July 07, 2017
Works dealing with the divine, with Christianity, with the spiritual, are very much rooted in what we consider to be part of our representation of Bahamianness. In looking to the work of Dionne Benjamin-Smith, an artist and graphic designer known for her pithy and no-holds-barred practice - and very informative and inclusive newsletter designed and created by herself and her partner - we can see a proudly proclaimed Bahamian woman who identifies with her Christianity taking acute aim at problems with the way we view religion in our country.
Originally shown in an exhibition at Popopstudios in 2003 called '24 x 24' and including a contingent of Bahamian artists who attended the Rhode Island School of Design, "bishops, bishops everywhere and not a drop to drink" (2003) was accessed by the 2003 Collection Fund at the NAGB. Both 'bishops, bishops ...'(2003) and 'Built on Sand' (2003), while they can indeed exist on their own, generate a stronger message when paired together. Context is, after all, incredibly important to the way we read and understand artworks, and sometimes the works themselves can be thought of as key, autonomous ideas existing under the overarching conversation umbrella that is the exhibition. Artworks don't always exist in exhibitions of course, but in this particular context, it is useful to think of them in this way.
These works are currently displayed as part of the "Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics" rehang of the Permanent Exhibition at the NAGB, and they are part of the National Collection. Being a part of the National Collection denotes a sort of significance and importance not just to the work itself, but how it functions as part of Bahamian art history.
For Benjamin-Smith, "This piece reflected my disenchantment with the modern church and the proclivity amongst some of its members towards tyranny, elitism, judgement, hypocrisy and high-mindedness - thus poisoning the minds of people and further alienating them from God and His message of love. Years of guilt-ridden membership in the Catholic church, witnessing pharisaical behaviour from other church leaders and receiving un-Christlike doctrine full of condemnation proved burdensome to me as I was in search of the joy and love my spirit knew existed out there somewhere. It was only until my conversion was I able to discern what the word Christian should mean and what the Church should represent in our society."
The work was not intended by the artist to act as a specific judgement or 'calling out' of particular religious personalities in the Bahamian Christian community, but rather a way to show that "We are all human and we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
It simply relates experiences and incidents I witnessed and reflects the kinds of dangerous attitudes and actions which are prevalent in the Church worldwide and of which the Church should be careful and quick to change."
Exhibiting works that look to Christianity, in an exhibition dealing with the way that colonial tourism shaped our representation as Bahamians, the way that the nation was 'produced', shows that we are trying to bring up the difficult, perhaps contentious subject, of how our Christianity fits into our colonial past. Religion was one of the tools used to justify the colonialism of our region (both pre and post-Columbus) and the slavery that was used to displace and oppress the West African people whom many of us are descended from. So why then, do we subscribe to this religion so strongly, and for a lot of us still, without question and doubt?
Benjamin-Smith is very openly Christian in her beliefs, but also very openly critical of the corruption within the church and calls for change. It might appear initially strange to have such opposing beliefs: the upholding of a religion that was instrumental in the suffering of one's ancestors, but also the criticality of the current corruption you are dealing with in the church in its present, various forms. While we cannot solely associate the faith with the way people in power may have used it, it is also an inescapable association we have with our past as a country. Her depictions of distorted, grotesque Bishops and pastors and priests are concurrent with the idea that is indeed 'gross' to see someone intended as a religious leader, someone intended to be a symbol of goodness and an example, be so subject to such unethical, immoral behavior.
No, this is not all bishops or religious leaders for certain, we must make that clear, but the fact that the position has such power and the abuse of this misuse, violation and the exploitation attached to that power is precisely the problem. Benjamin-Smith calls for us to remember that while so many atrocities, both on a local and global scale, are attributed to the Christian churches throughout history, we must not forget the foundation of what the message is meant to mean. It is a faith, and we must not lose this faith: in our brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, even our enemies. We must be confident in demanding to be treated in accordance with these beliefs, should you be a follower, and we must also not forget the song that is constantly sung, if not followed, in Christianity is one of love, tolerance and the betterment of your fellow human beings regardless of background or past transgressions.
Art exists between the different meanings and relationships it has with people, what it means for people and the conversations it brings up. Benjamin Smith's work often very openly and explicitly tackles the difficult conversations and her work, having this background of communication from her design training, helps to do just this, to communicate and to give a call for criticality and action.
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July 07, 2017
Bahamian artist and icon, Amos Ferguson radiantly portrays the spirit of Junkanoo through an energetic array of repeated imagery and texture in Junkanoo Cow Face - Match Me If You Can, an iconic piece in the Gallery's National Collection. His interest in flattening the picture plane and depicting a graphic quality to the work is evident in this work, nodding to the style that he became widely known for. Ferguson used color and repetition of form for impact and clarity. Arrangements of patterns flood his paintings, a visual language closely related to that of Bahamian culture, and in particular Junkanoo.
Amos Ferguson was born in a small village in The Exumas, Bahamas on February 28th 1920. He grew up on a farm as his parents were sharecroppers - humbly living amongst his six siblings with no electricity. His family primarily grew sugar cane, beans and corn, selling the crops at the local market. Ferguson's father was also a preacher and the pastor of Palestine Union Baptist Church. He was very close with his father, and spent a lot of time reading the bible and praying. He gained a deep appreciation and understanding of God through his relationship with his father, and grew into a deeply religious man. According to Ferguson, "See, I stick with my daddy. He was a religious man, and I stick with him. All he into, the bible. Speak good 'tings, tell you good from bad." Many of Ferguson's paintings were heavily influenced by his religious background.
Bloneva King, also known as Bea, worked nearby Ferguson in the Nassau straw market for many years selling traditional woven baskets and hats. Ferguson and her collaborated in their craft - her baskets with his painted pictures set her trade apart from the other venues in the market. Bea became Ferguson's wife and artistic mentor, supporting his talents and later assisting him with the marketing of his work. It is said that his folk and intuitive art style grew from the time spent at the straw market, influenced by decorative and craft works that he encountered.
Folk art encompasses art produced from laboring tradespeople or by peasants. It is said to be primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic. Perhaps the early works of Ferguson within the straw market context fit under the folk genre, but pulled away from that as his artistic career developed into a deeper intuitive art practice. However, the aesthetic of folk art continued to weave itself within his work. Many of Ferguson's paintings include hand-painted text with the famous words "Paint by Mr. Amos Ferguson" - shining a light on his decorative and natural approach to painting. The writing sitting directly on the work changes its formality, giving a large variety of audiences insight into the work and into his thinking.
Throughout Ferguson's life, he also worked as an
upholsterer, furniture finisher, and house painter. Evidence of his carpentry background are manifested in his paintings, primarily using house paints and found materials as his central medium. He achieved many of his dynamic pattern work with the tops and ends of nails dipped into paint. Ferguson also used house boards as a surface for many of his paintings.
Junkanoo was a central recurring theme in many of his works. Junkanoo is a Bahamian national festival consisting of a medley of colours and sounds. The vivacious sounds of goat skin drums, whistles, brass instruments and cowbells flood Bay Street in New Providence and other Family Islands during the early morning hours on Boxing Day and New Year's Day. Brilliantly colored costumes are tediously constructed in shacks throughout the year to be worn during the festival. They come alive through the rhythmic movement of dancers wearing them, intensively animating the brightly colored designs.
Traditionally, Junkanoo costumes were made with discarded or recycled items - rags, newspaper, sponges - and later developed in the 60s to crepe paper and cardboard. Today, Junkanoo costumes are constructed with a magnitude of craft material ranging from rhinestones to feathers to glitter. For that reason, viewers may not immediately draw a connection between Ferguson's work and the festival. The animal faces evident in many of his Junkanoo themed paintings are reminiscent of Junkanoo's original roots as a West African ritual in which people wore masks with large tusks on their heads and stood on stilts. Often times, real cow's horns were attached to the headdress and tied under the chin, along with a black jacket and a tail called Reel-A-Tail, made out of empty bobbin spools.
Ferguson's repetition of imagery, color and texture in 'Junkanoo Cow Face - Match Me If You Can' captures the spirit of Junkanoo - the rapid beats, the rhythmic dancing of the rush out, and the sea of craft that lights up the dark, early morning sky.
