Art’s Chilling Lessons (as published in Bahamian Art & Culture eMagazine: No. 242)

Bahamian Professor Gilbert NMO Morris gives a review of Bahamian artist Everette Mackey’s controversial painting entitled “Proven”which is currently on display in the Central Bank of The Bahamas’ Art Gallery as part of its annual art exhibition and competition.

Professor Gilbert NMO Morris

All art is and operates as overstatement, aiming at the truest possible statement of a sentiment which we may know but cannot express. The artist of this painting—“Proven”—is demonstrating a new intelligence in cultural presentation in The Bahamas. To be sure, the artist himself—Mr. Everette Mackey, a Bahamian—may also think that the Hitler imagery is overmuch. But the feelings that drove him may have identified with this image as the only tool fit to demonstrate—in bold relief—the intensity of anxiety actually felt and experienced by a silent desperate majority of Bahamians. People who say, “yes, but that’s not nice,” need an education. In the 1980s, there was a show in Britain called “Spitting Image.”

In one episode, it showed Mrs. Thatcher dressed as Adolph Hitler, but—to increase the spectre of wickedness—they dressed her in an SS black uniform. The question was not whether she was actually a mass murderer. We all know that is not so. Rather, the artists were depicting the impacts of her policies, which for them, drove a despair similar to the wasteland of destruction and violence that came with and followed Hitler’s regime. In this way, the most popular unacceptable face of political power becomes the only means of expression aimed at detonating awareness in the dissonant public’s mind.

“Spitting Image” (1984 – 1996)

Therefore, we must reject out of hand the first silly responses to Mr. Mackey’s work: First, those who say, Mackey “compares” Mr. Christie to Hitler miss the point of all art and literature. The emphasis in observing art is not comparison, but the employment of imagery aimed at the expression of a sentiment that quickens the artist’s mind, but is deeper than his or her public may imagined. Second, those who say, “But Mr. Christie is nothing like Hitler in his governance.” Again, nothing in the painting says that. And again, an image is used because it is evocative, attempting to stun the observer of art into a confrontation with the sentiments of the artist; which is itself a reflection of what he or she hears or sees below the surface of society. (Francis Bacon’s “Screaming Popes” (Oil on Canvas, 1953) does not mean that Pope scream into hollow tunnels in the night. They mean, merely, to express a feeling by use of a familiar trope or image that grips the observer).

Think about Dante’s Divine Comedies (Divina Commedia,1472)—easily the greatest Christian poem ever composed. In part one, Dante places every great name in Italian politics and religion at various levels of Hell (the Inferno). In doing this, he is neither “comparing” them, nor besmirching them, although he is clearly implicating them in the acts or omissions that produced a social world and “Zeitgeist” (public feeling) as terrifying as Hell. This technique in poetry is called a “conceit” and its purpose is to force reflection and conversation by destabilising the comfortable position of the observer or reader (as J.M.W. Turner’s painting “Slave Ship” (Oil on Canvas, 1840), shocked and disturbed all of London, including Ruskin and the judges of the British high court). Here, the artist—Mackey—shows the tumbling down and trampling impotency of all of our most vaunted and well-known symbols and institutions; as if to say, it is not merely that nothing works as it’s meant to, but that we are suffering an “abjection”.

J.M.W Turner, “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying . Typhoon Coming On” (The Slave Ship), 1840. Oil on canvas 90.8 x 122.6 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This means that things are not only falling apart, but doing so in such a manner as to reveal that much of what we thought was valid was actually a false façade disguising a rotting reality. There is another element. If you read Professor Ian Strachan’s book“Paradise and Plantation” (UVA Press, 2002), he raises a concern that the energy in nearly all of our cultural production has been to serve the “flattening” of Bahamian identity for the sake of tourists, aiding their too-often casually vacuous, racist desire for a plastic cultural representation of what is Bahamian. It has been no different amongst Bahamians themselves.

Yesterday, I visited a gallery in Santo Domingo of paintings by Limber Vilorio—the Dominican artist—showing women in lingerie riding sharks, as if to speak about the flesh-impulse to which Dominican culture has been reduced and an underlying desensitised frenzied feeding by a significant proportion of tourists on this shrill sexuality. As I wrote about it more than 15 years ago: “With the exception of the sustained and sustaining brilliance of the Burnside cartoons—and to some extent, the hilarious stories of P. Anthony White—there has been an emptiness in our art production, that has been blind to our searing, tragic realities in The Bahamas; utterly ignorant of and ignoring the coming apart of our country at its very joints. Tourist fodder, such as bleeding Poincianas, dancing Hibiscus and smiling children, together with ‘derangingly happy art productions that is little more than kitsch wall-coverings” has been too prevalent in this country; a country with such a long history and such a violent culture; resting on and intensified by bogus inherited status concerns, or feckless ethnic and racial identity formations.

Our artists and our art production have—at large—ignored this reality. This artist, rather than painting flowers growing amidst the filth and slaughter is painting the filth and slaughter. The juxtaposition of Pinocchio and Hitler is telling: Remember Pinocchio is a trite character, whose dishonesty is harmless. This painting aims to show that our innocence has gained the face and force of the most infamous political hellishness. It is saying, our political, economic and cultural situation is harming us and this is not harmless. In this context, I have written that “art is violence and has only victims.” It cares not about political affiliation or the sentiments of lackeys; even where the artist harbour such inclinations. Imagery has a logic that cuts back against any attempt to take sides politically.

So those defending Mr. Christie—who is clearly no Hitler—should instead learn the meaning of art, and from that determine that this painting depicts the truth of the sheer depth of anger, frustration and hopelessness of generations of Bahamians—whether PLP, FNM or other things—and instead of Mr. Christie in that terrifying image—we, each of us—and you, should see yourself.

• • • Bahamian Professor Gilbert N. M. O. Morris is a legal scholar, economist, government advisor, professor, author and publisher.