Apathy, Antipathy, and Action: Political art and the potential for progress

Recent events in the nation, perhaps most notably the We March protest that took place last week, showed that The Bahamas has begun to shake off the veil of apathy that we have slumbered under for what feels like too long. This year has been a belter for politics and people of all beliefs making their feelings known – for better or for worse. And, as art so often engages with the state of society, so it is that many of the submissions for the 8th National Exhibition (NE8) at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) were brash, bold, opinionated, and deeply political; reflecting how strongly so many of us feel after the various events of 2016.

Regardless of your personal political bent, this year has been without question one of the most openly divisive and tense we have experienced in a while. This isn’t just because of the war-torn images of places in turmoil like Syria, where it feels as if there is more rubble remaining than anything else. The images are inescapable, and though we often feel so far removed from much of what plays out on the world stage it is still there to play at our consciousness, the violence is still painfully visible. It is strange for us to think of, but we are currently living in what is historically classed as one of the most ‘peaceful’ periods in history – imagine that! It certainly doesn’t seem so to anyone who follows the news for more than five minutes or a cursory glance.

So why all this tension? Why the growing anxiety when we turn on the tube and look at the images and see the spewing of hateful vitriol coming through the airwaves?

This is because the wars aren’t just being played out with airstrikes, they’re being played out on streets, and in the way black bodies are policed – these are the politics that have come to the forefront and that feel so much closer to home than the atrocities happening ‘elsewhere’. Our gender equality referendum, Brexit, and the Trump campaign and consequent election exposed the insidious undercurrent of prejudice, discrimination and hate that was brewingbeneath the surface for so long, latent just waiting for the right moment to spill making all of these ills normalised. This also isn’t anything new,this is just the reverberations from our colonial era, from slavery – all the power struggles, hegemony, and systemic issues that were born into. We can’t quite blame any one event for bringing into sharp focus what has been residual, and very much felt by so many groups of marginalised persons for so long. And these people have made their voices heard through art for generations, because when people feel that their power to speak has been taken from them, art can often provide that platform.

Though so many among us complain that Bahamians have stood down for far too long when it comes to our rights and how best to move the country forward, that our apathy has allowed us to be run over by any and all who choose to, we are still a country with a tradition of protest and political activism, like so many of our other Caribbean siblings. We had slave revolts, to be sure, but in more recent public memory we had the suffrage movements, riots and the road to independence we love to romanticise. Maxwell Taylor has always unabashedly dealt with the politics of black bodies in his work, and Kendra Frorup has produced work that tackles child abuse in the nation and the way much of it echoes of the violence our enslaved ancestors endured.

We are no strangers to speaking up, but we have felt a little quiet until recently, a little bit lacking in our Bahamian ‘biggityness’.

We now live in a time that feels so reminiscent of the racial and cultural tension felt during the civil rights era, and even further back to the mass genocide and displacement of WWII. No matter your side of the fence on any of the major events this year, the point is just that – there is a fence. There is a sense of division, and there is a very serious cry internationally coming from the layman at large, from those vilified to those into blaming their issues on their demonized fellows of differing creed or colour. These moments of dissension and upset peak in waves, as we constantly see with feminism and with human rights movements throughout modern history, and the art world has always responded critically.

Particularly, artists of colour have always used art as a tool for ‘becoming’ and for knowing ourselves. As the late, great Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall shares, “Far from being grounded in mere “recovery” of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.” We live in constant negotiation of ourselves in addition to the negotiations ongoing of how our lives are governed. This is why art holds such an importance and why artists have always had socially engaged practices: art is a way for us to know ourselves outside of the media chaos, outside of the ‘powers that be’ that box us into stereotypes. It is an honest way for us to voice our issues and to give voice to our experiences as we know them, in truth.

