A vanishing act: There is concern over the seemingly fleeting presence of artwork in public spaces

In 2010, Caribbean Bottling Company – the local bottler of Coca-Cola –
and the Downtown Nassau Partnership (DNP) collaborated in an initiative geared toward putting the country’s visual art scene on the Downtown Nassau map.

Spread over 15 months, the Love My Bahamas Campaign introduced works of art – mainly murals and sculptures – to walls and cleared spaces throughout the small city, which hosts thousands of international visitors and locals every day.

In an interview at the time, then DNP Managing Director Vaughn Roberts called the project a “life changing” one. “I don’t think there has ever been a more exciting time for art, and this is the first time we have ever had anything of this magnitude,” he said.

The artwork, produced by 15 artists – 13 Bahamians and two Americans – could be found on the Frederick Street Steps, along Woodes Rogers Walk and Bay Street and on side streets woven throughout the city. Both tourists and locals were seen on any given day taking pictures of the commissioned pieces, which offered vibrancy against the formerly easily overlooked bare sidewalks and walls. The creators included John Beadle, Chantal Bethel, Lillian Blades, John Cox, Claudette Dean, Tyrone Ferguson, Maya Hayuk, Toby Lunn, Jace McKinney, Kishan Munroe, Antonius Roberts, Jolyon Smith, Allan Wallace, Arjuna Watson and Daniel Weise. It was hoped that their talents would bring new life and interest to historic Nassau.

At the time, DNP Co-chairman Charles Klonaris praised the campaign’s rejuvenating effect. “The art has changed the cityscape of Nassau and provided visitors with something new to look at, talk about and photograph,” he said. “It has given rise to a new reason to do a walking tour. Anything that adds to the visitor experience is good for us as a destination and should be celebrated.”

Backed with harmonious approval and encouragement, the energetic sites spurred curiosity about the country’s visual art movement and Bahamian culture beyond the beach. With that in mind, it’s a shame that today few of the 15 artworks can be admired the same way they were five years ago. In recent times, many of the works have been silently removed, painted over or left to disintegrate, leaving some questioning motives and others conjuring up distant memories of images that once were.

“I don’t know if it was purposeful. It just seemed to be, one by one, you saw them kind of disappear,” said artist Dionne Benjamin-Smith, who commented on the most recent removals affecting Jace McKinney’s and Jolyon Smith’s murals.

“With this new incident, where Jolyon’s piece and Jace McKinney’s piece have been taken down, we have no idea what happened. That happened in the last few weeks,” she said.

According to Benjamin-Smith, the latest incidents are not the first in what has been viewed as social and historical neglect and dismissal of the country’s arts
community. Following the destruction of the Nassau Straw Market in 2001, government officials cordoned off the charred site with sheets of plywood that traced the space along Bay Street and Prince George Wharf.

“The Ministry of Tourism commissioned artists to paint on these boards,” recalled Benjamin-Smith. “They were up for quite a while. They were beautiful. Tourists would be taking pictures in front of it; it was gorgeous. And one day we saw they had been taken down and nobody knew where they were.”

To this day, many artists, particularly those whose talents and efforts went into creating the murals on the plywood boards, wonder about the location and condition of their works.

In separate incidents, Stephen Burrows’ famous oversized pigeon and rooster sculptures that jazzed up New Providence’s roundabouts were removed, largely due to their states of disrepair after years of neglect, some argue. This story might bring another sculpture to mind – a gift from the Mexican government, formerly located on East Hill Street, which decayed without adequate protection from the elements.

If a work by one of the country’s senior artists were to disappear from the
shelves of the country’s prominent art collectors, there would be widespread concern throughout the art community. If it were left to deteriorate without adequate care, there might be legal action. It is a wonder, then, how the quiet removal and neglect of many public artworks has continued throughout New Providence, particularly in the downtown area.

Those who notice the absence of the vivid pieces and miss their rejuvenating effects have been left with a bitter taste regarding the seemingly fleeting nature of public artwork in the country, which Benjamin-Smith believes “goes to show a fundamental lack of valuing of the nation’s artwork and public artwork”.