Six cow-faced humans occupy the composition of this painting, three lined horizontally at the top standing tall and three beneath, parallel to the top crouching down. The first figure appears to be holding a trumpet, although it is hard to distinguish at first look because of Ferguson's preservation of flatness. He uses no sense of perspective, further flattening out the picture plane and adding to the brilliant abstract quality that his paintings obtain. The figure is a brown tone, contrasting beautifully with his highly colored and patterned attire, which appears to be a robe of some sort. Through tediously spotted marks of different colours, Ferguson achieves a sense of texture that is also repeated on the figure's headdress. Two pointed horns begin at the head and bend around as they ascend, mimicking that of a real cow. The figure is gently smirking, revealing a light-hearted and celebratory expression.
The following five figures are dressed the same with similar expressions - the only change with each is the instrument in which they hold. The second is tenderly holding a drum, the third a cow bell, the fourth another cow bell, the fifth a trumpet and the last one a drum. The repetition of form, color and imagery in this painting effectively mimics the repetitive nature of a Junkanoo procession and the beat of a rush out and even as far as a pattern engrained in a costume. The visual recurrence in this work imitates the nature of Junkanoo, without the imagery needing to be there at all.
Ferguson's iconic polka-dotted textures are similar to those of contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, known as the "Polka-Dot Princess", who is interested in psychedelic colors, repetition and pattern. Kusama creates installations, paintings and collages all revolving around the repetition of vibrantly colored circles. Similar to another Bahamian iconic artist, Kendal Hanna, Kusama's interest for polka-dots revolves around her suffering from a mental disorder that consists of intense audio-visual hallucinations.
These are just a few examples of the overlapping between artist, their life, and their art. Hanna's schizophrenia and his ability to freely experiment with abstraction, Kusama's hallucinations and obsession for polka-dots, and Ferguson's love for the Bahamian culture. No matter how radically different, each artist correspondingly weaves his or her life experiences within their art practice.
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July 04, 2017
Over the years, Bahamian Art & Culture has featured the work of innovative inter-disciplinary artist Anina Major, who primarily works with clay. She studied at The College of The Bahamas, earned a Bachelors Degree in Graphic Design from Drexel University and has recently graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design’s MFA Ceramics programme. We are honoured to feature her most recent body of work that was created specifically for her graduate thesis. It is entitled “In The Marketplace” (2017).
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June 30, 2017
A national institution of art coming together with one of the biggest hotel corporations doesn't sound like your usual pairing -- but public artwork has no prejudices, no bounds, and as such, the most unlikely collaborations can often be the most fruitful.
The NAGB, along with Sandals Royal Bahamian and the Sandals Foundation, have teamed up to bring forth a lighthearted public project with a serious message.
For World Oceans Day, established visual artists in the community were commissioned to produce a vibrant wall mural with the idea of drawing attention to the need to not just protect our waters, but to truly care for them, as they are such a strong part of what makes our country the place it is --in geography, in culture and especially in our history.
Dede Brown and Dylan Rapillard -- both strong artists in their own right, but certainly a dynamic team when paired up for projects such as this -- produced an 80-foot-long mural along West Hill Street, assisted by Shardae Pratt and Emily Voges, by working together. The resulting product is a turquoise and teal patterned painting to behold.
The mural doesn't just catch the eye and help to illustrate the all too important message of saving our seas; it also helps to add more public interest to a historic area currently undergoing renovations, which all serves to rejuvenate Downtown as a whole.
Public artwork is regularly employed, particularly in cities, as a way to engage 'dead space' -- that is, wide expanses of blank walls on buildings or open areas that could easily hold large sculptural structures.
When we spend day in and day out trudging along the concrete, why have a wide expanse of concrete and a gray place when you can some add color and humanity back in?
The studies on how public works of art can lift not just the mood, but the mental and emotional well-being of those engaging with it, are vast, let alone its potential for increasing awareness of any number of problems we face as a people that need attention.
There is indeed a reason, so many hospitals implement art programs and curate work in their spaces. And, here especially we often see hotels making great use of having artwork in spaces as a way to bring up the social value and significance of a space.
"Space is a social morphology: It is to lived experience what form itself is to the living organism, and just as intimately bound up with function and structure."
Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991), a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist, marked out different types of space and place in 'The Production of Space' (1991) and theorized that each society produces its unique kind or quality of 'space'.
What, then, does Bahamian space look like for us? What could it look like? Public art is nothing new for us, and it is often driven by the tourism that supports so much of our economy.
But when we take murals to historic buildings, it begins to help us reclaim these places for the majority of Bahamians, and we can begin to turn them into social spaces of openness.
Both Lazar Delorenzo Charlton (PR, Sandals) and Amanda Coulson (director, NAGB) felt the need to reach outside of their institutional walls as a way to open themselves to the surrounding community.
Here at the NAGB, we still have some Bahamians who feel uncomfortable with making their first trip to the gallery.
It is, after all, a large, grand-looking old colonial manor, and historically the space was domestic, private, and deemed a place where one might 'trespass' by entering.
But many of our ancestors laid the blocks for buildings just like this, or worked in them, or lived in them - and the artwork in it is very much ours, part of our patrimony and culture.
In some small way, having bright and colorful walls with a message we can all appreciate is a way to lead into spaces whose edifices might seem a bit too daunting on their own. Color can bring comfort.
It's quite a nice tie-in when we think of the way that our oceans are also our public space that could do with a perk-up of its own.
Initiatives for beach cleanups and practising good, sustainable fishing practices are all happening and necessary for preserving our marine heritage - because, the waters around us, while steeped in difficult history, are also what we should consider part of our legacy and heritage as Bahamians.
The mural shows how tied we are to the water, with a succinct, but encompassing sentence scrawled across the top of the wall: "The ocean gives us air to breathe, food to eat, thousands of jobs, and a place to play. It's my ocean, and it's your ocean, and it is our responsibility as Bahamians to protect it." - Nikita Shiel-Rolle, founder and executive director of Young Marine Explorers
Just as our history was irrevocably linked to the water, so is our fluid and ever-changing present but the water remains the constant current within it, and even around it.
The sea is a livelihood for so many and we'd do well to protect it as best as possible. Considering the country's name quite literally derives from the term "shallow seas," with the imminent threat of rising sea levels and the effect of global warming on our coral reefs, which are integral to our marine ecosystem, we should at the very least do what we can to nurture the very thing that nurtures us.
The shoal of colorful fish that run the length of the wall, the bearded man in the dinghy with his hook and line: They might be rendered in a stylized, graphic manner, but they are real to us.
Brown and Rapillard's mural reminds us of those things we learned in school and seem to forget - for instance, that our waters play host to the third largest living organism in the world (at 190 miles long), namely, the Andros Barrier Reef, which is the world's third-largest fringing barrier reef.
Hailed by astronaut Scott Kelly as the "most beautiful place from space," our banks and reefs look like paintings themselves, and the palette chosen for this mural pays homage to our often coveted greens and blues.
We don't always think of our ocean as our history in the same way that we think of buildings, because of the flow of water, the way it constantly changes and changes our very landscape. But, as Lefebvre states, "Nothing disappears completely ... In space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows" (1991).
History itself is a flow and changes us as the tide and crash of waves can.
Just as we have tried to protect our historical sites, so should the ocean be considered in this endeavour. The more we have public art projects to not just 'beautify' an area, but to open up discussions - both lighthearted and more sombre - the better.
And truly, is that not the purpose of so much art from the region?
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June 30, 2017
Lynn Parotti is a Bahamian artist exploring themes of natural and biological landscape, those surrounding us and within us.
In "The Blastocyst's Ball," Parotti displays a triptych of non-objective form and color, alluding to something that may exist within biology or perhaps, more specifically, in our bodies.
Each piece shows a unique arrangement, but commonly shared hues and rigid texture created through repetition generate a strong sense of unity between them.
Organic form in reds, whites, purples and browns occupy each composition.
Some forms are stacked, building up masses that blend each curvilinear line into a whole.
Others sit next to one another, actively dispersing into space to reveal their individuality.
The last panel exhibits similar forms wrapping around to create a single circular shape, an opening of some sort, and the uniqueness of each mark disappears again.
Parotti portrays a plethora of organic form and line, specifically those of a circle. In the first piece, the repetition of curved lines creates an imperfect circular shape.
Circles have neither beginning nor end, and for that they often represent the eternal whole.
They are used to suggest familiar objects by relating to our natural surroundings as well as to our bodies. To some, their curves are seen as feminine.
