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Bahamian art: Presenting. Uniting. Educating.

Mixed Media Blog

Carnival and the evolution of culture

Art speaks about where a country is as well as where it was. It is exciting to see how a country’s art scene grows, develops and organically changes. The visual arts in the country have really undergone a transformation over the last 20 years. The field has developed internationally, but here it has developed in terms of the people who have become a part of it and the numbers of artists who are expressing themselves publicly, as well as the textures, vivacity, topics and nuances. We are who we are, and that will never change. What we do is often hide who we are because we think it is expedient to do so. However, who we are is revealed eventually.

Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival
The recent carnival festivities went off without any apparent hitches, except its being supported almost exclusively by a local market. What was fabulous was the art show organized by Antonius Roberts. It showed that carnival could be more than just about gyrating and twerking bodies on a road. Of course, carnival breeds this show of skin and sensuality. But that is what the Caribbean is known for, according to Mark Padilla in Caribbean Pleasure Industry. It is known for this, and this image will always create cultural conflict in a highly moralistically-policed nation, but so will Junkanoo. However, while the real money sunk into Carnival has yet to be revealed and the earnings have yet to be totaled, if they are ever… the artistic scene was incredible. Roberts’ Hillside House was packed to the rafters with art from all generations and walks of life. It was simply a feast for the eye. It also showed how much Bahamian art and art created in The Bahamas has changed. It has mushroomed and encompasses so many varied vehicles of expression as well as bodies who are talking through art. John Beadle’s piece at the entrance to the courtyard was simply brilliantly expressive of Carnival but also uniquely Bahamian and terrifically beautiful. Art transcends all the bickering about the place of Carnival.  We may not be ready for this cultural change, but its machinery in other countries has proved so successful in generating dollars, that it will be hard for us to keep it at bay, given the government’s sole interest in making money.       
As culture shifts and artistic expression develops, when we try to control and to manufacture a culture, we actually work against the flow. In a nation at sea level, surrounded by water, we should know that swimming against the current is foolhardy, however, most people cannot swim. Thankfully even that is changing, although we still pay scarce attention to swimming and often choose to represent it as an elitist sport, we would benefit greatly by embracing it.
As the art scene has grown and developed, so too have our ways of expressing ourselves outside of that. We have suddenly embraced the concept of Carnival, and many people are happy and excited by this, but that does not mean it is authentically Bahamian. We staged what most would say was a truly terrific event, but that does not mean we must embrace it the same way we embrace Junkanoo, nor that it will replace Junkanoo. Junkanoo is also not the only manifestation of Bahamian culture that lives. It is simply reductive when we argue that Junkanoo is Bahamian culture, and if you do not support Junkanoo, you are not Bahamian. One can be Bahamian and support Goombay Summer, which is apparently no longer government sanctioned or backed, those resources have been transferred to Carnival. Why not decry that? Junkanoo, however, will remain a transforming Bahamian art form. It does not, however, delimit our artistic, cultural or personal expression. Our culture is resilient, as our emergence from slavery and colonialism can attest.

Cultural evolutions
The value of cultural resilience is beyond dispute, but we must remember that we have chosen to highlight what we want to see and to downplay all that we do not wish to see. It does not mean, though, that the downplayed or “invisible” does not exist. Government can sanction and back whatever it wishes to, but it does not control the development of culture nor art. In fact, culture develops in spite of restrictions. Artforms like graffiti often surface in direct contestation to government and official policy. Graffiti is usually an art of resistance that speaks of culture, it articulates youth angst and anger and criticizes unjust policies. It challenges poverty and gives poor people a voice, it also speaks on behalf of middle class youth who feel misunderstood and ignored. Language does the same thing and captures a reality that will change from one year to the next. We cannot contain culture nor can we constrain art. I think the NAGB’s exhibition, Celebrating 40 Years of the Central Bank, which opened on June 2, shows this development and attests to the change that we live.
Further, as much as people resist cultural change, it happens. We now embrace the Fish Fry, but how many people saw that as a terrible development when it grew out of what was once abandoned land after Bahamas Customs’ headquarters became too unsafe to occupy? That space has become a living, breathing expression of Bahamianness, and it is a space that tourists enjoy, but it is not a tourist space.  Marina Village is a tourist space that locals enjoy, but it did not develop organically as Fish Fry did. Art and culture happen; they are not often manufactured. However, the manufactured product does sometimes threaten and ultimately replace the organic form, and we forget our organic cultural expression. This is similar to our distrust of burial societies in the postcolonial Bahamas, which grew out of an anti-African, anti-black thread present in colonialism. This can be rectified by embracing the black in us, along with everything else. Why do so many artistic depictions express this angst about our color and ethnicity if it does not exist? 
Our art and culture scene is alive and vibrant, it is not challenged nor polluted by outsiders, as many people argue. Yes, Carnival will change our culture. Yes, it will change the way we live. And yes, it will push Bahamians to transform themselves. But that is the same as the government selloff of any available piece of land to foreign corporations. As the geography of home changes, so too does the way we live on the land.

While we tarry in our cultural defensiveness, art continues to be produced, culture continues to change, and the world we live in becomes irreparably altered by rescaping and rezoning. This, however, does not say that we should all run out and buy I Love Carnival T-shirts. Our culture has already changed; we just need to catch up. Carnival is as damaging as we allow it to be, but the art show orchestrated by Antonius Roberts as a companion to Carnival captured a vibrant artistic life that is, simply put, fabulous.  We are moving onto new heights, let’s begin to soar and see how much higher we will go, rather than remain pinned to a reality that has already ceased to exist but which lives in our fantasies.