The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas(NAGB) has created a space we call the National Exhibition, now on its eighth run. This year, the event that opened on 15th and 17th December 2016 has been installed at Antonius Robert’s Hillside House Gallery and would have also been presented at PopopStudios had Hurricane Matthew not done his dastardly deed in October. The NE8 offers local artists and artists of the diaspora a space to express their ideas and thoughts, concepts and theories, but does not earn income. The artists do not sell works at the NE8, as the space is expressly to show and provide a voice for local art, artists, and cultural practitioners.
It is an investment in the national development of the Arts and Bahamian culture. A part of this year’s exhibition is work by Nassau-born, North Carolina-based artist Tamika Galanis who examines the danger of cultural loss we are facing as a country that grapples with huge cultural and structural violence. We talk about exceptional violence because the state responds to the street violence as if it were an exception, though, much of it arises in responses to the state’s imposed structural violence on the bodies pictured in the work.
Galanis has two parts to her work; one is a photographic display of transformation as we speak and the other is an installation of 3D printed hybrid coral heads. Both aspects of the work trouble the waters and take a significant step in discussing what we as a people are not discussing: the real danger of national loss concomitant with climate change or what we call global warming that encompasses sea level rise of massive proportions as well as freak and dangerously strong and devastating storms, as embodied by Matthew and Joaquin, and the man-made dangers of violence.
The government speaks of the National Plan, but the real question is, what concrete steps and strategic plans, action points and achievable, measurable goals, and targets with a timeline have been included in this much-publicised plan? Without these things clearly and obviously delineated and the responsibility for them being obviously identifiable, there is little to no hope of success. It is like having a plan without identifying anyone who will be responsible for carrying it out or saying how it will happen. In a country that has developed an aversion for accountability, this is heaven. What are we doing about the potential and real loss of us? What are we doing about the loss of cultural expression due to land tycoons developing paradise for a few jobs while paying thrupence on the pound?
Galanis’ work much like the work of John Beadle, Lynn Parotti, Jordana Kelly, Keisha Oliver and others, gives us food for thought as we celebrate 50 years of Majority Rule. A movement away from Slavery that legally ended in 1834 with a period of free labour between 1834 and 1838 and a further period of exploitation through Credit and Truck from that time until then.
These communities captured by the lens, are the most afflicted by these cultural policies and legacies. The system and ways of exploitation may change, but the result hardly does. What is so poignant about Galanis’ work of the documentation of Grants’ Town, is that this area was the real seat of local black development, activism, mercantilism and intelligentsia in the mid-twentieth century. It is also where most inequality, violence, and disenfranchisement thrive.
The story of The Bahamas would be altered without this area; one can hardly conceive of the development of Bay Street and other areas without contributions from the inhabitants of this area. We tend to forget that this is the place that provided the leaders of today. Nothing has changed, except that resources were abruptly withdrawn from the so-called inner city/ghetto, so as the human flight occurred so too did the resource flight. What we see now is a community at odds with itself and its neighbours, challenged for its very survival by the political economy of a colonial, postcolonial, neocolonial and neoliberal state where violence is exceptional but always justified when used by the state.
Ironically, members of the same community, deeply invested in their weave and go style, their bling culture and their images being on fleek, are controlled by a discourse they think they manage but are being so undermined by that they have fallen victim to the false promises made by a saviour in white. The problem with prophetic saviour in white is that the damage done by them is greater than that done by the so called ‘black’ plague.
However, we must look beyond race and see where the real problems lie and who to challenge when we talk about power. Power rarely if ever resides in the spaces perceived as powerful. We forget that power resides in us, but it is always undermined by the power and ability to control through oppression.
The Arts work against this.
Creating a national discussion of how we see ourselves causes discomfort, but that is what art is for. We cannot as a nation think that everything will be nice, soft and fluffy, especially as the threat of financial instability and sovereign devaluation looms large. The representations in the work are truly unkind sometimes, and when they are kind, we choose not to see the kindness because they disrupt our self-image. Our self-image that is covered over by cheaply engineered colourful bondo that hides our imperfection only as long as we continue to apply it. But who are we hiding from?
Galanis’ work is incredible, troubling not only because it captures the day-to-day lives of a people the state blames for every evil in their national development agenda, gang crime, murder, rape, and poverty, because we know that poverty is a “choice”, according to some, but because the community has lost its cohesion and is divided against itself. The work blows these images up. When put in conversation with the other projects in the NE, it destroys an image of weaved beauty and acrylic brilliance that now embodies us as a people, so much so that we may not be able to spell or count, or produce anything in our government jobs, but we sure can be on fleek.
Meanwhile, we hate women. We choose not to discuss these thorny issues. They make politicians unhappy and they, supposedly, pay for us to be here, so “I ain’t speakin bout nothing,” say people on the street.
In a disturbing turn of national events, we seem to have lost our way. As gang violence takes over the streets and some neighbourhoods, especially those referred to as the inner city, a way of life begins to vanish through fear.
The images captured in Galanis’ work show cultural moments that are fast leaving us as crime encroaches on our lives; government talk becomes less about people and more about jobs, all the while climate change threatens to pound those homes that can least afford it into oblivion. Many of these will never be able to rebuild.
Some of the characters serve to remind us of life’s simplicity and the need for community. Others remind us of a rapidly changing landscape that is further being undermined by social media, where so much is played out beyond the street life of those persons in the photos. Social media changes life and as climate change impacts the way we interact so does social media.
Sadly, few are having these conversations. We no longer speak to one another but are told what to do, how to think and when to think. The government has used some interesting bullying tactics that have been adapted by those in the most precarious of positions because they see this as their only way to survive. Social empathy and local relationships are being lost. The images capture a way of life rapidly disappearing through multifaceted ‘things’ beyond our control but fairly easily mitigated against through more empathy, awareness and the refusal to be bought for a song or thrupence. Today’s plight is that we are more interested in transactional relations over beneficial community strengthening and self-reliance, self-sustaining engagement and development.
Perhaps the best way to explore our identities, cultural, collective and personal is through the expression of culture and to allow the images to speak for themselves. These events and the spaces where they occur allow dialogue, and dialogue is essential for cultural survival. This is not simply about being sold out to the newest resort development that will destroy local development by diverting water, electricity, land and other natural and manmade resources from the local space into the hybrid space, that, when crisis threatens can up sticks and leave us to our devastation and ruin.
A population without access to land, for example, is a dying population. A population without access to empathy and community is a population, as Glissant states, on the verge of erasure. How do we float and become sustainable? We must begin to see what lies under the cutter special and the bondo mask that does not allow us to prosper. Art opens that up.
We must move beyond the weave and the appearance where we talk a great talk, dance a super dance, shuffle a lovely slide while are streets are being washed out by storm surges, houses being washed away by an ocean, much like gang violence and community erasure that threaten the very lives of the youth pictured here, we either learn to retool, or we disappear. How are we looking, listening and taking action?