There are no concrete rules about what colors are exclusively feminine or masculine, but there have been studies over the past decades that draw some generalizations.
A study, executed in 2003 by Joe Hallock, compared color preferences among various demographics. He surveyed 232 people amongst 22 different countries around the world.
The study showed that women preferred colors that are closer to the red end of the spectrum. For that reason, we tend to associate reds with femininity.
Parotti's consideration of warm hues not only acts as a reference to the body, but also implies a further indication to specifically female biology.
Red is the hottest of all primary colors, making it highly stimulating for the viewer's eye.
It is a color that tends to stir up passion, both in a negative and positive light.
Being the color of blood and fire, it may be associated with meanings of love, passion, desire, heat, longing, lust, sexuality and energy, to name a few.
It is an emotionally intense color that is said to enhance human metabolism, increase respiration rate and raise blood pressure.
The effect this hue has on our bodies directly correlates with the subject matter that Parotti presents, adding a dynamic layer of context to the work, and to the experience between the viewer and the art.
Besides formal interpretations of the piece, the title provided by Parotti is a direct insight into the content of the works.
They abstractly portray the process of assisted reproduction, or in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), in which several eggs are removed form the ovaries, externally fertilized and then--as embryos--are returned into the uterus in the hope that they implant and become a pregnancy.
Woman having IVF are given special reproductive hormones to encourage several eggs to develop in the ovaries.
Final maturation of the egg itself is induced by the administration of a further hormone. Thirty-six hours later, the fluid containing the eggs is drawn from the ovary with a needle, this is usually performed under light sedation with a doctor using ultrasound to check proceedings.
The eggs collected from the ovary are then mixed with a sample of the male partner sperm, which has already been washed and concentrated.
The eggs and sperm are left in an incubator set at 37 degrees for 24 hours so that fertilisation can take place.
During this time, only one of the many sperm cells will penetrate the outer layer of the egg and achieve fertilisation. Following fertilisation, the cells divide and multiply and form an embryo.
After two or three days, a healthy embryo will comprise around eight cells. It is then transferred to the uterus using a thin, flexible tube where it is left to implant and form a pregnancy.
Although IVF is a helpful tool for infertile couples, there is some controversy with the misuse of this technology.
Aldous Huxley suggested that "test tube baby" technology wasn't actually about infertility, it was about eugenics.
Eugenics is a set of beliefs that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population. IVF was about making super-babies: Better babies, stronger babies, smarter babies, with an aim to make the perfect baby.
Rather than it being of interest between infertile couples, it would be of interest to government and authoritarian states.
Why would we allow any ordinary people to fall in love and have babies? There is less control that way.
Could we control the process in a test tube and select specific traits in children that would be useful for society? The concern of this technology is in its misuse. Through IVF, are we going to breed ourselves to improve ourselves?
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June 30, 2017
The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas' (NAGB) Mixed Media Summer Art Camp (MMSAC) is a program designed with creativity, discovery and fun in mind -- every day. A blend of art exploration and classic camp activity, the MMSAC serves as a space where young people are learning without even knowing it. From the very youngest to the most senior participant, the goal of the camp is to encourage our campers to express the full range of their creative ideas.
So often, children are asked to answer only with the responses that we, as adults, want to hear. They are encouraged (and in many cases, rightfully so) to respond with a specific set of ideals and expectations. However, sometimes, the expectation that young people should consistently speak the words we give them, express the ideas we approve, and desire to do the things that only we understand and value, gives way to a stifling of analysis, critique, problem-solving, and the mental dexterity to contemplate a solution to a new challenge.
Art teaches us that we can all look at the same object and express completely different perspectives and that sometimes there are no right answers. It compels us to feel the discomfort of a never before attempted lesson, work through that mask making, sculpture building, or painting project -- all the way to its eventual conclusion -- and even in that discomfort, commit to a new way or approach to completing the task. It is in the discomfort that we grow.
Art bestows both the confidence and the humility to move through a process and find what is on the other side, even while simultaneously creating it. Art inspires the introvert to express themselves openly. It compels the perfectionist to accept their mistakes and, if they need to, to start over and to know that starting over is ok. It teaches us that to create is to make mistakes and that there is beauty in the unexpected. Sometimes, the beauty is the mistake. These are invaluable lessons that transfer from one specialized subject -- art -- to other areas of study and into one's life.
It might seem as though a summer camp would find it difficult to facilitate all of this in a span of three weeks. Yet, it does, or at least, it can. Since its redesign in 2015 by Community Outreach Officer, Abby Smith, not only has the camp's breadth of activity deepened, so too has its availability to a broader audience. As a result, children's lives have been changed. Middle class. Working class. Underserved. Wealthy. Every camper is meant to feel and know that they are safe to be the best of themselves, even when they are still very much figuring that out. New Providence. Andros. Eleuthera. Abaco. No matter the island, every camper is welcome with open minds and arms.
Thanks to the commitment of the gallery and MMSAC summer staff, the artist community, our generous sponsors and partners, every year the camp and its campers make new and magical memories; lessons and laughs for a lifetime.
The mixed media summer art camp's second session begins on July 11, 2017, and is available to children ages 5-18. The full day art camp experience lasts three weeks and is punctuated with an art opening highlighting the wonderful work of the campers. Space is limited. Visit nagb.org.bs/for-families/ to learn more and to register.
The NAGB thanks the Lyford Cay Foundation, New Providence Community Centre, Mr. & Mrs. Paul and Barbara Hepburn, Graycliff, Mario's Pizza, RBC, ALIV and our many donors and friends for their generous sponsorship and support.
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June 26, 2017
Outside her ground-floor apartment in Kingston, hairstylist Jody Cooper sits on the bright blue bench that serves as her makeshift salon. The 22-year-old native Jamaican is flipping through photographs of herself—there she is a few years ago in a studded monokini, with strawberry blonde hair and blue eyeshadow, her skin several shades lighter than it is now.
Cooper doesn’t remember making a conscious choice to bleach her skin. Growing up, everyone around her was doing it—her school friends, her mom, her aunt. So she did it too. For nine years, she rubbed creams on her face and
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June 16, 2017
Heino Schmid's practice can perhaps be described as slippery or amphibious -- and it's not so much to do with the water as it is to do with his fluidity in dealing with the bounds of what we believe to constitute drawing, sculpture, and painting as separate genres -- the proverbial lines in his practice become blurred. This movement between the medium and the means is why "Temporary Horizon" (2010) was chosen for the current permanent exhibition, "Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics" on display at the NAGB.
"Temporary Horizon" (2010) is what initially appears to be a delightfully simple video work that shifts at one moment from performance -- with the artist clad in a white shirt and jeans (a sort of uniform of modernity for many of us) as he attempts to place the bottom of a Kalik bottle on the neck of another lying flat on the table. It then shifts to a still-life of sorts, as, almost impossibly or by magic, the bottles balance on top of each other and remain unmoving for what feels like eternity. Of course, nothing lasts forever, and the bottles eventually become re-animated and topple over before rolling off the table in the video.
The work is displayed across from a newly created work by Schmid for the exhibition, "Pull" (2017), almost as if they are in conversation with each other. The works in this particular section of the exhibition, entitled "Beyond The Tropical", deal with the way Bahamian contemporary artists are moving past the manicured tropical image of Caribbean paradise to produce work that engages with our specific regional and international context in ways that challenge these notions of the picturesque. Schmid's work typifies this in many ways. The artist and educator, currently Associate Professor of Art at the University of The Bahamas, uses found objects and materials from our everyday environment to re-inform the way we view our surroundings. His work provides us a moment of unfamiliarity wherein we have to re-navigate what we thought we knew our surroundings to be.
This is in part achieved by his work often operating in 'white cube' spaces, much like video displayed in this white background and on a white table -- they both blend into each other before Schmid activates the space in the video by entering the shot. The 'white cube' is the default we often think of in regards to most gallery-based contemporary art work. White walls are meant to indicate a blank slate, tabula rasa, and clinical quality, an idea of a neutral space --but, as the world of art is built of symbols and histories, the white cube is of course anything but. As Brian O'Doherty, the Irish installation artist and critic known for his seminal text "Inside The White Cube" produced in 1976, the white cube is not neutral at all, it is an art-historical construct. The history of the white cube is one that elevates anything within it to be considered art -- hence the problems we have with people thinking that fire extinguishers are being exhibited rather than their proper placement as protection from fire hazards.
