. The net was cast wide and, as artists reached a certain level of technical achievement, they were given a lifetime invitation. While this might have been a wonderful idea in the early days, the legacy of the initiative poses great challenges today, where a very long list of lifetime invitees must be curated into the juried section. Some of these invited artists may have given up a regular practise, even, and it makes a cohesive single exhibition almost impossible to pull off.
While the NAGB does not have this particular problem, we have still struggled with the issue of the National Exhibition and what that should mean. Should some "special" artists be invited and not subject to a juried selection? How does one make a sensible, unfolding exhibition with a clear direction out of 100 disparate works? For some editions, a theme was selected to try to curate an exhibition that created a parcours and told a clear story, so the viewer was not presented with a large, random selection of works that had no relationship to one another; sometimes this worked and sometimes it did not.
Also: who should be considered "Bahamian"? Should the show be open to expats resident here and, if so, for how long must one be resident to be considered an integral part of the Bahamian art scene? What about diasporic artists? How many generations may one go back to consider a US or Canada-based artists "Bahamian"?
Jamaica has also struggled with these questions and is moving forward in a very open and inclusive way, which is admirable. In 2002, their Annual National Exhibition was converted into the National Biennial and, effective 2014; it was renamed the Jamaica Biennial. The 2014 edition kept many aspects of the established framework for previous Biennials but with some important changes, to create a more dynamic biennial that both acknowledges the growing regional and international networks within which Jamaican artists participate and still supports the best of local art production. While it is an exhibition of current art, the Jamaica Biennial is committed to aesthetic and cultural diversity: it includes contemporary, traditional and popular art in all media, styles, genres and features new, emerging and established artists. In fact, a Bahamian artist--Blue Curry--was invited to be part of this exhibition in 2014, with an open-air installation in Downtown Kingston, the vestiges of which are still visible.
Amanda Coulson, Director of the NAGB, was present on the panel of four judges for the 2017 juried section, along with Trinidadian artist, writer and curator Christopher Cozier, and two locals in the persons of artist, art lecturer and head of the Fine Arts department at the School of Visual Arts of the Edna Manley College, Omari Ra, and art dealer, curator and art auction organizer, Suzanne Fredericks. The judging took place at the NGJ on January 9th -11th and the selection panel reviewed 175 works by 110 artists, of which 65 works by 47 artists were accepted.
In addition, select international and regional artists are invited to do special projects during the exhibition--these include Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (Cuba), Andrea Chung (US, of Jamaican/Chinese and Trinidadian descent), David Gumbs (St. Maarten), Nadia Huggins (St. Vincent & The Grenadines), Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow (Jamaica), Raquel Paiewonsky (Dominican Republic), and Marcel Pinas (Suriname)--which is a wonderful development.
Such presence increases dialogue between local and visiting artists, and more importantly for the home base, will bring attention to the exhibition from a greater range of locations, press, and public, exposing Jamaican artists to a broader international audience. The exhibition will also contain two special tributes to major Jamaican artists. The Biennial is thus a hybrid between a curated, invitational and submission-based exhibition, which the curatorial team of NGJ--consisting of Director Veerle Poupeye; O'Neil Lawrence, and Assistant Curator. Monique Barnett-Davidson--must craft into a cohesive whole.
Even with their 30,000 sq. ft. of space, just like here--where we have collaborated with Hillside House in order to extend the possibilities of our own NE--the Jamaica Biennial 2017 will be shown at the NGJ and at Devon House in Kingston, as well as at National Gallery West in Montego Bay, with additional venues in Kingston to be announced. The Jamaica Biennial 2017 will open with a series of events from Friday, February 24 to Sunday, February 26, 2017, and will continue until Sunday, May 28, 2017.
The future vision is for the Jamaica Biennial to be visibly positioned on the international art calendar as a Caribbean-focused biennial. Discussions have started to do this in collaboration with other public art museums and art organizations in the Caribbean, such as the NAGB, by creating a coordinated itinerary to make our region an unmissable destination for art and culture.
