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Bahamian art: Presenting. Uniting. Educating.

Celebrating Women International: Recognition, representation, and diversity at the NAGB

Mixed Media Blog

Celebrating Women International: Recognition, representation, and diversity at the NAGB

Holly Bynoe

The recent honour given to National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) staff in recognition of efforts and achievements, provide a moment of deeper thought on what this success means on a larger scale. Division is, in many ways, the trend for 2016 - the year that has B.I.G. level notoriety for just about everything going wrong.

Whether it’s nations divided on political outcomes, as we’ve seen with the US Election and Brexit in the UK, or the further distancing of men from women here in The Bahamas, after the failed referendum result, the outcomes are quite clear. However, in playing Devil’s advocate, these things don’t upset people because they’re new but rather because they’re a painfully clear reminder of what kind of world we live in. We live in a world where people are constantly being ‘put in their place,’ and it’s hard to remember that in our everyday activities because we’re so distracted with our need to persevere.

This is why, in times when things seem bleak, it does well to shed light as much as possible where we can. There is a certain beauty and resilience in the spirit of those who are so often pushed aside and marginalised. Those who are upset with the state of the world, not because anger can inspire strength but rather because there are those who choose to do good despite the difficulties of their realities, those who choose to cultivate an environment that often feels so set against them.

The women’s association, ‘Celebrating Women International’ (CWI) is one such organisation that seeks to bring this goodness to the forefront. To showcase the brilliance of those few that choose to find the crack in the pavement set for them to tread upon and use what little earth they can get to spring forth and breathe something fruitful and prosperous into what might otherwise seem a flat, gray expanse of existence.

The CWI Awards, taking place this Monday November 21st, is a way for us to recognize the achievements of women to give recognition to the achievements of great women in our society as a way to not only pay due attention to those making strides in their fields but also to highlight their successes so as to inspire other women. NAGB Director, Amanda Coulson is the recipient of one such award this year.

As is often the case with many successful women, things are done less out of a desire to be seen and more from a desire to succeed, despite the difficulties pitted against us or, as we often see here in our islands, a desire to give to the community. Hearing about being chosen for the award then, came as a surprise for Mrs. Coulson, in sharing her initial feelings upon hearing she would be an awardee. Asked what her first reaction was upon hearing the news: “Honestly? Overwhelmed. When I saw some of those names I thought, ‘Oh come on, me?’ I am extremely honoured and quite frankly a bit disbelieving.

However, of course, I’m extremely pleased to see women being acknowledged in this way and humbled to be counted among them.” The average tourist coming to The Bahamas often has very little to no idea of our calibre of art community here, let alone what the social dynamics are. This is why it’s so important to have such a diverse staff present at the gallery. Representation is key here not just for dispelling myths about what Bahamian-ness is in a tourist sense: white sand and smiling people. We know full well we also have poverty and a heavy colonial past to deal with which becomes evident in the rundown estates and ramshackle homes seen throughout the capital. It all becomes even more apparent after hurricanes such as our most recent struggle with Hurricane Matthew, where winds found their way to strip back the lush vegetation, leaving our social ails naked for the world to see.

The work being done by Coulson and her team has had great success in leaving room for displaying the truth of Bahamian experience. This work includes the production of exhibitions abroad to showcase the level of critical engagement our creative practitioners are working with, and exhibitions locally that seek to bring up uncomfortable truths and open dialogue such as From Columbus to Junkanoo which looks at the way artists have responded to pivotal moments in our history. Along with that the current collaborative exhibition A Sustainable Future for Exuma, which outlines a plan for sustainable living in the islands, in order to combat our heavy reliance on imports and misuse of our resources.

No, the importance of representation here is not just to show that we are human and dealing with a difficult past like so many other nations, but it holds a vital importance here in how people see themselves. ‘Bahamian’ comes in so many iterations and echoes that this largely gets forgotten by our people. We are undoubtedly the strong survivors, the majority black population, but we are also white Bahamians contending with difficult pasts too, we are Greek, we are Chinese, Jamaican, Haitian, we are mixed-race, we are common people, we are working people, we are affluent, and often we are less-so.

We cover an entire spectrum of shades of light and dark that often goes unspoken of and taken for granted. For many young Bahamians growing up who ‘don’t quite fit the mold’ of the average Bahamian, a sense of belonging doesn’t come without hard work, and for those who do fit the bill, they often feel they are cut out for nothing more than work in service industry. The normative avenue. The NAGB staff are a palette of Bahamian experience. “I would like to point out specifically that a lot of my team here at the gallery are in fact, women. We have men working here of course, but we’re a very diverse team. We run the whole range of every kind of Bahamian you could meet really, and they’re all present here at the gallery. I think that’s what makes it a functioning workplace and a beacon of what we can achieve throughout the nation. If we as a small team from different backgrounds, from different parts of society, different races, different genders: if we can all work together like a well-oiled machine, then it just proves that the country can too, because our workplace is just a microcosm of this.” says Coulson.

For the Director, this award is hardly personal. “No leader of any organisation can be successful if they don’t have the right people buying into the vision, or the right people getting the work done, so I acknowledge that this award isn’t really for me. It’s for the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, and for the work that the NAGB has done.” Living and working with people who are ‘like you, but not quite’ is key to not only providing a holistic and dynamic work team but also to deepening one’s sense of empathy in life.

Perhaps if we as a nation were less hung up on what roles we want people to play, and what image we give off for our lifeblood Tourism industry - we might just be able to move forward, upward, onward at a pace as frightening fast as the relay teams we relish and find such pride in. Perhaps if the young lady and young man sitting in a classroom see that their Prime Minister is a woman who looks like them and that their Minister for Finance came straight from Over-the-Hill and knew the plight of the people because he is the people, they might just be able to work together and overcome a difference of opinion - because they serve something bigger than themselves, the greater ‘we’.