The neutrality desired by the construction of white cube spaces is best thought of as setting a stage, it creates an environment and set of social rules for how to engage with the contents of the space in a particular way. That being said, as Caribbean and postcolonial subjects, given our mixed heritage of European, indigenous and African ancestry, with a healthy dollop of globalization and American influence, our art history is a little bit all-over-the-place -- and that provides a beautiful freedom in many ways. We are not bound by the rigidity of being boxed in by "white" as many other Western practices are, because while we are Western, we are also not. We have the freedom to move between different historical references, but
not in a neutral way, we carry our history whether we engage with it directly or not. Schmid might be in a white shirt and jeans, and in a white space -- he could literally be anyone by these listed signifiers -- but he cannot escape the racial ambiguity of his skin in the image and what curiosity that piques. He is a trickster not just by the act performed, but by his movements between elements of blackness and whiteness as his mixed Bahamian and European heritage allows.
There is both a tension and contention for bi-national and mixed-raced subjects, wherein there is a perceived privilege of being able to move between whiteness and blackness, an implied ease of sorts that isn't afforded to most black folks. This is not, however, quite true in itself. Being a black and white mixed subject means that while perhaps a certain whiteness might provide some privilege of moving in primarily white spaces that other black bodies may not be so lucky to do, there is also a distrust that becomes present on both sides and a displacement that can never quite be reconciled.
Caribbean work in the white cube space can also feel this displacement, a feeling that harkens back to some difficult parts of our history as a people descended from all manner of migratory bodies: displaced Black Africans, European colonizers, Chinese, Greek, and South-Asian migrants brought in or moved for opportunities in new lands. We feel it all.
Angelika Bammer, the feminist scholar of "Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question" (1994) describes our plight as the "deconstructive dilemma of needing to step outside and remain inside the same systems". She states that "Identity is at times about what we are essentially not, but are also not free to dispense with." The tension of the beer bottles elucidates this in an understated and succinct way: if we take them to be the fragile balance of our European colonial history and African ancestry, the way that we try to reconcile these two sides of our heritage, and the loop of this video in the way we must gently balance them, hold this balance for as long as possible, and watch as the bottles collapse before we must loop back and do it all again. It feels true to the constant push and pull we feel on our identity here, amidst this displaced backdrop and new territory we are forced to navigate.
The magic of Schmid's trick lies in this balance, and become more real than imagined if we use it as a metaphor for the way think and come to know ourselves. The balancing act is difficult, it may occasionally feel like a performance, but it is an exercise we are much accustomed to. And just as the video- while filmed in a white cube-is displayed in a space with richly colored walls in a building with a history just as richly colored - perhaps we just need to look outside the bounds of our personal frame of reference and add more color to this clinical space to begin to move past these difficulties.
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June 16, 2017
The interpretation of abstract art entails an inventiveness that allows you to discover for yourself the meaning behind the work. It's an organic process, it has no equation or set of rules --the art presents itself and you are left with little information to process it. For many, this is unsettling. As humans, we yearn for understanding - we desire clear, detailed instruction. Abstract art provides none of that.
Revolutionary color field painter Mark Rothko says, "Art that truly engages us is felt even when you have turned your back on it." There's something really special about that -- about feeling the sensation of a work beyond its physicality. It's when you can feel the strength of the painting from across the room. You can stand in the space the artist once occupied and imagine him or her in that same spot, debating over the next smear of black or red pour or blue dot. Similarly, Jerry Saltz says, "Abstraction disenchants, re-enchants, detoxifies, destabilizes, resists closure, slows perception, and increases our grasp of the world."
Bahamian artist and educator Michael Edwards presents us with "Untitled II," a monotype that employs the techniques of painting, silk screening and embossing to create a non-objective mixture of intentionally placed color, line, texture, and pattern. Edwards brilliantly captivates the language of painting in this work, exploring the way in which a mark can exist and how it changes when paired with colors or textures or gradients. How does a translucent red transform when placed next to a deep black or on top of a blue and yellow pattern? Can a sense of unity still be achieved within the diversity of this work through a commonly-shared direction? Although there is great diversity within the work, it follows a vertical orientation, flowing from top to bottom.
The eye begins at the top of this composition, circulating through a thin layer of red that delicately lies above a series of rapid patterns. The first set of patterns appear to be deep blues screened over a solid yellow. Edwards' handwork here is energetic - the work itself becomes evidence of his interaction with the material. An organically-printed rope pattern delicately sits on top, creating a type of grid that provides some form of structure. The thin red pour sits in the grid with a sense of urgency that captures you once again and draws you down towards the centre of the work. One might expect that the red would delicately turn into the black, seamlessly transitioning from one color to the next, but it doesn't happen that way. The clumsy interruption of a paper seam catches the eye and abruptly stops you. Here, a clear insight into the materiality of the work adds an intense layer of contrast to what once appeared to be so delicate.
Edwards has intentionally emphasized his material, providing insight for the viewer in understanding the process of this craft. There is a slight shift in the way the form continues down; it is similarly shaped but offset ever so slightly. This shift stimulates the eye in a way that brings the work great unpredictable complexity - and we are suddenly left with what appears to be an infinite black. It is rough with drips and smears and emphasizes the characteristics of ink and its relationship with gravity. Edwards has effectively captured a sense of space through his use of color - the black feeling as if it is occupying the foreground, up close and personal, while the grey tones recede into the distance.
One may begin relating this to something within one's physical reality - a sense of 3-dimensionality, if you will. But when we step out of the print again, we realize it is merely color and shape and does not provide any detail to help us in the understanding of what it may be. And that is all that it is. Without any answers, the eye is left to circulate the work again, hungry for clarity. When yet more questions arise, the work has done its job. I remember turning my back to it and still feeling its presence, trying to continue deconstructing it, and then finally accepting its ambiguity.
According to art theorist Stephen Knudsen, the intensity of a painting lies in its ability to exert great energy, strength, depth and emotional force. The complexity of a painting, similarly, involves building variety within and among formal elements of a work: line, shape, value, hue, saturation, translucency, opacity, textures. And then, he also rightfully states that unity is the combining of elements within the painting into an effective whole. In this work, Edwards captures intensity within the layering of diverse mark-making, pattern and form. He presents a close relationship between opaque colors hiding beneath translucent pours, weaved with organic lines. He dictates the speed and direction of our eye, moving from north to south slowly, stopping, and then continuing rapidly until our vision runs off the surface and we are forced to start again.
The understanding of this work lies in the acceptance of not knowing entirely, in the appreciation and celebration of craftsmanship, and in the power of the creative sensation. Edwards has so masterfully achieved a sense of intensity within this work that we cannot help but revisit it, delightfully finding new fragments with each return.
"Untitled II" is currently on view in the NAGB's Permanent Exhibition "Revisiting an Eye for the Tropics" through February 18, 2018.
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June 16, 2017
In The Bahamas, there has been an ongoing discussion about lowering duty on art supplies and products in order to discourage the disenfranchisement of local artists by allowing cheap imitation art to be imported at a lower duty rate.
Free trade and membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is often discussed, but quickly it becomes clear that few people understand the complexity of the situation and regional governments have done little to help the public inform themselves. In fact, it would seem that up to now information has been intentionally opaque and even less has been shared than ought to have been. At the apex of talks about the WTO, the Ministry of Financial Services were leading all matters dealing with legislation and they had announced that an entire suite of laws would be forthcoming. What has happened since then?
The WTO agreement is in a number of parts, or sub-agreements, one being the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT); another being General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS); and yet another being The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which is governed in concert with WIPO, yet another UN organization. The Bahamas has been infamous, especially at violating the latter, with the buying and selling of knocks-offs, infringing on copyright laws and agreements, and disregarding the need to protect its indigenous knowledge. To say the least, government agencies and ministries have been so blatant about breaking laws and international agreements that they have, themselves, bought fake goods meant to have originated in The Bahamas but that are made of inferior material and incompetently to boot. Meanwhile, the businesses in the local economy that would have spent capital creating these goods have been undermined, as has been demonstrated in this column on other occasions.
