Art’s healing properties

by Ian Bethell-Bennett

Art and literature often join forces to create a multi-layered experience; the words and images flow and transport the viewer to a different space, time and experience, where she or he can participate in art and exchange feelings and ideas through art. Art often reveals what is there before us in everyday life, but is often overlooked. Art has economic, social and healing qualities or value that can be employed to benefit an individual, a group or a society. It also has intrinsic value as well as extrinsic value. We place value on a piece of art according to what that says to us. We also place value on it based on the artist and the material, or the lines and techniques used to create the final effect.

Cooking is an art we value; people travel for miles to experience the cuisine of a place because of its value and fame. Tuscan cuisine is famed for this, and people flock there, especially in the spring and summer, to experience the wine and food of that region. It has created its own value and is highly sought after. At the same time, it is the way of life of a people. It is their simple expression of themselves, their traditions and the part of the world they live in. Much like art, food is based on place. It uses the flavors and other ingredients indigenous to that place to form it. This is not a conscious decision that was undertaken centuries ago, but a natural forming of traditions through life and experience. Weather, soil and altitude also create traditions that come into play in landscapes, houses and other forms of architecture, which are all based on environment and then become known to that place or synonymous with it. Tuscany is a prime example of this, again. It produces terrific art, wine and food as well as famous landscapes that call people to the country. The Bahamas does this too. The country is known for its shallow waters, fabulous diving and incredible beaches. It is also famous for its boatbuilding and salt manufacturing. Yet, many Bahamians do not realize that. We produce a lifestyle that works with our surroundings.

Traditionally, Bahamian homes were built keeping the relationship between the environment and living in it comfortably in mind. They were functional and became known for their beauty. They had wide verandas that allowed for the cooling of the interior without any form of artificial air. Much like spaces that capture the local environment, we can make spaces use the environment to function better. This was one of the aims of the construction piece at NAGB. The installation shows how we can make our spaces solar, more environmentally friendly and more beautiful while being functional and safe. These are all huge concerns these days. The fusion between architecture and art also throws out the challenge of accepting how art can change space, change lives and change the way we live within space, usually for the better and often with the result of creating peace. Much work has been done on transforming worlds through graffiti art as well as living art: art that becomes a part of life and has function; it is not just about beauty but integrates beauty into living functionality.

Art then reflects this back to the viewers’ aspects of home. Photography captures the image, either natural or contrived, of the place and is picked up because of its likeness to that place and again the relationship the person has with that photograph. A Bahamian painting does the same thing. It is a different process but the result is similar. The art shows what is there or what can be seen and experienced from living in that place. It is stranger than fiction, as it usually captures what we refuse to see – the normal, the mundane – and casts it in a new light. This then allows us to experience it totally differently. Our experience with that art is dependent on our social upbringing—it determines how we relate to things.

The 2015 Transforming Spaces tour also brought another note – that of mural art. Mural art is very important in urban communities, as it transforms the space as well as gives the community the opportunity to express their thoughts as well as a chance to live in a pleasant area. Art is curative! The wall painting at the D’Aguilar Art Foundation also spoke to the fusion of art and living, the capturing of cultural transformation and the universality of most human experiences. It told of the migration experience and arrival in the new cultural space and the desire to simply live a life of peace and joy. This is a universal human desire.

It also shows how traditions cannot be held down. We can maintain traditions, but over time culture changes. Culture and space transform along with people. Without that transformation, we would become stuck in a place that has ceased to exist. It is almost like living in a bubble. Migration tends to do this to people. While the home culture has moved on, the migrants who moved to a different place/space tend to remain in the culture of the home they left behind. Their language does not change, and the words they use become outdated. Could this happen to migrants, immigrants and exiles in our country? We know this happens to Bahamians who leave here to live in London, Paris or Toronto. They see nothing wrong with the way they are, yet they no longer fit in at home, nor do they fit in in their adopted communities.

Art captures this, and the Petit brothers’ project at the D’Aguilar Art Foundation shows this. Language speaks to how we live in a space as well as how we see ourselves in relation to a broader space. Our homes also speak to where we live and how we relate to that space. Often, migrants fill their homes with memorabilia from the past and their old homes. They choose to leave to save their lives, but their homes communicate to all who enter that this is a part of the home that has been left behind. They are a part of holding on to one’s identity and one’s past that attempts to keep it alive. At the same time, migrant, emigrant and exiled parents always want their children to do better than they have done; they want them to fit in in the new space, but not to lose their culture either. It can be a hard balance to maintain!

Transforming Spaces shows the public the dynamic relationship between movement and space and between art and cultural transformation. It captures the feeling of loss associated with migration, emigration, exile, the fear of hatred that is camouflaged to avoid being further exploited, and the identity that develops from living a life between two cultures. Achy Obejas writes about this in “We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?”, a book that tells the drama of exile and migration but the richness of living in the new space.

Haitian grandparents and parents often lament how their children born in this country are different than they would be if they were born in Haiti. Cuban and Dominican parents share this lament. However, they are less visible, despite their long-time residence in this country. Much like the thousands of Chinese migrants being bussed daily to and from work, we do not see them. We choose not to see them. These exhibits humanize experiences of displacement, as the mural art at the D’Aguilar Art Foundation does in conjunction with the Petit brothers’ works and the video interviews documented by Keithley Woolward.

Much of the work captures the positive experience, yet some of it also shows the pain associated with living in a space that is hostile to new arrivants. What is even more ironic is that resistance to children born in The Bahamas to Haitian parents or people of Haitian descent is stronger than that expressed toward Haitians. They feel more marginalized. Art allows these conversations to be had without hostility. It also shows how much culture changes through contact and over time. We have a rich culture, a rich language and rich identities that encapsulate thousands of traumas and millions of joys. Our culture has been transformed by so many fusions and the passage of time that we can only live it as it is and enjoy it without the panic that it is under threat. If anything threatens our culture, it is the boutiquing of spaces and the erasure of the soul that once inhabited there. We have lovely spaces without any substance. Our culture is far too rich for that! 

We must embrace cultural change that comes with the passage of time and the influence of other peoples as nothing we can do will ever prevent the march of time. We can choose to ignore it, but time changing and the performance of culture will simply keep transforming. What we need to do now is celebrate who we are, as Gustavo Pérez-Firmat would argue of the Cubans in Miami who live in a time warp but embrace their Cuban-American heritage. Let us live with soul and body and not just as a pretty storefront without any real merchandise to offer. We do not want to be the beautiful cake in the window that, when bought, tastes like nothing. Live in and with art!