EN MAS’ opens with From Columbus to Junkanoo

by contributing writer Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett.

On the evening of Thursday, April 28, the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) hosted the opening of three new exhibitions. On the evening, music played and drums beat out, as talented boys and girls from Rhythm N’ Youth, who are often missing in the real national debate, performed to welcome the souls and soles of the living and the dead. The drums reverberated beyond so many of the other instruments.

The speeches welcomed a travelling show, EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean, to the NAGB. The show, curated by Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson, had already been installed in New Orleans and is now on our shores. 

EN MAS’ is fresh, bright, colorful, somber, loud, active and all those things we expect and don’t expect carnival and popular culture to be about. One of the ironies that cannot be missed with popular performance culture is the apparent paradoxes that they hold, such as the fact that the working-class people are the persons who are most instrumental in the festivals’ success. 

EN MAS’ enlaces with the permanent exhibition, From Columbus to Junkanoo, which was originally hung in Santiago de Cuba in July 2015 for the Festival del Fuego.

From Columbus to Junkanoo

At the Festival del Fuego, The Bahamas was the country of honor and took over a gallery in Santiago de Cuba. The Bahamas represented by staging performances in the national theatre and throwing the gates to Bahamas House open to the public every night for about a week. That event, despite serious civil service hiccups and some extremely unfortunate fallout from miscommunications and intentionally erected obstacles to create national embarrassment, was pulled off heroically by the deftly skilled Bahamian contingent, as well as some very high-powered female influence.  

The art exhibition from that festival, From Columbus to Junkanoo, brought together diverse works from distinct artists that spanned decades. The works presented a conversation on Bahamian cultural heritage and visual culture.

This year, From Columbus to Junkanoo features more artwork while highlighting the rich cultural tapestry that is the Bahamian visual art community. So much of Bahamian identity is wrapped in the goatskin drum, which happened to have come over from Africa in the belly of slave ships. But we often elide this fact, as if African migration though forced was not its own milestone. The drums are viscerally in us. They pull our strings and these strings bring us out at various times of the year to dance, lament, celebrate and choose life over death. It is a Caribbean reality that flows, or as Antonio Benitez-Rojo writes, repeats across time and space.

Linking the two exhibitions

Our culture is joined to Haiti’s, Cuba’s, Trinidad’s and Martinique’s, although we may not recognize the submarine roots and unifying currents, rhythms and beats. The drums connect spirituality with the churches of the New World. They often marry Catholicism or Anglicanism with and African spirituality. As we, having been entrenched through centuries of colonialism, under-represent and outlaw Africanism, EN MAS’ and From Columbus to Junkanoo show how culturally rich we are and how intricately linked our history and culture are to African spirituality and indigenous cultures. 

The Penal Code and the Vagrancy Act made it illegal for Africans to celebrate in the open. Junkanoo was not about open celebration but rather clandestine and resistant parading under the cover of night. Blackness was not tolerated and ‘black culture’ was not embraced.

Carnival, much like Junkanoo, is a rich cultural performance of community participation. Santiago de Cuba, Santiago de los Caballeros, Havana, Cien Fuegos, Jacmel and Port of Spain all come alive with Obatala, and Ochun, The Virgin of Charity, Lazarus and the other deities and saints.  This may cause the Christian community to recoil in horror, but so much of us flows from a mixture of suffering and celebration, of joy in pain, and of survival over hardship. In Carnival in Salvador do Bahia the folk are out and engaged.  Junkanoo in Nassau, Marsh Harbour, Rock Sound or Governor’s Harbour articulate the culture of letting go of the pain of the day-to-day and celebrating life En Mas o en masse.

Such a rewarding and soul-filling expression of triumph over adversity is important in such times as these. One fact we are constantly reminded of by the Christian faith and the Pagan faith (which we choose to denigrate) is that tomorrow is not promised. 

A visceral connection

EN MAS’ and From Columbus to Junkanoo speak to these realities through vibrant colors and somber tones and themes. The fact that we as a nation choose to exacerbate differences of gender, to make women inferior to men, to make some men inferior to others, to celebrate homogeneity as apposed to diversity, underscores a lack of self-acceptance. To declare that the movement to a more engaged, more egalitarian nation is a waste of time tells us that we have forgotten the Junkanoo of our souls. We have tuned out the Carnival in our hearts. We have succumbed to Babylon and have chosen to kill those who look like us. 

One of the most impassionate yet powerful images was all the nuance of ethnicities and races seen on those carnival and Junkanoo roads, performing popular culture without a care in the world.

Earl Lovelace’s “The Dragon Can’t Dance” embodies this unifying rhythm of carnival that seeps in through the pores and out through our soles and toes, as we perform the dance of centuries of struggle and oppression but survival. Dance the memory!  Dance like tomorrow will never come, knowing that it will be here sooner than we want, but embracing the chance to dance. Dance! The drums beckon and the feet move. 

Junkanoo Carnival may not be indigenous to The Bahamas, nor should it be confused with Junkanoo, but engineered events can be enjoyed for what they are. Sideburns’ cartooned woman boasting 265 pounds of KFC indulgence will squeeze herself into a micro-costume, stretching at the seams and bursting. But let her be for this one weekend. We cannot fault her for her desire to be. We all want to be.

The nuances of colors, classes and participation came out loudly in these two exhibitions. It was also clear, though totally unintended, that we celebrate motherhood but not women. Mothers are only women in as far as they are less equal than men. Dance equality!  That is one thing Carnival allows, and Junkanoo?    

What a joyful noise was made on Thursday evening as En Mas met up with  From Columbus to Junkanoo, travelling from New Orleans, a Caribbean city, and Santiago de Cuba to Nassau to show us our motion and catch us in the dance.  Let go of the inequalities and embrace life, as we dance our way to the grave, don’t lick nobody!  Burma Road Riots may be a thing of the past and so apparently is the desire for any kind of equality or equal pay.