As a part of the globalization trend-- a trend to remove borders except on people from the global south-- goods, except those that are deemed to be threatening to market stability, and services may flow without heavy penalties. The WTO was created by the same parties that created such institutions as the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund and The Inter-American Development Bank, in order to spread the joy of free trade, whose essential core concern is to remove all customs duties and policies that would act as artificial barriers to trade. In theory, the government of The Bahamas, for example, in its bid to join the WTO, should have removed all duties. Instead, many duties have remained and other taxes, like VAT, have been added. Again, the idea of free trade is that everything should flow according to the demands of the market. To achieve this goal, the WTO framework has two extremely fundamental pillars (or Articles); one is Article iii, National Treatment, and the other is most favored nation Ssatus. These principles are fundamental and they mean that, firstly, nations cannot discriminate against goods produced in other countries and, secondly, whatever concessions are granted to one nation, the trading partner shall be granted to all. We saw some of the fallout of the latter on the local level when Atlantis complained that Baha Mar was granted more favourable deals and concessions than they received. At the same time, The Bahamas has always been in favour of international trade over local empowerment whereby legislation, such as The Hotels Encouragement Act, has been put in place to favour international businesses by granting them hefty concessions. The WTO takes this to an all-new level and means that local businesses must compete with international businesses in an 'open market.' What this means for locally produced goods is troubling.
The GATT begins this process by removing duties, tariffs and quotas on goods coming into the country and (supposedly) goods leaving the country. The GATS takes this to another level by doing the same on services. TRIPS includes intellectual property, which includes copyright, trademarks, geographical indicators and patents, and so covers the great expanse of what we produce with our minds. It also challenges our ability to own our Indigenous Knowledge, which is an intricate and intimate part of who we are as Bahamians. This would include, for example, bush medicine and any organisms from the sea, which in turn means that whatever granny used to make babies better that grew outside in the bushes, and has miraculously survived the devastation of local development through unchecked bulldozing, is open to international exploitation. It also could mean that we will have to pay to use such ingredients in the future because they will be owned by transnational corporations and pharmaceuticals companies. Further, we are expected to open our borders to legal as well as natural persons, which means international businesses and real people who can come in and work 'without' controls being levied on them. Freeport has functioned like this for a very long time, though it continues to limp along without truly benefiting too many Bahamians.
Local legislation and public international law
The WTO requires that local legislation be in tune with its articles and policies. It also requires that all laws and regulations be harmonized, so that one law does not conflict with the spirit of another. It also requires that no laws that restrict free trade be implemented after signing on to GATT, GATS and TRIPS, for example and that these must be adopted at the local level. This means that local laws must be changed to work in concert with WTO laws yet nothing has been done publicly to meet this challenge. Whatever is being done to work with WTO demands has not filtered down to the people or the practitioners. This is a serious developmental flaw as it means that the people who are being affected by these laws and policies will be working in the dark. However, the government has been notorious for such disregard.
What does this mean for art and culture?
In the interim, when the government lowers import duties on art, they are really and truly working within the constraints of the WTO. However, they are also insisting that all art is the same. Given the idea behind non-discrimination, National Treatment and MFN, and the insistence on open borders, art that is produced in The Bahamas cannot be treated differently from other art, unless there is a carefully crafted policy that can work to 'protect' Bahamian art and culture. Obviously, though, the concept of protection goes completely against open markets and free trade. Bahamian artists and other artists working in the country have to compete against transnationally produced copies of their work, especially until the government has regulated the system. To date, the government has not created an environment that promotes and safeguards local creative industry and its production. In fact, countless are the woes of creatives that have had their products stolen and copied and then sold on the open market without them benefiting at all, as stated above. So, as we move into the next century, the government is removing barriers to trade, yet doing nothing about the minutiae that needs urgent attention and that will either allow the local creative industries to survive or thrive.
In 2017, as a nation that claims to be transitioning to 'First World' status, argued by many ministers in the former government, as long as they continue to benefit from the spoils of unregulated corruption, we are behind the crowd. In fact, we are at the back of the queue. Bahamian artists and designers, such as architects, fashion designers, software designers and others, are expected to work in an environment that opens the door to any and all forms of piracy and leaves the nation and the state vulnerable. Recognising nation limitations and working within those gaps and spaces is essential to growth. The government has refused to move from the prehistory of non-computerised offices, where one person may be educated enough to function at a decent professional level, and is trounced by workers who go out of their way to stop progress and development. Moreover, it is even more egregious when this is done by key figures, who wish to protect their interests and undo efforts to promote development.
There are good people who are ignored and/or barred from participation in the development of artistic expression and protection of cultural wealth but the government has seen it necessary to go to outsiders who are given enormous consultancy fees either because they receive kickbacks or because they argue that there are no Bahamians with any of the necessary skills. Also, they often contract private individuals to work in strengthening the infrastructure, but train no one else to work along with them or they continue to empower their cronies.
We are at a crucial point in our development; we have signed on to the WTO, which stipulates all these details of policy, yet we are doing nothing to meet them. We have talked about cultural industries and cultural tourism as if tourism were a cultural driver without ever buttressing the support for tangible and intangible culture.
To be sure, the country's membership of the WTO means that it will not be "business as usual," and that the system that Immanuel Wallerstein and Eduardo Galeano, for example, critique in "World Systems Theory" has won out and is re-empowering itself through gaining control of trade; even though the U.S., for example, has huge protections barriers to trade, we must remove ours because we have agreed to do so. All the while, the very country is suffering because of ill-thought-through plans and policies that undermine locals in favour of the old power system.
Let's hope that working with UNESCO and the other UN systems to protect ourselves and our Indigenous Knowledge--that is our tangible as well as our intangible culture--can be fruitful to the nation and not just a few privileged members. We must move into the 21st Century and work to empower Bahamians and Bahamian production.
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June 09, 2017
"A Native Sugar Mill" (ca. 1901) by William Henry Jackson is part of the suite of historic colonial photographs in the National Collection. Jackson was an American who started a photo studio here after emigrating from New York in the 1870s and is one of the small group of colonial migrants whose pictures help us piece together part of the story of the time. According to the catalogue for "Bahamian Visions: Photographs 1870 - 1920," curated by Krista Thompson, Jackson first came to The Bahamas at the request of the governor at the time, Sir William Robinson, in 1877. Since around 1856, Jackson worked as a landscape painter, colorist of photographs and also owned a studio specializing in Daguerreotype photographs. In addition, he manufactured albumenized paper, managed a stereoscopic printing shop and had even worked as a civil war photographer. Many of these things seem very far removed from us now, but they were staples of photography at the time.
"A Native Sugar Mill" (ca. 1901) shows a young Bahamian man of African descent, perhaps no more than 15, chewing on sugar cane --part and parcel of the culture here and one of those indulgences in summer. Sweet cane, chopped up and stored in the fridge so it's nice and cold, any Bahamian can relate -- even if things were more than a little different in this young man's time. If the title of this photograph is amusing to you, or if you find it disconcerting, then that's precisely what this piece is about: the complexities of language and perspective.
There is a lot of contention around the word 'native,' and rightfully so given the context of how it has been used throughout history to denounce indigenous peoples as lesser, as 'savages' when compared to the 'civilized' European populace of old. We still feel the sting here as Bahamians with roots to West Africa--although we are not the 'original' Bahamians here since that esteemed position goes to the Lucayans and Arawaks, who were decimated during the first unfortunate wave of colonial activity. Looking further, the idea of giving a name to a photograph and insinuating that a black boy is a 'sugar mill,' given our regional history of slavery, it is clear that this naming does not acknowledge the humanity of the boy's presence or allow for him to be read as a legitimate subject. The racist undertone of this is impossible to ignore making things even more difficult to swallow.
The word 'native,' from the mid 15th century, was generally meant a 'person born in bondage or servitude' or, in the 1530s, as a 'person who has always lived in a place.' There's a rather big divide there in meaning and that only became more complicated in the mid-17th century, when it was used to convey a difference between original inhabitants of non-European countries where Europeans held political power - particularly when thinking of First Nations peoples in the Americas. It became a derogatory way to refer to local people. So here we see that from the early 15th Centuries, hundreds of years before this image was taken, the word "native" takes root in some very unfortunate connotations.
