Beauty in Bain Town: How does Over-the-Hill fit into the Bahamian picturesque?

Bain Town is a space of much notoriety these days, as a number of historically freed slave villages on the island have grown to be, but it wasn’t always so, and there is certainly a need to celebrate the history of these areas and the sense of community and pride amongst those who remember how different the place was merely a few decades ago. So many of our major artists in The Bahamas came from Over-the-Hill, perhaps most notably our beloved Maxwell Taylor, and embracing the greatness that comes out of these communities is important.

We look into the oil painting showing this area, entitled “Bain Town” (1984) by Dorman Stubbs and a part of the National Collection, to see if it does, in fact, embrace this place, or whether it is merely playing into that age-old tourist propaganda of painting ourselves as something that is beautiful in a way that isn’t quite real.

“Bain Town” (1984), Dorman Stubbs, oil on canvas, 30 x 40. Part of the National Collection, gifted by FINCO.

Dorman Stubbs has been a fixture in the Bahamian art scene for quite some time now, starting in his youth with his depictions of the markets downtown where his parents worked as fruit vendors. During his high school experience, he was taught by another well-known name in Bahamian art, Homer Williams. Stubbs also took part in the FINCO Summer Art Workshop, as so many of our prominent artists in the community had while it was still in operation. In fact “Bain Town” (1984) was commissioned by FINCO and marked one of the first works in his career as an artist outside of seeing art as a hobby, and was the start of his concerted effort to be viewed as an arts professional outside of his teaching experience.

The works in our collection gifted by the Finance Corporation of The Bahamas (FINCO) hold a certain significance in the National Collection as a result of their concerted effort to facilitate Bahamian artists in the production of work to document our history through art. In 2002, FINCO gifted twelve works from their collection to the Gallery. The first six coming from a set of works commissioned in 1979 to document and showcase historical buildings in The Bahamas, and the last six from the second set of commissions in 1983 specifically inviting artists to document scenes in the Grants Town area. This is, of course, how the Gallery came to own Stubbs’ “Bain Town” (1984) as part of the collection, as he was chosen to be one of the 23 artists selected to produce work.

Of course some of the works from FINCO can be seen as somewhat problematic, as many of the artists chosen were selected based on their ability to depict the ideals of beauty in the Bahamian landscape, ideals that proved to be a vital part of the reframing of the nation as part of the colonial tourist machine throughout the region. This is also precisely why this work was chosen to be part of the 2017-18 Permanent Exhibition, ‘Revisiting An Eye For The Tropics’, which is based on the text by Dr. Krista Thompson “An Eye For The Tropics” where she outlines the way that the modern Bahamas was forever changed based on the colonial tourism of the 1800’s-1900’s, and in particular, the shaping of The Bahamas as part of the Caribbean picturesque.

We could never hope to fully fit the ideal of luxuriant rolling green hills with an abundance of exotic fruit, but we did certainly have the azure and pristine water, and with just the right angle on the colonial photographs that were widely distributed we could almost, almost look like our volcanic cousins in the Caribbean. This picturesque ideal set us up for failure in tourism which is what makes the exaggerated beauty of the islands in paintings problematic in part, but they are more problematic still because we continue to push forth an image that isn’t authentic. And herein lies the difficulty in painting our landscape: we want to show our beauty, but we are so influenced by established ideals on what our beauty as a nation is that we often fail to show our truths and tell our stories.

So then, is Stubbs’ depiction of Bain Town something that could be considered picturesque? Or does it hold a little more authenticity than that? For starters, his chosen medium is almost always oil paint, and that in itself has a certain significance. He is known for painting scenes of picturesque beauty, that is for certain, and we know how that plays into the – often forced – ‘picture-perfect’ Bahamian image. However, when we see his paintings of people and scenes of true Bahamian life – our landscape as it is lived with real people and bodies and homes within – they are perhaps less so.

Oil painting as a medium has a dense history, almost as long as painting as we know it today, some might argue, and with that history comes a lot of weight and gravitas, and this weight can be instantly injected into what is shown. The choice to paint in oils, particularly in this traditional sense and use of the medium, has this instant way of elevating the subject because of the way it plays into the context of the history of painting and oil painting as a whole. Oil painting has a richness to it that seeps into the subject depicted, and in Stubbs’ choice to convey the Bahamian every day in oils he elevates those we often think of as lesser, marginalised or the ‘lowly’ of society.

Installation shot of Dorman Stubbs’ “Bain Town” (1984) as seen in the current Permanent Exhibition, “Revisiting An Eye For The Tropics” at The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas

“Bain Town” (1984) is rendered beautifully, but also in a gestural way, much in keeping with Stubbs almost impressionist style of working. The lush greenness of the work is something we don’t often think of in these more impoverished areas and speaks to a kind of hope for growth. It is beautiful, but it is not picturesque in the same way that the old colonial watercolours of yesteryear are.

Colonial era expatriates such as American painters, Armin Buchterkirch and Hartwell Leon Woodcock, who largely painted in The Bahamas during this period (though they have worked in other parts of the Caribbean), often depicted the perceived ‘quaintness’ of Bahamian ‘native’ life, and played into this idea of the picturesque being built around the region. More problematically, they played into the idea of native Bahamians being ‘respectable’ and ‘docile’ blacks – as if these things were somehow exemplary, uncommon and the property of whiteness alone. Of course, they did live in a completely different era, where that power differential based on race was still very much established openly as ‘the way things are’, as opposed to the deconstruction of this archaic hierarchy that people are working so hard on today.

We do not often see these areas in our everyday lives as places filled with greenery, as many living there can speak of the dust that gets stirred up and subsequently settled on everything within reach. But Stubbs chooses to have us notice the green, to show signs of life and productivity, to show us that things can indeed thrive here if given a chance and given the water and care that its residents are so often lacking.