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January 06, 2017
We have hair that defies gravity, hair that reaches down to remind us of the earth we are a part of. We have skin that is the most fathomless, rich umber that absorbs sunlight, and also skin so bright it shines when the sun hits it. We are black women, and among us, we have such a fantastic diversity that it beggars belief. Why then do we even consider that we are lesser? Why do we allow ourselves to be told so, to believe so, and why do we whittle away at the resilience of our sisters in the process? Why do we feel the need to cast aside our crowns?
For the Eighth National Exhibition (NE8), April Bey and Anina Major - both Bahamian-born and bred and currently living in the U.S. - unapologetically make their coronations as proud, black women. The criticality with which they question their placement as black Bahamian women seems quite pertinent - not only for last year with a failed referendum for equality but also with the upcoming 50th-year commemoration of Majority Rule. Considering that the women's suffrage movement played a significant role in helping to cultivate the ground for Majority Rule to grow into being, and given the current state of women as constitutionally lesser citizens, it seems that there is a question of just who counts as the majority today.
It is out of these conditions that so many women in The Bahamas make work dealing directly with their womanhood and their blackness. We may have won the racial struggle to let our black majority have the right to govern ourselves, but in these acts of human justice, it is sometimes easy to forget that people can suffer and be marginalized on some fronts at the same time.
As Audre Lorde, the lauded feminist, womanist, and civil rights activist - who, I might add, was born to Grenadian parents living in the U.S. - so aptly put it, "There are no single-issue struggles because we do not live single-issue lives." The lack of intersectionality in how we view struggles as Bahamians has let many of our 'majority' fall by the wayside. Art is a direct conduit for expressing this dissatisfaction with hierarchy, and serves as a way to disrupt that hierarchy by making yourself, a black woman, the top of that hierarchy as the queen you feel you are.
Anina Major quite literally uses her spiked ceramics to crown herself - but the weight of it is still much to bear. 'Heavy is the Head' (2016) pays testament to this, the simultaneous strength and the burden we carry that forces us to constantly show this strength. "It was a heavy summer for many women. So what started as a joke and bit of levity, with this spiky orb on my head, became a moment where the orb act as a genesis of me and where I'm from and the power and strength of where I come from, and then a representation of the strain of this load on us."
The work is situated at an intersection of performance, video, painting, and ceramic work - which seems like a tall order, but it this act of balancing everything all at once that conceptually ties it all together and addresses the issues she is dealing with in her work.
A video screen self-portrait of Major set in a gilt frame, she sits with the spiked ceramic orb on her head in a queenly bearing.
"The idea of putting the sculpture on my head, as the weight, seemed appropriate in dealing with how we as women are always trying to balance that. But nobody seems to talk about it! Dealing with my personal feelings and what was going on in the world, The Bahamas, The States - it all got quite overwhelming. Somehow, as a black woman, you aren't supposed to show any effects of this. I was finding that to be the ultimate balancing act."
Black women are constantly under strain, not only from external and internal struggles with politics, place, and being, but also with the exhausting task of constantly 'appearing to be strong'. It is wearying to have to display strength all the time, and through Major's self-portrait, she offers us all a crown and a nod to the daily grind we all face that often feels as though it wears us down. "At the end of the day, I had to carry that weight still, and do so with poise and not let it disrupt or destruct my daily activity while being that regal source of strength, 'got it together' person that we are expected to be. It's about that, that struggle, and how it's less about how we can handle it and always do but more about how it is not an easy task."
Where Major gives us crowns, April Bey immortalizes strong women in paintings installed as grand banners, holding testament to the 'triumph' of these queen Venuses, picturing the iconic Woman of Willendorf. The paintings on laser prints, suspended from the ceiling and shivering subtly in the space, feature hand-sewn strips of Ghanaian Hitarget Chinese fabric and act as a portrait of strong black women she has engaged with and had conversations with, women she has been inspired by: The Rt Hon. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Esenam Nyador (Miss Taxi Ghana), Sister Loretta Butler-Turner, Chief Theresa Kachindamoto.
