Co-curated by Ashley Knowles and Averia Wright
The visual art scene of The Bahamas during the 1970-1980s was pinpointed on depictions of idyllic scenes of charming tropical life and a sense of nostalgia for the past. However, gradually artists have broken from these aesthetic limitations and have begun the exploration of modernity. Bahamian Domestic takes the voice of the artists of the country to define who are Bahamians: where we live, where we work, where we play and what issues affect us. It also probes into the affairs existing or occurring in this society.
In curating the spaces, glimpses of these idealized scenes are integrated with more grunge realities of the quotidian and the jovial spirit of the Bahamian people in celebration of everything from festivals to the occasional backyard party. Bahamian Domestic attempts to examine how social, cultural, political and economic issues have influenced Bahamian artists. More importantly, this exhibition looks at how this range of ills is depicted visually, displaying richness in range and sophistication within the Bahamian art community.
Clive Stuart’s “Cock a Doodle” and “East Street Dog” explores the nature of the shanty town and alludes to the potcake epidemic of stray mixed breed dogs and, of course, the raising of native chickens seen running around the tight carriageway streets. Peggy Herrings’ “Five Children at the Street Pump” ties into that reality and is still a very relevant scenario. We can still see today, just yards away from Downtown Nassau and the NAGB, see such clapboard houses without indoor plumbing or running water.
Due to the country’s archipelagic character, the influence of our natural resources of fishing, outer island export and import (known as “mail boat services”) and craft markets are integral parts of the work force – however it is not limited to these professions. Artists Edison Rolle, Major Leslie Lawrence, and Rolfe Harris record these moments of sea life and daily work circumstances. These paintings also reflect the beginnings of Bahamian art in that they are landscape paintings, which we inherited from ex-pat travelers (Winslow Homer and Alfred Bierstadt, to name a few, who both travelled to The Bahamas), which very much a European or American painting tradition.
Departing from the more traditional styles of representative art, the artists in these two rooms explore the very notion of domestic using a modern and contemporary visual language that speaks to psychological issues as much as visual. Much of the artwork examines social, cultural, political and economic affairs that exist in Bahamian society, be it historically or in the present day. This examination of every facet of Bahamian society, from the joyous celebration of a church service to the destitution of ongoing economic strife, looks at banal moments and events of extraordinary merit and how this thus influences and affects Bahamians.
A very prolific artist, Maxwell Taylor, often approached themes of insecurity, producing prodigious amounts of artwork that focus on the frequent denigration of the Bahamian individual that would lead to such an emotion. In pieces such as No Work and Homeless, the artist examines the effects of ongoing economic strife. In both pieces the individuals physically express some kind of destitution, be it the hunched and retreated repose in Homeless or the exaggerated exasperation and frustration in No Work. Known for his powerful figures, Taylor manages to embody the hopelessness of a broken spirit.
A number of other artists examine the many effects of strife on the Bahamian spirit. Artist, Dionne Benjamin-Smith examines how strife drastically alters notions of togetherness in her piece, Black Crab Syndrome. Depicting the Bahamian flag, Benjamin-Smith juxtaposes local visual symbolism with the sarcastic tale of countrymen bringing each other down. Such a stark and honest portrayal of personal and cultural denigration encourages discussion as to the notion of brotherhood within society. Further, Marlon Hunt depicts strife on an individual level in his piece, Soul on Fire, where an individual sobs before a cross.
Such utterances, banal or extraordinary, crucially influence the production and performance of art by Bahamians. Pieces such as Rootsy by Jackson Petit or The Migrant by Lavar Munroe are unconscious, almost quiet, attempts at addressing prominent social issues within Bahamian society. Both pieces look at the notion of insecurity, specifically statelessness in Munroe’s piece and the turbulence of having one’s identity denied or hidden by Petit, a Bahamian of Haitian heritage. Even though we are all neighboring island nations sharing a similar history, the pressure put on society through immigration has lead to many Bahamians having to veil their heritage, whether that be Haitian or Jamiacan.
In wholehearted celebration through specific occasions in life—be it birthdays, religious holidays, or cultural observances—all socioeconomic and political issues are put aside for the time being. Emancipation day and other major holidays often see a boat cruise party or two as depicted in John Beadle’s Emancipation Day Boat Cruise. Beadle being of Jamaican decent, a classically trained painter also alludes to his appreciation of the cubism style of African mask design and altogether Junkanoo costume design.
Junkanoo is a Bahamian celebration observed from days of colonialism where slaves took their time of Boxing Day and New Years day got together in groups to celebrate with found materials such as newspaper, bush and cardboard to make costumes and mask themselves while blowing whistles, beating goat skin drums and shaking cowbells. It is still observed today and has transformed using modern materials such as crepe paper, sequins and also includes brass instruments.
Sterling Miller’s Goombay depicts a people’s rush celebration based on the name of the goombay drum, which was celebrated during the summer months and intimates the sound of calypso. Enigmatik Funtification a collaborative piece created in a technique described as Jammin’ by the artists Jackson Burnside, John Beadle and Stan Burnside, vividly depicts these periods of jollity with the aspects of dance, music, and design. An absolutely vital part of what the people of The Bahamas represent.
The importance of matriarchal figure for Bahamians is depicted in Jackson Burnside’s Mhudda II, tying in the facets of politics, religion, culture, economy and societal unrest are considered in this piece and shows an admiration of the resilience of the Bahamian people. This follows Burnside’s style of creating art from his soul, he builds up layer upon layer of activities to create a kaleidoscope of light, color shape and form that challenges the way we see things.
Through the whimsical nature of Things to Come, Lillian Blades reflects on the integration of people and where we come from by using an assemblage of different media to represent the melting pot of cultures of the Bahamas and the world.
Bahamian Domestic highlights the growth and divergence of Bahamian art with the 50 years. Significantly, this exhibition focuses on the strong influence of the domestic sphere. As such, it is a testimony as to how Bahamians depict and reflect their understanding of their country and the world at large.
See images from the exhibition here: