Public art – and its multitude of offshoots: street art, public sculpture, murals, mosaics – has a colourful history with many facets. The first image that springs to mind might be giant steel and bronze constructions sitting atop manicured park grass or concrete courtyards, or a sprawling, twitching mass of near-unintelligible graffiti, hastily scribbled on the side of a building, before the dreaded authorities come to halt all illicit activity, of course. But it is so much more than that and the history extends to thousands of years before. If we think of public art as quite literally that – art in the public realm or for public engagement and consumption – things become much more inclusive.
Public art becomes the cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago in Indonesia, most of which is speculated to have been produced by women based on the hand-size; to the frescoes of ancient Egypt and Greece; to Jacques Louis-David’s celebrated ‘first modernist painting’ of the ‘Death of Marat’; to the cheeky, self-proclaimed ‘anti-establishment’ scribbles from a spray-paint can by a misfit teen. It all serves its function: for access and viewing by the masses, to communicate, by chance, by people (and by as many as possible). The NAGB has done its part to play into this rich and varied tradition with its fresh new array of murals that were executed as part of the 2016 Mixed Media Summer Camp.
It is, more often than not, an immediate, honest form of expression, made as much for the indulgence of its creator as it is for the passerby to behold. Though things like the graffiti associated with street art have now become a part of the contemporary artistic canon – with widely recognized names like Banksy and Shepard Fairey coming also into the art-world proper – they still manage to retain something of their integrity to the streets. However, for the NAGB Mixed Media Summer Camp 2016, the intention was less on social-commentary and saving spaces and more on youth-involvement and giving an aesthetic injection to the gallery grounds.
One of the mural artists, Avenii Johnson – an former student of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) and The New England Institute of Art in Massachusetts – is already quite comfortable with can-in-hand, having spray-painted during his time as an undergrad. “During my studies in Boston, I used to stock up on spray paint and practice everywhere I could, though it has been some time since I last picked up a can.” Though the murals were more paintbrushes than aerosols, he seemed to relish in the chance to flex those muscles again alongside his other, more commercial interests. “While I want to continue my murals, I also want to continue exploring other, more commercial avenues doing graphic design based work.” Opportunities like this one help artists to work outside of their usual mediums or formats and show the transferable skills they have by taking their art to the streets and away from white walls or computer screens.
Nassau itself seems to have had a boost in street art, murals, and public art as of late. We all know and love the various roundabout sculptures of Stephen Burrows, they have become synonymous with the capital itself. Now, however, we see other, increasingly more ubiquitous symbols of accessible Bahamian art from the likes of Allan Wallace, whose work can be seen dotted about all corners of the island. He was one of the artists who kindly agreed to work alongside the youth of the NAGB summer camp last year and the experience is one that our recurring campers still talk about.
This year we have recruited some new blood. Emerging artists June Collie, Darchell Henderson, Angelika Wallace-Whitfield, along with Johnson have all produced murals of vastly different styles this year. The annex of the NAGB can be thought of as a sort of show reel of possibility for the streets of Nassau. It is already clear that areas of the capital boasting public murals are instantly more pleasant, more inviting, more vibrant and ultimately feel like genuine ‘Bahamian’ spaces to be in simply because of the sense of community they engender and the artistic freedom associated with works in this format. They generally aren’t tourist centred images, they’re made by and for the people, which is the novel change of scenery that art here should (and does) provide.
Angelika Wallace-Whitfield, currently embarking on her last year of Bachelor’s degree studies in the History and Philosophy of Art at the University of Kent in the UK, stresses the importance of projects like this for us here. “It adds an invitation into the space, especially here at NAGB where it lines the driveway. It allows art to be more accessible in both the physical and cognitive senses by placing it outside of a gallery.” She also highlights the accessibility of these images and the potential for their reach within and outside of the nation. “The works add so much to the basic visuality of the country. With the rise of social media and other online platforms, images taken in front of and around the murals allow for exposure and marketing of the country, our visual culture and artists.” Works like this, with their sense of integrity to Bahamianness, help to put forth a more genuine image of ourselves and indeed our visual culture, as Wallace-Whitfield suggests, helping to debunk the myths that our art consists solely of picturesque paintings.
Visitors to the internal gallery grounds can look at our current selection of alternative wall-based works as a slice of what is possible for downtown and for all of Nassau if given the opportunity. Collie’s work has a simplicity that belies its celebration of the Bahamian ‘everyday’ and its elevation of Bahamian women. Historically, women are regarded as ‘ornament’ in artworks as any study of classic life-drawing might show, but Collie presents us as we are - and we are not the ornamentation here, patterns and punchy colours do that. The work is as bold as the women it depicts and it’s refreshing in its honesty of the daily life of the Bahamian woman. Wallace-Whitfield takes us to fantastical worlds of demi-human, humanoid beings perched atop rocks - not unlike the mermaid legends of the blue holes associated with the region. Henderson produces a garden of gigantic flowers that would easily rival any wonderland imagined. And Johnson produces a graphic display that elevates the common pigeon to a king. There is so much opportunity to be explored when creative practitioners are given the opportunity to transform a space, and the NAGB has helped to showcase this.
Moving forward, the NAGB plans to take the concept outside the grounds and extend into the street and the greater city of Nassau… watch this space for news of more upcoming projects.