The work is laborious, and while Major struggles with weight bearing down, Bey picks up the mantle of the difficulty of balancing hard work and the feminine. "I clocked 80-90 hours per scroll hand sewing. I'm thinking about labour, feminine ways of making and the strength needed to repeatedly complete hard tasks because life demands it."
Demanding is perhaps an apt word for the struggle. "Black Women Are Magic was a now common mantra I wrote down often while traveling and was the basis of my residency proposal for Ghana. Magic insinuates that which is beyond reality and logic. I've witnessed many black women in my life perform feats that are beyond reality and logic. The resilience and stamina black women have to navigate this world is awe-inspiring. Black women are ruthlessly sovereign, but society often teaches us to withhold the respect due". And Bey deals with this misogynoir, this societal injustice that black women must continually face, with grace and with fire.
These are women who are not only picking up what belongs to them, but what belongs to us all. Where the world fails to give you due recognition, you're your way of making yourself and your fellows realize they are sisters in the queendom. It is an act of self-love, which is so severely lacking amongst us.
Again, as Lorde says, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." And this act is done with the poise, magic, and grace that we share with the world every day.
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December 30, 2016
Bahamian women are often thought of as being outspoken, strong, 'biggity' - dare I say - and perhaps it is a result of this legacy of women who won't suffer fools gladly, that has lead to women being painted in a less favorable light. But can we be blamed? After the referendum, it became clear that many of us felt less-than, and the women artists participating in the 8th National Exhibition (NE8) have made their voices heard. Particularly, emerging artists Jodi Minnis and a first-time National Exhibition participant, Cynthia Rahming.
Why is it that two of our younger artists, decided to look into age-old folklore for material for this NE? We had more than enough rich veins of discomfort and dissatisfaction for people to mine for material to produce commentary through work: gender politics, racial politics, queer politics, the whole nine yards. And yet, these two young women chose to look to old-time stories, stories like that of the Gaulin wife, the 'trickster' bird-woman, through which to explore social and personal subject matter.
There is, of course, a myriad of different interpretations - to varying levels of 'dastardly' behavior on the part of the Gaulin, but the most common versions of the folklore have one thing in common: an eligible, yet choosy, bachelor is dissatisfied with the women around him, an old crone warns him against not 'settling down', a new woman comes to town, and he falls head over heels and gets married. Something seems not quite right about his supposedly perfect new wife, and then, at last, he finds out that she is a sham and not a woman at all so much as she is a humanoid, shifting bird-creature. The general theme remains the same, however, that a man has been swindled or hard-done-by this woman.
We are all made to feel sorry for the man of this story. Even in the tellings of Portia Sands and Patricia Glinton-Meicholas, where the Gaulin becomes a mysterious and alluring woman, she is still a villain because she has had the gall to deceive what is portrayed as a poor, unsuspecting man.
Minnis' work, a performance that took place at The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) grounds, took place just before the sun began to set, with the St. Francis Xavier church in the background. The work involved Minnis, dressed entirely in white, washing her clothing and repeating the actions of disrobing, washing, then re-dressing herself. The repeating action functions in an almost baptismal way, in keeping with the visuals of water and white clothing, signifying purity. Minnis puts on the mantle of being the Gaulin wife and uses the clothing and ritual of cleaning to baptise herself as the Gaulin before stripping herself of these ties making herself vulnerable again.
"I see myself as a quintessential young Bahamian woman. And if the Gaulin is meant to be just that, then I can also be her. My work deals with placing myself into these different representations of Bahamian women that we have in our society, trying to be critical of it."
Minnis is drawn to the story because she wishes to see what capacity there is for seeing more depth to the Gaulin woman outside of this negative representation. "I don't think she has been given any room to be seen in a positive light. When you think about deception, manipulation, scamming - these are all negative things and all that is shown about her. But if you think about the stories more deeply you can pull different narratives out of it. For me, being a young Bahamian woman, I think about her being misunderstood, being placed in a situation and just trying to be herself and just reacting to her circumstances and environment."