The young man we see holds his gaze to the lens, which can almost be seen as defiant, cheeky even, and yet he is still posed - because, really, who eats sugar cane like this? It isn't practical, for certain. This plucky youth still holds his pose, still looks at the camera, but he seems to have a confidence or blissful ignorance about him - was he so used to the way he was looked at by the gentry or the upper classes that this seemed normal? Was Jackson kind in the way that he spoke to him? Was the young man entertaining Jackson because their races didn't ordinarily mix and he was being asked to pose for the camera - for what was perhaps one of the first and only pictures in his life? There are so many questions to be asked and to be answered.
There is always this assumed sense of 'objectivity' with lens-based media - cinematic and photographic-based images, produced on film or glass plates originally as this work is. It's odd, really, because when we see our world reflected to us we assume it is a mirror and not a lens. Mirrors reflect your image back to you and so can photographs, that's for certain, but looking through a lens and looking into a mirror are two entirely different activities. Mirrors frame your image in real life to you, and the lens is something you frame yourself, choosing what to photograph; you choose what moments are worth recording, you choose just how you want something to look. Media is not a mirror.
On the popular medium of TV, we see ourselves as Caribbean people represented as Rastas, with Jamaican accents and either wise givers of knowledge or as drug-running gangsters - oh yes, and of course marijuana and rum, we mustn't forget that the image isn't complete for us without some form of intoxicant to denote how the islands are such a 'good time.' If we can see that this image isn't really us in our complexity, why do we look to these old photographs as truth?
This technology of the time was the way we could send information and thus dictated what was recorded. As Donna Haraway, the feminist scholar, illustrates to us in her text 'Situated Knowledges' (1988), "Technology is not neutral. We're inside of what we make, and it's inside of us. We're living in a world of connections -- and it matters which ones get made and unmade." Much like historiography - the way history gets written rather than history itself - it is rooted in its subjectivities. The idea that anything human can be objective is a falsity, as we are all shaped by our experiences, privileges (and lack thereof), and interactions throughout our lifetimes in an intertext of human relations. The significance of certain representations relates more to what groups held power in history than of what was truly 'important' to the masses. The 'how we were seen' rather than the actuality of how we truly 'looked' at the time.
Further, as John Berger had put in "Ways of Seeing" (1972), we forget that what we take as default is always our social conditioning - and more often than not, for the worse of our fellow man and woman. "You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting "Vanity," thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure." Had Berger been looking at Jackson's photo, he could perhaps say "you photographed a young black man because you enjoyed looking at him, put the cane he grew for you in his hand and called the photograph "Native Sugar Mill," thus condemning the boy whose blackness you exoticised for your own pleasure."
'Native' to this young man - unnamed, as so many everyday people were in this time - compared to how Jackson would have viewed the word were two entirely different things, let alone how that word fits into our personal contexts now. In Jackson's time, there was this prevailing idea that brown peoples were 'savages' and 'uncivilized' - though how the idea of barging into someone's homeland and telling them to believe what you believe and how to behave in their own home as a way of being 'civilized' or as 'civilizing others' is beyond many of us in this era.
Still, certain things don't discriminate and certain foods definitely humble us all. Nobody looks elegant eating sugar cane. Juice drips down the most dandy of chins and jaws gnash away at the fibres regardless of creed, class, or color. Cane don't care and we would do to remember that in our own lives.
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June 09, 2017
As a part of his retrospective "Love, Loss and Life," artist Thierry Lamare hosted a frame-building workshop at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas (NAGB) on May 20, 2017. In just over three hours, he generously shared techniques that he has used to build driftwood frames for his paintings over the years. More than thirteen people from diverse backgrounds and varying degrees of experience were in attendance. Artists, art enthusiasts, craftspersons and a few do-it-yourselfers came seeking to acquire a new skill, build on existing knowledge or satisfy their curiosity.
A painter and transplant, Lamare has called The Bahamas his home for almost thirty years. Over that period, he has become a keen observer of the Bahamian landscape, its people, customs, and traditions, some of which are slowly fading, others shifting quickly like the dying light which he captures so evocatively.
Lamare's artistic journey began at the early age of 13 years, and although he deviated during his college career when he studied maths and later, interior design, his love for painting was a constant and eventually led him to The Bahamas. In 1996, he visited Long Island where he met Ophelia and Joyce, his muses. Lamare continued to visit the island every year thereafter and cultivated a rich, deep relationship with these women whose lives and personalities are communicated so hauntingly in his work.
Following the tradition and genre of Realism, Lamare's gaze and painterly gestures gently reconstruct the quality of the space that he occupies, reflecting the warmth and the coolness of the tropics. In Lamare's paintings, one can easily escape into a world where time stands still and the beauty of the everyday comes into sharp focus.
In many ways Lamare bring the same aesthetic to the frames that surround these emotive depictions. Driftwood, like his subjects, is a raw, battered, durable and timeless material and possesses a deep, authentic beauty that is echoed in the landscapes and individuals captured in his paintings. This material is taken from the sea and used to build frames that are crafted with a skill and attention to detail that is virtually flawless.
The workshop began with a brief tour of the exhibition, where participants closely examined the frames used to showcase work that spans over 25 years of the artist's career. Particular attention was paid to the to detail and design that was needed to ensure that the frames display the paintings in a way that is not only conducive to viewing, but supports the aesthetic of the work.
After the tour, participants journeyed outdoors where a temporary carpentry workshop had been set up. Lamare led participants through the step-by-step process of making driftwood frames using techniques that he has developed and learned and used in his practice over the years. Materials were included, however, persons were encouraged to bring any viable reclaimed wood or driftwood that they may have collected. They were given leeway to choose a frame size that would be most useful to them and after the initial demonstration, began the process of crafting a driftwood frame from raw materials.
At first, many participants found the loud, quickly rotating blades in the power tools intimidating, especially the table saw, but after some coaxing a few intrepid individuals tried their hands at using these dangerous, somewhat fascinating tools. Eventually others followed and a few persons indicated their interest in continuing to develop their carpentry skills and make frames for their work in the future. "I never thought I would ever feel comfortable using a tool like that," said a participating artist about her experience with the miter saw. "I can't wait to make frames for my work!"
After a few hours of cutting, sanding and nailing and eventually assembling and staining the driftwood pieces, under Lamare's guidance, participants were able to build beautiful, finished driftwood frames for the special paintings, drawings or photographs that were awaiting them at home.
Lamare's exhibition, "Love, Loss and Life" will be on display at the NAGB until September 10, 2017.
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June 09, 2017
And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart." -- Deuteronomy 28:23&28
I cannot say why this quote from Los pasos perdidos (1953) by Alejo Carpentier the Cuban writer and musicologist resonates with the work of capturing or documenting cultural heritage in the southern Bahamas. However, these words capture beyond reason so much of what time has done in these islands. We, as a people, also treat Bahamians as if they were second-class citizens in their country. The system of paradise and exploitation, created during piracy and continued during colonialism, is not about white against black, but rather about a system of exploiting those who cannot -- or are not allowed -- to speak for self because they are repeatedly told they do not have souls, they are not human and they should be grateful to be allowed to be near such greatness.
Carpentier is a truly incredible writer and is important to us as Bahamians in the southern Bahamas that once gazed on and spent days learning and shopping in those southern neighbors, who we now turn up our noses at. His work shows not only the fecund nature of the region, but also how quickly erasure can occur, as indicated by the title, the lost steps. It is not only that the steps are lost, but that they are utterly forgotten and leaders can pretend as if they never happened. In this magical realism -- or marvelous realism -- that we inhabit, so much of what is real is more unbelievable than fiction; we are cautioned not to believe the bearers of glad tidings lined with empty promises that only extend a hand that extracts the marrow from the nation and the community.
The marvelous real, where history is forgotten, is upon us in the southern Bahamas. Indeed, the efforts to control, manage, package, celebrate and enliven Bahamian tangible and intangible culture are essential to the survival in the modern economy. Once upon a time, the land was never sold, it was only ever leased. The colonial governors and the Crown 'lent' huge tracts of land to other sovereign states, where they set up bases and developments, other large swaths of land were deeded to cousins and other relations. Today, the state gives away swaths of land that hold the lives of Bahamian folk in its balance for cents on the hectare, where no real money changes hands, and the money that does is often kicked back into deals that continue to enrich a small group at the endless expense of the nation.
