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Bahamian art: Presenting. Uniting. Educating.

January Artwork of the Month: Curtain call for the colonial in Sanford Sawyer’s studio photographs.

Mixed Media Blog

January Artwork of the Month: Curtain call for the colonial in Sanford Sawyer’s studio photographs.

Natalie Willis

Itchy white lace, decorative candles, pristine stockings, crisp gloves and fine gold chains. These three little brides - being married to the good Christian church they inherited as newfangledBahamian post-colonial subjects, are a vision of all that is respectable and good and expected of a Bahamian of this time. Taken in 1978 by Sanford Sawyer, one of a few memorable Over the Hill photographers during the pre and post independence years, this image speaks volumes for what might seem so commonplace to us.

Pictures for a christening or any such ceremony are common, and many of us are the subject of staged photos throughout our lives – particularly as children. It is part of the Bahamian every day and ironically helps to show the mundane in spite of how produced these images are. This image is one of the lesser-known, and less visible parts of the National Collection – unless of course, you had the chance to see ‘Developing Blackness’ when it was shown at the NAGB in 2008. Curated by Krista Thompson Ph.D., the show contained work by Sawyer, as well as other photographers of the era including Cleveland Eneas, Antoine Ferrier, the aforementioned Sawyer, and Maxwell Stubbs, some of whom worked through 2008.

“Untitled” (1978), Sanford Sawyer, fiber print from original negative. Part of the National Collection.

“Untitled” (1978), Sanford Sawyer, fiber print from original negative. Part of the National Collection.

Why then would these images be considered artworks forming part of our National Collection when they are so clearly relics and memorabilia of someone’s personal collection? How is something so seemingly commonplace worthy of such scrutiny, devotion, and scholarship?

Dr. Thompson has for much of her career investigated and articulated our collective image as an Anglophone developing nation for much of her career. These snapshots of life from the 1960s through 1980s help us to have an idea of the visual notations of the period and give us a moment to pause and study what exactly was going on in the public psyche at such crucial points in our history.

How we viewed ourselves in the run-up to independence – with stirrings of liberation in the region as other countries declared themselves free of the colony title – and how we position ourselves immediately after. Now almost 44 years later, it’s interesting to see what legacies continue to thrive.

Bahamians, and in particular those of African descent, are no strangers to sitting for portraits. Most of us have had the bright lights set on us in one of the many photo studios throughout the islands.

From the time of Jacob Coonley – whose images are roughly a century earlier than this one we see now – Bahamians have been subject to knowing ourselves through a very particular, very colonial lens. This is in no small part the reason we are so subject to ‘respectability politics’ - that is, we have a certain compulsion to always ‘look the part’ and act like the paragons of good black folks. It is not lost on us that the signs of what is counted as ‘respectable’ were handed down from British Colonial rule, we know what it looks like: well spoken (no vernacular!), well groomed and aptly dressed to look the part with no regard for the sweltering hot weather. If you don’t have much money, you should at least look like you do.

This is precisely the reason why these prepubescent girls are dressed to look so virtuous: not only are they supposed to be the epitome of grace and innocence within the church, but they also must ‘play their part’ as young Bahamian girls of African descent. This is one of the relics of our colonial past that we have clung to, using Christianity as a way to show our moral repute. It also provides another reason as to why this image is interesting. Though many during the 70’s and 80’s in The Bahamas were shaking off the colonial shackles and embracing the unabashedness of black American culture, these girls still quite literally hold a light to the past.

How we frame our children in staged photographs like this, says a lot about how we wanted to set the stage for our hopes and dreams as a people trying to find themselves and their identity at a time when knowing yourself as a nation felt much like walking through quicksand. It was treacherous territory indeed. At this time we most easily embraced our African roots through American-mediated expressions of blackness, when previously we had only come to know ourselves through a British gaze - which, quite frankly, didn’t quite fit us either. We were no longer British, but what were we? Certainly not American either, but the celebration of afros and Afro-centrism amongst the black populace helped give us a glimpse into what was possible, and that was the point - we needed to think of possibility, of potential.

In this way, we can look at this portrait of the girls as a narrative of the time, as a gleaming white beacon of hope we had for our virtuousness and prosperity as a nation being born through independence. Portraits can act as just that, as a way to tell stories and to know a place and a people from a time long gone. Landscapes taken in real-time, however, can offer us an insight of our lived and felt realities, the palpability of our experience - as we can see in Tamika Galanis’ documentary images of Over the Hill communities the National Exhibition 8.

Tamika Galanis. “Boys Hospital Lane” (2015), Photography, Inkjet print, 30” x 40”. As seen in the 8th National Exhibition (NE8)

Tamika Galanis. “Boys Hospital Lane” (2015), Photography, Inkjet print, 30” x 40”. As seen in the 8th National Exhibition (NE8)

Little boys with ice-cream around their mouths who don’t want to smile for photos because they ‘ain’ soft,' because they ‘is man’ despite their youth: it’s an entirely different vision to the young brides pictured in the 1970s. Painted Colonial backdrops from the 1870s showing English stately homes gave way to curtains being drawn over them 100 years later, which then gave way to the lived cultural backdrop we see now. The curtain was literally closed on colonial backdrops during Sawyer’s time as we tried to renegotiate our sense of self, and while we know and accept that it is part of the history, almost 50 years later we are using our backdrops more now, setting our stage, or not setting a stage at all: Galanis merely watched, spoke, and waited for the right moment to offer images of our lived truths, and that is perhaps something we never quite imagined we would witness 150 years ago.