This is a view shared in part by Rahming, who had grown up with the story through her grandfather and his knack for storytelling, which is strong in keeping with our oral tradition. "I always thought it was an unfair representation. Each version of the story is heavily biased and one-sided. It's always seen through the eyes of the townspeople and sympathizes with the man who gets taken away by the Gaulin. But my work deals with what side people want to take on this story. Do they want to take the side of the Gaulin, as she has been seen as a foreign entity who has ties to the land the same as the townspeople - and she's just looking for a husband, for someone to love her? Or do we take the side of the townspeople and exile the bird? Or the side of the man slighted?"
Rahming is currently studying at the Academy of Art University, working online so that she can pursue her dreams of attending the Olympics for Judo - quite the balancing act, but balance seems to be part of the work. "I want the audience to understand that there are multiple sides of a story. I wanted my work to be interactive so that the audience is aware of the variation in points of view and that they can make their decision as to whether the Gaulin is negative or not".
Her work exists as a mixed media installation at Hillside House, the OFFsite of the NE8. Giant wings made of burlap, with leaf-shaped feathers stitched in a golden thread, are suspended, but also tied down by twine strings to the ground, keeping the bird captive. The work is also interactive, as the viewer is invited to cut the strings - or not - based on what side they choose to take in this story. It is placed just-so, so that anyone can stand in front of the wings and become the Gaulin herself.
Installation work, not unlike performance, has a way of directly engaging the viewer through the imposition of its presence in space. It almost forces engagement in this way, so the fact that both Rahming and Minnis chose to directly and actively engage the viewer - be it through physical action or the emotional intimacy and discomfort one experiences when watching another person disrobe - and that is a political message in and of itself. They wish to be heard, so they are forcing us to hear them.
These women, delving into this representation of a foreign or alien woman as a manipulative being, have presented their critiques of the story in quite different platforms, but there is one common theme to the two, the idea of performativity and the role of the audience. Yes, some might argue that this is the basis of just about any artwork, but these works look at these ideas of the classic artistic canon through the tale of the Gaulin wife in a way that is quite significant. It all becomes about how we perform identities to be able to exist peacefully and move through the world, just as the Gaulin wife does, but also about questioning the level of accountability of the people around us.
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December 30, 2016
U.S.-based Bahamian artist Omar Richardson returns to the University of The Bahamas (UB) in January to exhibit a selection of works from his 2011 series 'Renewal.' The exhibition opens to the public Thursday, January 12 at The Pro Gallery located on UB's Oakes Field campus. He will also give a talk about the works on January 11 in the gallery and a printmaking workshop on January 12th in UB's Visual Arts studio.
Richardson joined The College of The Bahamas in 1999 where he pursued an AA in Art. He later transferred to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, Georgia where he completed a BFA in Painting and a minor in Printmaking in 2006 and his MFA in Printmaking and MA in Commercial Photography in 2010. Richardson also completed a BFA in Graphic Design at The Art Institutes in Atlanta, Georgia in 2013.
He has exhibited in various art galleries in The Bahamas and United States with his work belonging to notable private and public collections including the Inter-American Development Bank's permanent collection. Richardson currently lives in Tampa, Florida, where he owns O. Richardsons Design, a branding company with over six years of experience working with international clients and teaching as an adjunct art professor at The University of Tampa.
Richardson's first solo exhibition "Similar Differences" was hosted at The Pro Gallery in 2000. Almost 17 years later the artist returns to the space that birthed his artistic ambition to inspire a new generation of Bahamian art practitioners, educators, and creative thinkers. "I am proud to be in a position where I can plant seeds of knowledge and encouragement in the future Bahamian artists. My hope for the institution is to see the art programme become more diverse with a focus on design, photography, fine arts and the business of art. Hopefully, one day I can be a part of the faculty that brings this dream to life."
'Renewal' includes a selection of works originally debuted at Richardson's 2011 exhibition 'Renewal of Life' at The Central Bank of The Bahamas Art Gallery. The works explore cultural and personal symbolism as it relates to the human condition. Richardson's work is concerned with themes of memory, reflection, loss and reinvention. He believes the combination of photography, text and printmaking best reflects the multi-faceted nature of his concept. His technique pushes conventional approaches to printmaking by layering colors, dramatic marks, text, and photography. He believes that by combining these processes, a variety of emotions and energy can be seen in the same piece of work.