However, as cultural heritage is safeguarded, it is less easy to squander a people's patrimony or birthright. The UNESCO project to build and protect our intangible cultural heritage creates legal instruments and an overarching system that sees fit to protect this for future generations. Cultural patrimony is not only about today; it is about all the generations to come. We can see the cultural shifts that occur with time's swift progress, but we can also capture these in art, design and cultural industry that is not limited to arts but is about focusing on all aspect of creativity from fashion and haute couture, fine dining to building and manufacturing; these are creative industries. Food canning and spice and pepper preserves are other excellent areas we can expand in. Instead, we put all the energy into building resorts for people, who may come once and never return, or homes that stand empty for 11 months of the year and may employ one lady to clean part-time.
The darkness as nature reclaims what was once developed and hides it from memory is salient in a culture that is so rich, yet is exclusively depicted as paradise for pleasure seekers. It is the poking in the darkness of the middle of the day that resonates particularly as we pretend to attend to investigating our culture. It is the irony of loss with the promise of the future, roads paved with gold yet devoid of humanity that has struck me as so utterly devastating and tragic.
The Southern Bahamas lives, not in a time forgotten, but in the space of abuse, neglect and 'political pawnage.' The nothingness that was once pregnant with promise and potential stands now like a forgotten nightmare, tossed aside, used and very much erased by the vagaries of political cronyism. Los pasos perdidos is about the splendor of a robust and fecund nature ready to erase the footsteps of those who were once there. It is reminiscent of the cultural loss that is being visited on these islands and cays and so on the national whole as populations die out, migrate out or are replaced by empty promises of development that would pave over the very nature of the nation.
Intangible cultural heritage is part of the rich tapestry of life that we ignore or simply do not understand but practice daily. The loss of tangible and intangible culture can be seen as a natural progress of time, but when we discuss the lure of 'cultural tourism,' we see that we are starting from the back and so we can't be the swiftest nor the nimblest as we have missed the very essence of cultural tourism.
Ministries of tourism do not make culture, they rather spotlight what already exists, but it must be preserved and conserved to remain. t cannot be eradicated and still expect to attract visitors from far and wide to gaze on the empty space of where cultural heritage stood but was bulldozed.
As the 'nine-seater' fumbles into the longest landing strip in the Caribbean, we are then greeted by a reality of rot, abandonment and neglect. So much of what once thrived on these islands of Inagua and Mayaguana has been eclipsed by bush and dereliction of duties that it is hard to imagine what Bahamian prosperity would look like. The 'airport'--another misused term when applied to where one lands in Mayaguana--is now waiting to be remembered as the weeds choke out its potential for future joy. So few Bahamians can access these spaces and know about the wealth these islands and islanders have that we should begin a new course in all schools called learning The Bahamas, our home. By building awareness of Bahamian culture, tangible and intangible, by developing the creative industries and inviting the world in to see who we are, not whom we are told by the outside we are, we can become great.
Mayaguana needs locally-focused, locally-driven development that may be small-scale but creates wealth for the community; it does not need a multi-million dollar, multi-million-person-a-year resort that shuts down in the offseason, leaves its trash on the land, pollutes the incredible waters, and plucks out the remnants of social history, intangible culture, and the plants and aquatic life that support local culture. We do not wish to replicate Nassau on every rock, cay, and island in The Bahamas; too many people wish to avoid this place. Why duplicate a pariah of crime, overcrowding and poor zoning, where local life is left a long way from or choked up under the resorts that build walls to block out the 'stench' of poverty.
Traveling around the country gathering information has shown how magical reality is and how rich actors become by under-developing their people. As Walter Rodney demonstrated How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the same is true today where we talk about cultural tourism that means people who come to paradise for an exotic adventure but everything indigenous is for sale, sold, or developed out of the national coffers. We must embrace our patrimony and develop it so people who live and work here--be they permanent resident, citizen or temporary resident--will enjoy and benefit from it without destroying its uniqueness.
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May 26, 2017
Lavar Munroe's "The Migrant" is an illustrative portrayal of a spindle-legged, knock-kneed nomad carrying his home on his back. In many ways, the tale in this digital print tells of the ubiquitous image of the immigrant and is reminiscent of the Phil Stubbs classic song, "Cry of the Potcake". The xenophobia and self-hate we deal with as a nation is quite easily summated in the lyrics of the catchy tune, "they don't love me, they only know me when they need me", and Munroe's look at the struggle of the emigrant bolsters this when we think of our history as forced immigrants. For instance, can we image our Bahamas without teachers, nurses and doctors from elsewhere in the region working alongside those we consider to be 'born' Bahamians?
Growing up in Grants Town, Lavar Munroe is no stranger to what this particular side of immigration in The Bahamas looks like and by this work's exclusion of the expat immigrant, it helps to emphasize the kind of migrant pictured. Since, when it boils down to it, regardless of where you come from, in truth, anyone who moves here is an immigrant, but the connotations of the word are what make things sticky. We have very particular images in mind when we think of 'immigrants' and when we think of 'expatriates,' and we know the power structures and history in which this difference in terminology is rooted.
This digitally rendered print has the makings of an illustration, like many of Munroe's works from this period. It's only fitting, then, that Munroe proclaims himself to be 'the trickster' and deals with these slippery narratives in his practice. Like another trickster we know, Anansi of African and Caribbean folklore, the figure in the image is a many-legged thing. In some ways this could be seen to imply that migrants are seen as not quite human. The number of people supporting this house make it look to be a heavy burden to bear on one's back, and the "government pink" speaks to how that burden of finding home here can be difficult on more than one avenue --not just socially in finding "home," but also logistically. It is not just the journey to reach the islands -- it is one that can be fraught with danger and taken on rickety vessels over sea, for some it is a life/death journey.
Particularly, when we think of nations elsewhere in the Caribbean, more politically corrupt or fractured than ours, we have people fleeing one set of extreme difficulties to experience the perceived lessened ones here in The Bahamas. It is certainly our geography that makes us so attractive, but the high cost of living and immense bureaucratic challenges across sectors of the government makes this dream one that is far too expensive to sell.
Still, the figure guiding them, with his head poking out, points forward, onward, reminiscent of the black triangle of our flag as well as our country motto, and there is the implication that one can, and should, press on toward better life despite the gray of the horizon. This gray renders everything vague with regard to time. Is it night? Day? The weight of this heavy sky speaks to the pressing conditions the displaced are under. Moving forward no matter what, taking the stairway to nowhere that Munroe has sketched in the background, or perhaps taking refuge in one of the ramshackle homes that are reminiscent of Haitian shanty villages and Over-the-Hill alike. The former, with houses built out of nothing, compared to the latter, where old, formerly dignified houses are patched with whatever is to hand, are different absolutely, but the urgency and necessity to be able to just 'keep going' on a day to day basis is a shared value.
"The Migrant" (2008), created in the midst of the 2007/8 global financial crisis, a period which, if we look closer to home, foreshadowed the six years following where our adult unemployment rate rose to 13.7% from 7.9% previously. It's no surprise that conditions like this lead to divide people rather than unite them. At the end of the day, if we are all too concerned with how to live from day to day and resources and opportunities seem finite - how can we expect people not to fight in times like this? As a postcolonial nation, we are just starting to crawl out of this bucket, and the crab syndrome of dragging our brothers and sisters down to get ourselves out of this hole becomes more pronounced considering our history.
The imagery that 'trickster' Munroe employs plays to ideas of movement and mobility and they are just about everywhere in the work. From the legs of the figures to the wheels at the bottom corners of the image to the stairway going nowhere - the idea of movement we see is more than just something of 'flee' here, and speaks to 'free' in other ways. We all understand displacement as Caribbean people--itis quite literally what this region was built on--the displaced Africans brought into slavery to build each nation for each respective mother-colony. It is a hard history, and one that we share, but what we often feel to be a lack of roots can be something altogether more freeing if we choose it to be.
Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo, another post-colonial subject just like ourselves, speaks of the lack we so often feel here and the struggle of the migrant, the mixed-national, and anyone struggling with a sense of in-betweenness in her book of poetry, "Questions For Ada"
"So, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
Never enough for both."
Caribbean people are nomadic in our origins and by nature in many ways, how many Jamaicans, Trinibagonians, Bajans, Cubans, Haitians, and Bahamians do we know that have moved and live elsewhere? Of the aforementioned Caribbean sister countries, we have pronounced pockets of them living here, and who knows how many Bahamians live in Florida and further afield. The Windrush of the 1950s and 60's that saw a great number of Jamaicans move to the UK, or the fact that we have Bahamians - even our oft-revered Sir Lynden Pindling or Stephen Dillet - who have Jamaican or Haitian heritage means that we are, as the saying goes, 'Out of many, one people' - so why the distancing? Why not see our similarities and differences, our multiplicity of experiences for such a small part of the world, as something marvelous?
