Art, Culture and Representation: Reflecting on Self and Nation

Representation in art tends to be the ability of art to reflect on to capture the trueness of life. It is not a sketch of naturalistic or impressionistic images, but a ‘true’ to life picture of what we see. However, what we see can always be influenced, changed or distorted by our position, our vantage point, and bias or where we stand. We can look out at sea and see a glare of whiteness as the sun reflects off the water’s surface.

Image by Clive Stuart.

Representation sometimes is used to qualify how good art is; we feel more comfortable with art the closer it comes to showing us images that we can identify as a part of our life. But what happens if these are not a part of our socio-cultural context? What happens if we are abroad in a field that is unfamiliar to us and we are asked to comment on art that captures this. In the early days of colonial education, the colonial power brought cultural education and imposed it on a place and people that were foreign to that culture. If we could not read, understand and critique the images as deployed by those texts, we were not functioning. We then learned as colonialism deepened to adapt the art of the West to the reality of the Caribbean.

As cultural practitioners would say, the snow no longer landed on the towns in Shropshire, but on the canefields in Barbados. So, when independence came about in 1973, it was assumed that the colonial mindset and representation ended. The end of representation, though, as Jacques Derrida would indicate and Stuart Hall maintains, is not simply the end of direct colonialism. One of the vexing and ongoing problems with representation, however, is as Gayatri Spivak will show is the constant silencing of the subaltern, the ‘other’ in the guise of national development. When we look at the ‘national’ image of the country, it is limited and often in reaction to or against something. We often exclude women from active participation in the national image, which is reserved for males, except we include women in their roles as mothers and representatives of the feminine aspects of the landscape; beauty is often equated to women or women are equated to the beauty of a feminised space.

At the same time we are actively pursuing the image creation of a dangerous other, one who is different from us and we style ourselves as being who he is not. In culture, we have created a barrier between them and us. So we have generations of Bahamians who are absent in local cultural representation that still relies heavily on the same colonial fears and polemics that functioned in the 18th and 19th centuries to keep the negroes under control. When the Haitian uprising and revolution was underway and then succeeded, the fear it sparked in the region was due to the worry of enslaved Africans hearing of the uprising in Haiti, encouraging ‘their’ slaves to think they could revolt too.

The history of slavery in The Bahamas is peppered with resistance to slavery’s cruelty, but the representations of that by the mainstream is that slavery is easier and more gentle in The Bahamas, even though Mary Prince was beaten horribly in Inagua, which is The Bahamas. Narratives produced by the West may not be kind to those voices of torture and suffering, but the narratives produced by ‘others’ speaks to a past built on inequality and hardship and torture. Thus, when we think of Haitians, we think they will bring about deepened poverty, again, this goes back to the representation inflicted on them by the West.

Image by Lynn Parotti. From the Slave House series.

The power of representation usually employed, then, is to silence people who are seen as undesirable or cast as undesirable so as to empower a particular language and image of what we are. Bahamian art and culture are often full speed ahead regarding the way it shows what is happening. It is dangerously biased when we look at the representation of what happens. The danger here is that the representations reflect rather than depict. In the reflection, there is a dangerous distortion towards the political will or a created ‘fear’ or threat of destabilization.

The gender-equality referendum was an example of how the representation of the reality was used to foster fear and distrust so that images of pregnant women as needing protection because of their fragility is alarming. The underlying image rendered by this is that foreign men are dangerous and threaten Bahamian women and so Bahamian culture. However, we have had foreign folks here forever. The Bahamas is built on heterogeneous groups as Patricia Glinton-Meicholas’ essay ‘Migrations’ indicates. Nicolette Bethel’s essay ‘Roots and Routes’ shows how disparate Bahamian realities are, and speaks to the variant identities and influences. However, we still exclude those voices more than we include them.

We deploy an image of beaches and not of people. We build on a representation of blank space where visitors can lie on white-sand beaches and enjoy a daiquiri in splendid exotic bliss where the natives don passive smiling faces in the shadow or standing in the water in service; never to be people with culture. Our unrepresented culture is alive and thriving even as it is threatened by the exclusivity of foreign direct investment at the expense of national development. We are hacking off our dynamic creative cultural productivity to become a destination. We are also allowing the power of representation in official discourse silence what is happening. The presence of cultural infusions from Jamaicans, Haitians, those born in the Bahamas to international parents is obvious, dynamic and rich.

We must embrace that. Let us leave off the official line of what we think people want us to be and embrace where we are. In no way is this proposing to throw out the image of beaches, in favour of something else, but rather to allow things to coexist the ways the are currently living on the ground. It is about embracing our culture and forgetting the colonial misogynistic representation that has come to hound and burden us.