"The series includes portraits of people, depicting their life experiences. Each piece merges the human form with abstract shapes to emphasize a specific and extreme emotion. This allows the viewers to see and hopefully appreciate different aspects of individuals and cultural expressions with which they are not familiar."
Although Richardson's initial approach to this work was to explore human emotion, the elements of memory and reflection seen in his final pieces are rooted in a deeper conversation concerning cultural identity and universal experiences. The monoprints and woodcuts capture the complexity of the human and universal experience through his personal journey as an Afro-Caribbean male and creative professional.
"I've drawn inspiration from the element of Bahamian culture that is most visible to me, Junkanoo." The origin of Junkanoo in The Bahamas is rooted in West African culture. When you look at how the costumes are designed, you will notice they often include a tribal look very reminiscent of Adinkra symbolism" explains Richardson. "Our culture over the decades has been influenced by a mixture of cultures, and I try to express this diversity in my mark-making."
Even though, the visual construct of the black community lies at the heart of his work the undertone seems less about racial issues and more about cultural awareness. His modern photographs of black women, men and children layered with woodblock prints of West African portraits challenges values of perception and appreciation. Making connections with his Bahamian and African heritage, he researched the Adinkra, symbols that are used as decorative elements in West African cultures.
"My work also connects the expression of the subject to the viewer and the spiritual and emotional aspect of the project. The images of people frozen, doing things in their everyday life like expressing disapproval, or joy, to capture these in a photo is like capturing life."
'Renewal' will be on display at The Pro Gallery until mid-February. Gallery visits are by appointment only. For more information on the exhibition, artist talk and workshop availability, please contact UB's Visual Arts Department on (302-4485/4422) or email@example.com.
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December 23, 2016
'Clay Oven' seems to be a quiet watercolor, content to sit amongst the bright splashes of color from John Beadle, Jackson Burnside or Brent Malone. If you were unfortunate enough to have a flying visit to see 'From Columbus To Junkanoo', where you had a supermarket dash style run through the galleries then you might miss it. But this kind of work can be the most interesting, especially if one has the time to scour, to be curious and stroll. Sometimes the things that don't have the flash and bang and spectacle we love so much in Caribbean work; things that don't have the unabashedly bright colors and bold strokes and jarring geometric shapes, provides us a moment where we can pause to think, make connections and ask something of the quietude presented.
'Clay Oven' (1912) is earthy, it is full of sepias and greens and stony grays, and, it is homely and sincere. This watercolor by ex-patriot Elmer Joseph Read, more commonly known as E. J. Read, is of our oldest works in the National Collection, outside of the traditional black and white film photography by Jacob Coonley, on display in the first wing of the current Permanent Exhibition 'From Columbus to Junkanoo' curated by Averia Wright and Jodi Minnis. While the photography of 'Doc' Sands and Jacob Coonley are immensely important to us in seeing what our colonial Bahamas of the 18th Century looked like, Read's work is significant in a similar way.
'Clay Oven' is a picture of domestic life and work, and the loose strokes and lack of detail in the faces makes us feel that these people could be any of our ancestors. The hearth in classical paintings was often used as a way to show people in conversation, in their domestic spaces - and here too it is domestic, but it is tending to the flame of sustenance and life rather than conversation. Living off the land takes work, and this image makes it seem quite quaint - but it was commonplace, it was how people lived. Perhaps if the image were to be reimagined now, the bodies toiling away in the sun and in front of the fire would be covered in the sweat of their hard work, their eyes would be squinting against the light and the heat of their struggle - rather than the romantic notion of unblemished pale blue or yellow clothing.
