By Natalie Willis.
A national institution of art coming together with one of the biggest hotel corporations doesn’t sound like your usual pairing - but public artwork has no prejudices, no bounds, and as such, the most unlikely collaborations can often be the most fruitful. The NAGB, along with Sandals Royal Bahamian and the Sandals Foundation have teamed up to bring forth a lighthearted public project with a serious message. For World Oceans Day, established visual artists in the community were commissioned to produce a vibrant wall mural with the idea of drawing attention to the need to not just protect our waters, but to truly care for them as they are such a strong part of what makes our country the place it is – in geography, in culture and especially in our history.
Dede Brown and Dylan Rapillard – both strong artists in their right, but certainly a dynamic team when paired up for projects such as this – produced an eighty-foot-long mural along West Hill Street, assisted by Shardae Pratt and Emily Voges, by working together the resulting product is a turquoise and teal patterned painting to behold. The mural doesn’t just catch the eye and help to illustrate the all too important message of saving our seas; it also helps to add more public interest to a historic area currently undergoing renovations, which all serves to rejuvenate downtown as a whole.
Public artwork is regularly employed, particularly in cities, as a way to engage ‘dead space’ – that is, wide expanses of blank walls on buildings, or open areas that could easily hold large sculptural structures. When we spend a day in and day out trudging along the concrete, why have a wide expanse of concrete and a gray place when you can some add colour and humanity back in? The studies on how public works of art can lift not just the mood, but the mental and emotional wellbeing of those engaging with it, are vast, let alone its potential for increasing awareness of any number of problems we face as peoples that need the attention. There is indeed a reason, so many hospitals implement art programs and curate work in their spaces. And, here especially we often see hotels making great use of having artwork in spaces as a way to bring up the social value and significance of a space.
“Space is a social morphology: it is to lived experience what form itself is to the living organism, and just as intimately bound up with function and structure.” Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991), a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist, marked out different types of space and place in ‘The Production of Space’ (1991) and theorised that each society produces its unique kind or quality of ‘space’.
What, then, does Bahamian space look like for us? What could it look like? Public art is nothing new for us, and it is often driven by the tourism that supports so much of our economy. But when we take murals to historic buildings, it begins to help us reclaim these places for the majority of Bahamians, and we can begin to turn them into social spaces of openness Both Lazar Delorenzo Charlton (PR, Sandals) and Amanda Coulson (Director, NAGB) both felt the need to reach outside of their institutional walls as a way to open themselves to the surrounding community.
Here at the NAGB, we still have some Bahamians who feel uncomfortable with making their first trip to the gallery. It is, after all, a large, grand-looking old colonial manor, and historically the space was domestic, private, and deemed a place where one might ‘trespass’ by entering. But many of our ancestors laid the blocks for buildings just like this, or worked in them, or lived in them - and the artwork in it is very much ours, part of our patrimony and culture. In some small way, having bright and colourful walls with a message we can all appreciate is a way to lead into spaces whose edifices might seem a bit too daunting on their own. Colour can bring comfort.
It’s quite a nice tie-in when we think of the way that our oceans are also our public space that could do with a perk-up of its own. Initiatives for beach cleanups and practising good, sustainable fishing practices are all happening and necessary for preserving our marine heritage - because, the waters around us, while steeped in difficult history, are also what we should consider part of our legacy and heritage as Bahamians.
The mural shows how tied we are to the water, with a succinct, but encompassing sentence scrawled across the top of the wall: “The ocean gives us air to breathe, food to eat, thousands of jobs, and a place to play. It's my ocean, and it's your ocean, and it is our responsibility as Bahamians to protect it.” - Nikita Shiel-Rolle, Founder and Executive Director of Young Marine Explorers
Just as our history was irrevocably linked to the water, so is our fluid and ever-changing present but the water remains the constant current within it, and even around it. The sea is a livelihood for so many and we’d do well to protect it as best as possible. Considering the country’s name quite literally derives from the term “shallow seas,” with the imminent threat of rising sea levels and the effect of global warming on our coral reefs, which are integral to our marine ecosystem, we should at the very least do what we can to nurture the very thing that nurtures us.
The shoal of colourful fish that run the length of the wall, the bearded man in the dinghy with his hook and line: they might be rendered in a stylised, graphic manner, but they are real to us. Brown and Rapillard’s mural reminds us of those things we learned in school and seem to forget - for instance, that our waters play host to the third largest living organism in the world (at 190 miles long), namely, the Andros Barrier Reef, which is the world's third-largest fringing barrier reef. Hailed by astronaut Scott Kelly as the “most beautiful place from space,” our banks and reefs look like paintings themselves, and the palette chosen for this mural pays homage to our often coveted greens and blues.
We don’t always think of our ocean as our history in the same way that we think of buildings, because of the flow of water, the way it constantly changes and changes our very landscape. But, as Lefebvre states, “Nothing disappears completely ... In space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows” (1991). History itself is a flow and changes us as the tide and crash of waves can. Just as we have tried to protect our historical sites, so should the ocean be considered in this endeavour. The more we have public art projects to not just ‘beautify’ an area, but to open up discussions - both lighthearted and more sombre - the better. And truly, is that not the purpose of so much art from the region?