Art and art communities have always provided a safe space, a neutral harbour for those who want to voice their dissent and their rejection of the injustices of the world – no matter how big or small. While of course we still deal with the problems of art pandering to the art market (and therefore the issues that capitalism brings), creative spaces themselves are still spaces where those who feel pushed aside and excluded can feel their existence and identity is legitimate.

We often say art acts as a mirror to reflect society, but I’m not certain that is quite apt. It might be more appropriate to consider it a litmus test for dissatisfaction, or perhaps a speaker to project the voices of those who are so often sidelined who need their moment to shout. Art isn’t just the voice of the masses, art is the voice of those who have something to say, who need their voice to be heard.

The NE8, then, certain shows us the interesting chemistry of this year as it pertains to the status of women, of black people, of queer people, of all and any who feel pushed aside or slighted by the events of this year on the world stage, as well as here at home.

In the Caribbean we are so often at odds with ourselves and our situation: we are Western and have to deal with the historically European hegemony that comes with this, but we are also a region where the demographic shows we are mostly black or people of colour. We are the majority, and yet we still deal with many of the struggles that our brothers and sisters living abroad as minorities deal with. It is all part and parcel of the history. Out of this confusion and adversity, we have played host to and nurtured some of the most revered thinkers of the world, who have in turn influenced the work of countless creative practitioners. Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, Edouard Glissant, to name but a few, and their legacies have inspired so many artists and cultural workers not only in the region but across political and art factions the world over.

We are seeing a little more action, with a distinct rise in peaceful protest and grassroots campaigns for tolerance popping up with the likes of the #WeMarch protest for transparency within the government, and organisations like Hollaback! Bahamas helping to promote feminism and call for an end to street harassment in the nation.

It is clear that the feelings of resignation to our situation and our indifference to feeling so consistently slighted as a nation are starting to give way to positive, tolerant, and healthy ways to show dissatisfaction and begin the rallying cries for change and progress. And it must be noted that many in the art community here have been in support of this sort of action for a long time.

There will be much more for this year’s NE8 to instigate conversation perhaps than previous years, though the National Exhibition itself has always held work that is unabashedly critical of ourselves, our government, and some of our more antiquated ways of thinking. Clive Stuart for the NE3 presented his ‘Work Permit: This Lawn Will Die Without Care’ that alluded to the presence of Haitian labour in The Bahamas and played to the prejudices surrounding migrants from our fellow Caribbean nation (and which did, I might add, cause quite the furor because of its very contemporary display of ready-made objects as sculpture).

For NE7, Kareem Mortimer presented a film exploring the difficult politics of the way that black and white bodies are racialised (and, which again caused a little contention with the nudity present – even though nude figures in art are perhaps nearly as old as art itself!). Also that year, Nadine Seymour-Munroe’s overtly busty, slim mannequin figures donning afros and slogans for bleaching creams and the necessity of the ideal big ‘bungie’ tackled the constantly clashing ideals that we must strive toward as women – and the pasties covering these figures weren’t nearly big enough to hide the self-hate we fight day in and day out. These works will be in good company with this newest continuation of the NE. From Lynn Parotti’s collaged images that eerily echo to the former grandeur of those few who benefitted from the colonial era and the ruins that remain, to the investigations of black womanhood and the politics around Ghanaian fabric in the work of April Bey.

Some might think this is merely ‘speaking up for the sake of speaking’, but we have long since moved from the days of ‘art for art’s sake’ – art is about seeing yourself. It is so important when we live in a world that constantly tells you what you are via hurtful stereotypes that you see representations of integrity in art spaces, that you see that people like you can (and indeed should) be seen publicly, and that they should be loud. Artworks have loud voices because people need to be heard.

The NE8, then, will be a glorious cacophony of sound, of becoming, and of being. Join us at the NAGB on December 15th for the opening of NE8’s ONSITE exhibition, and on the 17th for our OFFSITE exhibition at Hillside House. Quite clearly, there was far more to be said than could be contained in one chapter, in in one space, and we are excited to share this growing, more expansive, louder National Exhibition.