'Clay Oven' is not a portrait of realism but one of an idea of a place. The figures present are more than likely not people asked to sit for long periods of time, posing, and therefore not at all like the people with the stern faces we see in so many portraits and photographs from that time. These are working women going about their daily toil, and young ones occupying themselves with anything to hand. The palette suggests a quaint scene, but the way these women are working is anything but tranquil. This is hard graft. They aren't being depicted for likeness perhaps so much as they are for feeling - which is apparent in the small child staring blankly at the viewer as he catches a ride in the cart of slightly older youth. This is a moment of people going about their daily business; there is nothing out of the ordinary for those depicted. In fact, the mothers-cum-cooks-cum-farmers and their children could be representative of the idea of a number of people in similar situations. It seems that it is honest and sincere, but in truth, it is problematic.
While the photographs of Coonley contain some of our first visual documentation of Bahamians of that era, this painting does so as well. But where the former is capturing a moment with a certain sense of immediacy - because despite the time it took for film to record an image - photographs were still considerably faster to produce than a painting of this nature. Though both were expensive; the latter tries to interpret these moments in a marginally different manner, to give feeling where many of the photographs simply logistically could not.
Furthermore, both this watercolor and the colonial photography provide us with the representation of everyday Bahamians that we so desperately need in helping us to anchor where we come from. Seeing black bodies in photographs and paintings from this period aids us in seeing and re-writing our stories into history now with the various strides being made in art history and cultural studies alike. Taking the time to re-inscribe ourselves helps us to feel like we can do at least a little of the talking instead of being talked about. So this is the significance of historical imagery and scholarship for us today, to reinscribe ourselves and our importance and struggles into stories that might have skewed them because of who was doing the photo-taking and who was doing the painting. We are all subject to our subjectivities, no matter what level of privilege or lack thereof - the key is to be open about them.
While both visuals give us depictions of black bodies in these spaces when ordinarily they mightn't have been photographed or painted had they been anywhere else, it is still an idealized and romanticized depiction of the 'native.' The trope of the 'happy local' toiling away is ubiquitous in images from this period. So while we are happy to have representation and images present at all, what is the cost at which this is done?
Elmer Joseph Read was simply a privileged observer of his time. American-born and with means, like many of our colonial photographers in the collection, he came to Nassau with a very specific viewpoint in life. He lived during a time with an obvious divide in power, class, and race - but yet, he still saw fit to take the time to show everyday Bahamian life, to render it in his way. The act of choosing to paint can be political in itself because of the time and effort it takes as much as the intentions the painter wishes to share. In choosing to spend the time to render this image of Bahamian women working, doing manual labour no less in a time when many of the women that Read would know personally could never be seen to get their hands dirty, is a political act. He chose to depict these women and children though the image would be so commonplace - in short, he chose to see and to spend the time painting them acts as a choice decision in where to invest his time when it could be spent elsewhere. The act of depicting the everyday serves as a way to bring it into sharper focus, to allow for time to be spent giving these things more than a cursory glance, to allow us not to take them for granted.
Watercolors are so often associated with leisure and the gentry, but now we do of course have more recent artists reclaiming the medium from this elitist tradition. All of the work being done is 'on the shoulders of giants' as they say. We live in an era where we know more about hegemony and power struggles and have the capacity to fight it. Having these glimpses into the past helps us to stand taller when we see where we are now, no matter how unsettled and troubling the times are at present.
And the present is where we are now, and we can find a bit of the present here within the subtle landscape, within the countryside bathed in swashes of greens and browns and a great swathe of blue washing across a clear sky. And this is very familiar in its own way. Bahamians are seen as living happy lives of servitude that is all too ingrained to us, the idea of always being in service of! But we are now choosing to challenge this notion, some of us are choosing to change the nature our tourism to serve ourselves just a little, rather than to sycophantically seek to please others; some are learning to trust in our beauty and richness rather than trying to fit ourselves to an image that lacks truth and integrity. We are working to reify ourselves outside of a falsified image we have taken as truth, and the work most recently showcased in the National Exhibition 8 (NE8) shows the efforts being made to be critical of our identities outside of this tourist branding, to be honest with ourselves.