The pink shell of a house on the figure's back reminds us not just of the government pink, but also the pink of conch shells. One of the ultimate nomads here, conchs carry their home on their backs. To have one's sense of home with you wherever you go is something to be seen less as a burden to bear and more as a freedom of mobility. We have that capacity to feel our sense of home within ourselves, not just in the place we inhabit, and that freedom means we needn't feel threatened by others bringing their homes with them. We then become a great network of homes and hearts together, an ecosystem of to live in symbiosis rather than the struggles of power and hierarchy, like being spokes in the wheels of Munroe's work.
When we move past our nationalism as a region, and move past feeling the threat of being lumped together as so often happens globally - because many of us have experienced the dread of having every nation in the region be reduced down to Jamaica, Cuba or Haiti because of their global familiarity - and when we begin to embrace the similarities that bond us together simultaneously with the differences that make us unique, we will feel less of this plight of the potcake.
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May 26, 2017
Cultural heritage, shockingly, is actually not unique to or owned by a people unless it is inscribed as such. So, as a nation, we think we are the sole practitioners of Junkanoo the way we perform it on Boxing Day morning and New Year's Day morning, however, this unique cultural relationship does not endow us, The Bahamas or the Bahamian people, with the right to use Junkanoo as we wish. We do not own the practice nor do we benefit from it, despite the fact that whenever we are invited as a country to an arts or culture festival we tend to drag an entire Junkanoo group with us. The nation and the state have been historically irresponsible when it comes to officially claiming, and so protecting, our cultural heritage.
A lesson learnt
Trinidad is renowned for creating steelpan, which has its own festival, "Panorama" around carnival time and may also be incorporated into carnival groups. Be that as it may, because Trinidad was slow on the uptake when it saw the time come to protect steelpan, it does not own it or the rights to it. That means that Trinidad, although the indigenous home of the steelpan, is neither legally identified as the creator of the instrument, nor can it trade on its fame or fortune. The international community now insists that Intellectual Property be tied to a place through legal registration and clear and obvious legal title. The World Trade Organization and other groups such as World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), UNESCO, and other UN organizations and groups have created serious and complex systems of registering what we would call indigenous knowledge and indigenous culture. Much of this is studied under Intellectual Property (IP) Law, and is often included in some aspects of Public International Law and Trade Law, all of which The Bahamas participates in, even if begrudgingly. A part of this is Trademarking, Copyright and Patents etc, all of which make up intellectual property. So, just as Trinidad lost the rights to own and benefit from steelpan, other indigenous cultures have lost access to their indigenous knowledge because they never claimed their ownership over it; they understood that this was theirs by nature and by virtue of their location, they could simply benefit from their indigenous culture.
Recently, the government of The Bahamas has embarked on a journey to show that it owns certain parts of its intangible culture. Remember that one must demonstrate through documentation and numbers of practitioners that one owns culture. In The Bahamas, this would include Rake-n-Scrape, Goombay and Junkanoo, for example. The process by which we must begin to 'own' our intangible culture is through documenting its practice and that people ascribe it to their culture. This process is referred to as establishing the Geographical Indicators that would link the country and its people with these cultural forms. This means now that there must be documentation of all communities where these cultural forms are practiced.
UNESCO is the official UN body for this kind of cultural inscription and so the country, not the government alone, must now step up and work on this process.
The Bahamas certainly has a captive audience on New Providence for Junkanoo, but not every community around the archipelago practices Junkanoo. At the same time, the other forms of music above-mentioned are also important to Bahamian indigenous culture. So, although the country has been invited abroad on numerous occasions and has taken these cultural forms to perform our culture across the Americas, we must now really do the work to protect these intangible forms of culture.
Cultural protection requires detailed planning and complex identification of sources and also of desired outcomes and outputs. What is the country willing to do to protect its culture? How can it protect its patrimony in the long term? Can it really protect intangible culture without protecting tangible culture? In reality, all of these considerations must be dealt with simultaneously. Without protecting our landscape and seascape, we cannot protect our culture. Without understanding the importance of place to music, folklore and other cultural practices, we stand to lose our identity and our culture.
As a part of a team that will work on documenting Bahamian cultural heritage and thereby ascribing a name to our cultural practices, or owning them outright, I have been involved in seeing how culture survives on different islands and in multiple communities. So, for example, a plastic drum is not the same as a goat-skin drum and the quality of the sound are all distinct and can change the way our culture survives, especially if another culture adopts our cultural practices first.
It is now time to take cultural heritage seriously. We stand to lose a great deal if we do not embrace and engage this process actively. As many of the old ways are being lost to death and the creep of time and cultural globalization, we need to save what is ours. That is to say that we must document, demonstrate and identify what forms the Bahamian vernacular and how these are linked to our physical environment.
We must invest in the culture or it will vanish and, like so many other places, we will not be able to capitalize on our cultural heritage because it will be the property of another. This is particularly poignant given that so many skeptics argue that culture is not important to the bedrock of our society and that we can benefit from tourism without so much as owning what we argue makes us a unique destination. We talk continuously of being an attractive destination, but do little to protect and ensure our continued success and attractiveness. One way to do this is through the creative industries or the orange economy. Creative Nassau has started this process, let us join them in putting The Bahamas truly on the cultural world map. Our culture needs documentation and protection, let us do it now and benefit from it in perpetuity.
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May 26, 2017
Many contemporary art works today involve the use of both text and imagery within one composition. The combination of both provides two means for communication: offering a more unified surface for interpretation and, perhaps, raising more questions regarding the content of the work. The use of both text and imagery demonstrates the artist's ability to blend the boundary between commercial and fine art, creating parallels and adding another layer of complexity to potential interpretations. The text responds to the doctrines of traditional fine art, and questions the way in which it can exist.
A sense of gloom surrounds "Nassau from Above" through Blue Curry's use of black-and-white collage-styled imagery, paired with the words "Doesn't it all look so peaceful... from up here." We are slapped with sarcasm as these words overlay an image of Nassau seen from above through an airplane window. The aesthetic of this work is reminiscent of Barbara Kruger, an American artist best known for laying aggressively directive slogans over black-and-white photographs. Her work critiques consumerism and desire, as well as challenges viewers' conceptions of power and control. Here, Curry deliberately critiques the way in which we distribute power and how we navigate around reality to portray a mislead sense of utopia.
Stylized and flat imagery of highlighted "Bahamian icons" permeate the work, including the Atlantis hotel. It is awkwardly placed within the setting, as if cut out and stuck clumsily on the surface without consideration of unifying the composition. The distortion of this "cut-out" is suggestive of propaganda -- a vehicle for spreading biased or misleading information, usually to promote a political cause or point of view. It's almost as if the artist has found advertisements, cut around them to salvage the imagery, and pasted them inelegantly into this bird's-eye-view of Nassau. It suggests that the artist intentionally covering segments of reality with symbols that promote a paradise - something that we strive to present to visitors of this country. The alteration of the Atlantis structure is also suggestive of a Roman Cathedral, an architectural icon that serves as a spiritual center- a place where God dwells. This poses a fascinating indication of tourism and its role in The Bahamas.
Do we identify the tourism industry in The Bahamas in similar ways to the act of worship? If we place so much importance and dependence on foreign support, how can we define ourselves? So: what is real Nassau? It may appear to have pure, white beaches and a crystal-clear ocean; it may shine under a vibrant sun; it may present underwater dreamlands of a hidden Atlantis or a smooth sailing on a boat due to our gentle breezes, but what about the close-up details? What about the people and the crime and the struggles and the pollution and the corruption? Things that cannot be seen from an ascending airplane but rather by a truly Bahamian individual, who lives, breathes and dies a citizen, who drives the streets and eats the food and knows the people - who can feel the chaos and who struggles when the country does.
This work seems to be a friendly reminder of who we must prioritize and conserve - our culture over any - our beliefs and stories and art, and our people. Our visitors will inevitably flourish from a prideful nation, but only when we discover ourselves will we be able to share a deeply Bahamian culture.
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