So Close Yet So Far

By: Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett

The University of The Bahamas

As life on islands finds a new normal, we see the importance of connectivity and awareness.  Much has been revealed by Dorian’s passage, from the lack of bill payment by some agencies for private companies’ services to aid storm victims, to the need for closer links between people with communities. The beauty of art is that it can capture so many emotions and open up valuable conversations about how and where we live. Naomi Klein in her work The Battle for Paradise (2019), illustrates the gap between words used to rebuild in Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria and Irma and the reality of dispossession and displacement.

As environmental justice and art create new linkages along with social justice, these work to show the overlaps between social and environmental injustice, race, gender and class. “Refuge”, now on show at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB), shows serious attention being paid to this as only art can do. Christina Wong’s “So Close Yet So Far”, frames so much of the reality of our daily lives.  Her canvas presents a woman–whom we see as a mother but she could be anyone–trying to grab onto a boy–whom we also see as her son but he could also be anyone–as they are being separated by water. The light in the picture is saved for the faces of the two characters and somewhat for the spume of the waves that part them. This work relies heavily on tones or shades and the palette sets the mood. It is a dark foreboding mood contrasting with the light on the faces, perhaps to represent some hope, yet the reality sinks us into the depths of death and separation or simply loss: so many people have disappeared and remain unaccounted for that this work opens a chest of emotions. As we lost much and waited to hear from family and friends during and after the storm, many continue to experience this paralysis in the lack of knowing what has happened to their loved ones.  Yet they cannot surrender to the seas of misfortune and despair. This pain can be soothed, though never forgotten, as long as there are discussions and moments that are open to them. Wong’s work speaks to the distance between us and the closeness we feel as humans inhabiting an archipelagic nation and as humans losing loved ones.

Social and environmental justice are strongly rooted in recovery from natural and man-made disasters. The linkages between the islands remain a matter of grave concern as people who need to move back and forth between devastation and habitation pay top dollar for flights, which restrict recovery efforts. This is certainly complicated by the islands but the complication is deepened by the lack of social justice for those directly impacted–not just by the environmental degradation of development and pollution, such as the mass of plastics washing around on what we sell as pristine seas and beaches, but also by the oil and gas along with other deadly contaminants set loose by accidents and Dorian itself. It is not coincidental that race, class and gender all play a part in the community’s experiences with social injustice. Social injustice is a part of not knowing when the bodies of loved ones will be released. It is in the silence around loss and dispossession. It is further in the (temporary) sale/letting/lease of space to international corporations who pave roads with golden promises. This is a culture of disempowerment keenly experienced in Puerto Rico after Maria that continues today.

Social and environmental injustice overlap because the one often assists in causing the other.  Further, Edward Soja’s theory using French theorist Henri Lefbvre’s ideas of spatial justice, show us how the need for justice at all levels is often eclipsed by silence and blame. Blame the victim: they built badly. The travesty is that “they” usually built as well as they could afford. The nuanced silences are deeply violent.

We also see this in Ricardo Edwards’ work Pirate Bwoy (2018) exhibited in the Small Axe sponsored VLOSA at the NAGB in 2019.  Edwards creates a similar mood to Wong’s though the subject matter is different.  His focus is on social exclusion, social and environmental injustice.  The colour tones are similar as they evoke a sense of dark misfortune and despair.  Wong’s work has more light cast on it and though it could be celestial, it offers a more futuristic promise than Edwards’s painting. Edwards picks up on spatial and social injustice while demonstrating the need for special attention to those who appear less fortunate.

In Wong’s work, we understand the underlying presence of need, but it is not drawn to the fore of the painting. This work couples with her other piece in the show, but I will not go into detail on that as Natalie Willis explores this in her piece.

The environmental, social, economic and spatial injustice experienced through and by climate change demonstrates the need for greater awareness and cohesion. As many of the spaces damaged or devastated by hurricanes before Dorian await their fix, cultural practices are lost through erasure and displacement as it becomes unsustainable for citizens to eke out a living on these islands. The hope is that they will surrender and leave, thus opening up the space for speculation and commercialisation–neoliberalism set free, as seen in many essays on the afterlife of Maria in Puerto Rico (Aftershocks of disaster).

Christopher Gregory’s essay in Aftershock “Lifting the veil: Portraiture as a tool for bilateral representation” elucidates the work to undo silence and he notes “My work and its methodology aim to disrupt the narrative of ‘industrial morality’ a practice essential to understanding the deeper implications of the storms’ passages”.  His words are useful.

He goes on to say, “My portraits, especially of rural communities, aim to connect the reader with their physical and psychological state but also to this historic reality that extends beyond the storm”.

In our post-Dorian instance, art provides a lucid frame in which to capture the abandonment of rural communities even before the storm. What has emerged is a spatial and social disjuncture that the paintings truly capture. There are deep cleavages that allow powerful spokespersons and state agents to silence through chastisement those who are so close but lost in the wilds of Dorian, Irma, Matthew and Joaquin. Because the latter storms apparently did less damage, they are dismissed. The irony is clearly seen in Pirate Bwoy that resonates with Wong’s rendering and illuminates Gregory’s words, the abandonment pre-storm.

Legacies of violence and displacement only gather force and render us more vulnerable to climate change and ecological devastation though donors come in and offer to manage the space until government cannot pay down the debt, as is the case in Puerto Rico as it now pays venture capitalists and spec firms that own its debt though the Senate approved PROMESA Act. We are so close yet so far.

“So Close Yet So Far” (2019), Christina Wong, acrylic on canvas, 40×30 inches. Collection of the artist.