Amidst the work dealing with these aftershocks of the colonial era that continue to keep us on shaky ground and tenuous ties to knowing ourselves, we have the work of Jodi Minnis. Minnis' work, 'The Gualin: She Went to the Water' in its political statement, exists as a one-time unique performance. There are of course images to document the event, but the fact that it exists as a moment, that it deals with black womanhood, that it deals with labour (perhaps in both senses), that it deals with baptism and rebirth - and the fact that it took place on the grounds of Villa Doyle, this reclaimed post-colonial building, shows a concerted effort to exert our energies into working for ourselves for a change.
As we come to the end of the year, we can look to the hearth of Read's depiction, to the lazy spiral of smoke emerging from it, as a way to temper ourselves for newly imagined futures. We have dug up and instigated much this year that is not ideal, and it shows, but sometimes you have to uproot what you know to till the ground for something new - and hopefully we can take this chance to plant seeds of something fruitful for a new year.
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December 20, 2016
Sir Noel Coward (1899-1973) was one of the most prominent and versatile creative talents of the twentieth century, authoring over fifty plays (many of which he starred in) and having a hand in writing, directing, and acting in more than twenty-five films, as well as composing hundreds of songs and producing numerous short stories, poems, musical revues, a novel, and a three-volume autobiography. Later in life, he added painting to his repertoire of artistic endeavors, transforming what was initially a recreational pastime for purposes of relaxation into an accomplished sideline activity meriting serious consideration. Though most of his paintings—which generally took the form of landscapes and seascapes—were executed in his adopted homes of Jamaica and Switzerland and his native British Isles, the historical record reveals a few rarely viewed efforts from other Caribbean locales, including the painting Nassau, the single extant oil known to have been produced in The Bahamas.
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December 16, 2016
The recently opened eighth National Exhibition (NE8) contains much of the Bahamian art we've come to know and love over the years. We are a nation and a region with a very strong tradition of painting and wall-based work, which has expanded into the 3D realm, which we have also grown increasingly comfortable with accepting into our arsenal of Bahamian creative practice. But we also have grown into more expanded fields of engagement and display.
Socially engaged art practices are nothing new, and arguably they mark the start of modernism in art: work that uses the stuff of politics as material. This itself perhaps started with painting but socially engaged art as we know it is the product of the last 70 years or so. This kind of work is a bit harder to pin down as art, if we aren't aware of it. How can actions be art? Well, that's easy enough to think about with things like performance art or dance, we get that. But human interaction and activism as art? These things are a bit slippery for many of us, despite the fact that this kind of work has been going on for quite some time now.
The art world we've inherited is, of course, the product of the past two centuries of art - not at all like the work that has existed for the past two millennia, or even the past 20. The art world we know is, of course, tied up in the art market, which has understandably complicated our relationship to work as people who make art and as viewers: do we make to sell? Do we view to tap into that sense of grandeur? Some do for certain, but it is out of these conditions - and the elitism that many find inherent in contemporary art as it relates to the art market - that socially sensitive projects exist, in part at least.
Art and activism have developed quite a happy marriage over the past few years, and as we have seen recently from the impact of social media coverage of art and comedy social commentary, it would appear that where the mainstream media has failed us, in some ways the ubiquitousness and accessibility of social media has provided a way to bypass the powers that be and spread news of fantastic projects that we mightn't ordinarily hear about.
Artists, theorists and philosophers alike want to write marginalized peoples back into the center; there is an urgency in this, and it has only increased its energy and trajectory since these ideas - primarily driven by postcolonial and cultural theory - gained widespread attention in the late 80s and 90s. Further, work of this kind is so utterly important and necessary for the Caribbean and has been the bed on which so much of our art as a region has been made.
In particular, we can look to two projects in the NE8 that explicitly deal with these ideas. Hilary Booker is the first researcher/artist-in-residence for both the NE8 and Hillside House as part of its new program to create a space to nurture the production of new works. For the next four weeks, she will be sourcing and creating plant-based meals using mostly local produce to help us re-engage with our environment through food. 'The Moonflower Room' - her new framing of the space at Hillside House - will be a way also to help us reframe how we view our food practices in relation to knowing ourselves as Bahamians.
