Bahamian women are often thought of as being outspoken, strong, ‘biggity’ – dare I say – and perhaps it is a result of this legacy of women who won’t suffer fools gladly, that has lead to women being painted in a less favourable light. But can we be blamed? After the referendum, it became clear that many of us felt less-than, and the women artists participating in the 8th National Exhibition (NE8) have made their voices heard. Particularly, emerging artists Jodi Minnis and a first-time National Exhibition participant, Cynthia Rahming.
Why is it that two of our younger artists, decided to look into age-old folklore for material for this NE? We had more than enough rich veins of discomfort and dissatisfaction for people to mine for material to produce commentary through work: gender politics, racial politics, queer politics, the whole nine yards. And yet, these two young women chose to look to old-time stories, stories like that of the Gaulin wife, the ‘trickster’ bird-woman, through which to explore social and personal subject matter.
There is, of course, a myriad of different interpretations - to varying levels of ‘dastardly’ behavior on the part of the Gaulin, but the most common versions of the folklore have one thing in common: an eligible, yet choosy, bachelor is dissatisfied with the women around him, an old crone warns him against not ‘settling down’, a new woman comes to town, and he falls head over heels and gets married. Something seems not quite right about his supposedly perfect new wife, and then, at last, he finds out that she is a sham and not a woman at all so much as she is a humanoid, shifting bird-creature. The general theme remains the same, however, that a man has been swindled or hard-done-by this woman.
We are all made to feel sorry for the man of this story. Even in the tellings of Portia Sands and Patricia Glinton-Meicholas, where the Gaulin becomes a mysterious and alluring woman, she is still a villain because she has had the gall to deceive what is portrayed as a poor, unsuspecting man.
Minnis’ work, a performance that took place at The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) grounds, took place just before the sun began to set, with the St. Francis Xavier church in the background. The work involved Minnis, dressed entirely in white, washing her clothing and repeating the actions of disrobing, washing, then re-dressing herself. The repeating action functions in an almost baptismal way, in keeping with the visuals of water and white clothing, signifying purity. Minnis puts on the mantle of being the Gaulin wife and uses the clothing and ritual of cleaning to baptise herself as the Gaulin before stripping herself of these ties making herself vulnerable again.
“I see myself as a quintessential young Bahamian woman. And if the Gaulin is meant to be just that, then I can also be her. My work deals with placing myself into these different representations of Bahamian women that we have in our society, trying to be critical of it.”
Minnis is drawn to the story because she wishes to see what capacity there is for seeing more depth to the Gaulin woman outside of this negative representation. “I don’t think she has been given any room to be seen in a positive light. When you think about deception, manipulation, scamming - these are all negative things and all that is shown about her. But if you think about the stories more deeply you can pull different narratives out of it. For me, being a young Bahamian woman, I think about her being misunderstood, being placed in a situation and just trying to be herself and just reacting to her circumstances and environment.”
This is a view shared in part by Rahming, who had grown up with the story through her grandfather and his knack for storytelling, which is strong in keeping with our oral tradition. “I always thought it was an unfair representation. Each version of the story is heavily biased and one-sided. It’s always seen through the eyes of the townspeople and sympathises with the man who gets taken away by the Gaulin. But my work deals with what side people want to take on this story. Do they want to take the side of the Gaulin, as she has been seen as a foreign entity who has ties to the land the same as the townspeople - and she’s just looking for a husband, for someone to love her? Or do we take the side of the townspeople and exile the bird? Or the side of the man slighted?”
Rahming is currently studying at the Academy of Art University, working online so that she can pursue her dreams of attending the Olympics for Judo - quite the balancing act, but balance seems to be part of the work. “I want the audience to understand that there are multiple sides of a story. I wanted my work to be interactive so that the audience is aware of the variation in points of view and that they can make their decision as to whether the Gaulin is negative or not”.
Her work exists as a mixed media installation at Hillside House, the OFFsite of the NE8. Giant wings made of burlap, with leaf-shaped feathers stitched in a golden thread, are suspended, but also tied down by twine strings to the ground, keeping the bird captive. The work is also interactive, as the viewer is invited to cut the strings - or not - based on what side they choose to take in this story. It is placed just-so, so that anyone can stand in front of the wings and become the Gaulin herself.
Installation work, not unlike performance, has a way of directly engaging the viewer through the imposition of its presence in space. It almost forces engagement in this way, so the fact that both Rahming and Minnis chose to directly and actively engage the viewer – be it through physical action or the emotional intimacy and discomfort one experiences when watching another person disrobe – and that is a political message in and of itself. They wish to be heard, so they are forcing us to hear them.
These women, delving into this representation of a foreign or alien woman as a manipulative being, have presented their critiques of the story in quite different platforms, but there is one common theme to the two, the idea of performativity and the role of the audience. Yes, some might argue that this is the basis of just about any artwork, but these works look at these ideas of the classic artistic canon through the tale of the Gaulin wife in a way that is quite significant. It all becomes about how we perform identities to be able to exist peacefully and move through the world, just as the Gaulin wife does, but also about questioning the level of accountability of the people around us.