"I am most interested in looking at the intersection between the intentional food practices of people in Nassau and their spiritual journeys or journeys of consciousness, and how
people's very material everyday, and the most mundane thing that people do every day, actually translates into people's sense of who they are and desires for decolonization and healing spiritually, physically and emotionally." Booker quite clearly understands the importance of food not just to Bahamians in general, as we so often joke about how much we love to eat, but how food functions for us in social contexts, and the capacity of sharing meals for eliciting a sense of emotional wellness as much as physical.
Some might not immediately see the linkage between creative practices and scientific ones, and it must be noted that Booker has just completed her doctoral research in environmental studies. But her keen interest in the community, in people, and in using creative platforms to think about data shows how utterly necessary such a holistic approach is. Science is never removed from life and can never exist in a vacuum, despite the myth that we can be objective as human beings in looking at data. We all process everything we come across based on our past experiences, and science is no exception. Just as science cannot exist removed from our experiences, art deals with the material of it in much a similar way.
"As an interdisciplinary artist, I'm interested in environmental studies, so I'm interested in looking at the people and Ecology. So much of this project is about merging the beauty of the two and looking at the ways that the ecology effects and develops the culture. I want to find a way to reflect this beauty that I see back to everyone."
Dealing with our post-colonial condition and, as Booker says, our desire for decolonisation can be such heavy work, but she frames this project with a spirit of hopefulness that is impossible not to believe in.
On talking about the inspiration for the title of the project, she shares "In a simple way, a moonflower is a plant that has an incredibly intoxicating fragrance and it blooms in darkness. For me, there is something about that idea, that there is this beauty that is presented in darkness, that blooms at night-time. To be able to express beauty even when there are so many challenges and in a situation that you wouldn't think suitable to sustain it. And aside from that, it's also a plant that is often used in indigenous cultural and medicinal systems and it is an extremely potent. I like to think it works as powerful medicine on both those levels."
So then, this asks several questions on this kind of work: Is the action the work? Is the presentation of information the work? Is it the connection of people? Is it the creation of a safe spaces or spaces of catharsis?
Or can it also be a question of representation?
Whereas Hilary's project deals explicitly with our connection to food and colonial heritage and how the environmental and social ecologies of The Bahamas are affected by this history, The Commission of the Queer deals perhaps most obviously with a need to be seen and be heard when you have been marginalized.
The Commission of the Queer (CoQ) shares with us the experiences of Bahamians who identify as queer - be it any part of the LGBTQQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Ally) spectrum. And while it does deal pointedly with the experiences of those who have moved from our islands elsewhere - for refuge or otherwise - it also tackles the difficulty of existing openly here and trying to navigate this space.
Jon Murray, who is part of the collective, speaks of the difficulty in not only providing the right language for us to speak about queerness but also to speak about this kind of work. "I don't even know what word to use for these kinds of projects: agency, entity, organization. All of them seem very restrictive when I'm viewing it as this network and connection and web that is living and growing as it needs to. Whether that's growing bigger or smaller, time will tell."
They are just that. This is perhaps why projects such as these are so hard to pin down. They don't exist in the way that we think of artwork.
"To think of social practice as a living thing is the best way to approach it. I feel that with autonomous artworks they have a potential for timelessness in the presentation of the image - or whatever other form the work takes when it is presented. They're more like snapshots from a film instead of the film in its entirety. But with a project like this where people have to be brought to the table to create dialogue, it can ever be truly finished. It makes the work a living thing. It can last a long time; it can die off and come back. This is what relationships are, and this is what these works are made on."
Another question gets posed then: what is the capacity for change with social practice as art?
"I think change is implied, or even unavoidable. This type of work is about building connections and creating connections between people, so I think it can be an act of providing representation, by the act of simply doing that in itself. In the pure sense of social practice as artwork, where you're creating a context in which people work toward something or interact, through that context and situation there is a faith in the project that change simply has to occur. I think that by doing one (providing representation), you're doing the other (change), and they become interchangeable in a way."
In a year of such intense political tension, the creation of safe spaces and spaces of healing and wellbeing are paramount. The change began on Thursday evening, December 15th at the NAGB, and starts today, Saturday, December 17th at Hillside House. The National Exhibition 8 runs through April 2017.
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